Do blind Persons understand Descriptions of things they never have seen?

In my accessible Internet Workshops I have an extra section on image descriptions for blind and partially sighted people. I am almost always asked whether the contents of pictures are of any interest to blind people. The question is legitimate. For example, how is a blind person supposed to know what a volcano, a herd of elephants or the starry sky look like? Here comes the answer.

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Types of blindness

In general, for our purposes, we can distinguish three groups of blind people:

  • the blind with low sight
  • the totally blind who still have visual memories
  • the totally blind who have no visual memories

In the eye tests, the visual rest is very differently pronounced. I assume that individual objects can still be distinguished. In this case, they at least have a clear visual idea of lifelike objects such as cars, trees or elephants. These are all objects that cannot be easily grasped in their entirety by palpation. It can be difficult with non-lifelike objects or circumstances, as these are visually more complex: volcanic eruptions, a herd of elephants or the moon landing, for example.

The same applies to the completely blind, who have retained their visual memories. The number of visual impressions depends a little on age. But in general one can say that a young person has seen most of what there is for a person from his or her culture to see in real life, through books, magazines or television. Even if there are blind people like John Hull who have completely forgotten their visual impressions, this is rather the exception. There are also blind people who have fully retained their visual imagination, such as Zoltan Torey. The neurologist Oliver Sacks summarized this very nicely in an essay (A Rehabilitationist's Notebook: Oliver Sacks on Blindness).

So let's come to the third group, the completely blind, who could never collect visual impressions.

The world you can touch

The matter is again quite simple when it comes to objects close to life. On the one hand, there is of course a toy version of almost everything that basically looks like the original: there are mini trees, mini helicopters, mini cars and mini houses. So this is easy.

There are also touch books. They contain tactile models of animals or landscapes. As far as I know, these are also available for sighted children.

In the meantime, tactile models have also become established. They have become much cheaper, for example due to the possibilities of 3D printing. They are firmly established in the classroom for blind children. That reminds me of my chemistry teacher Werner Liese from the blind school in Marburg. He went to incredible lengths to create tactile models of atoms and their constituent parts at a time when these models were much more difficult to make.

The exquisite world

But there are things that are much more difficult to make tactile. Let's get back to the volcanic eruption. It can definitely be recreated somehow. But a corresponding model would be much more complex to produce.

But what is literature for? I like to call stories the most inclusive medium. They usually have to do without pictures. therefore everything that occurs in a story must be described in words. "The volcano erupted" will not stimulate anyone's imagination. But The glowing lava that pours over the mountain slopes, on the other hand

Since we all grow up more or less with stories, such events are part of our collective wealth of experience, even if we have never experienced them ourselves. Most completely blind people should therefore have a fairly vivid idea of what a volcanic eruption looks like. We can even imagine things that don't exist like dragons, trolls and world peace.

The same applies to more abstract facts: Nobody will describe the shape of a Ferrari in literature, the author can assume that most readers know what such a sports car looks like. But the Ferrari does not only stand for an expensive car brand. It is a symbol of wealth, athleticism, speed and whatever else you associate with it. And these associations are of course also known to the blind from stories. I couldn't tell a Harley Davidson from the next best electric scooter. But I know what cult some people make around the Harley. And from where? From countless movies, books and stories, of course. And that's why it makes a difference, of course, whether the picture just shows a motorcycle or a Harley.

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