by Mimi Winer, Wayland, Massachussetts
When I was a little girl, I had an aunt who designed hats. She called her millinery shop “Chapeaux by Bertha.” Every time she came to visit me (and it was often), Aunt Bertha plunked another fancy new hat on my head. She and my mother would coo, “Isn’t she adorable?”
I hated wearing those hats, and whenever she brought another one, it was all I could do to keep from scowling. However, I loved Aunt Bertha. I put up with these creations as a child but promised myself that when I grew up, I would never wear a hat again, unless a blizzard overcame me. And I kept that promise until life “hit me over the head” with a better idea.
I like to move around fast–especially when I am doing housework. As long as I had partial vision, I could scurry around the house with no problems. As my sight moved lower and lower, I found that the rest of me was moving slower and slower.
Now, if I forget that I can’t see anything anymore, I go smash against the wall! Although my nose sticks out further, usually my forehead hits the wall first. What to do?
I have a couple of friends who have been totally blind since birth. Among other things, they are incredibly skilled at not banging into doors and walls. They can cruise around their dwellings with nary a bruise. When I question my friends, they shrug me off. They tell me that if dolphins can figure out how to keep from smashing into things, so can I.
I know that certain sea mammals have an ability called “echolocation” or “sonar vision.” Dolphins, for example, create sounds such as clicks and whistles, which bounce back at them–warning of oncoming obstacles. If a few lucky people and some smart sea creatures possess a “sixth sense,” why can’t I develop one too?
I get my chance to learn this technique when I take “rehab” training. My instructor calls the course “Videation.” My blind friends refer to this skill as “echo” or “facial” vision. Whatever the name for this magic, the techniques are all similar.
On day one, six students line up for training. Since we have varying degrees of vision loss, we are required to wear sleep shades. (In the past, these devices were known as “occluders.”) With total darkness now enveloping us, we are forced to concentrate on that elusive “sixth sense” which we are trying to acquire.
Our instructor begins our lesson. “Without touching your face, I want you to move each palm, one at a time, slowly toward your cheek and then away from it.”
We follow his instructions. “Now, can one of you describe what you are feeling?” I raise my hand. “When I move my palm toward my cheek, I feel a pressure-like sensation coming toward me. When I move my hand away, the pressure disappears.”
“Very good.” The instructor moves behind me. “I am going to bring my palm toward your cheek. I want you to tell me if it is coming from the right side or the left.”
As the instructor’s palm approaches, I can feel that odd sensation. I am correct when I say, “The right side!”
The other five students are progressing also. We move along to training that is more difficult. We walk down lengthy corridors without our canes, listening for a variety of sounds–echoing back at us from closed and open doors. We advance to the great outdoors. We learn to listen for the muffled sounds of trees versus the wide-open sounds of empty spaces.
During our final training period, a blind man comes to demonstrate exotic techniques he has developed for himself. He has been using these skills successfully for years to travel around the world on his own. Like the dolphins with their clicks and whistles, he snaps his fingers to bounce sounds off the walls and furniture. He also interprets the sounds bouncing back from the tip of his cane. To top it all off, he shows us the metal tips he has added to the toes and heels of his shoes. “No, I am not planning to be a tap dancer,” he assures us, “but it is a great way to get further information from your environment.”
I graduate from “rehab” and look forward to putting my newly acquired skills to use. Unfortunately, while those tricks work pretty well while I am in training and may work for others, they fail me at home. I find it impossible to concentrate on “echo vision,” while I am trying to concentrate on my housework. One skill or the other requires my undivided attention.
All is not lost. I get an idea that would make Aunt Bertha proud of me. Despite my vow never to wear another hat, I borrow a baseball hat from my friend and try wearing it while the housework brings those usually-painful encounters with doors and walls. To my great relief, the problem is solved! As long as I wear my baseball hat (“duckbill” visor facing forward), I am protected. Instead of me getting the smacks, whacks, and those brain-bruising blues, the hat, with a glorious thump, hits the wall first.
Sixth sense vision may be great for some, but as for me, I have learned that I do better when I remember to cover my head with my faithful baseball hat!