Saturday, August 17, 2013

Negative Space

As a [semi-]sighted person, especially one with a pretty limited field of vision, I've always placed quite a bit of mental emphasis on objects. I've rarely noticed that an object is defined and bounded by the negative space around it. I suppose a visual artist would be chuckling at me not noticing such a simple thing, but honestly, it's so much work to try to see an object, that I don't usually have enough attention span left over to try to see where the object isn't. I mention this only because I had a fairly interesting revelation this week about it

This Thursday, Abi and I had a lesson with a white cane teacher who comes down from Spokane to give us lessons as part of his Master's thesis. This teacher, Tim, is totally blind, which in my opinion makes the best cane instructor. Who better to teach the nuances of using a white cane than a blind person who uses one all day every day? Also, he's had training in the NFB long cane method, which makes much more sense to me than the teachers who say a cane only needs to come to the mid-chest.

Anyway, Tim had me do some blindfold work in order to practice the skills he was teaching Abi. (If I can continue her instruction on a daily basis, she will continue to gain confidence and skill rapidly.) I walked down the street with my cane, desperately trying to remember to keep it in step, use the open palm grip, tap from side to side with just enough width to clear my path but not get stuck in the grass on either side, and hold my hand in the right place on my body: out front and centered. After several blocks of this mental rodeo, Tim had us take a break and work on echolocation.

I've tried doing this before: making a sound and listening as it bounces around me, trying to determine the location and distance of objects based purely on the echoes. I know that skilled blind users of echolocation can, in a sense, "see" well enough to ride a bike, rollerblade or find buildings and doors and stairs. When I try it, however, I get nothing. Zip, Nada. I pretty much stink at echolocation. I get absolutely no sense of where any objects are at all.

As we worked, Tim sent me down the sidewalk by myself, tapping away merrily with my metal-tipped cane, and his instructions were, "Tell me if you hear anything." Apparently, his confidence in me was about one notch higher than mine. At one point, a hedge next to me supposedly would be noticeable, but I ran into it before I had a chance to hear it.

Then, finally, the aural landscape changed. I heard... nothing. Not the nothing I heard when I was fiercely trying to hear the objects around me, but I heard the sound of open space. The absence of objects. The difference flew at me like an echoing symphony. Excitedly, I reported to him, "I hear space!" He grinned and told me it was a parking lot or some sort of open area.

Later, we were walking past a long, blank wall. Although I could not determine my proximity to the wall like he and Abi could, I did notice when it ended. Again, that beautiful feeling of space tickled me from my left side.

I said offhandedly to him, "The space is a lot easier to hear than the objects. I guess blind people must think the space around objects is more important, while sighted people think the objects are more important." He agreed enthusiastically.  From what I can tell it seems like maybe blind people start to get a sense of their surroundings by painting in the empty areas of negative space around stuff when they paint a mental picture of what they hear. I'm sure it quickly becomes a lot more nuanced than that, but that is a start that I hadn't expected. I felt I had taken an important leap into Abi's world.

We walk past this United Methodist Church almost daily to get downtown.

The same photo with the colors inverted, emphasizing the negative space in the picture.

1 comment:

  1. Wow!! I'm going to have a good think on so many things you said in this post (long cane, space around objects....). Thank you so much! :)