Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1990, Vol. 9 No. 1

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[PICTURE] This picture of a horse was drawn by a blind woman who grew up as a blind child.

From the Editor: Last spring the National Federation of the Blind hosted a most intriguing and unusual symposium. On June 9, 1989, President Marc Maurer welcomed participants and distinguished speakers to "Pictures and the Blind: A Symposium for Educators and Parents.'! must confess that when I first heard of our plans to sponsor this symposium my immediate reaction was, "That's interesting, but how important are art and pictures to the blind in the overall scheme of things?" Furthermore, the key speakers were researchers, and I have a healthy disrespect for most of the research done in the blindness field. But people I did respect were organizing the symposium, so I knew there had to be merit in it.

My faith was justified. As the symposium proceeded I grew more and more excited as I saw how the research done by speakers John M. Kennedy (Psychology Department, University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus, Canada), Paul Gabias (Department of Psychology, St. Thomas University, Canada), and Morton A. Heller (Psychology Department, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina), challenged popular misconceptions about blindness and the sense of touch. It was refreshing to see research results which were consistent with the real-life experiences of blind people.

In addition to the new insights I gained from the discussion about tactile pictures for the blind, I learned about practical applications for this research. Each of the three speakers mentioned above distributed lesson plans which could be used by anyone -- teachers of the blind, art teachers, classroom teachers, etc.--to teach drawing and drawing concepts to blind children. (These lesson plans are being made available by the NFB Parents Division. See note at the end of this article.)

The symposium ended with presentations from Karen Spitzberg, art history instructor with Art Education for the Blind of New York; and Elizabeth Salzhauer, Whitney Museum of American Art Education, and Director of Art Education for the Blind. They have experimented with methods of making largely visual paintings accessible to the blind through sound and tactile interpretations. They described their programs and shared several examples of their experimentations with the audience.

As is so often the case at Federation conferences, the learning that took place was a two-way street. The audience was not shy about speaking up, and the speakers learned much about what is practical and valuable (and what is not) in their work from the perspective of the blind, teachers of the blind, and parents of blind children.

The following article is in three sections. Each segment is based upon the presentations given at the symposium by John M. Kennedy, Paul Gabias, and Morton A. Heller.


by Dr. J. M. Kennedy

Editor's Note: The following information is based upon Dr. Kennedy's presentation at the symposium as well as an interview with this editor subsequent to the symposium. The title is the editor's, however. Dr. Kennedy's research on the topic of tactile pictures for the blind began sometime in the '70s. He has published articles about his reasearch in such journals as the American Scientist and the International Journal of Rehabilitation Research. Dr. Kennedy is with the psychology department of the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus.

Myth: Touch is a sense of immediate contact, and therefore, one will have trouble getting the impression of a large form using the sense of touch.

Fact: It takes time to explore shapes with vision. It takes time to explore shapes with touch. If you take the time you can discover, equally well with either touch or vision, the shape of a table, the location of the table in the room, the room's location on a corridor, how the corridor fits into the building, how the building is sited on the street, and how the street has hills and grades.

Myth: Touch cannot be used to get information about three-dimensional objects from a two dimensional representation.

Fact: The sense of touch is quite adequate for the task of discerning, from a two-dimensional tactile picture, the shapes of large objects, what is in front, what is in back, what part of an object overlaps another, and what direction things lie in. We use indicators of these concepts in pictures for the sighted, and we can use many of those same indicators in pictures for the blind. Blind people will often, as they draw their own tactile pictures, make up indicators to express these three-dimensional features.

Myth: If you change the scale of an object, it trips up the sense of touch.

Fact: Change of scale can be dealt with by touch just as it is with vision. The basic shape we are trying to understand stays the same no matter what the scale. A big dog and a little dog are the same as far as shape and touch are concerned. (Note: The size cannot be reduced for touch as much as it can be reduced for vision and still be recognizable. However, as long as this lower limit of size is not exceeded, a change of scale is no problem for recognition of shapes by touch.)

Myth: Lines and line drawings cannot stand for corners and edges with touch the way they can with vision when the sighted look at outline drawings.

Fact: Both blind people and sighted people have the same intuitive, untaught sense that a line is a perfectly good substitute for the edges and corners of three-dimensional objects. Blind children make tactile line drawings this way without being taught and so do blind adults when they are asked to make tactile drawings for the first time in their lives. (In our research we used a convenient raised-line drawing kit available from a Swedish organization for the blind. It makes a raised-line drawing when you write on it with a ball point pen.)

For our research we tested blind children and adults in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, and Arizona in the United States; Ontario and Alberta in Canada; and Haiti in the Caribbean. In every place we asked blind people to make raised-line drawings, we found that not only could they do so but that their drawings had the same form as drawings made by sighted children.

We asked blind people to draw familiar objects such as tables, chairs, and glasses. Many of them were so enthused that they independently volunteered drawings of dogs, people, birds, etc. These drawings are often recognizable to sighted people and to other blind people.

In conclusion, we found that blind people learn to use drawing materials quickly, and often with a few minutes practice they made better and more sophisticated drawings than they did on their first attempt. They were able to make reasonable drawings at first go, and they improved quite rapidly under their own initiative without having to be taught anything by us.


by Dr. Paul Gabias

Editor's Note: This paper was prepared by Dr. Paul Gabias for the symposium. Dr. Gabias assisted Dr. Kennedy for a time with his work on tactile pictures for the blind and is currently doing his own research along those lines while also teaching, among other classes, Visual Perception at the University of St. Thomas in Canada. Dr. Gabias explained how he came to teach that subject and how he almost "blew it" because of his own false assumptions about blindness. (Dr. Gabias has been blind from birth.) As an undergraduate he had asked to be excused from taking the exam on the segment about visual perception. After all, what could a blind person understand about visual perception? A little later he discovered that a blind professor was teaching an upper-division course on -- that's right -- Visual Perception. This changed his whole notion of what he was capable of doing as a blind person. He took the course from the blind professor and now teaches it, too.

--Basic Questions

In drawings, when emphasis on certain aspects of an object is required, the object must be drawn from a point of view. Because a drawing is flat it is not possible for it to represent all of the aspects of an object. For example, in a side view of a table we can show how high the table is. We can also show the length or width of the table, but not both simultaneously (see figure 1). If a side view is not required the width and length of the table can be shown simultaneously, but not the height of the table. The table will appear flat, and the height can only be inferred by the length of the lines corresponding to the legs (see figure 2).

The questions to be addressed in the lessons to follow are:
1. Can blind people draw from a point of view?
2. What kinds of points of view are understood and taken by blind people in drawings? With respect to this question we will discuss three subquestions:
(a) How can the same drawing of a given object depict that object from different points of view?
(b) How can a given object be drawn from different points of view?
(c) How can we show, in a given drawing, what is near and what is far? Would convergent perspective be understood by blind people?
3. Are blind children likely to understand different kinds of points of view at different ages?
4. How do blind people depict events in a static picture?
5. When are blind children likely to be able to depict events in a picture?

--Background Information for the Educator

It has been thought by some that it would be difficult for blind children to understand the concept of a point of view. For these people, the idea that blind children could spontaneously express a point of view in drawings would be difficult to imagine. To some, it would seem a waste of time to try to improve the natural abilities of blind children with respect to drawings, because, after all, they wouldn't have any natural ability.

Many people imagine, including some psychologists, that the world of the blind is piecemeal, fragmented, and unconnected. To them the world of the blind is based on piecemeal touches from here and there. These touch sensations have to be constructed into some sort of framework which may, to some degree, conform with reality, but not a visual reality. For these people vision is thought to give the true picture, the only picture of the world. For the sighted person who sees the world, the world is connected and whole. For the blind person who must feel and hear the world, the world is fragmented and unconnected. How could blind people have a point of view, they might ask, when having a point of view requires knowledge of whole objects from different vantage points? The retort is that, regardless of all our theorizing, the world is what it is, with all its constancies and all its variability. We all must live in it, and we use our perceptual systems to receive information about our actions. We also use our perceptual systems to find out what is happening around us.

As we walk around, we perceive the world as whole and connected. We know that things do not go out of existence just because they are out of sight or out of reach or out of earshot. From early on blind and sighted infants experiment with this principle. Sighted infants watch their hands go in and out of sight, as they move their hands in and out of the field of view. Both blind and sighted infants hear sounds of mother approaching and receding. Sometimes she makes noise and sometimes she doesn't. Yet she always exists. Parts of mother and father are explored with the eyes or the hands. Then other parts are explored. The child can go back to the earlier parts and find that they still exist.

By extension, parts of the crib and toys and blankets can be explored. These objects can be perceived as whole entities, even though certain parts can only be perceived at one time. After exploration even rooms and the house can be perceived as whole, even though a small number of the parts are explored at one time. In short, the world is perceived as a whole made up of parts rather than a set of parts making up a whole. Extensive knowledge of the parts comes after knowing the whole rather than the knowledge of the whole coming after knowledge of the parts. We're interested in the overall shape of an object before we want to know how it is put together.

How do these principles apply to drawing? If blind children and adults can draw objects from a point of view, then it must be assumed that the blind can perceive objects as whole entities with connected parts. They can, at will, focus on the parts or focus on the whole. What is the evidence for this?

There is reliable evidence, both from the University of Toronto and New York University, which shows that blind children and adults can understand and produce drawings from a vantage point. In other words, depictions by blind people are not restricted to representations of entire objects. Certain parts or aspects of objects can be shown while other parts are deliberately eliminated for clarity.

As suggested earlier, for example, a side view of a table can be shown instead of the entire table. Here, only two legs are shown, not four. Also, only one side of the table is shown, not four. The advantage of the side view over the whole view is that the height of the table can be shown as well as its thickness. So, in the side view, while some aspects are lost, other aspects are gained. Blind people have applied this principle to all kinds of drawings, including those of animals, cubes, vehicles, and people. For example, figure 3 (Kennedy, 1980) shows a drawing of a dog from the side. It was drawn by a Phoenix child who became totally blind before two years old. Figure 4 (Kennedy, 1980) shows three tables drawn by blind children of different ages. As shown, one table is drawn from above, the second from underneath, and the third from the side. Figure 5 (Kennedy, 1980) shows the side view of a hexagonal box with adjacent sides shown angling off, by adding brief lines horizontally to each corner. This drawing was produced by a fourteen-year-old from Phoenix. This child had been blinded before the age of two and had been left with minimal light perception.

There is not only good evidence that blind people can draw objects from the side but that they also can understand drawings and occasionally have produced drawings with convergent perspective. In these drawings the convergent perspective technique is used to show what is near and what is far. The railroad tracks drawn by a blind woman in figure 6 demonstrates this understanding of the convergent perspective. (The "v" mark shows her location in the middle of the picture).

What about events in static pictures? So far, research has focused on the depiction of two kinds of events: people walking or running and wheels moving. Research has shown that blind adults say that events are impossible to depict directly in a static picture. They comment that you have to do something imaginary. Blind people have used four types of techniques to suggest movement in a drawing: postural devices, additional graphics, shape distortions, and context devices.

A postural device involves changing the posture of an animal or human in an unusual way to suggest that the animal or human is moving. For example, figure 7 shows that when a six-year-old blind boy was asked to draw a man running, he first drew a man standing still. To show that the man was running, he extended the legs to make them "real long." Amused, he went on to make the man's arms "real long" too, to show how strong he was and to show how fast he was running. To emphasize how fast he was running, he turned impishly to the man's ears and made them "real long" as well.

A variety of similar but more sophisticated techniques have been employed by blind adults. Figure 8 (Kennedy, 1982) is a drawing from a congenitally blind adult which shows a man walking. Graphic additions in front of the man's feet have been used to show the man taking steps. Another raised-line drawing of a man walking produced by an early totally blind adult (blinded before two) is shown in figure 9 (Kennedy, 1980). It uses a slightly different principle. The subject said that "His legs must look as though they're walking. His right leg is forward. That's why it's bigger and longer, more stretched out, as if he's coming out of the page toward you." This is another postural device. When asked to draw a wheel spinning, blind adults have employed a variety of techniques.

One technique involves curving the spokes to suggest that the wheel is spinning. Another technique involves making the circumference of the wheel oblong, with some spokes short and some spokes long as in figure 10 (Kennedy, 1980). Context devices are often very useful in drawing. For example, drawing a wheel on the down slope of a hill could suggest that the wheel is rolling. Thus, blind children and adults can draw from a point of view. They can also draw simple events like walking, running, or wheels in motion.


by Dr. Morton A. Heller

Editor's Note: The following article is from the paper Dr. Heller prepared for the "Pictures and the Blind" symposium. He teaches and pursues his research in the area of tactile perception of the blind at Winston-Salem State University (Department of Psychology), North Carolina. He has also published articles in Perception and Perception and Psychophysics magazines.

For some time now, I have been concerned with the study of tactile perception in the sighted and blind. A surprising number of researchers have fallen prey to the "myth" of the perceptual superiority of the sighted over persons born blind. The source of this prejudice probably derives from the introspection of the sighted, with only occasional recourse to data. Many sighted persons rely on visual imagery to recall spatial locations. In addition they may experience visual images when touching shapes in the dark.

Thus, some researchers have proposed that the sighted normally recode tactile impressions into visual images. Revesz claimed that touch can only provide a vague conception of shape and tends to delete detail. Some researchers have then assumed that the congenitallv blind, who presumably lack visual imagery, must not understand the world properly. Of course, this is a rather crude description of a theoretical position, but it is probably accurate. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning fails to note the possibility that other forms of imagery may serve as well as visual imagery and could be superior for some forms of spatial cognition.

A few researchers have reported that the early blind may not perform as well as the sighted or late blind on a number of tactual and spatial tasks (Warren, 1984) and this deficiency has been ascribed to a lack of visual imagery in the early blind. An alternative point of view has been presented by Lederman and Klatzy (in press), who argue that visual imagery is only necessary when observers are confronted with two-dimensional arrays, there they claim touch is deficient.

They suggest that visual recoding is not needed where touch will serve to provide the needed information, as with complex three-dimensional arrays that also include texture cues. In an experiment I conducted two years ago, sighted, early, and late blind observers made relative smoothness judgments with either active or passive touch. The superiority of the sighted or late blind in texture judgments would implicate the benefits of visual imagery for texture perception, but the results showed no differences between the sighted, late, or congenitally blind. These results suggest that visual imagery is no help in texture perception tasks.

In a second experiment I also found that touch was superior to vision in texture perception for very smooth surfaces. Thus, sight is not always a benefit. Just the other day, for example, I experienced pain from a small fiber that was embedded in my fingertip. The tiny fiber was invisible to the naked eye, but could be seen under eight-power magnification. However, the naked skin had no problem feeling the stimulus. This sort of experience makes one wonder about the notion that the sense of touch operates like blurred (hence defective) vision.

Of more immediate interest is a study I conducted on picture perception in the sighted and blind. I used raised-line drawings produced with the Swedish drawing kit. (The Swedish raised line drawing kit is far superior to the Sewell drawing kit. The Sewell kit generates lines that collapse as one feels them.) I wondered if relatively familiar objects would pose difficulties for the sighted and blind.

In addition to showing pictures to my subjects in this study, I asked them to engage in a simple shape matching task. The stimuli were embossed patterns produced with a six by six array of dots. The results showed that the eleven late-blind and the eleven early-blind individuals performed slightly better than the eleven sighted subjects and were much faster than the sighted group. Again, there is no support for the visual imagery position.

The picture recognition task in that study entailed first showing the subjects the pictures, one by one, and asking for identification. Subjects were not told how to feel the pictures, nor were they given time limits. All subjects were encouraged to guess if uncertain. They were told the pictures represented common things or nouns. They were not given any size constraints. Finally, after attempting to name the pictures without feedback, I told the subjects the names that described the set of pictures. I then showed them the pictures in a different order and asked them to name them.

The late-blind were far better than the other subjects. Furthermore, they maintained this advantage. The sighted were no better than the congenitally blind, an outcome that is inconsistent with the idea that visual imagery is essential for tactile space perception.

The experiments suggest, to me at least, that the advantage of the late-blind is probably due to two factors. They have better tactile spatial skills than the sighted, and furthermore, they have experience with the nature of drawing and representing objects in two dimensions. This leads to their superiority over the congenitally blind in these experiments. These results also suggest that blind persons in general are likely to show great improvement in their ability to make sense out of tactile pictures. While some subjects did very well initially, some did not. But even these subjects showed rapid gains with experience. Many individuals, both early- and late-blind, expressed an interest in obtaining drawing kits. They seemed to enjoy drawing. Several congenitally blind subjects who had never learned to write their names were able to immediately copy their initials. A number produced interesting drawings. These individuals wished to obtain the drawing kits to write with, to draw maps with, and to draw with. I should point out that a couple of subjects who initially protested that they could never draw, were later able to do so.

I am presently completing a study of perspective-taking in the blind. The task uses a variant of the Piagetian three-mountain scene. Piaget asked children to view three mountains and then imagine how the scene looks to people in a different position. Young children are egocentric and fail to take the point of view of the other when tested with photographs. I wondered if the blind, especially the congenitally blind, could go beyond egocentrism and take a number of perspectives. One might think this would be a problem if space can only be known visually. For example, this seems implicit in Piaget's description of the child's understanding of the a straight line, the demonstration of which is dependent on the use of a method of sighting. Piaget probably never read Diderot's Letters on the Blind where he described a blind mathematician that used strings to represent straight lines.

I used three shapes in this experiment and three groups of subjects: early-blind, late-blind, and sighted controls. I first asked subjects to name the shapes after feeling them. Many subjects, both sighted and blind, did not name them correctly. For example, some people referred to the cone as a funnel. I then asked the subjects to draw top and side views of each shape. Subsequently, I showed the subjects raised-line drawings I had made and asked them to identify them. Then, subjects were asked to draw a bird's eye view and a frontal side view of the pictures. The subjects were asked to anticipate side views as the array would be seen at 90, 180, and 270 degree positions. That is, subjects were asked to draw how the array would appear to someone sitting on their right, opposite them, and on their left (without feedback).

Finally, I showed the subjects the five drawings, twice each in a random order, and asked them to identify the point of view of the perceiver (i.e., the person that drew the picture). Since I have not completed this research, the results are tentative, of course, but the sighted do not appear to have any great advantage when denied vision. You should be aware that touch is rather sensitive to orientation shifts. This may be especially likely for unfamiliar patterns, but also occurs with highly familiar shapes. Sighted subjects show performance losses when making visual matches to Braille patterns they touch when the Braille is tilted. Blind subjects may show performance losses for tactile stimuli that are tilted. Visual guidance and spatial frame of reference information may help the sighted. That is, it is a help to be able to see one's hand in relationship to the environment. Visual guidance of touch is unavailable to the blind who might benefit from other aids. For example, spatial frameworks or line guides might be needed to aid in drawing and pattern recognition.

Conclusions: My research indicates that visual experience is not necessary for understanding tactile drawings, nor is it essential for adopting the perspective of another person. When we objectively examine the spatial cognition of the blind, we find that the sighted do not necessarily have any advantage. If anything, the late blind perform much better than the sighted. Congenitally blind people are capable of far more than some people give them credit for. I heartily concur with Susanna Millar who has said that it is time to stop designing research to ask what the blind cannot do. We should be in the business of finding out what people can do. Congenitally blind persons can make and understand drawings and can certainly adopt perspective. It is a very risky business for anyone to assume that individuals can't do something. Educational level is not a good predictor of spatial skills, nor is the cause of blindness necessarily an accurate index.

I believe that increased exposure to drawings will help the blind understand and represent space. Tactile drawings can be of inestimable benefit. I spent a great deal of time drawing as a child and can't imagine how my mental life would have developed without this experience. I have come to believe that a major impediment to the intellectual development of the blind derives from prejudice within society and the limitations we sometimes have placed on their education. (Emphasis added by editor.)

Note: The "Ideas for Art Lesson Plans," which were distributed at the symposium by John M. Kennedy, Paul Gabias, and Morton A. Heller, are available from the NFB Parents of Blind Children Division for a donation of $2.00 (to cover costs of postage and handling). Send request and donation (made payable to National Federation of the Blind, POBC) to:

Ideas for Art Lesson Plans for the Blind
NFB Parents Division
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

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