Future Reflections                                                                                                 Special Issue 2004

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Educated Fingers

by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce's "educated fingers" make the knitting needles fly as she listens attentively in a meeting.
Barbara Pierceís ďeducated fingersĒ make the knitting needles fly as she listens attentively in a meeting.

From the time my daughter Anne was a tiny child she has had a sharp eye for detail. Before she could speak, she could point correctly to where I stored each piece of kitchen equipment. If there was a coin on the sidewalk or a four-leaf clover in the lawn, she would find it.

Since her marriage she has been working in the local jewelry store. Her gift of visual observation is now being trained in very specific ways. Her eyes are being educated to notice and appreciate subtle detail and to draw conclusions from what she sees.Everyone who is neither blind nor colorblind can distinguish colors, but artists, interior decorators, and house painters notice shades and blend and contrast them with a sureness unmatched by the rest of the population. Similarly, auto mechanics, musicians, and linguists in very different ways have educated their ears to notice subtle differences in pitch and tone that escape the rest of us.

In the same way, while learning to function efficiently, a person who has become blind or a blind child must actually educate his or her fingers to discern nuance and appreciate small variations. As a young child I remember often being confused when I was handed unfamiliar objects. It took time and patience to learn to sort the shapes and make sense of what I was holding.

Take cookie cutters for example. The star, valentine, and Christmas tree were easy to identify. The gingerbread man, Santa Claus, and angel were almost as obvious. Animals were a little trickier. The Easter Bunny and chicken were simple, but I had trouble distinguishing between the dog and the sheep. Then one day some friends handed me a cookie and asked if I could identify the shape. It was unlike anything I had ever handled. All the lines seemed to sweep in one direction, and one portion reminded me vaguely of a robe or skirt. I had not the remotest idea what the thing could be, but I felt great pressure to make a guess, and I was afraid of making what they would consider an absurd mistake. In desperation I said, ďa girl airplane.Ē I knew perfectly well that aircraft did not have gender, but I hoped by making up an answer that was patently absurd to protect myself from being laughed at for making an actual mistake. To my surprise, they burst into delighted laughter and announced that my guess was more or less right. The cookie was a witch flying on a broomstick. I considered myself extremely lucky.

At the same time I recognized that a whole new range of outlines had just opened to me. I was used to identifying the shapes of objects standing still, looking like Christmas stockings or birds or cows. Suddenly I realized that lots of things moved and therefore could be depicted in motion and that I would have to build that concept into my efforts to recognize the shapes of things.

Having a visual knowledge of shape does not, however, translate directly into tactile understanding. Last Christmas my daughter Margy gave me a wooden puzzle of the United States in which each piece is a state. I had never had access to such a map as a child and had always wanted to know more particularly how the various states fit together.

As an elementary school teacher Margy knew where to find the puzzle, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning to assemble it. It took a weekend of intermittent fiddling to be able to identify all the states. After watching me explore the puzzle pieces, Margy decided to try putting it together with her eyes closed. Of course she had the advantage of knowing the map well to begin with, but she was surprised to discover that she could not immediately identify many of the states by touch even though she had a mental image of what she was looking for. She is bright and as the daughter of a blind woman has had lots of tactile experience, so she mastered the skill quickly.

Like all other kinds of education, educating the fingers takes practice. But the more experience they get, the more easily fingers learn. Often you donít even realize how much your fingers know until they are put to the test.

When my children were small, I came home one day to discover that the babysitter had not kept as close tabs on the three as I could have wished. The labels had systematically been removed from all my canned goods. I have never bothered to label my cans in Braille as I would if I lived alone or with another blind person. I can usually identify the can I want by knowing its size and shaking all the cans of the right dimensions. When I ask a member of the family to confirm my choice, I am pretty frequently confirmed in my choice.

It is one thing to have your guesses confirmed by having someone read a label and quite another to check your guess by opening the lid and living with the consequences. On the whole, however, I did pretty well in this emergency. There was no way to distinguish among the various kinds of condensed cream soups, but pumpkin, kidney beans, and black olives all sound different from each other when shaken.

Folks often assume that blind people depend on always having things returned to their original position in order to manage their lives. There are certainly advantages to being able to glance around a room and see where your toddler has shed her socks or the dog has dropped your slipper. But actually in our household and among my friends I am often the one to find things that have gone missing.

One day I was out with a friend who had dropped her car key into her purse, but when we were ready to leave, she couldnít find it. She searched and researched her handbag and then got out and began looking on the ground around the car. I picked up her bag and fished out the key in about ten seconds. It had fallen into a letter. As soon as I moved the folded sheet, I knew it was too heavy to be a single piece of paper. When I slipped my fingers across the surface of the letter, I felt the outline of the key. She had been so busy looking for the key that she had not paid attention to what her fingers were telling her about the weight and balance of the paper.

Having educated fingers provides wonderful benefits. When our children were babies, I could get up at night and feed and change them without ever opening my eyes or waking up fully. The disadvantage was, of course, that my husband had a strong argument for giving me the lionís share of the night duty.

One of the reasons we bought our current home was the fireplace in the dining room. We were assured that it functioned well, but when we tried to build our first fire, we discovered that the damper, which was obviously quite new, would not open. The previous owner had repaired the fireplace and then not used it for years. Debris had sifted down over time and now prevented the damper from swinging open.

I covered the screen with a drop cloth and reached through with one hand. Working back-handed, I forced the damper open enough to slip my fingers through. Then I began flicking bits of ash, brick, and birdís nest out through the slit and eventually, as the damper opened wider, through the widening crack on the hinge side. It was hard work, and I banged up the backs of my hands and fingers, but I was eventually successful in freeing the damper so that we could use the fireplace.

Even though I had a little vision when my mother taught me to iron, I could not see the wrinkles in the pieces I was working on. From the first I had to learn how to smooth a panel of the garment and work close to the iron without burning myself. Though most sighted people donít believe it, this is actually quite easy to do. Now my favorite time to iron during the summer is late in the evening when a breeze blows through the windows of the converted sleeping porch that is my laundry room. I can read a talking cassette book in the darkness and iron while the birds go to bed and the crickets begin their chorus.

Our neighbors seem finally to have adjusted to the fact that I often weed the lawn and lower beds beginning at twilight. At first they questioned me about what I was doing sitting in the middle of my lawn in the dark and listening to a cassette book. Buckets of dandelions and ground ivy have convinced them that I actually am accomplishing something useful out there in the cool of the evening.

I was not always so comfortable letting others observe how I do things. Society exerts lots of pressure on blind people to do things like everybody else. It was members of the National Federation of the Blind, at ease with who they were and how they did things, who taught me that it was far better to get things done efficiently than to look like everybody else while I did nothing. This attitude makes eminently good sense, but it helps to know that members of the general public are now reading books like this one and learning why I search for things with my educated fingers and, as often as not, find them.

Barbara Pierce is the wife of a college professor, the mother of three children, the editor of the leading magazine in the blindness field, and the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.

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