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“Blind Skills” You Didn’t Know You Had

When most people think of losing their vision, I imagine, after thinking of all the things they wouldn’t be able to do, the next thoughts are of how they could never learn to make the adjustment. To be sure, there is a learning curve in mastering Braille or mobility skills; but, believe it or not, some of the basics in making that transition involve things you already know how to do.

All of us create mental maps of our environment. Even the most spatially challenged people can accurately describe, for example, the home in which they grew up. If asked for directions to your favorite restaurant, you can do it relatively easily by calling up the mental images of the route – where you turn, any relevant landmarks, etc. It’s not necessary for you to see the route as you do this.

If you were to lose your vision, the ability to categorize and retrieve mental images like this, of course, becomes much more important, but it’s a skill you already have. To be sure, your mental catalogue would now contain a lot of images that you don’t worry about storing now because if, for example, you forget which aisle in the grocery has the mustard, you just look.

If this seems like it would be a lot more complicated than what I’m describing, you might be surprised to realize the number of mental maps you already draw on to do everyday tasks without vision. These maps range from the relatively trivial to include some fairly complex activities you do without relying on the ability to see.

* Brushing your teeth. Simple as this is, you’ve been doing it twice a day (and you do brush twice a day, don’t you?) for years without ever giving a thought to the fact that you can’t see what you’re doing. How do you know you’re brushing where you should and not missing any critical areas? Without ever thinking about it, you’re drawing on a mental map of the areas you’ve already brushed and the areas you still need to cover.
* Washing your hair. Unless you are a hygienic disaster on two legs, this is another simple, routine task you’ve been doing successfully your entire life without ever seeing what you’re doing.
* Typing (keyboarding if you’re under twenty-five). This is a little more challenging. I think all of us, when we’re first learning, couldn’t imagine that we’d ever be able to type without looking at the keys. With a little practice, however, not only do you learn to do it without looking but you’re far more efficient relying on your muscle memory and mental map of the keyboard.
* Playing a musical instrument. This is my personal favorite. I have absolutely no musical aptitude. I am living proof that not all blind people sing like Stevie Wonder or play an instrument like Ray Charles. I am completely dumbfounded how anyone can play a piano, guitar, or violin without looking at their fingers. With my musical ineptitude, I think the ability to do this is absolutely amazing, just this side of magical. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands of people, the large majority of them sighted, who can do it and wouldn’t think of relying on their vision. Because I can’t do it myself and find it amazing that someone else can, doesn’t make it impossible, however.

The above examples suggest that, when people are adapting to vision loss, they are reminded that, for all of the recent advances in technology, the human brain is still an astounding GPS system. There will be a lot of new skills they will have to master, but there are already a great many they already have.

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