How Do Blind People Pick Their Socks?

It’s a serious question all right. Even I think about what my outfit looks like, everyone does. The most basic thing we might consider is color, but a blind (or color blind) person can’t be sure what color a garment is.

Technology comes to the rescue. When I visited the UK charity Cam Sight they showed me a color identifier, a dedicated assistive device. Point it at something and it speaks the color, ‘white’, red’, and so on.

I’ve not really tried this identifier, but of course – there’s an app for it! The insight is that the phone’s camera can be used to scan an object and then software can identify and then speak the color.

There are a number of apps, for iPhone and Android, some free, some paid-for. I downloaded some to try. They might help the blind, and they might help the color-blind. They are a demonstration of the wonderful versatility and potential of smart mobile devices.

But you may have guessed: it’s not all that simple.

The biggest problem that I found at once is that the app doesn’t have human vision. We see with the brain as well as the eye, as Oliver Sacks pointed out. So when I see a white object in reduced lighting, or colored light, I can often identify it as white. The app will report ‘grey’, or ‘pink’, because it can objectively observe, but not interpret. Humans can compensate for the lighting conditions and do so automatically.

There’s a commentary on this at The Blind Cook.

There are also lots of other issues which I hope to follow up (I have a big to-do list now!) So the machine intelligence for color identifications needs a lot of work, but the state of the art is already a huge benefit, and it can be steadily improved. Think of speech recognition, which is gradually getting there.

Apps like this might help the color blind, although it may be that those who have restricted color vision use other cues to tell colors apart. But anyone with totally monochromatic vision could find them valuable for some tasks I imagine.

In the emergency eye clinic I attended they gave me a color vision test. Why? Because the symptoms I reported pointed to stroke (since confirmed) and color vision might be lost as a result of a stroke.

So what would I see if stroke removed my color vision. The stereotype is ‘black and white vision’ but that cannot possibly be correct at an experiential level. Back to phone apps: there are ones that claim to simulate total color blindness but of course they just show only one color, in different shades.

I think this simulation is all wrong, like the one that shows the result of peripheral vision loss from brain damage as areas of blackness or even whiteness. The actual experience, and this is my best shot at conveying the quality of it (what philosophers would call its quale), is non-existence.

So I suppose that if I had lost my color vision as a result of my stroke, which I might have but luckily didn’t, it might be different from color blindness arising from the retina, but more like an unawareness of color. Yet still I suppose I would have a memory of ‘redness’ and so on. It’s very hard to understand.


About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
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