How do we make sense of our own senses? Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching are all aspects of the human body that gives the ability to see and perceive what surrounds us. But, what happens when one or two of these conditions are taken away? Are we still as “human” as before this disability occurred? For many citizens, being born blind, or sustaining injuries that cause blindness hinders the sense of sight and will enhance touching and hearing. The life of a visually impaired person requires a life of learning how to cope in a world constructed for those who can see, and they are able to do that by the use of Braille system and new technologies.
In John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing,” we learn “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”(Berger, 7). How do we know the sky is blue? We can “see” the color blue, but it is the awareness and understanding of the color that we perceive. Perception is “the process by which sensations are selected, organized, and interpreted.”(Curry, Meyer, and McKinney). If we are healthy with all five sense fully functional, we are able to retain the world around us which will stimulate those senses. The brain makes decisions based on “previously collected knowledge, experiences, expectations, and prejudices.”(Rosenzweig). We simply are able to see because of our eyes, and when that vision is hindered due to blindness, we must lean on other senses to find our way throughout the world. The state of being blind “denotes the condition of total blackness of vision with the inability of a person to distinguish darkness from bright light in either eye.”(Dahl). Blindness symptoms begin with “ocular complications of diabetes, macular degeneration(when the center portion of the retina deteriorates) and traumatic injuries.”(Dahl). With vision gone, our sense of touch is enhanced and engaged. Our fingertips are areas of the body that are highly sensitive to pressure, heat, and coolness.“There are about 100 touch receptors in each of your fingertips.”(“Your Sense of Touch”). From a spatial standpoint, those who are blind must raise their awareness of the rooms they inhabit, where to put their feet on sidewalks, and even speaking to a person in the right direction. With the combination of loss of vision, but heightened sense of touch and hearing, the importance of the Braille alphabet is crucial to the blind, along with auditory assistance.
The road to creating aide for the blind community began in 1824 by a French man name Louis Braille. According to Paula Kimbrough of “How Braille Began”, “…in 1812, at the age of 3, Louis injured his eye in an accident while playing with his father’s tools.”(Kimbrough). Louis was sent to a special school for the blind in Paris, and there he “spent nine years developing and refining the system of raised dots that has to come to be known by his name.”(Kimbrough). A French solider, Charles Barbier spoke at Louis’s school about “night writing, so that soliders could pass instructions along at night without having to talk and let the enemy know where they were.” (Sydenham). Louis modeled a new method from Barbier who used the night writing setup of raised dots, yet a problem was “the human fingertips could not feel all the dots with one touch.”(“History of Braille”). So, he created “six dots arranged in the formation of a rectangle, three dots high and two across.”(“Braille: What is It? What Does it Mean to the Blind?”). With this updated method, the fingertip could feel more dots, retain the letter due to studying a refined alphabet, and move on to the next cell of dots rapidly. Each cell contains a number, letter, or punctuation mark. Two hundred years have passed, and this method has not changed much. We are now entering a world where the vision impaired have more opportunities to “see”.
In 2003, two Japanese graduate science students, Michitaka Hirose and Tomohiro Amemiya began a study of finger braille interface “for navigation of deaf blind people and the ubiquitous environment for barrier-free application. Finger-Braille is one of the the commonly used communication methods among deaf blind people in Japan. Two types of Finger-Braille devices, the vibration motor type and the solenoid type are developed. Each device is connected to a wearable computer, so that deaf blind people can use it in their daily life.”(Hirose and Amemiya). Hirose and Amemiya write that “finger braille is a method of tapping deaf blind person’s fingers to transmit verbal information, which are assigned to the digits of Braille.”(Hirose and Amemiya). Because of this transmission, deaf blind people are able to communicate in real time and instantly be a part of the conversation, read signage, or books much faster. In order for it to work, a user would slip on rings on their fingers that have motors attached that vibrates when using the regular Braille reading method. The vibration motor type “consists of six small size, lightweight DC motors, which are currently used for vibration of cellular phones. Solenoid type consists of six tubular solenoids weighting 15 grams each.”(Hirose and Amemiya). After requesting five deaf blind candidates for the experiment and assess each device type, “the devices were firmly set to the root of their fingers”(Hirose and Amemiya) and because of this placement, the scientists discovered the best placement for the devices-some candidates had “phantom sensation” which “was experienced and participants could not recognize the message at all.” (Hirose and Amemiya). This experiment revealed that the best place to attach the device for the participants is what they already use–their fingertips. Hirose and Amemiya concluded that “the vibration motor type is more readable than the solenoid type however, deaf-blind partcipants believe that if improved, the solenoid type may be more effective than the vibration motor type.”(Hirose and Amemiya).
Whether wearing sensors on the fingertips, or skimming the braille dots with your own touch, the common goal is to create a life of literacy for the vision impaired. The digital age has introduced Braille keyboards, ebooks with a text to speech converter capabilities,improved reading machines, and so much more. By using touch, the fingertips become the voice of the blind. The marriage of touch and seeing is not an easy relationship for this community, but it works. It is a must. No longer is being blind a complete disability–it turns a problem into a happier and more life changing solution.