Walking At Night

Tonight I’m walking home through our lanes. It’s just stopped raining, and I come to a kind of T junction, and as I near it I can hear footsteps.

But when I emerge at the junction nobody is there. I can still hear the footsteps coming closer, as though a ghost approaching.

Now—vaguely scared—I’m scanning from side to side to locate the origin of the phantom footfalls, and for several seconds I’m bewildered.

Then suddenly I can see someone after all. They were in my blind spot and as I tried to locate them my eye movements got it wrong. I skipped too far. But now my radar is locked on, I no longer have any difficulty.

Throughout I have absolutely no inward experience of blindness. Over the two years since I had a stroke I’ve learned to compensate very well, and the remarkable ability of our brains to paper over the cracks means I hardly ever now feel I can’t see things.

But although the cracks don’t bother me, they are still just as wide as ever. And that’s why it would never be safe for me to drive, and I have to be really careful when moving about in busy spaces. I need to watch where I put things down too, in case they mysteriously vanish. And I would be terrible on a glacier.

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Oliver Sacks

More sad news. Oliver Sacks has just died. There is a moving TED blog here.

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A Messenger from Inside

John Hull wrote “Touching the Rock”.

If you want to feel blindness, read this book. We can never understand anything by covering our eyes.

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The Blind Composer of the Concierto de Aranjuez

Joaquin Rodrigo wrote the most famous guitar ever.

Listen to the rendition below. You will recognize it. It has a wistfulness that sounds like a new morning, and an old place.

The composer of this was blind. I had no idea until listening to the radio two days ago. At 3 years he had diphtheria. Blindness is a rare outcome but Rodrigo suffered it.

Reader, it’s possible you have never heard of this disease. It was feared by every parent in the generation before me. A hundred years ago there were 50,000 cases of diphtheria in the UK each year and of them 5000 died, mostly the children.

But vaccination has made diphtheria rare in developed countries. This graph is from a group at Oxford University

Luckily I and my brothers were born after 1942, when the diphtheria vaccination program was introduced where we lived. You see how my parents were released from one deadly fear (althoughthere were many others of course), and why they thought (and I think) everyone should be vaccinated.

But more than 70 years later we still have work to do world wide and if am honest I feel ashamed about it. Why do we not help developing countries more with health care? Who can tell me?

However this post is not about diphtheria, it’s about a blind composer. How did Rodrigo work?

If you look him up, he wrote in Braille, but dictated his music to a sighted helper. I couldn’t follow this at first. I knew there is a Braille musical notation (invented by Louis Braille himself still a teenager at the time) but I was not sure how Braille is written or how Rodrigo and his collaborator worked and was puzzled at first.

After thought and research I see that Rodrigo (who was an accomplished pianist) probably composed at the keyboard, as I imagine most classical composers do. Then he wrote what he’d got down, and revised it as necessary.

But then he had to get the music from Braille into the non-Braille world. That’s where the dictation came in. He read his notes aloud from his Braille version, note by note, and they were transcribed into musical notation for the sighted.

This whole question of how to compose music, if you are blind, never properly occurred to me before. A chance hearing on a radio channel made me realize yet again how little I knew. I’m less ignorant now, but I’ll write more about music and Braille in another post.

Joaquin Rodrigo lived to be 99. Astonishingly, when researching for this post, I found a recorded interview with the composer


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Blind Voters

The UK parliamentary elections are just four days off.

How can blind people mark their ballot slips on the 7 May?

For most of my voting life I never gave this the slightest scrap of thought, but my recent experience of becoming partially sighted prompted me to do some investigation.

Suppose you are not just partially sighted, but blind. You could have a postal vote of course, but suppose you prefer to vote at the polling station. How can you fill in the ballot paper?

One solution is to vote by proxy, with the aid of a companion, or a member of staff at the polling station. But there is an issue of independence and autonomy. So how can blind voters be enable to mark the paper for themselves?

Even for sighted people the business of voting is mildly intimidating – don’t you think? – and if you are totally blind it must be a big challenge.

In 2001 an effective and easy to use system was developed by Goodwin. It’s a nice example of keeping it simple, sensible.

Here’s how it works. At the polling station they have plastic strips that can be stuck over the right-hand side of the ballot slip, the column where you would make your X in one of the boxes.

The strip is like a tiny advent calendar, with windows that peel back. Each reveals a box where you can make a mark to vote for a particular candidate. The windows are numbered 1, 2, 3 etc. and embossed with their number, which is also given in Braille. Tactile voting. You can feel where to put your cross.

You tell the staff at the polling station you are blind. They stick the strip on the right-hand side of your ballot slip. Then someone – I think it can be anyone you choose – reads the names and other details of the candidates out to you in order. You remember what number candidate you want to vote for, go into the booth, find the right window by touch, peel it back, and… make your mark in the right spot.

I think this a model example of good design that focuses on the user experience. Too often design is driven by visual appeal as opposed to good functionality. But visual appeal cuts little ice with the blind!

For more about sight loss and voting see here.

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Crossing the Bridge: Fear of Tumbling

I’m not scared of crossing bridges as such. Just footbridges, and especially this one. It’s at my local railway station and I need to go over it to get to London.

photo (2)

There’s a specific anxiety disorder concerned with crossing bridges. Many people suffer badly from gephyrophobia. They fear the bridge may collapse. This can be severe and is quite common, so it turns out some bridges in the world offer a service to drive your car across for you (although I was puzzled how you then cross yourself).

My fear is different and more trivial altogether. I’m anxious that it may be me that collapses. Loses grip, tumbles down the steps, ends up a limp bag of bones at the bottom. It’s very unlikely to happen, but this vision makes me feel a bit dizzy on the bridge.

My sense of balance has always been below par and I think I’ve relied a lot on vision to stop me falling over. This has probably contributed the fear of heights I have, because in high places your sense of balance becomes more important relative to vision, when it comes to maintaining equilibrium.

I’ve several times had panic attacks in high places. Once I had to be helped down from a mountain because I completely froze. I can recall the feeling. I just wanted God or a helicopter to lift me off.

My bridge is not a mountain but with age and stroke my balance has declined (and so has my vision). So I don’t like it. But I need to conquer the anxiety if I can

As you can see the bridge would be impassable for anyone in a wheelchair. This is an issue the local rail users group have been pursuing.

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Marl Twain and the Catching Reflex

Somewhere in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain there is a famous episode where Huck, a boy, masquerades as a girl. Wanting somewhere to stay, he is taken in by a Mrs Loftus, but after a while as they talk she is not taken in by him! To confirm her suspicions  about his gender she throws a ball into his lap and he instantly – too quickly for conscious thought – reacts by closing his legs.

A girl (Mark Twain reasons) would have had a different reaction: she would have spread her legs and caught the ball in her skirt. In the book Huck’s cover was blown by this shrewd test.

When I first read this, many years ago now, I was deeply impressed by Twain’s insight, and it remains a very compelling narrative. It shows how great Twain’s powers of observation, intuition and storytelling were. As a child I just thought : “Wow, that’s right” and I still think it’s very clever.

But is it true? The equation girls=skirts and boys=pants might have been substantially accurate in 19c America but even in that context the whole thing is questionable. Nowadays dress is not so rigid, and culturally and historically gender divisions have been very fluid. Even in times and places where girls were in skirts and boys pants, was Twain’s belief actually correct?

I don’t think there has every been any research, but I guess we could do some together. The next time something unexpectedly falls into your lap, post a comment to contribute to the experiment – did you catch, or try to catch it, and if so how?

Why did I write this? Walking back from my local tonight I had a lollipop in my mouth (bad for the teeth I know) and my hands were free. By accident I let the lollipop fall. Without thinking I caught it on the way down, bringing my hands together to clasp it accurately at roughly the level of my navel.

I was pleased I have still have such good reactions, but what interested me was that I had caught the lollipop in the safety net of my hands. I didn’t try to bring by legs together, or to spread them apart. Either would have caused me to fall over. Instead I cradled that lollipop in my (now sticky) hands!

Now isn’t that surprising , when you think of it? We have an unconscious reflex that can catch things we drop, on their way down. It knows if we are sitting or standing, and whether to use arms or legs, and it is remarkably good at estimating the acceleration due to gravity and predicting how to head a lollipop off at the navel, or a ball off at knee level. We can see into the immediate future remarkably well.

But if we are sitting, does it really act differently depending on whether we were brought up in skirts or trousers? Was Mark Twain just spinning a yarn? I’d love to know.

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