Sunday, September 09, 2007

Showing Stars to the Blind

I've got a pretty exciting/scary project at work these days. I'm redesigning experiments for a first year college student who is taking an astronomy course. What makes this unusual is that the student is blind.

Your first thought might be, "Why would a blind student want to study astronomy, which is so visually oriented?"

Your second thought should be, "Because she wants to understand what's out there, same as the rest of us."

It's probably even more intriguing for her because she's never seen the stars. They aren't something she can go touch, so she has to hear about them; thus, taking an astronomy course makes perfect sense.

What ties this in to writing is that typing up her lab manuals has proved to be a nifty exercise. I'm a very visual person myself, and I tend to over-emphasize the visual when I write fiction. For this student, however, I've had to invert my writing style. I have to actively avoid describing visuals.

So, when I talk about outer space, I don't bother describing what we see. I try to create a spatial image in her mind - a three-dimensional sense of how the stars are distributed through space. I describe the spectrum of colours in terms of texture. The way a refractor telescope works can be described in terms of rain falling on a noodle bowl and then bouncing away rather than pooling.

My analogy muscles are getting a heck of a workout. I sure hope it actually makes sense to her. I'm a bit scared; I see the student for the first time this upcoming week.

May I challenge you to a writing game? In the comments, in three hundred words or less, describe something so that it would make sense to a blind person. Really try to get inside their experience. They "see" the world as a space; they think about a room in terms of the distances between objects. Sunlight is heat. Water is resistance to motion.

Go for it. :-)

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