by Richard Holloway
It is often said that 80 percent of all learning is visual. For a totally blind child, however, 100 percent of learning occurs nonvisually. Given plenty of opportunities for hands-on exploration, a blind child can acquire most of the information about the world that sighted children possess. In this article, Richard Holloway describes how he helped his blind daughter, Kendra, fill in some important information gaps.
“Dad, do we have a plunger?” my daughter asked one afternoon. “Where’s the plunger?”
I was a little concerned. Why would my eight-year-old daughter possibly need a plunger, after all? This just couldn’t be good!
“I want to know what a plunger feels like!” she explained.
Wow! I had done it again. I pride myself on describing the visual world to my blind daughter, but there it was–another little hole in her understanding. Did we have a plunger? Sure. Was I going to let her explore it with her hands? Well, no, that didn’t seem the best plan. You might find ours to be as well-washed as any slightly used plunger anywhere, but I’m not going to put it into a child’s hands for tactile exploration. “I’m sorry,” I said, “we don’t have a plunger that you can touch. It isn’t clean enough. But what if I take you to the store and let you explore a new, clean plunger?”
Kendra was delighted with the idea. That’s how I came to take her on her first Home Depot expedition.
There was nothing I needed to buy. This was an outing of exploration, a true quest for knowledge. We made our way to Home Depot’s plumbing aisle. Not only did Kendra get to look at a plunger. She soon learned that there are different styles of plungers, made from different materials, and that they come in various sizes. She was fascinated and full of questions.
After a while we moved on. I had blocked several hours of the day for this outing, just in case. Where should we head next? Toilet seats! There was an entire wall of them only a few feet away. Standard length, elongated, with lids, without lids, plastic, wooden, hard, padded, even some with a cutout in front–which prompted another whole discussion! The greatest fascination for my daughter was why the seats were arranged vertically on the wall that way. I began to realize how much information she was missing, information that most kids pick up without any special effort on anyone’s part.
What about whole toilets? We have never encouraged Kendra to explore toilets with her hands, but brand-new ones are as clean as anything else in a store. We checked out the toilets, then moved on to tubs and showers. Next we found sinks for both the bathroom and the kitchen.
Before long, we had examined all the plumbing supplies we could find. We began to roam the store’s other aisles. Appliances, Carpet and Flooring, Lumber, Fencing, Landscape. Kendra hates the noise of lawnmowers and other loud machines. In the store she understood that they were turned off and would make no frightening sounds, so she explored them freely.
Kendra seemed to enjoy hardware a lot, too. She was fascinated to learn how small and how large nuts and bolts can be. Tools were also fun. The many shapes and sizes of hand tools and power tools were quite new to her.
The Home Depot outing left me exhausted. It involved several hours of intense describing and explaining, but the effort was well worthwhile. Not long after that Kendra had a question about shoes for sports. The concept of cleats seemed bizarre to her. We headed to Sports Authority and went straight to the shoe racks. I showed her baseball cleats, soccer cleats, football cleats, turf shoes, golf shoes, and any other unusual shoes I could find. I also let her explore more conventional tennis shoes so she could compare them to basketball shoes and running shoes.
Many questions followed, and ideas started popping into my head. Did Kendra have any idea that a baseball glove is a giant oversized thing nothing like the gloves she’d seen before? Did she know that there are different kinds of gloves for baseball and softball? Had she ever heard of a catcher’s mitt? Did she know what a wooden bat was like compared to an aluminum bat?
We explored baseballs, softballs, and footballs. Kendra was surprised to learn that some balls aren’t even round! She wondered why some balls have laces or seams. How many kinds of balls were there? We found tennis balls, soccer balls, golf balls, and bowling balls. We compared inline skates with roller skates. We noticed that skateboard wheels felt a lot like skate wheels. We compared different kinds of life preservers and various wet suits. We found the weights department and felt weights from one pound up to twenty pounds or more, one pound at a time. We compared the shapes of the weights and how hard they were to lift. We examined barbells, dumbbells, ankle weights, and free weights. Who knew there were so many kinds of weights to choose from? I could sense the wheels turning in Kendra’s mind. Pieces were coming together for her about a lot of things.
Since then, we’ve made trips to a lot of different stores. Bass Pro Shops was especially interesting, with row after row of boating and camping supplies. In the boating area Kendra learned what an anchor is like. She discovered that anchors come in assorted designs and sizes. Outboard motors, too, come in a wide range of sizes. We examined little electric motors and gas engines from two horsepower up to 350. My five-year-old son could just about lift the smallest engines, but the big ones are over seven feet tall and weigh over 800 pounds. Fortunately, the store had a rack with at least a dozen engines of various sizes for Kendra to touch and compare. I took her to the back of a boat with a 350-HP engine. She studied it from the ground up. It was taller than she could reach, so I lifted her on my shoulders until she could touch the very top.
We’ve searched the auto parts store for all things automotive. We’ve compared many wheels and tires at a tire store. They come in lots of sizes, but the different tread patterns on tires seem to be the most interesting feature. We’ve explored all sorts of electronics at stores such as Best Buy and Fry’s, though feeling the internal parts of an old junk computer at home seemed to be more interesting than exploring new machines on display.
It may be easier and faster to get through the supermarket if we don’t discuss every item on each shelf. However, when time allows, grocery shopping certainly can be a fascinating opportunity. We’ve found a lot to explore in the produce section–that’s one part of the store where most of the products are out in the open, not encased in plastic wrappings or cardboard boxes.
When Kendra was six years old, we took her with us to pick out a Christmas tree. Kendra helped us make our selection, so she knew what the tree looked like. As we drove home, Kendra wondered aloud where we had put the tree; she knew there was no room for it inside our van. Where did the tree go? How did it fit?
“We put the tree on the roof of the van,” I explained. I showed her the roof from the inside and said the tree was on top of that.
My answer didn’t seem to help much. “How can it be outside the car?” Kendra asked.
As soon as we got home, I grabbed a ladder. I invited Kendra to climb up as I stood behind her. Standing on the top rung didn’t help a lot either. A sighted person can easily see the entire roof of a van from a ladder, but only a small portion was within Kendra’s reach.
Finally I guided Kendra to move from the ladder onto the roof of the van. She sat and explored all she wanted. The tree was still tied to the roof rack, so she could find out how it stayed on in the wind. I remembered the little pocket camera on my belt and snapped a quick photo. I still smile when I see that picture, thinking of that day and that moment of learning.
Perhaps my daughter is not quite old enough yet, but I think we’re not far from a walk on the roof of our house. A model of a house would be a great learning tool, of course. But if she can explore the roof safely, there’s nothing like firsthand experience!
Closer to the ground, we’ve examined a lot of plants over the years. As a gardening enthusiast, I’ve maintained a sensory garden with interesting plants that have distinctive textures and scents. When she was quite young, Kendra enjoyed having a number of interesting (and relatively safe) plants to explore. They were all within reach from one location that she thought of as hers.
Since Kendra came into our lives, Santa seems to bring us more things to explore, such as extra musical instruments. We have acquired a variety of ukuleles, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, a small harp, and even a drum set. We also have some unusual pieces, such as a Native American flute; a jaw harp; and a kalimba, or African thumb piano. We even have a Theremin, the only electronic instrument you play without touching it. You vary the sounds by moving your hands closer or further from a pair of antennae.
I’ve bought these instruments because nothing beats unlimited exploration time. We’ve also taken quite a few trips to large music stores such as Guitar Center, where we can roam the aisles for free. In a music store you can explore hundreds of instruments under one roof. They also have plenty of recording gear and PA equipment, always a great fascination to my child. She especially loves all the faders and knobs on audio consoles.
Last summer, on the way to the NFB convention in Dallas, we stopped overnight in Vicksburg, Mississippi. As we headed out in the morning, I saw some Civil War cannons in front of the hotel. Kendra was curious. We didn’t hesitate to delay our departure. She got out of the car and felt all the parts of a cannon or two.
Chances to supply missing information are almost everywhere. We’ve found many of them close to home. Not long ago Kendra’s cane bumped into a guy wire at the edge of our front yard. We had passed within inches of that wire hundreds of times. Actually, we made a pointed effort to avoid it. It was a trip hazard, after all. Kendra had no idea that the wire was there, but one day she found it with her cane. What was it for? “It helps hold up the phone pole,” I explained. I anticipated the next question, “What’s a phone pole?” There it was again, information that Kendra’s sighted peers took for granted. My explanation led to details about how electricity and cable TV, phone service and the Internet get into our home. “What about water?” No, water comes through pipes underground. In some places, power and phone lines also run underground, and there are no poles.
On a drive soon after this discussion, I spent several minutes telling Kendra every time we passed a phone pole. She couldn’t believe there were so many of them. I realized how many other things we passed while she was unaware. From time to time I’d pick something else to tell her about in quantity as well as specific detail–houses and traffic lights, for example.
Some things, such as traffic lights, are hard to explore hands-on. I’ve bought some decommissioned traffic lights for a playhouse I built, so they were available for Kendra to touch. As parents we’ve had to be creative and proactive to provide Kendra with opportunities to examine things tactilely. Still, hands-on exploration is so valuable that it is truly worth the effort. We have learned a lot together, but a great deal remains for us to explore. This learning process is never really finished.
What, you may ask, does Kendra consider the most meaningful of all these adventures? Home Depot, she will say, without a doubt. At the end of that first adventure she talked me into buying her–you guessed it–her very own plunger! It is a joy to watch our daughter discover the world in her own unique style!