by Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: Deborah Kent Stein is the editor of Future Reflections, but she is best known to the reading public for her many books of children’s literature. Recently she got an email from a teenager in England and took the time to write a friendly and informative response that speaks well to who she is and to the organization she works so hard to support. Here’s how she described the correspondence:
As blind people we are frequently asked questions by friends, family members, and even total strangers. Although the barrage of questions can be annoying at times, each instance is an opportunity to reach the public with the truth about blindness. Recently I received an email from Gwen McKay, a thirteen-year-old girl in London, who is working on a school project about blindness. Perhaps our exchanges will give readers of the Monitor some ideas about responding to blindness-related questions:
From: Gwen McKay
To: Deborah Kent Stein
I found your name on a website from the National Federation of the Blind, and I wondered if I could ask you some things that I want to know. I have a project in which I decided to write about blind people. I am thirteen, and it would be great if I could have my questions answered by someone who is blind or if I could have a blind pen pal. This would mean that, when I present this, my class would understand more about blind people. You run such a good website that I would be willing to show my class.
Below are Gwen’s questions and my attempt to answer them:
I’m glad to see that you and your class are interested in learning about blind people and how we live, and also that you find our website helpful. I have been blind all my life, so I will try to answer your questions.
1. Can a blind person dream?
Yes, absolutely. Blind people dream just as sighted people do. People who had sight and then lost it usually have visual images in their dreams. For those of us who never had sight or who lost sight early in life, dreams involve hearing, touch, and just “knowing.” For instance, I might dream of being in a cabin in the woods, but somehow I know it is the house where I grew up. I think this kind of knowing in dreams is also true for sighted people.
2. Could a blind person eventually learn to see with just their other senses? What I mean by that is that if they could use vibration and make out the objects.
I’m not entirely sure I understand your question, but I’ll try to answer it as best I can. Blind people identify objects by touch. Shape, size, and texture give a tremendous amount of information. Touch is our way of seeing, and most of us use the word “see” to describe the experience. For instance, I might say, “I saw my friend’s new puppy, and it is so cute!” It would be awkward to say, “I touched my friend’s new puppy,” and I probably would never say that.
3. Is it possible to draw without seeing something before in your life with just a description?
A lot of blind people enjoy drawing, and some are quite good at it. In my experience, drawing and sculpting (with clay or other media) depend on having firsthand experience with objects. It would be hard to draw a cat based purely on a description, but a blind person who is familiar with cats by touching them and who has some experience with drawing could probably draw one.
4. How come so many blind people can act so normal and live without aid? Do they have a secret?
No, there’s no secret to it. We live as normal people because we really are normal. The only way in which blind people are different from sighted people is our lack of sight. In every other regard we are just like the rest of the population. Some of us are intelligent, some are slow; some have a good sense of humor, others can’t get a joke; some are athletic, others are couch potatoes. We learn to live full lives by using our hearing, touch, and common sense. Nearly everything can be done in ways that do not require eyesight. It’s a matter of learning basic skills such as reading Braille, using accessible technology, and using a long white cane when traveling. It’s also important to develop good problem-solving skills.
5. Can they memorize a route—let’s say around a park—without actually seeing? For example, if I see something familiar, I would remember to turn or something.
Blind people may memorize a particular route, such as how to get from home to school. The person might count the number of blocks and remember where to turn. A blind person may also learn the layout of a neighborhood or town in order to go anywhere she or he chooses. We use landmarks just as you do, but ours are not visual ones. For instance, some of the landmarks in my neighborhood are the playground where I hear kids playing basketball, the house with the picket fence that runs right along the sidewalk, the bubbling fountain in front of the bank, and the lumber yard with the smell of freshly cut wood.
6. Do they understand what colors are?
Because I have never seen colors, I don’t think I really understand what they are. However, I know the colors of many things: crows are black, leaves are green, and hair may be blonde, brown, red, black, gray, or white, or dyed any color a person desires. I also know that colors are highly symbolic in our culture, so that under some circumstances black represents mourning or sadness, white stands for purity, and red is associated with anger. I also have learned that certain colors go well with each other while other combinations clash, which is important information when picking out clothes. People who have visual memories can still picture colors, even if they haven’t seen for many years. In that way color is still very much a part of life for many blind people.
7. What kind of jobs can a blind person have?
Blind people work in almost every kind of job you can imagine. There are blind lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers, architects, artists, musicians, scientists, auto mechanics, and factory workers. Many blind people work in the computer field, and many are homemakers raising children. New career possibilities are opening up all the time, and blind people are now doing lots of jobs that were once thought to be impossible.
8. Where do blind children go to school?
In the United States most blind children go to regular schools with sighted children. A trained teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) visits them at school and helps them with any blindness-related problems that might come up. The TVI teaches the student Braille and helps her/him obtain materials in Braille or recorded formats. Some blind children attend residential, or boarding, schools for the blind. Sometimes a child goes to a residential school for a couple of years to learn Braille and other skills and then returns to regular school.
I hope this information is helpful. Good luck with your project! You will find a great deal of information at the website of the National Federation of the Blind, <www.nfb.org>. If you have further questions, let me know.
From: Gwen McKay
To: Deborah Kent Stein
Subject: Re: Re: Questions
Thank you so much for answering my questions. I am so glad that I could get all this information for my project, and it has been a great help. I'm sure all my class will be interested in this information, and I would love to show your website. I was so happy to see that you have answered me in less than a day and that all the answers are in detail. This will help everyone learn more about blind people and that they could live their lives even without sight. I think that Braille looks very interesting, and I have always wanted to be able to read the Braille on medicines and other things. For my project I am thinking about visiting the Venture Club for the Blind and Partially Sighted. For my project I am going to interview some blind people and ask questions similar to the ones I asked you. I was also thinking about seeing if they could draw objects. Do you think it is a good idea? Would they like to talk about these things, or would it be rude, I wasn't sure. Thank you sooo much once again; I really do appreciate it.
From: Deborah Kent Stein
To: Gwen McKay
Subject: Your Project
I’m glad you found the information helpful. Most of the time people don’t mind answering questions about blindness if you ask in a way that is respectful. It’s a good idea first to check with them if it’s okay. Some people may be open to drawing things, and some people may not. They might feel embarrassed because they don’t think they’ll do a good job. There is a very cool drawing board you can buy that lets you make raised lines. It’s called the Sensational Drawing Board, and you can buy it online. You can also make a drawing board by taping a square of window screen on top of several layers of newspaper. When you put a sheet of paper on the screen and draw with a pencil or pen or crayon, it makes a raised line that can easily be felt.
Again, good luck with your project. Let me know how it turns out.