by Carl Jarvis

(Reprinted from the Washington Council of the Blind "Newsline.")

Have you ever wondered how it is that one blind person can be dropped off in the middle of a strange city and find his way home, while another blind person can't find his way out of a broom closet if he has both hands on the doorknob? For more than 32 years I have been working with blind people of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities. During those years I have compiled a pile of mostly unscientific, useless information. But one most puzzling question keeps recurring. Why is it that some blind people get lost in their own shoes, while others seem to have a built-in sonar system?

It appears to have nothing to do with when they became blind, their age or education or whether they are left-brain, right-brain or no-brain. So, for many years I concluded that it was a matter of developing the correct teaching technique. My early indoctrination was straightforward. The average blind person, with proper training and attitudes, could do just about anything.

So, when I applied my magic to my students and nothing happened, I considered that it was my failure, not theirs. I just had not found the right combination of teaching tools to successfully complete the training. Remember the old saying, "A doctor buries his/her mistakes"? Not so for the rehab teacher. Our mistakes/failures keep bumping into us at meetings, conventions, and knocking at our doors requesting more training. Since many of us rehab teachers are rescuers by nature, we roll up our sleeves and try, try again, invariably ending up with the same results. People were coming to us, lost in space and seeking help. And our inability to resolve this problem began to impact all phases of their rehabilitation training. Instead of aiming them toward success, we were pointing them to the door marked, "Destination: Failure."

Over the years I was absolutely certain that somewhere, somehow, there existed the right approach for teaching spatial awareness to blind people. My wife, and fellow rehab teacher, had never shared my belief. Despite discussing and debating this issue many times, my mind was made up. I simply could not accept that there are some skills that cannot be taught. Finally the light clicked on when Cathy, trying to illustrate her point, said, "You know, Carl, you have no sense of rhythm. And despite all these years of trying, you still can't follow the beat. You sing just fine but you're totally lost in the song, which is better, and safer, than turning you loose on the dance floor." This brought to mind my mother. She was tone-deaf. We always said that Mother sang the tune the old cow died on. She had about three notes, and yet she loved music. And I loved music, too. How was it that Mother and I could be serious music lovers but not be able to hum or dance to the tune?

Of course the answer is that humming and dancing are not central to music appreciation. And then it hit me: I was focused on the wrong goal. Regardless of whether it could be taught, spatial awareness is not central to leading a successful, independent life. Not only was I busy trying to teach people to develop a skill which they did not possess, but worse yet, I was implying that without this skill they could not be successful, independent people. Just because a kangaroo can hop doesn't mean I can teach him to fly. Nor does he need to fly to reach his goal. And just because a blind person can get from point A to point B does not mean that I can teach him spatial awareness. Some of our brains are simply not set up to work that way.

This was a hard concept for me to wrap my mind around. Over the years I watched many blind people travel about and arrive at their destination. Some did it with ease, while others did it by trial and error. I figured that the trial and error folks just needed to practice harder and pay closer attention to what they were doing. It never occurred to me that just getting there was a major success for the spatially challenged. The truth is I had no clue as to what these folks were struggling with. Think of trying to teach a blind man to see. We could put him through the same drills that we use for all sighted folks. Over and over we could force him to peer and strain, finally giving up in frustration. We might feel that we had not pushed him hard enough. He would be left with the feeling that he was incompetent. In the end, we had programmed him for a life of failure.

But of course we know that a blind man cannot be taught to see. Even if his eyes move, and he blinks and sheds tears, he is missing something that cannot be taught. This absence must be accommodated if he is to function independently in life. This is exactly the same course of action needed for the spatially challenged. Trying to teach them techniques that work for the spatially aware will only frustrate them. What is needed is a set of alternative techniques that will assist them in accommodating their different approach to space.

Whether we are blind or sighted, I believe that there are great differences in how our brains process spatial information. Sighted people accommodate this difference, unaware that it even exists. But without sight, this difference becomes a major problem for the spatially challenged. It is essential that we develop positive alternative techniques which will enable people to function successfully in their environment, allowing them to fulfill their goals to live productive, independent lives.

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