Blind World’ is a thesis project that I conducted in the final year of my Bachelor's degree at the York/Sheridan design program. The purpose of the project was to understand blindness and how it affects people.

‘What were the pain points?’, ‘How does it work?’, ‘What does one experience, when they start going blind?’, these were some of the questions that I wanted answer through this research. The project was named ‘Blind World’ based on a question that helped streamline the research.

“What if the whole world goes blind tomorrow!?”

This question became the foundation of my research, because it asked people to empathize with someone who is blind and try to understand how the world might seem from their perspective.

What is Blindness?

Blindness is defined as the state of being sightless. A blind individual is unable to see. In a strict sense the word "blindness" denotes the inability of a person to distinguish darkness from bright light in either eye.

Rules of Research

Blindness by itself is a vast subject to tackle for a eight month thesis, so for the sake of my own sanity and a better quality of research I devised three questions that would help me better focus my efforts.

Q1. How are blind and/or visually impaired children taught at schools?

Q2. How do blind and/or visually impaired individuals interact with technology, as well as other interfaces?

Q3. What are the sociological and psychological effects of losing one’s sight later on in life?

Before diving down deeper onto the ocean of scholarly journals, podcasts Ted Talks and countless other research materials, I had to set up a few rules for myself for the sake of an unbiased research.

The first and more important rule I set was that the research would not be controlled by the medium of the final deliverable, rather the research would control the deliverable. The reason for setting this rule was to make sure that the final execution, inspired from the research was appropriate in regards to the problem it was trying to solve.

Part – 1 of 2 Research, Making, More Research, More Making

Part – 1 of 2 Research, Making, More Research, More Making

Part one consists of research both academic and creative, in the form of making design artifacts. The entirety of this part was spent understanding the dissability and identifying a common problem that the blind community faces on a regular basis.

Resource 01 – How does Blindness work?

Functional relevance of cross-modal plasticity in blind humans.
Leonardo G. Cohen et al.

Abstract

Functional imaging studies of people who were blind from an early age have revealed that their primary visual cortex can be activated by Braille reading and other tactile discrimination tasks. Other studies have also shown that visual cortical areascan be activated by somatosensory input in blind subjects but not those with sight. The significance of this cross-modal plasticityis unclear, however, as it is not known whether the visual cortex can process somatosensory information in a functionally relevantway. To address this issue, we used transcranial magnetic stimulationto disrupt the function of different cortical areas in people who were blind from an early age as they identified Braille orembossed Roman letters.

Transient stimulation of the occipital (visual) cortex induced errors in both tasks and distorted thetactile perceptions of blind subjects. In contrast, occipital stimulation had no effect on tactile performance in normal-sighted subjects, whereas similar stimulation is known to disrupt their visual performance.We conclude that blindness from an early age can cause the visual cortex to be recruited to a role in somatosensory processing. We propose that this cross-modal plasticity may account in part for the superior tactile perceptual abilities of blind subjects.

I started by looking into how blindness works. I already looked at the definition of the term, but that didn’t clarify how it biologically works. After looking scouring online journals I found an article by Leonard G. Cohen and his team titled ‘Functional relevance of cross-modal plasticity in blind humans’. The article discusses Cohen’s research where him, and his team conducted tests on blind individuals and how their brains responded to reading braille.

Cohen’s team conducted tests on blind individuals with the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt the of different areas of the cortex in individuals who were blind from an early age as they identified Braille or embossed Roman letters, as well as sighted volunteers.

The paper discusses about tests conducted by two different sets of investigators. Each investigative team tested five sighted volunteers and five blind individuals who lost their sight from an early age. The tests consisted of [applying] TMS to different scalp locations to interfere with the function of different cortical areas during tactile identification of Braille letters and embossed Roman letters in early-blind subjects (EBB, EBR) and of embossed Roman letters in sighted volunteers (SVR).” (Cohen 180–181, 97).

Here are the key findings of the paper:

‘In the EBB and SVR groups there was a significant effect of stimulated scalp position on the error rate. In the EBB group, mid-occipital stimulation induced more errors than the control condition. In addition, stimulation of occipital positions occasionally elicited distorted somatosensory perceptions. Blind subjects reported a combination of negative (“missing dots”, “dots felt faded”), positive (“phantom dots”, “extra dots”), and confusing sensations (“dots don’t make sense”).’
(Cohen 181, 97).

'In the EBR group, as with the EBB group, mid-occipital stimulation induced more errors than control (stimulation in the air). These findings support the view that the occipital cortex is functionally active despite decades of visual deafferentation and is engaged in active and meaningful processing of tactile information related but not limited to Braille reading.'
(Cohen 181, 97).

'Because primary input (somatosensory) and output(speech) were spared, the effects of mid-occipital TMS are thought to be related to interference with more complex discriminative operations performed by the occipital cortex in the blind. The occasional induction of complex sensations (phantom or extra dots) with occipital TMS supports this interpretation.'
(Cohen 181, 97).

'In the SVR group, there was a significant effect of stimulated scalp position on the error rate. Stimulation of the occipital cortex did not affect identification of embossed Roman letters or induce abnormal somatosensory perceptions. ...[This] suggests that sighted individuals do not normally use the occipital cortex for identification of embossed Roman letters as the blind do for Braille and Roman letter reading.'
(Cohen 181, 97).

Synopsis and Take Aways

The brain is split into four lobes: Frontal, Occipital, Parietal, and the Temporal lobe (thebrain.mcgill.ca). In their test Leonard Cohen and his team applied TMS to different parts of the Occipital and Parietal lobes to investigate plasticity or adaptability of the visual cortex areas in blind individuals. Cohen and his team found through their tests found that even though the optical cortex is not being used for sight, it is still being used by EBB subjects when reading braille. According to this paper when someone loses their sight, the optical cortex is repurposed as a super somatosensory (touch) processor, used for more complex haptic tasks such reading braille.

Cohen's research was very fundamental to my thesis, as it showed me how a blind individual function. Instead of focusing on the disability of not being able to see, it focused more on what they are able to do. It gave me a glimpse into how they interact with the world and most importantly that they even with their sight, they are still capable.

Resource 02 – What are the Social and Emotional effects of Blindness?

Socio-emotional effects of the transition from sight to blindness
Mhairi Thurston, Allen Thurston and John mcleod

Abstract

The research examined the socio-emotional impact of sight loss on a sample of 18 blind and partially sighted adults from the east coast of Scotland (average age 64). The impact of sight loss in four core areas (mood, self-concept, social connectedness and loss) was explored. Data were collected using the mental health and social functioning subscales of the National Eye Institute Visual Functioning Questionnaire-25 and semi-structured interviews. Data indicated that participants experienced reduced mental health and decreased social functioning as a result of sight loss. Data also showed that participants shared common socio-emotional issues during transition from sight to blindness, relating to diagnosis, coping with deterioration of sight, experiencing loss, experiencing changed perceptions of self in relation to society, experiencing others in a changed way and experiencing rehabilitation. A theoretical model describing the socio-emotional transition from sight to blindness is proposed. Implications for practice are explored.

I was especially curious to learn about the transition from seeing to losing one’s sight. How did the person feel? What is an easy transition? Could it be better? How does the rest of society treat them? The research that Leonardo G. Cohen and his team conducted gave me a glimpse into the effects of blindness. In order to fully understand I head to learn the social and emotional effects linked to this disability.
After some digging around I came across a research paper titled ‘Socio-emotional effects of the transition from sight to blindness’, written by Mhairi Thurston, Allen Thurston, and John McLeod. Their paper consisted of interviews of eighteen blind and partially sighted individuals who discussed their transition from being perfectly fine and then finding out that they would lose their sight in the next month or so.

Here are some Excerpts from the Interviews
Getting Diagnosed

They have a quick look and they try to do their best for you, but your emotional needs are not being catered for, in my experience, and I found that quite hard. It was like, ‘You’re going to have to get on with it because there’s nothing we can do for you’. (Participant 5)

I went out at nine o’clock in the morning quite hale and hearty and I came back at night unable to drive and registered disabled at my work. Nobody said here’s a leaflet or information on anything else. I came back and I didn’t know if I was going to be blind in six months and it was really traumatic and it could have been a lot less traumatic.
(Participant 6)

'You plan ahead. You are saying to yourself, ‘What if I have to give up my work?’ and you plan ahead not knowing if you are going to need the plans that you’ve put in place.' (Participant 6)

‘You’re always having to adjust and re-adjust.’ (Participant 10)

Experiencing the loss

There is a great loss and it’s like bereavement. You know it’ll never be there again. It’s gone forever. You feel as though someone’s chipped a bit out of your heart and your soul. You think something’s gone and you’ll never see it again. (Participant 15)

'Very early on it’s like a grieving process. It’s like when you lose someone close to you, because you are losing a sense. You go through the anger, you go through the bitterness and then you come out of that and you do, you grieve over what you are losing through it.' (Participant 11)

Loss of Independance and personal life

As your sight gets worse you are losing all the time, because you are losing your independence and you’ve got to have the help, which makes you lose your pride, and that sort of takes down your self-esteem.
(Participant 12)

I loved going to see the Scottish National Orchestra, but I didn’t go this year. I can hear it, but it’s not the same when you can’t see it. So what’s the point? (Participant 3)

It is a loss of freedom in a way, because so often you are waiting for somebody to come and give you a lift somewhere. (Participant 9)

Change of Self Perception

'I feel like the odd one out. I’ll never see myself as I was before. I feel different, but I can’t put my finger on it. Something’s gone. I’ve lost a bit of a spark. My life’s a dimmer candle now.' (Participant 15)

When you stop work and stop driving, you lose status …You go from being someone who is in charge, to being someone who is regarded as dependent. (Participant 9)

Treatment by society

'I wonder if people understand the loneliness of being blind. In a crowded room I could feel lonely. I’ve been to the things where not a soul has spoken to me. They speak to others, but not to me, because they see the white stick. They know I can’t see them.' (Participant 16)

'The general public treat you differently because they don’t understand. They don’t understand sight loss.' (Participant 12)

'My husband finds it hard. He hasn’t really got his head round it, and he still says, ‘Did you see that? Come and see.’ (Participant 9)

'There are people who treat you as stupid. I don’t have a hearing problem. I don’t have an understanding problem.' (Participant 11)

'There are some people who would pat you on the head if they got the opportunity.' (Participant 14)

Synopsis and Take Aways

The stories told by the interviewees gave deep insight about the process of being diagnosed and transition from sighted to blind. It also showed the ignorance that most sighted people have in regards to blindness the people afflicted by the disability. This paper was probably the most important resource for thesis, as it highlighted a numerous amounts of pain points that blind people have to experience and made me realize that the problems surrounding blindness are much more prevalent than I initially thought.

Resource 03 – Daniel Kish

Introducing Daniel Kish, or better known by the moniker of Batman. Daniel has been blind for almost all of his life, due to being diagnosed with Retinoblastoma. Unlike most parents, Daniel’s parents allowed him to explore and interact with the world, instead of sheltering him.

This freedom allowed Daniel to adapt and learn how to maneuver the world on his own. Much like a bat, he developed a form of echolocation, that allowed him to feel and see the world through sound. This ability allowed Daniel to, for the most part, function like any sighted person. He can ride his bike, and has travelled the world on his own without any assistance.

I was introduced to Daniel’s story, first, through a Ted Talk that a friend sent me.
How I use sonar to navigate the world
TED 2015
March 2015

TLDW (Too Long Didn’t Watch) - In his TED Talks, Kish talks about his blindness and how it led to him developing his echolocation ability that he dubbed Flash Sonar. He discusses how his parents didn't make the same associations about blindness that stem from fear and allowed him to explore the world on his own. He goes into the mechanics of his ability and gives a full demonstration to the audience with the help of a metal tray. At the end of his talk Kish describes what Flash Sonar looks after being prompted by TED curator Chris Anderson.

Kish: 'Three hundred and sixty-degree view, so my sonar works about as well behind me as it does in front of me. It works around corners. It works through surfaces. Generally, it's kind of a fuzzy three-dimensional geometry. One of my students, who has now become an instructor, when he lost his vision, after a few months he was sitting in his three story house and he realized that he could hear everything going on throughout the house: conversations, people in the kitchen, people in the bathroom, several floors away, several walls away. He said it was something like having x-ray vision.’

How To Become Batman
Invisibilia #3
January 23, 2015

TLDL (Too Long Didn’t Listen) - NPR’s podcasts series Invisibilia Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller discuss the power of ‘expectations’ and its relationship with blindness. They begin the podcast with ‘Could my expectation make a blind person see?’.

MILLER: And he has made the media rounds to demonstrate what is usually described as this most amazing... UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Extraordinary.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Phenomenal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Remarkable.

MILLER:...Nearly superhuman ability of being able to ride a bicycle even though he's blind.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: As you watch, remember - he can't see a thing.

MILLER: A narrative Daniel thinks is all wrong.

BRIAN BUSHWAY: Step right up, step right up. The amazing Daniel Kish will demonstrate one of his greatest tricks to date.

MILLER: This is Daniel's buddy Brian Bushway (ph) who has had to watch his poor friend wheel out the old bicycle so many times for the media that he couldn't help but mock the whole setup when asked him to do it for me. MILLER: And though Daniel indulged, pulling figure-eights and riding beautifully as I ran beside him with my microphone, the two of them made it clear that my amazement was kind of offensive.
And here is where we get back to expectations. See, Daniel thinks there is nothing amazing about him. He thinks most blind people who don't have other disabilities could do things like ride bikes. KISH: I definitely think that most blind people could move around with fluidity and confidence if that were the expectation.

MILLER: See, he thinks the reason that more blind people don't isn't just because they haven't learned to click, but is because the expectations that you, or I, or all of us are carrying around in our own heads about what blind people can do are simply way too low.

Following Kish’s story, Miller is lead to a book called ‘Making of Blind Men’ by former professor of sociology at Princeton, Robert Scott. His book claims that blindness is social construct built upon society's biases of blindness.

MILLER: So fresh out of grad school, Bob got this job to conduct a huge multi-year long survey to see how effective blindness organizations were at helping the blind.

MILLER: And so he begins interviewing hundreds of blind people, goes out on hundreds of site visits.

SCOTT: A blind beggar.

MILLER: Asking for money.

SCOTT: Standing on the corner at Bloomingdale's.

MILLER: And he thought, hey, someone else to interview for my survey.

SCOTT: I said would you allow me to buy some of your time and I gave him, I don't know, $25 or something like that. We went in and sat down at a restaurant and I said tell me your story. MILLER: Turns out the man had worked at a paint factory until a few years before, when an accident there left him blind. And the people at the factory really liked the guy, so they said, look, why don't you go to an organization for the blind, get some training and then come back and work for us? So the guy said, great. He went to an organization for the blind. He said, I've got this job all lined up. Can you just help me with a few basic things? And the blindness organization said, no.

SCOTT: Oh, no. You can't do that. Blind people can't do those things. What we're going to do is put you through a program of rehabilitation and then move you along to our sheltered workshop that manufactures mops and brooms.

Part 1.5 of 2 Make,make,make, make, make, make, make, make!

Part 1.5 of 2 Make,make,make, make, make, make, make, make!

Part one consists of research both academic and creative, in the form of making design artifacts. The entirety of this part was spent understanding the dissability and identifying a common problem that the blind community faces on a regular basis

Artifact 01 – Preception of Blindness

Pondering and wondering about the Preception of Blindness, the first thing I think of is eyes. I think it's a very common correlation that most people make. So I went around and took close up portrait shots of any and every one I could find.

Featured Spread
Featured Spread

I found it very interesting while I was taking these pictures of how cautious some people were when I was taking their picture. They asked what it was for and why I was taking these weird shots of just their eyes. It seemed that for them it was very personal part of them that I was capturing.

Featured Spread
Featured Spread

Artifact 02 – Preception of Blindness Part Two ‘Society’s Point of View’

Artefact 01 gave me the idea to ask others around me what their perception of blindness. What was the first thing that popped into their head when they thought of blindness? I asked people around me to draw what they saw. I also messaged friends and family to send me pictures of describe in as little words as possible what they saw when they thought of blindness.

Submitted by MW
Submitted by MW
Submitted by SK
Submitted by AK

“Sunglasses and dogs” – JS

“Dark?” – HL

Submitted by GR

“For some reason I think of pure white and then seeing things as blurry or unfocused and then the more common descriptions of darkness, black, nothing, eyeballs” – SH

“Ability to see things with other senses” – ML

Submitted by CG
Submitted by MZ

“I feel like being blind might feel something like feeling lost but not being actually lost. you have an idea where you are/what your surroundings are, but you cant know for sure. all your other senses are hyperactive, hightened, and sometimes over stimulated.”– MZ

Submitted by MP
Submitted by RD

Artifact 03

Close Your Eyes and Touch Me

Artefacts 01 and 02 gave insight as to what society thinks of blindness. With that in mind I wanted to give sighted people a glimpse into how blind individuals and visually impaired people perceive the world.

Research indicated that in order to ‘see’ the world, blind and visually impaired people use their sense of touch. Based of that information I conceptualized the artefact as a book, a medium that requires navigation by the user, and in order for the user to use their haptic senses I made it using different textured papers.

The purpose for this piece was to evoke empathy for the blind and visually impaired community. It gave sighted people a chance to briefly walk in their shoes and hopefully understand the hardships they go through.

Part 1 of 2 – Conclusion: Annie Atkins & Plans for Part 2

Part 1 of 2 – Conclusion: Annie Atkins & Plans for Part 2

A Week after handing in Artefact 03, which also happened to be the final visual essay for semester one, I had a critique session with my supervising professor James March and fellow student Melanie Wong. They suggested I continue with the concept of the book and make more pieces that communicate the feeling of blindness. They advised that I expanded the concept into an installation.

Conclusion 01 – Enter Annie Atkins

I wasn’t too sold on the idea of creating similar objects to Artifact 03, until I heard Annie Atkins, the lead designer on Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, talk about her practice.
Annie’s talk really inspired me. She mainly discussed her work on the film as the lead designer creating props for the film. Her team and her were in charge of producing anything and everything that had letters or patterns on it in the movie.
That also meant that not only did she have to organize and manage her team, she also had to coordinate with the other teams from props to costumes.

Annie also showed us examples of the work they produced and how many different versions had to be made all identical to one another. The story that really struck with me was the one about Ralph Fiennes the actor who plays Gustav.
According to Annie, Gustav notebook was originally blank however Fiennes came up to the art department and asked them to add lines to the notebook; he felt that a blank notebook didn’t fit his character’s personality.

Annie’s story about Gustav’s notebook resonated with me the most because it reminded me of how product designers would think about a product they are building. Instead of thinking about people, Annie thinks about fictional characters. To me that is beautiful, and something I wanted to delve into myself.

Conclusion 02 – Plans for Part 02

The Q and A session with Annie Atkins really helped push ‘Blind World’ forward. Her talk on designing props for fictional characters made me think about how I could design objects that were better suited for visually impaired and blind community. And then it hit me;

Repurpose everyday objects to better fit blind and visually impaired people!

Because of the research it was already clear that our society works, for most the part, against the blind community. After going through my notes and reflecting back on the critique I had with James and Melanie, I realised that I didn’t necessarily have to design new objects but redesign existing objects.

End of Part 01

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