kestrell: (Default)
[personal profile] kestrell
As in the case of the myth of the blind storyteller, many of the blind characters I will be discussing explore the connection between blindness and knowledge, so the question of how the cognitive processes of blind people differs from that of people with normal vision seems like a good place to begin the discussion of specific works in speculative fiction.

In "None So Blind" by Joe Haldman, which won the Locus and Hugo awards for best short story in 1995, the narrator begins with the question, why aren't there more blind geniuses? The story proposes that, as blind people do not use their visual cortex, their brains have untapped resources which could be used for more intellectual processes. This idea is ascribed to the protagonist, a socially-awkward geek who falls in love with a blind woman. After he becomes a brain surgeon, and without informing her of the true purpose of the surgery, the geek uses his blind girlfriend as a test subject in order to partition off the visual cortex from the rest of the brain so that the visual corrtex can then be used to increase the blind person's intelligence. When the surgery is successful, the protagonist fulfills his original purpose of having this surgery performed upon himself so that he can increase his own intelligence. The story ends with one of the blind woman's former teachers bemoaning the fact that this surgery has become the norm, and that people are now divided into two groups, the rich and powerful blind class and the poor but sighted unmodded folks.

While some of us might indeed welcome a future in which clueless sighted people are compelled to serve their more intelligent blind overlords, the sad truth is, the human brain does not work this way.

Since the late 1990s, cognitive scientists have been able to demonstrate that blind people
not only use their visual cortex, but that that its level of activity, both at rest and during auditory or tactile tasks, is higher in blind subjects than in normal controls, suggesting that it can be appropriated for nonvisual functions.

This use of the visual cortex, however, is not something which can be strategically reserved or allotted for specific tasks such as learning mathematical equations or creating the great novel: it represents the fact that blind people are doing almost everything sighted people are doing with their brains, only blind people are doing these things with their eyes closed.

However, this cross-modal plasticity is not a "compensation" for blindness--it is built into the brain and everyone already has it. Experiments in which sighted people with normal vision have spent days blindfolded, their brains begin to do precisely what blind people's brains do, which is to begin switching to using audio and touch as primary modes of information.

So, are there actual physical differences between the brains of blind people and those of sighted people? I contacted a cognitive scientist from MIT who had done a study concerning theory of mind with blind and sighted people
( http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/mind-0626.html
), and her response was this:

"In particular, those brain regions that do vision in sighted people take on new functions like sound perception, language and memory in people who are totally blind.
However, brain regions that do higher cognitive functions in sighted people (functions like social reasoning, language comprehension and memory), do the same thing in people who are blind."

This includes proprioception, which is your inherent sense of your body's position and motion in space. I mention this last ability in particular because among the questions which I am often asked is "How do blind people...?" and a lot of the time it comes down to this cognitive ability which most people possess, the ability to know where our body is and what the various parts of it are doing without having to look at ourselves doing whatever it is we are doing.

I would like to return to the question with which "None So Blind" begins:
why aren't there more blind geniuses?

In reply, I would like to pose the questions: why should it be expected that blind people are any more intelligent--or any less intelligent--than their sighted peers?

Again, this brings us back to the question of blindness and knowledge: what sorts of knowledge do you think blind people possess?

In my own experience, people have often assured me with the utmost certainty that blind people have better memories than sighted peopleSadly, I can assure you that I have a very poor rote memory, which is why I am sincerely hoping that this talk in its live form bears even a passing resemblance to the way I wrote it. Also, I have no musical talent whatsoever. Really. Truly.

On the other hand, I have been informed with complete certainty by numerous college professors that blind people can't do math, or science, and they aren't very literate either.

The American Mathematical Society has a page listing some of the many blind mathematicians and scientists who have made contributions to our current knowledge ( http://www.ams.org/notices/200210/comm-morin.pdf ). I would also like to mention
Zoltan Torey, a cognitive scientist (The Cradle of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain_, 2009; _Out of Darkness: A Memoir_, 2003)
Dr. Geerat Vermeij, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at the University of California at Davis and author of _A Natural History of Shells_ (1995) and his autobiography _Privileged Hands_ (1996)
Lawrence Scadden, a scientist and technology advocate (_Surpassing Expectations: My Life Without Sight_, 2008)
and Dr. Kent Cullers, Director of SETI Research and Development, who appeared in Carl Sagan's book _Contact_.

When talking about what kind of knowledges blind people have, we need to say a little bit about what kinds of technologies blind people use.
In _The Skylark_ by Peter Straub (2009), there is a blind character who is described as speaking aloud and having her computer execute her commands. While some blind people may use this kind of technology, what most blind people use is actually text-to-speech, also known as a screen reader. The other technology is known as speech-to-text, or voice recognition. The way to distinguish these two technologies is to be aware that what screen readers do is take the text on the screen and turn it into synthetic speech, while speech-to-text takes human speech and converts it into either executed commands or digital text. In addition, some programs called screen magnifiers which are used by people with functional vision magnify the text and images on the screen and may also integrate text-to-speech programs.

Screen readers work by using a dictionary, which is an immense list of words broken up into phonemes. This program is not an AI, it cannot read in context. Thus you have the word read r-e-a-d which is typically pronounced red, but if the context suggests the present tense of read, the program will not pronounce it reed.

[Brief demo of screen reader.]

The two most well-known screen readers are Jaws, developed by Freedom Scientific, and Window Eyes, developed by G. W. Micro. As is the case with most assistive tech, these screen readers are developed to work with Microsoft Windows. There is also the Voiceover screen reader which is used on Macs and other Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad, and there is also a relative newcomer which works through an Internet subscription.

While these screen readers often make use of keyboard commands already created by the OS, they also typically require the user to have memorized a few hundred additional commands and to become adept at using multiple cursors, the default cursor which sighted users use plus an aditional cursor which can move around the screen, and a third cursor used for Internet applications. Between the learning curve and the learning to listen to the synthetic speech, there can be a lengthy time period before a blind person feels competent at using a computer with a screen reader, and some people may never gain that level of competency, especially if there are other conditions such as mental or mobility impairments involved.

Blind people also use cell phones, which may either use built-in voice recognition or may have a third-party text-to-speech program installed on the phone so that users can have better access to the phone functionality. My own cell phone is pretty basic because I don't use my phone for doing many things, but other blind people may have phones which allow them to text messages, read audiobooks or ebooks, listen to MP3s, and doing many other things short of actually texting the moon.

Blind computer users may also make use of PDAs, digital recorders, scanners, OCR programs, and ebook readers.

It is worth mentioning at this point, because it almost never is, the cost of accessibility for blind computer users. A screen reader is typically about $1000, the Kurzweil 1000 scanning and OCR reading program is also approx. $1000. My accessible ebook reader costs about $500, and my cell phone had to be one of those in the high end in order to have the voie recognition capability. Thus, price can be an additional barrier to access.
In addition, while we like to think of technology as allowing for an even playing field, some technologies can create further barriers to access. There are four technologies which currently block access for almost every blind computer user. The first of these is digital rights management (DRM), which often interprets screen readers as an illegal attempt to copy text and so bars screen readers from accessing the content. PDF and flash are two formats which can be created to be accessible, but rarely are, and PDF in particular is such a constant issue that I will quote Charlie Stross: "ODF--Satanic horror fromt he abyss or merely evil?"
(http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/pdf-satanic-horror-from-the-ab.html )
Captcha is another technology which often prevents access, and makes me think of the Voight-Kampff test in "Blade Runner"--yes we have a test to check whether an entity is human and I fail it.

As I mention previously, I've heard university professors claim more than once that blind people aren't very literate, and even that blind people don't read at all. A similar statement wasmade in
_Shadow Season_ by Tom Piccirilli (2009)
which is a story about a former New York City policeman who has become blind due to an accident and is now teaching literature in a private girls school in upstate New York. He gets upset when a student asks if he has read all the books on his desk, stating that blind people can't read books.

Blind people have multiple ways of reading books. I mentioned the text-to-speech programs previously, and many blind people also have portable mobile devices or ebook readers which can also read ebooks.

There are at least three extensive libraries for the blind: the National Library Service which is part of the Library of Congress www.loc.gov/nls/ ; Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which uses volunteer readers www.rfbd.org ; and Bookshare.org, which is a database of digital books donated by blind members and educational institutions who have scanned the texts of the paper books.

The formats for these books may be digital audio read by professional narrators (NLS), or volunteer readers (RFBD), or the books may be in digital text or digital braille (Bookshare) which can be downloaded and "printed," using a braille embosser.
The National Braille Press in Boston www.nbp.org publishes books in numerous formats, including children's books which combine braille and print, and books on topics such as cooking, self-improvement, and computers and technology. This is the publisher which published the Harry Potter books in braille at the cover price, a feat which is notable because the cost of braille books can be in the hundreds of dollars.

In addition to these so-called special libraries or publishers, there are distributors such as Fictionwise. There are also digital audiobooks from Audible and many free podcasts of people reading books available free on the Internet.

In addition, some readers may have a scanner and OCR program wich allow them to scan and convert print books to digital formats.

Date: 2010-07-12 03:11 pm (UTC)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesy
Is there a project to make a FLOSS screenreader? It seems like the kind of thing that could make a big difference, particularly because then web designers would be able to test things in a screenreader without having to a make a big investment.

Date: 2013-06-10 07:26 pm (UTC)
jadelennox: Senora Sabasa Garcia, by Goya (Default)
From: [personal profile] jadelennox
I know this comment of yours is three years old, but for what it's worth, the Windows screen reader NVDA is GPL, And the Linux screen reader Orca is LGPL. neither has the market share of jaws, but both are the primary screen reader for a small subset of people.

Date: 2013-06-10 07:40 pm (UTC)
cesy: "Cesy" - An old-fashioned quill and ink (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesy
Ah - I'd since found NVDA, but hadn't come across Orca yet - thanks!

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