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Blind for a day

The smell of scrambled eggs filled the kitchen. I was starving, and it felt like torture. The creamy eggs hit the plate soon; I was ready. I grabbed a fork and stabbed at them. “I got it,” I thought to myself. I lifted a fork to my mouth anticipating the first contact with a smile. And then I bit the metal. That can happen when you’re blind.

Beginning

I’m a nerd and I make lists. Some last a day, some a bit longer. There is one that is a decade old; it contains an entry “be blind for a day.” It’s from a time I first got interested in human psychology and especially how a human brain works—how it learns and how it adapts. Will my perception drastically change? Will I adjust to new surroundings quickly or fail miserably? How is my environment prepared for my new state? Will I gain even more empathy for people with eyesight problems? A lot of questions formed in my mind.

But the answer never came. There were some logistics to it, and I had to find free time, but that combination rarely happened. Years passed, and a lot of things happened without crossing the entry.

Then last November I was flying from New York and wore a sleeping mask for a couple of hours. It pressed my eyeballs and blurred my vision for almost three hours after removing it. Instead of being angry about my predicament, I set out to explore everything around me and my behavior in that state. It was informative while it lasted and I wanted to do more. Following that flight I tried to find a sweet spot one weekend and decided I’ll do it from Jan 17 evening to Jan 18 afternoon.

Preparation

I'm wearing a bandana over my eyes.

There were a lot of things I wanted to try but had to limit myself to what’s possible in 24 hours. I knew I would need assistance the whole time, so I had to free my and my wife’s schedule. I also wanted to go outside, so the weather should be nice too. Having the sun show its face would be a bonus because I could wear sunglasses and not look too weird.

Since I’m currently working as an interaction designer, I’m trying to be sensitive to how current technology impacts people with impairments. Mobile is the word of the day, and I decided to use my smartphone for exploring the digital world.

I left other things as they were. I didn’t explore how visually impaired people solve common problems and wanted to encounter them with a fresh perspective. That made some things harder, but also more innocent.

Most experiences intertwined together, but I won’t write in a journal format because that might be too chaotic to follow. I shall group my experiences in different categories as I think this will give a better impression of how it felt.

  • Housekeeping and clothing
  • Orienting inside
  • Preparing meals and eating
  • Hygiene
  • Entertainment
  • The digital world
  • The outside world

Housekeeping and clothing

This is where I started. Folding shirts was not as hard as I thought, although I would change my folding style to something less visually dependent if the blind state persisted.

I won’t get any awards for this, but it will fit into our closet.

Matching socks was an interesting one. It’s both easy and hard at the same time. Easy, because there are so many telling clues: fabric thickness, length, elasticity, fabric patterns. I correctly identified each and every pair (type). The hard part is pulling them from a heap and remembering where I put each one before finding a match. The same type of socks, but in different colors—no luck there.

I got dressed so many times in my life that I can do it blindfolded (pun intended). Matching colors of my shirts wasn’t a worry at all and other garments I could identify just by touching them. An critical thing was to return clothes to their proper place or somewhere where I won’t forget. If I tossed them around recklessly, it would be very hard and time-consuming to find them again.

Changing trash bags was easy and quick, especially because I wasn’t afraid sticking my fingers in some leftovers.

Orienting inside

I’m in my apartment so I should be OK, right? Sort of. I know where everything is approximately, but not exactly. For example, is the distance from one room to the kitchen three or five steps across the hallway? Are door frames five centimeters higher or shorter than I am? These don’t sound like critical questions, but when one outcome is smashing my face against a wall, priorities change.

That’s why I noticed my posture deteriorating over time. I bent over too much, walked slowly and always traced my way around with a hand against a wall. I was feeling the constant anxiety of hitting things. It got better over time, but there were critical times when the feeling returned. For example, after waking up.

Preparing meals and eating

Food was the unpleasant surprise of the whole experiment, and that was a surprise by itself. I was completely unaware how much visual input I use for food preparation and eating.

I tried to eat different types of meals and prepare some of them. Eggs from the start of this article were the first step. Getting everything from the fridge, breaking and scrambling eggs was not a big problem, although it was a bit messy.

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The first hurdle I couldn’t jump over was using our stove. It has a completely flat glass-ceramic cooktop and no safe way to test where I need to put the pan. No touching or probing with my fingers. I’ve tried to guess the right position of the pan and it was partially overlapping with the cooking ring. I decided we don’t need a fire hazard that evening and left the dinner to my wife.

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OK, at least eating won’t be a problem. Ha! First mistake—using a flat plate and a fork. Eggs are so soft and light I had no idea if I picked something up. And spreading the eggs all over the plate wasn’t helping me determine if I have leftovers or am I finished. We humans have some amazing tools with delicate sensors—our fingers. That’s how I finished my dinner.

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I know a simple trick for pouring liquids when you’re in the dark. Just put a thumb inside a cup and pour until you feel the liquid on the tip of the finger. Warning: do not try it with boiling water for obvious reasons.

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My favorite breakfast in the morning—bread, butter, and jam. I knew spreading butter and jam would be a challenge because I will have no idea what I picked up with my knife and where I spread it on a loaf of bread. It went reasonably well with some loafs looking very good and others looking like butcher’s victims.

Eating bread, butter and jam.

I have two takeaways from this meal:

  1. It’s extremely helpful to say out loud where things are when setting up a table. Same should happen if something is moved or being used. Tracking many things in this way wasn’t a problem if I knew what was going on.
  2. I wasn’t as fast using cutlery as before, so the whole meal took longer. As a consequence, I felt full earlier and ate less food overall.

The last meal while blindfolded was lunch; my wife prepared a casserole with rice and vegetables. I was ready this time; I used a small bowl and a spoon. That way food doesn’t fall out and always gravitates toward the middle. Easy, effective, and I can enjoy the meal, not fight invisible demons.

Food is hard and it got me interested; I’ll have to explore it a bit more. I’m sure it’s easier with some practice and proper preparation. A quick search landed me on this funny and short video about how blind people cook when alone.

Hygiene

Hygiene is easy as clothing. I’ve been doing this for a very long time every day, and almost all is based on touch.

There was one awkward moment. After finishing number two, how should I know when to stop wiping? I couldn’t bear the uncertainty, so I immediately jumped under a shower.

Everyone can wash their hands blindfolded.

Entertainment

Trying out different things in such a short day didn’t leave too much time for entertainment. I first tried audiobooks, but I’ve been doing that for quite some time now so it wasn’t anything new.

I also tried to “watch” videos. Conversation and plot based storylines I could track without many problems, but action or other visual scenes were just random noise. To be honest, I would have to think what else to do if I had more time; everything that quickly comes to mind is visual.

The digital world

This is where it gets fascinating. I was torn between what’s possible and what’s annoying that I’m still thinking about it daily. I enabled Talkback on my Android phone. It provides spoken, audible and vibration feedback when something is touched. When an item is selected, just double tap anywhere to activate it. Talkback also provides some global gestures that invoke reading speed menus and quick navigation.

With an accessibility mode enabled, tapping something selects an item and reads its contents aloud. Double tap activates it.

The experiment starts with sheer fascination. I’m blind and can operate a piece of flat glass that provides mostly visual feedback. If that isn’t wonderful, I don’t know what is. Yes, I’m slow. I’m exploring a lot. Sometimes I’m completely lost and need to start from the beginning. But the tireless synthetic voice of the accessibility assistant always tries to lead me where I want to go.

Yes, it’s possible to navigate the digital world in this way.

And I’ve been places. Messaging, browsing, reading—or better, listening to—articles, taking notes. I even browsed Twitter and posted a message. What at the time seemed like another no context thought to others was actually me blindly tapping a piece of glass. And believe me, I worked hard for it.

Voice search and input were extremely helpful, but that didn’t come as a surprise. One thing that did is when the power button is pressed and screen turns on, the time is read out loud. I didn’t have to unlock the phone or anything, I just pressed the button and immediately knew what time it is.

There were many good things, but also too many that need improvement. I’ll list a couple of them, but as a disclaimer, I’m confident some of them could be solved with more tinkering in the settings.

  • OK Google” phrase that triggers voice search doesn’t work when Talkback is turned on. It doesn’t make any sense, because that’s when I need it the most.
  • Accessibility software overwrites some gestures. For example, to go to the next item in a list, I had to swipe down. But that’s also how I access my notifications, so I haven’t been able to interact with them during the whole time.
  • Talkback works everywhere. This seems like a good thing, but it also works WHILE was using voice input. In other words, it was reading back to me what I was speaking to it at the same time. Confusing and unusable.
  • The only breakdown I had was in the morning. The alarm went off and I couldn’t dismiss it. It kept ringing and my “swipe to dismiss” action was overridden with something else, something more “accessible”. After a couple of minutes of trying, I had to put it in a drawer in another room until it died down. On the other hand, it got us fully awake.
Doing a specific gesture on a screen opens one of the quick menus.

With all these problems, I’m still fascinated I was able to use a smartphone on multiple occasions. I’m missing some extra buttons, though. I remember I had an extra button on my old Windows Mobile device to which I could assign any action. When pressed, it would record audio and save it as a note. Taking quick notes blindfolded and through touch is neither quick nor easy, and having dedicated hardware would help.

Oh yeah, one last thing. If the only feedback from a charging device is a tiny LED, how will a blind person know it’s working?

The outside world

Everything I described until now was done in a safe place, inside my home, but I needed to get out at some point. In short, it was terrifying.

The plan was to walk to the closest train station, ride to the city center, do some errands, walk around and get back home. It took a couple of hours to do everything although it seemed a lot shorter.

Riding in a train.

My wife was my walking partner, and she was always close to me with an arm interlocked with mine. That way I couldn’t wander out to the street, and she could quickly stop me if something suddenly changed. At first, we had some coordination issues because everything was new to us. We knew communication was important, but what to say and, more importantly, when to say it was leading to some slips and head bumps. We synced in about 15 to 20 minutes and then everything was much easier.

It is important to note that my senses didn’t become any sharper in 24 hours, I was just more aware that they also provide input. I recognized more sounds, like distant people chatting, turning newspapers, smartphones ringing, enthusiasts rowing on a river, bird wings flapping. It wasn’t only the source of sounds, but how they spread that provided information. Using that, I could determine if I was in a hallway, a big room or out in the open.

Zürich might be a beautiful city, but I didn’t see any of it that day. Instead, I enjoyed its bustling sounds and the warmth of the sun.

I used my skin to gauge sun’s direction; the sunny side is significantly warmer. Walking near stores or cafés, I could smell coffee and groceries. Sometimes people didn’t have any smell and sometimes they had a strong body or cigarette odor. That’s an interesting thought; not to judge people by their looks, but by how they smell and sound.

It was hard for me to track where I was. My mental map is visual, and it’s not easy to connect those two worlds. If I were blind from birth, my mental maps would look completely different. I caught myself daydreaming at one point and I completely lost track of where I was.

My wife would often say “Look at that” to which we both laughed. After some time, she just started to explain what she was seeing and that made a huge difference to how I perceived the environment around me. Suddenly everything had more sense, and I could connect “random” sounds to what was going on.

Walking around a town reminded me of one Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel with Sam Vimes, a police officer. Someone blindfolded him and led him to a secret hideout. He knew the streets so well he could later retrace the walk just by feeling different surfaces under his shoes and counting steps. I wouldn’t be able to do that, but I was certainly more aware of what I’m walking on.

After being out in the open for a couple of hours, I admire blind people and their ability to commute daily even more.

Final thoughts

Of the things that didn’t fit into any of the above categories, I would just mention that I was somewhat tired and had no sense of time. I suspect not being exposed to light was the culprit; that’s probably why many blind people have sleeping disorders.

This whole experiment was a worthy experience. I’m a bit sad I didn’t do it earlier, but better now then never. If you have time to try something similar, I heartily recommend it.

So, after all this, did I make you wonder what else is on my ten year list? ;)

Update: I did a quick follow-up to this post with the feedback I received afterwards—check it out.


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