A world without sight

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Most of us can not imagine what it is like to be visually impaired or blind, what it's like to function in the world without sight. In the Czech Republic, some estimates have suggested that as many as 100, 000 people suffer from limited eyesight or are blind. That number was recently put forward by the organisers of a exhibition aimed at designing household objects for everyday use by the visually impaired, a task that organisers say is not addressed in the Czech Republic nearly often enough. In today's Special we look at the project and visit an institute helping professionals work with the blind.

Over a hundred students from 12 different design schools took part in the project titled "Design for the Dark" - addressing the challenges of the blind. Students created proto-types of objects that included everything from kitchen utensils and practical tools, games and clothing, all ergonomically designed for the non-sighted. Throughout the project they consulted blind people themselves, and many of them also received training at Charles University's Rehabilitation Institute for the Visually Impaired, located in a leafy part of Prague. I was curious to find out what such training was like and met instructor Lenka Svobodova, who was kind enough to show me around.

"The institute was founded in 1994 and the main thing is the education of professionals for visually impaired people. So we are teaching instructors of orientation and mobility, and teachers who specialise in the field of 'daily living'. Beside that we have different duties, because we belong to the Faculty of Humanities, so we are sometimes giving seminars and we also work directly with visually impaired people. "

Training takes place in the institute's observation and teaching facility where individuals are asked to conduct basic tasks including moving without sight. The most basic of exercises, I found out, involves simply getting used to the dark: pitch black in which it is impossible to see. My own attempts were shot on night-vision videotape which captured my every step.

LS: "What you will see is actually darkness only. After you enter the room you can hold the handle on the right hand side and continue."

I didn't know it but going into the dark I would display typical reactions: deliberate and careful movement and general signs of uncertainty, as well as eyes wide open in search of anything at all. But, the darkness was complete.

LS: "Follow my voice please, I'm standing somewhere in front of you. You can go forward, and now, on your right hand side there is a table and on this table three models of buildings."

I was asked to examine the models to try and determine the names of three famous structures in the Czech Republic and Germany. Running my hands over the items I first found myself at a bit of loss, but then, suddenly, everything clicked.

JV: It's Karlstejn!

LS: "Yes it is! Great!"

JV: So this would be Hluboka Castle maybe. It has these spires that feel like chess pieces!

LS: "Right!"

JV: Now I feel better. In that case this could be the Brandenberg Gate!

Afterwards, Lenka Svobodova explained that the use of such models is one way the institute tries to bring famous architecture to life. The institute regularly organises trips around the country and abroad: places like Austria, Slovenia, and Holland, providing models for some the places they visit. According to Lenka Svobodova they can enrich a visitor's experience.

"What is difficult for people who were born blind is that they can actually only visualise things that they can touch, and things on a large scale are very difficult to imagine. Karlstejn here was very easy for you, but it's difficult for them."

Onwards, the next part of our session involved meeting one of my host's colleagues in the dark and answering several questions in which I was asked to speculate about her appearance and age.

LS: "My colleague Renata Rucka."

RR: "Hello, nice to meet you. Don't worry!"

JV: From my experience in radio I know that people are very, very different from their voice, so I know that I'll probably build an image that has nothing to do with reality. But I will say that I think that Renata has shoulder length brown hair and dark eyes.

Then, however, I was asked a question that threw me for a loop: did I think Renata was blind? It hadn't occurred to me until that moment. I had heard her approach without hesitation in the darkness and yet had not realised that - for her - the loss of sight was a permanent condition. I did however guess the colour of eyes and hair. Don't ask me how.

RR: "With the hair it was brilliant!"

LS: "Yeah, with the hair it was good!"

Helping people come to terms with blindness is one of the most difficult tasks professionals like Renata and Lenka face. It's no wonder under such circumstances many patients need counselling to learn to how to go on, and there are no easy answers. Lenka Svobodova again:

"When you lose your sight and you were a person who loved books, paintings, and so on, it is very difficult to accept to learn how to live with it so that it doesn't bother you 'too much', because it's difficult to accept as a part of you. The question if Renata was or wasn't blind was something I asked to make you aware it's the one thing that never comes to peoples' minds, whether they are handicapped or not. It's always you thinking about her voice, whether she's young, or pretty, but not whether or not she's blind, or otherwise handicapped."

The last part of the lesson was conducted with the lights on. In the end, I was given the chance to closely examine how a kitchen for the visually impaired should be designed. But, I did so through a variety of goggles replicating various illnesses, in all cases reducing vision to an absolute minimum. Tunnel vision was one, or the opposite, the centre of the eye leaving blotted out by blackness, leaving only peripheral sight. In all honesty, I can not imagine what it must be like to live with such afflictions. My own feeling was one of desperation.

LS: "So?"

JV: It whites out everything. The whole space.

LS: It would be difficult to do something here.

No doubt one of the points of the whole exercise is to understand that being visually-impaired involves a great measure of courage. But, just as importantly it helps you realise that there are many different levels or stages of blindness which require specific approaches and solutions. Someone, for example, with very poor sight but sight nonetheless, is likely to require special lighting at home, spread evenly and softly throughout. Hot-spots, as I saw for myself through the goggles, burn out large areas of visibility, blanketing the world not in darkness but in cloudy light. Proper contrasts of shade and colour also help make objects and surface space far more accessible and user friendly Objects or tools also need to be designed with simplicity in mind.

In the end, I was able to experience for at least an hour or two a "sliver" of what it's like to lose something we all take for granted. It's not an experience I'll soon forget. Lenka Svobodova says her work it is a "humbling", and I think it's easy to understand why.

"Of course it's very difficult because we start in hospitals sometimes because we cooperate with an eye clinic here in Prague and we can get a phone call from doctors about a client who after an operation will no longer see. We have to immediately go there an introduce ourselves. So, what I think is important on my work is that it's useful at least for some people."