Fields of non-vision
An interview with Edyta Ołdak for the “Autoportret” quarterly.
authors - Edyta Ołdak, Marta Tomasiakimprint - Autoportret. Pismo o dobrej przestrzeni year - 2011
Marta Tomasiak: Do blind people dream in colour?
Edyta Ołdak: Blind people definitely find it hard to talk about their dreams or their colours. It is difficult to describe fields of non-vision if you don’t have a sense of light or you’ve never discovered what colour is. People who are not blind since birth may describe these fields of non-vision. As I was preparing for the Big Architecture for All Children project and working on the book, I reached out to Barbara Szymańska from the Audio Description Foundation, who herself is a sightless person currently involved in implementing audio description as a scientific aid for visually impaired people. I told her I wanted the book to be black. I had thought that black would not distract readers, helping them focus on the tactile message. This was meant to be a structural, tactile book, addressed to the seeing rather than unseeing part of the population. Barbara Szymańska talked me out of the idea. She said blind people did not actually see black - a lot of them did, but their fields of non-vision were generally very diverse. Depending on the weather or mood, the field of non-vision changes – even though the blind do not have a sense of light, so this is not caused by whether it’s sunny outside, for example.
I understood what a mistake it would have been to make the book in black - this colour would copy the ingrained stereotype that equates not seeing with seeing black. Black gives rise to negative associations: sadness, depression, all things grim. That’s when I asked Barbara to describe her fields of non-vision to me. Instead of greys or blacks, they turned out to be whites. When other colours do appear, they tend to be subtle clouds - like when light is decomposed or you see a rainbow. Or a light-brown, pulsating colour with sparkling, opalescent particles of gold. These colours most often appeared in descriptions - not just Barbara’s, because she approached a number of other persons and related their fields of non-vision to me. In our book, these graphic representations of fields of non-vision were presented in a flat, two-dimensional form. However, blind people mostly see three-dimensional spaces, where white is not just a flat piece of paper, but rather a sensation of bathing in white.
MT: I’m trying to picture these images, or rather the spaces you describe. I wonder how sightless persons’ imagination works. After all, the workshops touched upon something that is very hard to imagine: architecture.
EO: The workshops had a very specific purpose: they were supposed to be useful and helpful for the blind, to be informative and, by indicating fields of non-vision, introduce the seeing part of the population to the subject. They were meant to give tangible benefits to the blind: facilitate and teach spatial orientation, enable them to understand contemporary architecture and modern buildings.
In fact, I’m not sure whether anyone can say for certain whether a person that is blind from birth has a sense of perspective. Because, of course, you have tactile graphics, you have all the amazing teaching aids, people working in the field of spatial education, those who teach blind people about perspective and how a seeing person perceives the world in perspective. But nobody knows the extent to which someone who is blind from birth understands it. I think that any way to introduce such people to the theory of perspective, the vision that we have every day which, after all, is something completely natural to us (although we call it a ‘theory’) is good. Our actions thus had a specific objective - to demonstrate spatial vision.
MT: But isn’t translating how the blind perceive space into our way of perceiving it a simplification? Aren’t we impoverishing their vision of the world by trying to forcibly show their reality as seen through our eyes? Maybe because somewhere deep inside we feel that our world is better, more complete?
EO: The absence of discrimination involves treating people with disabilities as if they were non-disabled. Universal design stands for design in which both people with and without disabilities are seen as identical users of space. Since we are given the opportunity to see the world, with all its complexity and intricacy, we must make every effort to provide this possibility to a blind person too. Starting from simplifications, but still heading in a direction that would help them fully understand the world. Because we live in the same world. The world of the blind is not in any way different, it is the same as our world, only perceived and felt in a different way. And our common presence in the world entitles us to showing them this world as best we can.
MT: How was the idea born? I have the impression that initiatives addressed to blind people usually come out of their environment, directly from themselves.
EO: Before the project, I didn’t know a single blind person, I didn’t know this problem at all. Now, we have started yet another action to raise public awareness of blindness and visual impairment, and we have the third one up our sleeve, a very large and serious project also addressed to the blind.
Big Architecture for All Children responded to many needs. First, I noticed I had been afraid of the blind. These were the exact same words I heard this year at the Mini OSSA workshops, where I was teaching a class to a group of students. The subject was universal design, design for the blind. And it was exactly this sentence: “I’m afraid of the blind” that I heard from students. I wasn’t surprised at all. There’s nothing wrong with saying something like that, it’s not meant to be heartless. That sentence was uttered by a student who came to these workshops out of his own free will, came to design with such persons in mind. And what about us? Why are we afraid of them? Because until now, the blind have been excluded from society and from normal life. And, as we’re all perfectly aware, every problem can somehow be translated into our language if we become familiar with it and really get to the bottom of it. This was one of the major reasons. Another question: why architecture? I wanted to do an interesting project about the city for blind people. I think that the blind get to know the world mainly by touch, although not necessarily only so. But how to touch something that is huge, giant, that can’t be embraced with your fingers or arms? Hence the idea to present architecture to the blind. I was aware that contemporary architecture is a wonderful area of art and that blind persons should not be deprived of opportunities to discover its beauty.
MT: You’ve made a project for the blind - that was the first thought that came to my mind when I came across the Big Architecture for All Children initiative. But now I think that you also tackled the issue of familiarising oneself with the unknown, of introducing people without disabilities to problems concerning urban planning or architecture that are encountered by persons with disabilities. The project promotes methods used by the blind: tactile graphics and audio description.
EO: We shared tactile graphics and audio description not only with the blind, but also with the seeing. The blind probably made greater use of audio description, the radio play, because in our case, this technique was more detailed. Tactile graphics were probably not as useful to them, but they, in turn, were a fantastic way of showing seeing people how a blind person perceives a book, a piece of writing, print or illustration. In the United States, audio description is used as one of the key methods of teaching non-disabled children, not only blind children. Audio description is an amazing way to build imagination. If your imagination keeps up with the word that describes some form, it simultaneously constructs the corresponding image. This is such a great exercise that it was hailed as an educational method. In addition, the way in which reality is described also shapes the ability to select words, linguistic precision.
In Poland, there are two schools of audio description, the Białystok school chaired by the aforementioned Barbara Szymańska and Tomasz Strzemiński, and the second one, the Warsaw school that we relied on, chaired by Ula Budkiewicz. Of course, these two schools differ. When working with Ula Budkiewicz, we consulted her descriptions with children. According to the Białystok school, one should create raw descriptions that are free from emotional connotations. Raw descriptions that aptly build space - the space that the person receiving the description may then complete with their own associations and feelings. In turn, Ula Budkiewicz, who did the descriptions for us, let her imagination run wild. But we’re talking about audio description for children here, and we’ve established that nothing bores a child quite as much as a regular, dry description - it feels like a school trip. And this really worked, the kids were choosing descriptions where the building was similar to a square elephant, something that related to objects known to them.
The Braille alphabet, in turn, is a very old method of embossed print, which unfortunately is slowly disappearing. Nowadays, there are more and more audio books or books that may be read aloud. For example, you can flip any textbook through a scanner that converts text into a voice message. Studying has become easier for the blind, because they have access to more than just literature that had been translated into Braille. And Braille is disappearing. Maybe in schools for the blind children are learning the alphabet to read markings in elevators? And tactile graphics? These are two-dimensional drawings that show, for example, perspective or shape. Tactile graphics are still used.
MT: I can’t not ask about the result of the project. You brought together children that see and blind children. I wonder whether the project has changed the awareness of non-disabled children and what benefits it brought to the sightless ones.
EO: It’s hard for me to answer. The specificity of the workshops was that the very long, 4‑hour classes simply ended with the participants departing in a coach, where I was only able to wave them goodbye. Afterwards, I could have at most contacted the leaders of those groups. The non-disabled children who came to the workshops were familiar with the subject of disability, because they attended inclusive schools. Most of the blind children were moderately intellectually challenged. So you had teenagers at the development level of an eight- or nine-year-old, and they were meeting seeing children of that age.
Blind children were always happy to go out there in the world, happy about any contact with peers, with another human being. They simply must be pulled out of schools, which – although they can provide a lot of knowledge and help in spatial orientation – become useless if they limit themselves to education without hands-on experience. Modern schools for the blind begin to see this need and take their students out to meet people. I met the headmaster of the school in Laski, someone completely out of this world. He even flew with his blind students to Rome. Together with a colleague, an architect, they decided to take their students to a building site. And those children, in hard hats, were flying between some unfinished structural elements on the last floor of some office building in Warsaw. This is in a way an answer to your previous question - you really have to show these children everything.
At a later stage, our book reached children who didn’t attend the workshops at all. The circulation of the publication is 1000 copies, it was offered to teachers. Children had the opportunity to get to know the book in quite a different form. And from what I saw, although they didn’t participate in the workshops, they showed a lot of interest.
The most valuable thing is that the project enabled integration. An adult meeting a blind person usually takes on the attitude of compassion, something the blind do not want. At the workshops in Kraków, in conversations with the blind, it often turned out that this is something that annoys them the most, this attitude of unsolicited sympathy. Here the kids could simply say: “Wow! And you really can’t see?! Gee!”. A six- or a seven-year-old probably knows that the other one’s got it more difficult, but doesn’t feel pity. They’re just curious.
MT: There’s one more thing I think about in the context of the project. Wasn’t Big Architecture for All Children to some degree an initiative which was to popularise universal design? Or did it just happen along the way?
EO: This project was also addressed to architects. Maybe those who now visit the website of our project and who appreciate it will automatically begin to think of design for the blind. We described seven buildings in Warsaw that came out of five architectural studios and two of the architects met these children and talked to them. Maciej Miłobędzki from JEMS Architects turned out to be incredibly empathetic, although he didn’t have any academic background in dealing with blind children, particularly mentally handicapped blind children. He talked to the participants of the workshops, gave them tours and made them familiar with architecture, trying to tell them about everything. In fact, our project also had a third angle: to make architects aware of the problem.
MT: I guess it was also meant to teach how to feel architecture?
EO: We focused on everything that is not sight, i.e. each means of perception. We thought about how many ways there are to get to know architecture. Of course, there is the touch - so we touched things that were two-dimensional, things that were was three-dimensional, things that were huge; there is the word - and this is where audio description came to the rescue, finally, there’s the sound, the acoustics. I was amazed when children were making acoustic maps of buildings on the go. At the very end of the workshops we entered a building, and it was a very valuable experience for the children - how to locate oneself in contemporary architecture, understand its acoustics, its echolocation specifics. Blind children, and blind people in general, often use echolocation. During the workshop in Kraków, I talked to Lucyna Zalewska, who works on the theory of spatial orientation. She takes blind people to a recording studio to try out different construction materials for echolocation purposes. The result will be a diagram of more and less effective materials.
In addition to all this, apart from the words, sound and touch, there is a sixth sense that blind persons possess. The sense that makes them feel the atmosphere and the aura of the place. I feel this atmosphere, because my sight helps me. I walk in, I look around and I know straight away whether it’s an office building or a cosy attic. While visiting the Rodan building designed by Magdalena Staniszkis, we went to the garden at the back of the building that starts with some natural plantings and then changes into a meadow full of birch trees. And just as we were going outside and heading towards the garden, which could have been just another garden of conifers among concrete paving blocks, as is usually the case, as is commonly assumed in contemporary architecture - this one turned out to be different. The children went out and immediately said: “Ma’am, this feels like a summer house!”. And how did they know that, I don’t know. Blind children have that additional sense that is hard to unambiguously classify.