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November 7, 2009

disABILITY: Q&A on math, dreams, beauty, fear

Here is the last edition of questions and answers. These are questions I’ve been asked by people of various ages through the years. The answers I share are from my perspective, experience and what I’ve learned over the years.

Q: How do blind people learn to do math or math problems?

A: In grade school, blind students use the abacus to learn basic math skills. Later on, a lot of math can be written in Braille. Blind people follow along in their Braille books and materials just like their sighted peers follow along in their printed books and materials. For graphing, there are cork boards with a rubber graph grid affixed to it. Push pins can be stuck in to represent points on the graph. And rubber bands can be stretched around two pushpins to form a tactile line between the two points. Geometric shapes can be traced on sturdy foil or plastic sheets. In both cases they result in raised line drawings for the blind student to feel. There are also talking calculators available. I had the ability to do certain math functions in my head. I was able to do simple math and long division in my head as well as geometry and trigonometry. The more numbers and figures and variables there were the harder it was to juggle them all in my mind, though.

A: Do blind people dream? What do they see when they dream?

A: I have never asked anyone who was blind from birth about this so I don’t have any answer for sure about those folks and what they might hear or otherwise sense during dreams. Physiologically I have to think that something goes on for them during REM sleep just like it does for anyone else. I do dream and I often dream as though I’m watching a movie. I see scenes and hear sounds. Often my dreams have elements of seeing and not seeing. I may be walking around in my dream being able to see everything around me but I might still be using my cane. Or I might go from being able to see the stars in the sky in one part of my dream to not being able to see anything, and then back to seeing things in the next part of my dream. But I always dream and they’re made up of sounds, textures and often they’re made up of sights, too.

Q: How do blind people experience beauty? What are those experiences guided by?

A: I most often experience beauty through a person’s personality and character traits. I have become so far removed from the concept of physical beauty that it really doesn’t matter to me. I know for a fact that is not true for all blind people. Some are very conscious of their own and others’ physical beauty. If I were to guess why this is, I’d be inclined to believe it’s based on how large a factor physical beauty was to a person before they lost their vision, or how important it is to the people they hang around most, even after going blind. Hollywood portrays this image of blind people possessing the need or interest in feeling other people’s faces. I find it’s rarely the case that a blind person is actually going to come up to you and ask, first thing, to feel your face. It’s weird for me to invade someone’s personal space to that extent and I don’t feel like I’d really get anything meaningful out of doing so. So I just don’t do it.

I’m more interested in knowing someone’s behaviors, attitudes and personal integrity. A person with positive features in these kinds of areas is very beautiful to me, even if they also have big ears, a lot of acne or wear baggy, wrinkly clothing.

Q: Do blind people have certain phobias unique to them?

A: I have a big phobia of bugs, although I had that before I lost my vision. Other than that, I don’t have any phobias. There are certain things that startle me because I don’t see it coming and that can scare me, but not in the sense of a phobia. I get startled if a cat decides to pounce on my foot or jump on my lap with no warning. That obviously startles me, but it’s not a phobia. There are people who, because of a fear of failure or a personal insecurity, act fearful, sometimes even phobic toward trying new things or going to new places.

Thinking about that, I guess in the past I’ve had a little bit of a fear of visiting new cities by myself. It wasn’t until I did it a few times, and figured out I could have a local mobility instructor for the blind show me around the new territory I was visiting. It seems such an obvious request and step to take for me, but the fear of being alone and lost in a new place shrouded my ability to think clearly and logically to realize that. And if it hadn’t been for certain necessities at certain points in my life I would have never learned the skills of traveling alone as a blind person and would have been frozen in place, hung up on my fears. So I would say that often the phobias unique to a blind person have everything to do with a lack of education or training on how to adapt. The more I’ve learned how I can adapt to the sighted world around me, the fewer fears I have.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for 11 years.