Translating the Visual

Imagine a World Without Color

Try to imagine the world without color. What do you think it would look like? Perhaps you envisioned a world of black and white, given depth by varying shades of grey. Maybe you pictured a world out of a crisp new coloring book—all white with solid black outlines giving shape to people, buildings and trees. Now, how do you think a blind child perceives color? And what about a child who has been blind since birth? Is it even possible for a blind person to comprehend color? And, does teaching about color really even matter? Yes, of course!

Why Teach a Blind Child about Color?

The moment I found out my daughter Madilyn was blind, which was moments after she was born, I immediately thought of all the beautiful sights she would never see, like the glowing red sunsets, crystal clear blue waters of the oceans, and intricate details carved into the top of one of my favorite pieces of architecture—the Chrysler Building in New York City. I had been passionate about art and architecture since I myself was a child, and now that I had become a mother, I wanted to be able to share these things that were important to me with her. As a parent, you hope to pass down your talents and passions, so maybe your children’s lives will be enriched in a similar way yours was, and maybe they’ll carry some with them after you’re gone, and pass them down to their children. It made me sad to think I’d never have the chance for the two of us to marvel at the talents of Da Vinci or the natural wonder of a rainbow spanning the sky overhead. But I was wrong to think it wasn’t possible…

Once I realized Madilyn had her own way of perceiving the world using her ears to listen and her hands to touch, I opened my mind to find ways to translate all the things she couldn’t see. I learned you don’t have to have sight to truly appreciate all of the visual treasures of the world. Instead, there are so many beautiful ways to convey an image into a medium a blind person can interpret through the other senses. Madilyn’s favorite sense for learning is hearing, so I describe to her all that I see as much as possible, including everything from the icicles forming on the trees that glisten in the sunlight, to the changing scenery of the trees, buildings, and power lines passing by as we drive down the road; and in the morning, I tell her which colors are on her shirt and pants she chooses to wear. I use the most descriptive adjectives, and encourage her to make her own descriptions in predicting what something “looks” like. Sometimes we even make it into a game. Nevertheless, these needs prove the importance of literacy and language for a young blind child for building a foundation for understanding the world.

Using the Other Senses to Interpret the Visual

But are verbal descriptions the only way to teach a child with visual impairments? Most certainly not! In fact, a multi-sensory approach can be the best way to bring an image (or classroom lesson) to life by combining some or all of the senses to build a truly comprehensive representation! Colors can be represented by a scent and taste, like strawberries for red or limes for green. Maybe you could taste test a bag of Skittles and name each color and flavor along the way. (Hint: This would make a GREAT multi-sensory game!)

Have you ever thought about how to touch a color? When you see a red ember in the fire, you think HOT! Temperature can represent colors just as well (but be careful!) where hot equals red and cold is blue, or perhaps white. Everything from works of art to simple drawings can be made into tactile images so that a blind child can feel the curvature of a rainbow and the bands of color that pop out against the blue sky background. Is there a rainbow out now that the rain has passed? Go outside and have your child reach up as high as she can, then explain that the rainbow is even higher! Talk about how the air feels. Maybe it’s warm and muggy now that the summer thundershower has moved along.

Then, the next time you tell her, “There’s a rainbow in the sky!” she’ll remember the way she felt when she went outside that day, or touched the picture, and maybe even “Tasted the Rainbow” when ate some Skittles! And though she may never experience the sight of a rainbow just like you, she’ll have her own understanding of what it means when a rainbow is in the sky, and that is what really matters.

Be mindful that it’s extremely important not to completely ignore the concept of colors with your blind child because visual elements of all sorts will continue to be a part of your child’s life, whether she can see them or not. So be creative and flexible when it comes to building a basic understanding of these concepts; and most importantly, HAVE FUN doing it!