Canvassed World: How the Visually Impaired See the Universe

The first snow of the year glistens on the rooftops. A cardinal colors the once barren and dead-looking canopy, now dusted in shining white. Boots indent the driveway, the toes of each footprint pointed to the heated car. Above it all is the piercing sun, golden and glaring in a cloudless periwinkle sky. This is what I think of when I hear “winter.” Images, pictures, visions. A little over an hour after seeing this, I put on my sleeping mask and thus began my 40 hours of simulated blindness, and with each passing minute came a drastic change to winter’s definition.

On the first day, Sunday morning, a chilled wind sliced across as I stumbled through the garage and back inside. I felt along the wall and found the cold metallic handle of a shovel, the shoe rack’s wooden frame, the paneled door. I knew they’d all be there—along with a few scattered pairs of shoes that hadn’t quite made their way on the rack. Maneuvering around my house was simple, as long as I kept a hand on the wall. I’d had sixteen years to memorize where everything was. Many blind individuals don’t have to use the walls as a guideline when they’re at home, since they’ve learned how many steps it takes to get from the living room couch to the fridge, or the dining table to the stairs. I reach the computer desk almost as easily as I normally would, and feel for The Iliad, a 14-disk audio book set recognized by its brick-thickness and bumpy plastic wrapping, pull out the first disk and put it in a DVD player, take everything to the quiet upstairs, and at last listen to the centuries old strife of the ancient Greeks and Trojans. Images of beggars and weary kings flashed in my mind, and without distractions like monkey posters and the Chrome icon, I was enraptured. It is said that the blind hear better than others, though most contemporary studies disprove this. Even though I couldn’t suddenly hear the doorknob turning or the show my sister was watching a floor below me, I learned how to be a better listener. I “heard” smiles and eye rolls through shifting tones, strung together key ideas my teachers were verbalizing in class and typed them in my notes.

On Monday morning, I knew the snow was still there because I felt it crunching under my feet. I had absolutely no sense of time—I could have left the house at three in the morning or afternoon and not known the difference—so I used the light traffic and the nocturnal chill in the air as indications instead. It was a strange drive, and I felt as if I was on a conveyor belt, floating against the darkness in a metal box. Familiar images of the route shone in pale blue-green light, like a form of night vision, as if my brain had accepted that it couldn’t see what was going on around me, but would carry on pretending. I subconsciously imagined everything in first person, me sitting at my desk, translating Latin with three classmates, eating lunch in the library, being led up steps and down elevators, listening to lectures and presentations. In this way, it hardly seemed different than any other day.

Despite all this, there were some everyday elements that I missed, like my friend’s new haircut, the crescent moon, and doodles on the Latin board. Most chiefly among these was my loss of independence. I couldn’t do schoolwork or fix a meal without help. A flight of stairs was a minute’s endeavor, my notes under inquisition.

My friends led me to each of my classes. At the bell’s ring, it seemed like I was wading through a swarm. I had to assume the crowds would part for me and I wouldn’t walk into any walls. Classmates would verify that my notes were being recorded on my word document and offer to help me finish worksheets. I was constantly asked how my day was going and if I needed any assistance from friends and people I hardly knew. This generosity and eagerness to help was what struck me most. People were willing to set aside their own work, give me space in the hallway, and go out of their way to help me purely for my research. Disabilities can make life difficult, complicated, and messy, as I’ve learned from my own experience with autism and this simulation, but they also allow the disabled to see humanity in one of its brightest shades.

Taking the mask off at the end of the 40 hours revealed a vivid world. Every color jumped at me and each object seemed to possess its own luster. But the colors were the only enormous surprise. Behind my mask, with eyes closed, I’d painted my world on a dark canvas. There were some unusual alterations, like talking orangutans in a Cathedral—accompanying the dialogue of a movie I watched in Church and Sacraments—but for the most part, during those 40 hours I saw similarly to the way I see now. So what is winter? Winter is the chill between me and my coat, the snow on the railings, the ice on the ground, soft birdsong in the day and the silent knights and thick blankets. But it’s also the cardinal, a brilliant red against the January whiteout.

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