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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
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.