In a world dominated by visual excess, there are lessons to be learned from those without sight
By Christopher Udemans
I have never been afraid of the dark. Irrational fear has always fascinated me. As a child I would always look on in amused bewilderment at other kids who would tell stories about the things that would go bump in the night. To me, the idea that something was hiding under my bed or making itself at home in the depths of my closet was a puerile one.
Surely the unholy abominations that walked the earth had better things to do than to single me out just to inhabit my dreams?
Fast-forward twenty years. I find myself walking down a busy street in complete darkness. I am engulfed in sound. Cars sprint past me unseen. The inclement timbre of their accelerating engines allows me to stay out of their path. I hear dogs barking ahead. Although in my present state, they sound like wolves
My hands are sweating. I am alert. The adrenaline kicks in. Fight or flight? Unfortunately flight is out of the question. I might get hit by one of the unseen mechanical monsters should I make one wrong move.
It is the ultimate nightmare. Maybe my childhood friends were right. Maybe I should be afraid of the things that reside in the dark.
There is just one problem. I am fully conscious. More troublesome is the fact that it is 4 o’ clock on a Sunday afternoon.
“Stop crab walking”, I hear my teenage cousin say. She grabs my arm. “Chris, stay on the side of the road!”
If this was not a give away, the fact that my eye patches have started itching bring me back to reality.
I am blind. If only temporarily. Perhaps blind is not an apt description. I have obscured my eyesight with cheap orbital plasters in an attempt to better understand how those who lack sight interact with the world.
The challenge I face without taking a step out of the house is this: I have rendered myself physically blind. To do so mentally would be impossible. I am able to step into the shoes of a blind person but I do not own them. Wearing them is an unpleasant experience. They make me uncomfortable. They give me blisters.
“It is possible to emapthise with a blind person to a certain extent. If you blindfold yourself, it is not permanent. It is a temporary frustration”, says Sisanda Msekele, a post-graduate psychology student at Wits University.
Sisanda is an achiever. She has excelled at university and has managed to get further than most people her age. She is also a South African rower. What makes Sisanda so remarkable? She happens to be blind.
Blindness is not something that she has lived with for the duration of her life. Her story is a sad one.
When she was a teenager Sisanda suffered from Steven Johnson Syndrome, a rare skin disease that results from sensitivity to medication. While it has a relatively low mortality rate, it can cause blindness.
Her condition resulted from a reaction to sulphur in the medication that a doctor had prescribed for her. The medication resulted in Steven Johnson Syndrome, which in turn resulted in blindness.
All at eighteen years old.
Her words reverberate through my mind during my period of visual depravation. “It is a temporary frustration”. The prospect of permanent retinal damage disturbs me. I force myself to contemplate an existence without the most dominant of senses.
Let us take, for example, the simple task of waking up in the morning. As an individual with sight, we use the sun as a cue for the start of the day. The blind do not have that luxury.
I had contemplated setting my alarm the night before but decided against it. I wanted to see if I was able to use my remaining senses to determine whether it was time to rise or not.
I woke up at an hour that was unknown to me. I couldn’t see a thing. My eyes didn’t work. Panic ensued. I grabbed at my face trying to understand what was happening. It took me a few seconds to become cognisant of the situation I had put myself in.
After calming myself down I became conscious of something that I had not noticed in all three months I have been waking up in Stellenbosch. Although I could not see them, birds could be heard outside my window. It is the knowledge I had gained from being able to see that allowed me to come to the conclusion that birds come out at sunrise.
I was using my ears. Along with my brain. For a short moment I thought something miraculous was happening.
Before I undertook living as if I was blind I had done my research. Studies had shown that a blind peoples remaining senses make up for the fact that he or she is blind. Their sense of smell improves. More importantly, so does their hearing! Could it be happening this quickly? I immediately came to my senses. Don’t be stupid Chris.
As the day progressed I realised that waking up was to be the easiest part of my day. Taking a shower, brushing my teeth, even more troublesome – using the toilet turned out to be tasks in themselves. I did find consolation in the fact that I didn’t need to put in my contact lenses.
In an effort to place yourself in space when you do not have the luxury of sight you are forced to aspects of your environment that would otherwise go unnoticed. The sound of someone pulling out a chair from beneath a desk, a door opening and closing or the sound of footsteps all form pieces of a greater puzzle.
The same can be said for personal interactions.
“You learn to pay attention to the small details and appreciate people for who they really are. You learn to tell whether someone is sincere using the sound of their voice,” says Sisanda.
The inescapable fact about blindness is that it is terrifying. This cannot be denied. It plays on the age-old fear of the unknown and the part of the human psyche that allows for the creation of superstition. However, it has the ability to humble even the most arrogant of souls, forcing one to use their ears and passing judgment according the merit of a conversation or the empathy of the speaker.