Close your eyes. Can you tell where you are? Do you know where your drink is, or how far away you are from the furniture? If you had no sight from this moment on how would you navigate daily activities?
It’s common knowledge that if one sense is dulled the other senses will compensate. What isn’t common knowledge is that there are more than 5 senses. The other two senses are used just as often, help you from running into everything, and tell you where you are in relation to other objects. Without even fully understanding what your senses are doing your body would react.
Sight, of course you would use what vision you have. Even the completely blind respond to light, in most cases. It is everywhere and can be pretty excessive. Think of the grocery story, all that light from every direction. This is also a reason why you see many visually impaired or blind people wearing sunglasses. Too much light can diminish what sight they have, or overwhelm this sense. Think of a beautiful sunny day after a large snow storm, the glare from the snow can be so blinding it hurts to even open your eyes. Over-stimulation can be painful and affect your vision.
If you were blinded suddenly you would automatically try to listen closely. It’s a natural reaction to turn your ears outward. You can glean a lot of information if you know what you’re listening for. You could infer the time of day and what activities are taking place. You could get a good sense of where you are if you’re familiar with what you’re listening to. Audio input is constant and is rarely turned down. Unlike the volume on your tv the outside world is always noisy. Audio over-stimulation is probably the most common sensory attack.
Like any child his age Ollie likes to wander off. He doesn’t have the confidence to go far but if he can’t see us within his immediate range of vision he gets pretty scared. We have always reassured him by telling him where we are. He would turn or look a little left and see us. As he gained his independence and walked more on his own he tested the boundaries. We found that during loud and busy public periods he couldn’t focus on our voices to give him direction. He would get overwhelmed and scared pretty quickly. All of that audio input made it hard to focus in on just one or two voices.
Smell can be a surprisingly helpful indicator for where you are. One of the easiest ways to tell who you are with if you don’t hear their voice is by smell. Imagine how trusting you would be without seeing what food you were eating. Smell reinforces and provides a confident way to rely on safe foods.
Taste is probably the least used because it takes the most confidence. You wouldn’t lick a wall to tell where you are. You’re only likely to taste something once every other sense has confirmed the safety and desirability for the item. This is where texture can matter a great deal. Your eyes inform instantly how much you desire the food you eat. Without the visual input you’re relying on smell alone. Trying foods without knowing whether it’s a pretzel or pudding can equal a pretty strong reaction.
Touch is fundamental to navigate anywhere once you’ve gained enough confidence to move. Turn off the lights at night before your eyes adjust and your hands reach out for the walls. You steady yourself and move through your house by memory. You may trip over a forgotten toy but overall you’re pretty sure of your movements. Touch helps fill in the gaps for diminished vision, from facial features, to learning an object.
This is all common sense, it’s probably how you imagined you’d get along. But if you use every one of those senses you’ll still run into the walls. You’d likely fall down a lot or trip over everything, notwithstanding teaching you mobility. What senses are you missing?
Vestibular sense is your body’s understanding of motion. Without your vision you’re walking a tight rope. You can’t assume that the step in front of you is really flat or right were you think it is. Vestibular is your ability to stop in time, or roll instead of fall. Your ability to sense the movement around you can save you from serious injury. This is also the reason you may crave movement, want to jump or run, instead of sit still. As an aside when your baby wants to hang upside down, he is trying to grow this sense, go ahead and flip him.
Proprioception is similar but is our sense of ourselves in relation to objects and balance. This isn’t your depth perception but your bodies knowledge of the proximity of objects. When someone stands really close to you and you can feel them in your space, you’re using this sense. When you almost run into the wall but move just in time out of the way, it’s this sense. Your ability to stop and move in relation to the things around you is proprioception. A lot of what we attribute to muscle memory is just a well developed sense of proprioception.
If you were blinded from here on, you would certainly need a larger foundation to have the confidence for mobility. But understanding your senses and how to use them would help you establish that confidence. Would you be willing to just step off and walk without any knowledge of the ground or the destination? It’s a terrifying concept to be mobile without sight. Mobility and Orientation instructors do not help you develop these senses.
There is an entire team: occupational therapists for hearing/touch/taste. Physical therapists for proprioception and vestibular exercises. A Teacher of the Visually Impaired will help with maximizing vision. You’ll also need a great Pediatric Ophthalmologist to define the field and range of vision (for children).
As you can see it takes a village. It also takes a while to teach someone visually impaired how to uses these senses. Oliver is completely capable of walking or running, but without confidence in his vision or surroundings he loses that confidence. His cane provides that extension of vision and security.