Archive for the ‘Blind Learning’ Category

Smelling my way through the store.

There is a myth that when you lose your vision, your other senses get heightened. It’s bullshit.


I’ve become keenly aware of the things that I already knew but never thought about before, like smells. From scents to odors we have an incredible olfactory vocabulary and memory. This isn’t really news. There have been tons of studies showing how certain smells can trigger memories and emotions. Casino owners and real estate agents have known this for years.

But it works in little ways, too.

Recently I traveled around North Texas. At one point in my trip my plans changed twice in one day. Short version: I was 100 miles from my luggage and alone at the intersection of a highway I’d heard of and one I haven’t. Luckily, at this intersection was a Target. (Thank you, iPhone!)

I wandered inside and my pupils slammed shut. The circle I view the world through shrank and got blurry. Great timing. At least I wasn’t crossing the highway again.

I needed deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes.

I walked around, and then I smelled it. The feminine hygiene isle. That isle has a distinctive scent. Similar to (but not the same as) the Baby Needs isle. Then there’s shampoos! I was getting closer! Then, boom, deodorant. I felt like Toucan Sam.

Just follow your nose! It always knows!

Toothpaste and toothbrushes were right around the corner. I didn’t have as good of luck smelling my way through the men’s department, but I figured three out of four ain’t bad and my ride will be here soon.

I paid for my bounty, made my way outside and found a bench. When my friend arrived he BUSTED out laughing because – apparently – the bench I found was right in front of an eye clinic and the people working inside looked unthrilled. (Oops! HA!!)

Since then, I’ve been smelling my way through the grocery store. Pet food, auto parts, school/office supplies, even canned goods have a smell. And the weird part is: I already knew that.

I’ve even gotten my wife to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to catch a scent on the wind. It’s a fun way to find new restaurants and I highly recommend it to everyone – including the sighted.

Screw Yelp! Just follow your nose.


I’ve always been bad with names, now I’m bad with faces too.

I never felt bad in the past about forgetting people’s names because NO ONE ever remembered mine. As a person I’m memorable enough, but my name just doesn’t stick. I get called every name but my own. I’ve gotten “Chris” and “Steve”, “Charles” and “Darryl”, and (sigh) “Jose” and “Carlos”.

When I started writing and working in stage/film, I started using pseudonyms. You know what? They stuck. I was never attempting to fool anyone – they often knew my real name as well – but when word gets out that you want to be credited as “Dirk Stairfighter” people take notice.

But even then, my real name got forgotten. I considered it Karma because I have never been able to hold a person’s name in my head before meeting them three times.

If a name is important, I write it down or I say it in my head a zillion times.

Hi James. Nice to meet you James. Would you like a drink, James? Perhaps in a James glass as you sit on your James stool. You, James – yes you, James, will have James’ drink because James is you. You’re James.

If I just meet you like a normal human and have a normal human conversation, by the time we say goodbye I’ve half-forgotten your name. …but at least I’m good with faces!! …or at least I was. Blindness has thrown a monkey wrench in my cover plan. Now, second and third meetings have gone from

Oh, geez! What was this guy’s name again?


I know this voice. Where do I know this voice from? …Dad? …God? …Darth Vader?

It’s led to some awkward conversations, especially if they have no idea that since out last meeting I’ve lost a ton of vision. It doesn’t help that I do all I can to appear sighted. (Yes, I know. I’m vain. We’ve covered this topic.)

A couple of weeks ago I went to a table reading and afterwards one of the actresses came up to me and said “Aren’t you going to say ‘Hi’?”. The first thing that popped into my head was

I knew I knew that voice!

I’d been listening to her act for 90 minutes and even heard her name, but until she spoke directly to me (as herself and not her character) I wasn’t sure if I knew her or not.

I quickly explained that I couldn’t really see her, but recognized her voice. Then I cracked a couple of blind jokes to let her know it’s cool that life sometimes throws you curveballs and that there are upsides to everything – even crappy things like going blind. I am learning so much about the world, about industrial design, about human nature, and that the rule The Only Real Limits Are The Ones You Put On Yourself still applies.

Then we caught up like any other colleagues. It was nice to “see” her again.

As we parted, I gave her my card. I did it partially because I’d hoped she’s keep in contact and partially because she never actually called me by name.

Details, Details, Details, Part One.

The other day I had a Great Idea.

This idea was inspired in equal parts by Red Bull’s Flugtag events and by Burt Reynold’s The Cannonball Run.

I imagine an event that is fun for those involved and for those watching.

I hope to inspire engineering students, psychology students, smartphone programmers, sports gear makers, and possibly even a beverage vendor to be excited to be a part of this event.

The pie-in-the-sky version of this plan includes not asking for permission from the city.

When I say this to people, the reaction I most often get is: “But there are safety issues!” to which I reply: Exactly. If it’s not adequate for the blindfolded, it’s not adequate for the blind. Why not make a political statement while doing real-world research and raising awareness?

However, on a nuts-and-blots level, this is about: 1. making improvements to our city, and 2. pushing the state of the art of assistive technology and gear forward. Everything should support these goals, so if I have to ask for permission, so be it.

What needs to be done:

1. A Name

Also a tagline, a logo, and other design sundry. This will be most people’s first impression of this, so it has to send the right message and have the right feel. Done well, we can raise awareness and have a great turnout.

Done poorly, you can get mocked on YourLogoMakesMeBarf.

In other words, we need good branding. Oh, yeah! We’re going to need web space and a domain…

2. We need to decide on a maximum size.

I know, I know. I should be so lucky that I’m having to turn people away. Unfortunately, in order to plan a lot of the logistics we need to be able to tell people that we won’t go above X number of people. This isn’t just the participants, this also includes their helpers, our crew, and press too.

3. We need to decide on the Start/End locations.

It has to big enough for everybody, it has to be easy to find, and ideally it should have nearby parking and should allow us to hang banners and post fliers. Also: the end location should be roughly 10K from the start location, duh.

4. I need to get someone else so this “we” business doesn’t sound so pretentious.

Consider this my official call for help and input. So far, I have two artists on board. It’s a start. I’ll be talking with a reporter this week. Also, I wrote to the group in Utah that held a similar event this weekend.

5. We need to write the liability waiver.

If you step off a curb in front of a bus because there is no bell to announce WALK/DON’T WALK I’d prefer it become a matter of the city’s insurance than with mine.

6. We need to write the Post-Walk Questionnaire.

What’s the point if we don’t learn from this? I need to find people who know what we should ask. Also contact statisticians, behavioral psychologists, biology students, traffic analysts, and anyone else who may want to learn from our focus group.

7. We need a tax attorney.

I don’t want to bother with the hell of becoming a 501(c)3 in time and I don’t want to be at the mercy of someone who is. We are officially a “not for excessive profit” group. We’re not in it for the money, but we need to pay the bills and our taxes.

8. We need an accountant.

Someone with experience in something that resembles this project.

9. We need to draw up a budget.

You can’t just “wing it” on something this big.

10. We need to work out the crew plan at both ends.

I repeat: You can’t just “wing it” on something this big.

11. We need to officially invite the authors of all turn-by-tun navigation apps to submit an app for step-by-step gps/gyro navigation system for the blind.

Is there an app for that? Why not?

12. We need contact makers of sports equipment, medical equipment, and accessibility gear for sponsorships.

Stress medical equipment profitability and government paybacks.

13. Find friends in the tech press to publicize the fact that we will not be getting permits and to make first call for participants.

Stress how non-visual navigation can be used underwater, in caves, while climbing mountains, and in wartime situations. Get the geeks excited about the techhy possibilities.

14. Contact lighthouse for the blind, ask for “loaner white canes”.

It is unreasonable to ask participants to purchase a cane. Also contact white cane day people, the “blind press” (whatever that is), local press, etc.

15. Get a beverage sponsor.

Also see if we can get freebies from the sports/health gear people to give as prizes.

….and this is just the “before we get started” to do list.

The key to this plan’s success, like any project this size, is to get certain groups of people excited about the project for completely different reasons, and at completely different times.

Now is the time for “Blue Skying it”. Put your thoughts in the comments. Watch these videos for inspiration.

(Ignore the first 35 seconds of the second video. Please.)

Great Minds Think Alike: Blind Walk This Saturday

The Utah Foundation For The Blind is doing an experiment this Saturday called “Walk With The Blind“. It is similar to the idea I posed about last week.

Check it out.

Thanks to Becky for the links.

Edit: Another one, this one in Boston! The Vision 5K.

A Walk In Our Shoes – A Blindfolded 10K Adventure

This idea is still in it’s VERY EARLY stages. All names/dates/times/locations/details are simply placeholders and are subject to change.

The 1st Annual “In Our Shoes” 10K Walk

Raising awareness of our city’s accessibility level and the state of assistive technology for the blind.

A real-world-situation walk with no set path to the finish line… blindfolded. Also, the finish line is a secret until the walk begins. The idea is for the participants to be mixed in the crowds on the street, and experience the world without vision. Participate solo or in pairs.

To have fun, raise awareness, and foster changes that allow the blind and visually impaired to independently move around our city more easily. It’s also a way to bring attention to new assistive tech gear, test its usability in real-world situations, and push the state of the art forward.

Each participant will approach the starting line one at a time. After you affix your blindfold, your left hand will be placed on a time clock and a time card will be placed in your right hand. As soon as you clock in, you will be told the address of the finish line. You and a non-blindfolded spotter will leave the area and the next participant will queue up.

There will be winners in 4 categories, based on shortest travel time:
1. Sighted, Solo
2. Sighted, Pair
3. Blind/Visually Impaired, Solo
4. Blind/Visually Impaired, Pair

Everyone who makes it to the finish line will get a certificate of participation.

The finish line will be between 8K and 10K away. No matter which path you take, you will travel roughly the same distance north-to-south as you will east-to-west.

Your spotter will be recording your trek on video. You cannot ask your spotter for help or to remind you of the address of the finish line. He/she will only speak to (or grab) you if you are in immediate physical danger.

You are allowed (encouraged even) to use any and all assistive technology available. You are not allowed to have a guide dog, or guide monkey, or guide human, or any other guide creature, This walk is to promote accessibility/mobility independent of other living beings. There is one exception: You are free to talk to people on the street and if you are participating as a pair you can talk to one another.

Pre- and Post-
Before the walk there is a giant disclaimer, and after the walk is a questionnaire. If you are among those who may be winners, you will be asked to submit your video for verification. Peeking will not disqualify you, but there will be severe time penalties.

OK, so that’s the idea (minus a lot of the small print).


In Seattle and want to help make it a reality?

Not in Seattle and still want to help?

I’ll need help designing posters, T-Shirts, web sites, and banners. I need to be connected with organizations that could stand to mutually benefit from our awareness campaign. I need to be made aware of the legal land-mines ahead. etc. etc.

Anyone know a local celebrity or sports figure that could participate and bring in national coverage?

E-mail me:

EDIT: Continued in “Details, Details, Details, Part One —->

Neurosis: Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t

When I leave the house without my cane, I feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m pretending that I can see the ground in front of me and that crossing the street doesn’t terrify me.

When I leave the house with my cane, I feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m pretending that I can’t see shapes, colors, movement and (gasp!) print.

I’m neurotic about everything else, why should this be different?

What’s in a name?
I think I’m getting hung up on the label.

When darkness fell this summer (and I had no idea if my sight would return), I immediately thought of myself as blind and found the term “visually impaired” silly, overly-sensitive, and consisting of entirely too many syllables.

Now that I can read a book and (sort of) walk without a cane, it doesn’t seem so silly anymore.

This summer I was BLIND, but now I just have a big blind spot. Referring to myself as “blind” seems disingenuous. I think I’m more comfortable with calling myself “visually impaired” – but still get weirded out if someone else calls me that.

Why? Is my ego THAT fragile? Don’t answer that.

Dark Glasses: My New Love/Hate Relationship
I can see better at night with my dark glasses on. They aren’t tinted very dark, so they help reduce glare day and night. Unfortunately, I’m beginning to feel like a walking stereotype when I wear them at night… so I’ve been taking them off.

I’m willing to walk around with glare in my eyes and trip over every rise in the sidewalk just to prove how unblind I am to strangers who have no idea that I have a vision situation at all.

THAT’S healthy.

What is with the Ray Charles/Stevie Wonder head thing?
Ok, I’m doing it because my neck is sore and my eyes are tired – but if I catch myself I freeze and stand/sit up straight and tall. Then I scan the room to see if anyone saw me.

Why am I doing that? What is UP with that?

…and why don’t I feel stupid doing it without the dark glasses and white cane? It’s a pretty un-cool head gesture. Like Max Headroom or Wm. F. Buckley Jr. my head is just kinda bouncing around.

Infants have better neck control.

Sometimes I’ll wear my white iPhone headphones so people think I’m rockin’ out.

Yep. I’m foolin’ everyone. I’m so smart.

Thank You, Mr. Pryor
I had a chance to catch See No Evil Hear No Evil on YouTube the other day. It’s a silly/stupid comedy with a razor-thin plot but I love both Gene “Young Frankenstein” Wilder and Richard “Brewster’s Millions” Pryor* so it’s easy to forgive them.

The whole first ten minutes felt entirely too familiar. I am BOTH of these characters. Holy crap.

Luckily, it devolved into the over-the-top stereotyping and whacky totally-implausable situations I was hoping for. Then, halfway through the movie, I identified waaay too much with this scene:

When slapstick comedies are imitating life, you’re acting like a stooge.

* (OK, Blazing Saddles and Here and Now were funnier, but I was going PG rated)

I don’t FEEL blind, why do I need this cane?

OK, I’m back to staring at my feet instead of using my cane. It’s the losing-vision equivalent of the combover.

My ever-changing vision seems to have settled down into a “blind from the nose down, 20/20 from the nose up” situation. OK, it’s not as wide as normal vision, but it’s much wider than it ever was 2009. That’s the good news. The bad news: It looks (from my point of view) like I’m carrying a large box everywhere I go.

You know how it is when your arms are full. You can see in front of you, you can sorta see left to right – but the cat better not get in your way or else it’s getting stepped on. That’s how I see (as of this week).

Of course, my arms aren’t REALLY full, so I can point my face down and see the floor. So I’ve been doing that a little.

“As long as I keep this hair on the side and comb it over, I’ll never be bald!”
Am I telling myself “If I can walk without the cane, I’m not really blind anymore” ? I really hope not. If I come away from this year without learning a thing or two, then I’m a moron.

So, how are those Braille classes going?

Uhh… I haven’t been back to the class since that one time.

What about your O&M Training?

My wha…?

Orientation and Mobility.

What’s that?

That’s how you learn to get around.

I’ve just been teaching myself. Feeling the edges of curbs, listening for the quiet of traffic lulls.

It’s a freaking miracle you didn’t get run over. Why haven’t you taken classes?

I dunno. I taught myself to read, to ride a bike, to drive a car, to drive a stick shift, to shave, to breathe fire, to edit film, to cook, to rebuild a VW, to re-wire a house, to build a PC, how to program in BASIC and HTML… and if I remember the stories of my childhood correctly… how to walk the first time.

The way my mother tells it: I didn’t crawl, or even stand. I just sat and sat, and then one day (at around nine months old), I got up, walked across the room, took back a toy stolen from me by a cousin, and walked back to where I was sitting.

Knowing myself, I’m sure I was practicing walking in the other room when/where I could do it without being watched. I hate when people see me learning how to do things.

You’re a moron.

I know.