Chapter Three
Enhancing Vision Through Touch

The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that students with low vision must be encouraged to explore the world not only with their eyesight, but also through their sense of touch. Touch will not only enhance their vision, but also will improve their ability to learn. Pairing vision with touch will give the student more information and a fuller view of the object under examination. Instead of running the risk of gaining only partial or inaccurate information through the exclusive use of the impaired visual sense, add in the tactile for additional, reliable information and details. Michael Anagnos the second director of the Perkins School for the Blind, explains: “Tactual observation is of inestimable value. This mode of instruction bridges over the chasm from the known to the unknown; from the concrete to the abstract; and lays a solid foundation for the mind to work upon.” (Peaco, 2000, p. 325)

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF TOUCH

Sitting in her mother's lap, a toddler explores a textured ball.
The toddler is intrigued by the tactile quality of her “bumpy” textured ball.
Touch is the first sense that an individual develops in life. Touch continues to be the primary means of experiencing the world through infancy and well into childhood. Touch even plays a major sensory role through life to old age. Children depend on touch for learning about the world including the qualities of temperature, texture, shape, softness, sharpness, elasticity, and resilience. Sadly, in our American culture, touch is not well tolerated and is even actively discouraged as children move out of infancy and into the toddler and preschool phases of development. This is unfortunate for all children, but is especially harmful to both blind and low vision children. (Field, 2004)

The French philosopher, Denis Diderot, offers the following evaluation of the senses: “I found that of the senses, the eye is the most superficial; the ear the most arrogant; smell the most voluptuous; taste the most superstitious and fickle; and touch the most profound and philosophical.” (Peaco, 2000, p. 315)

If this evaluation is valid, the development of tactual skills should be part of every child’s education. Common sense dictates that if a student has limited vision, he should develop greater use of the other senses to compensate for that poor vision. This chapter will also examine some useful tactile skills that low vision students should have and how they can be developed.

 

SITUATIONS TO PONDER: Allison, Tiffany, and Mark

The following excerpt is adapted with permission from Willoughby and Duffy (1989, pp. 66-67).

Allison: Allison, a third grader in rural Iowa, could not describe how corn grows on the plant. “But she sees corn all the time,” protested her mother. However, Allison never had walked right up to the corn plants, touched them, and examined how the ears grew. She had not been lifted up to see how high the stalk grew. She had seen only a green mass.

Tiffany: “Mom?” asked Tiffany one day as they sped along the highway. “How come there aren’t ever any cars on our side of the road?” Her surprised mother suddenly realized that Tiffany could not see cars ahead or behind. She could only see and hear them as they went by and those cars were all on the other side of the road.

Mark: Mark had quite a bit of sight. He also was very mobile and examined things well by touch. Yet at age eight he did not know what the downspout on the corner of the house was for. He knew it only as a “pipe” of unknown purpose. He had never been close to it during a rainstorm.

These three examples show how easy it is to make wrong assumptions about partial sight. The child, never having seen well, really believes that he “can see it.” Adults with good vision find it very hard to imagine imperfect sight.

Even with the best attitudes and freedom to explore, a child with low vision as well as a child with no vision is likely to have some gaps in his/her experiences. Parents and teachers should look around continually for learning opportunities.

When showing an object, encourage the student to feel it as well as look with his or her eyes. Help the student and others to realize that it is really okay to examine objects by touch. Too often students are inhibited from learning because of self-consciousness about touching. Remember that it can also be embarrassing for a student to discover what he does not know. Be sensitive, tactful, and careful about where and when you deal with misconceptions and gaps in knowledge.

 

Food for Thought: The misunderstandings described above occurred because of the students’ limited vision. Since tactile skills provide additional information, they are a useful way of enhancing vision. Touch is a useful method to eliminate gaps in understanding.

 

THE PARENT PERSPECTIVE:
Use Your Hands, Mom, Use Your Hands!

By Barbara Cheadle

Editor’s Note: This Parent Perspective from the president emerita of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children illustrates how touch enhances vision. Reprinted with permission from Future Reflections, Winter 2012, vol. 31, no. 1.

Was this a bruise on the apple? Frowning, I slipped off my glasses and brought the apple up close to my eye. Just then, I heard a soft chuckle and the teasing, deep voice of my adult son, Chaz: “Use your hands, Mom. Use your hands.”

When parents are raising a child, they can never be sure—at the time—that what they say and do is really getting through. It’s only years later, as those children strike out on their own as young adults, that parents find out how much of their efforts and how many of their lessons really got through. This was one of those wonderful, joyous moments of vindication that parent’s dream of; right there in my kitchen, while making a special family meal with the help of my partially sighted, legally blind son, Chaz.

You see, “Use your hands, Chaz; use your hands,” was our gentle mantra during much of Chaz’s early years. Our goal was never to discourage him from using his impaired (but often useful) vision, but to encourage him to use and trust his unimpaired (and almost always useful) sense of touch. We wanted our son to grow up feeling no restrictions in pursuing any interest or any career based upon his limited vision. We wanted him to be at ease with himself; unafraid of losing more vision, confident that whatever came his way he could handle it. We had learned from our partially sighted friends in the National Federation of the Blind that he needed to really believe that “It’s ok to be blind.” He also needed academic tactile skills—such as Braille. But we also learned from our observations of people at the NFB convention and other NFB events that our partially sighted son needed to trust his tactile sense and use it every day for true independence and competency. We had observed partially sighted adults clumsily and inefficiently trying to use their vision for tasks that their totally blind friends accomplished smoothly and independently—such as finding a keyhole and unlocking a door—and we wanted our son to have the best of both: to use his vision when it was efficient and useful, and his sense of touch when it was most efficient and useful.

My husband’s first career as an auto mechanic had already taught him the value of using touch, long before we had a blind son. Many are the times when a mechanic cannot get in to look at a piece or part that needs to be worked on, he or she must often do work solely by touch. So, it was easy for him to teach Chaz to use tools by touch, and to stop and listen for dropped objects to locate them by sound. Did he need a straight edge screwdriver, or a Phillips head to get a screw out? He didn’t need to get his face up there to see the screw at the top of the window, he could feel it and tell what it was, and then, using touch, unscrew it and take it out. If he had tried to do such tasks with his face right up on it, he would be clumsy, often fail, and could have concluded that he didn’t have enough vision to do most handyman types of tasks.

In the household, I observed and asked my blind friends about how they accomplished cooking, cleaning, and other chores by touch and sound. We practiced pouring liquids using touch to determine the fullness of a glass; we used touch to make a smooth bed, to pick out the best fruit, to check if the dishes were clean, peel a potato, and the list goes on. We talked about why it was not safe to put one’s nose down on the stove burner to adjust the flame—by passing his hand quickly above the surface and listening, he could feel and hear to make the adjustments he needed.

Chaz also learned nonvisual techniques directly through observing and modeling himself on the blind and partially sighted friends who were in and out of our house, and whom he saw regularly at NFB chapter meetings and other events. They also helped him accept nonvisual techniques and the use of touch and sound as normal and natural ways of doing things that one wanted to do.

A young man crouches down to work on an upturned bicycle.
An adult Chaz Cheadle confidently uses tactile skills in combination with his vision as he fixes his sister’s bicycle.

What I did not know then, but know now, was that what we were trying to accomplish was to make “touch” such a natural part of his personality and his way of being and doing, that he would not even have to think about it. And it worked.

After the, “Use your hands, Mom, use your hands,” incident in the kitchen, I’ve had several conversations with my son about how he uses touch throughout his everyday life to maintain his independence and do the things he wants to do. It wasn’t easy at first for him to analyze it because, well, he hadn’t thought much about it—he just does what he wants to do, and doesn’t usually engage in any kind of internal dialog about whether or not he’ll use his vision or touch or both for a particular task. For example, he is fond of cooking and once was employed for three months as a ship’s cook on a sailing ship that provided educational programs for school children along the Hudson River. He told me how his shipmates were astonished when they realized, while watching him cook, that he wasn’t looking at his hands or what he was doing. He was chopping, mixing, stirring, draining hot pasta, and all the other tasks purely by touch and sound while he talked with his watching shipmates.

Chaz does have useful partial vision, and he uses it effectively and extensively in many ways, especially with computers and print. For this, he does get his face close to the work, but it has not been a problem in his work as a computer information specialist. On the other hand, neither does he regret learning Braille. He uses it from time to time when he has to give a speech or a presentation, and he taught a close friend Braille so she could write letters to her beloved blind uncle.

There are some tasks that he is still working out alternative nonvisual methods for. He and his wife bought a 35-foot sailing boat, which they also live on—it is their home. He has repaired the engine, built new cabinets for it, and refinished the wood trim, without any problems. Of course, raising, lowering, and tying off the sails is no problem—that’s very tactile. But he is still learning, he said, how to navigate and steer using sound and touch and is developing his techniques and testing them out. But he loves the sea, even though the glare requires him to further reduce the amount of useable vision by wearing sunglasses most of the time he is out on deck. That’s another thing. Chaz has a central cataract, and he does not see well in bright sunlight or when there is glare. He sees best in twilight-type conditions. But, because he has incorporated touch and using touch as part of his natural way of doing things, he does not avoid glare conditions or otherwise restrict his activities to conditions that are optimal for his vision. Instead, he follows his interests wherever they take him.

 

DEVELOPING TACTILE SKILLS

Let us examine some specific activities to increase tactile skills for students. All students with low vision should have goals for the development of tactile skills in their education programs. Such goals will not only implement the spirit of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), but also will help the student develop a multi-sensory approach to learning. IDEA reads in part:

“The IEP Team shall, in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP Team determines, after an evaluation of the child’s reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media (including an evaluation of the child’s future needs for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille), that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child.” (IDEA, 2004)

 

FROM THE DESK OF A TBS:
Activities to Enhance Touch

By Dr. Ruby Ryles

A group of children sitting on the floor work together on a board puzzle.
Board puzzles, such as the one this low vision toddler is playing with, is an example of a common toy that encourages the development of tactile skills.

Reprinted with permission from “Pre-Reading Activities for Blind Preschoolers,” Future Reflections, vol. 13, no. 3.

Sometimes blind and visually impaired children come to preschool or kindergarten with less than average strength in their hands and fingers. This is the age that pre-reading and reading and writing activities should formally begin for children. Even if your child is not a future tactile reader, it is wise to spend time playing with him or her to develop arm, hand, and finger strength. Below is a partial list of activities you and your child might enjoy while doing just this. As you play you will find other activities that use these muscles. The goal is for your child to do the activity independently. But above all, have fun!

Arm and Hand Strength:

Weight-bearing activities such as:

Grip and Finger Strength:

 

IEP GOALS AND OBJECTIVES FOR THE DUAL READER:
ENHANCING TACTILE SKILLS

These sample IEP goals and objectives are guidelines that you can tailor to the needs of the student and to the requirements of your local school system.

Goal: The student will use tactile techniques to complete daily living activities.

A preschooler practices pouring into a cup.
Using touch allows this preschooler to hold her head in a normal position while she practices pouring into a cup.

Objectives:

Goal: The student will use his hands to gather information.

Objectives:

Goal: The student will demonstrate his ability to orient tactually on a Braille page.

Objectives:

Goal: The student will use tactile skills to identify room locations.

Objectives: