Learning to See

by Leonard I. Tuchyner, Barboursville, Virginia

In a recent issue of DIALOGUE, the teacher of a young child who was quickly losing his remaining sight asked a thoughtful and heart-wrenching question: What sights could be recommended for this child to experience which might enhance his life as a blind person?

I suggest that the issue be reframed. It is not “what”, but “how”. We do not ever, ever, lose vision. We only lose the physical ability to use the organs of outward sight. I submit that it is not what we see, but how we see it, that determines our view of the world.

There are many ways to take in and examine what we encounter, and our different senses can collaborate in amazing ways. For instance, some of us braille readers cannot help but visualize the configurations of those little bumps as we go along what is supposed to be an exclusively tactile page.

Everything we experience is a multi-dimensional affair. We don’t just feel water as wet. We feel its temperature, its flow, its smell, how it sounds, how it tastes, how it resists our movements, its texture, its colors, its movements. That is the real experience of seeing water. In fact, there is even more to the encounter. Look at the water long enough in your mind’s eye, and you will remember the time you were knocked down by a wave at the beach. A new dimension will then be added, for now the water has a sandy grittiness, a salt flavor and an emphasis on power. All the interactions you have ever had with water can potentially flow through your inner experience.

So whatever it is that the little boy might be looking at, the way to enhance his memories of sight is to enhance the experience of sight, no matter what or where it is. Teach him to use all of his senses. At the same time, don’t neglect the physical eyes. In fact, you might ask him to draw what he sees. That will give you an idea what he is not seeing. You can point out qualities he might have missed. Then have him close his eyes and describe the sight in terms of other senses.

When physical seeing is no longer available to him, he will still see the world. He will not only see through memory, but will also add the dimension of vision when he encounters day-to-day phenomena. His world will be richer and more holistic, potentially even more comprehensive than it is at present, when he still has functional eyes. Because of his broadened comprehension of his world, the questions he asks of sighted companions, as he seeks their help, could enhance their own perceptions.

This brings up an interesting point. If you would teach someone going blind how to really see, then don’t you have to learn yourself? What an opportunity this could be for someone willing to take on the challenge. Such a person would not be so much a teacher as a co-learner. Didn’t the King of Siam sing, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught”?

As we lose our eyesight, those of us who are truly engaged in life engage other senses. In many cases, we are unconscious of doing so. I have only had two days of mobility training, so I don’t know too much about it. But I know, even within that short span of time, the training included the use of other senses.

There are activities that the teacher could encourage in her student. One of the ways I improve my own inner sight is by writing. Good writing requires the description of sensory details. That means I have to plumb the recesses of my experience to ferret out that depth of sensory perception which I find is there.

I have also found that reading improves vision. Someone else, a word artist, can show us things about the sublime and the ordinary that we might otherwise miss. Cultivating the desire to read in this child will open up more sights than Niagara Falls and all the wonders of the world.

Isn’t it ironic that in going blind we have the opportunity to really see?