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The Blind Tell What They 'See' in Their Travels

November 02, 1986|JEFFREY R. SCOTT | Scott is a Van Nuys free-lance writer.

When most people travel they plan to "see the sights." But what is sightseeing like without sight? Is there a point to visiting Rome without seeing the Colosseum? Or to China without seeing the Great Wall?

For many blind tourists the answer is overwhelmingly "yes." Take George Austin, a Los Angeles man who began losing his vision 22 years ago. Now he can make out only vague shapes, lights and shadows. In those 22 years, however, Austin has been to not only the Colosseum and the Great Wall but to many more of the world's tourist meccas. Moreover, he will tell you that he has seen them.

Not with his eyes, of course. A blind tourist learns to use his full range of sensory abilities to imagine what he can no longer see. "I let loose my emotions and try to feel things," Austin says. Listen to Austin describe how a blind person "sees" the Colosseum:

Enough Imagination

"Someone describes it to you--how big it is, how much it's deteriorated. You go through the doors; you go inside the tunnels; you walk up the stairs. And if you have good enough imagination, you come away with a vivid sense of what the Colosseum looks like."

Oliver Pang of Los Angeles has been blind since 1970. His area of expertise is traveling to Hawaii. He was born there, and pronounces it with a V sound. He organizes and accompanies tours there about once a year for his fellow patrons of Los Angeles' Braille Institute. "I want the blind to experience Hawaii the way I did," he says, referring to before he was blind.

"When I get to Hawaii I immediately know I'm somewhere different," Pang says. "There's humidity, there's warmth, there's a tropical breeze and there's a different smell. It's not a dry smell--it's a little damp. There's a special fragrance from the vegetation. Getting away from the smog helps, too."

Blindness has forced Austin and Pang to adopt a more active form of sightseeing. Contrary to popular myth, losing their vision hasn't really improved their other senses such as smell, taste, touch and hearing. But it has made them more aware of the uses they can make of those other senses.

Sighted tourists can add to their visual experiences by being aware of the uses they can make of the other, often-neglected senses.

Blind people hold different opinions about which senses are most important. But without using these other senses, the blind tourist would be reduced to the equivalent of the tourist who arrives in Egypt, looks at the Pyramids, goes home and tells his friends, "I've seen Egypt." He may have seen Egypt, but he has not experienced Egypt. As Austin put it, "A sighted person depends so much on his eyes, he misses the rest."

the special scents of the tropical flowers wafting through the air on the breeze add to the visual experience.

Austin agrees. "Everywhere in the world there are different smells," he says. "In Thailand they cook out on the streets. The odors are fantastic. The first time I went to Hong Kong I went down to the boats. I could smell how filthy the water was."

The significance of taste is debatable. Gert Berney of Laguna Hills, who wears dark glasses outside and has had only weak peripheral vision for three years, insists that the loss of her sight has neither helped nor hindered her taste. "The cuisine of Greece is no different than it was when I was sighted--it's still Greek food."

The three major senses, Berney says, are touch, sight and hearing. "My sense of touch became very dominant when I lost my sight, and I began to hear things I wouldn't normally hear."

Judy Deppman of Los Angeles is totally blind. Her memories of her trip to Hawaii in 1984 provide a good example of using touch for a fuller experience. She noticed things that would not have been as evident with her eyes alone.

"We visited the Big Island, where the volcanoes are alive. We stopped near the molten rocks. It's really strange, the heat on top of the rocks and the coolness underneath.

"I'll never forget swimming in Waikiki. That was so wonderful. We were in surf up to our shoulders. It just sort of bounced us around. The sun was coming down and the water was very warm. It was a really nice experience."

Without sight, the sense of hearing becomes particularly important. Through hearing, blind travelers listen to tour guides and friends describe points of interest they cannot see; for those who once were able to see, their memories help them to draw these verbal pictures.

"Being blind, you learn to use all your senses and your imagination and your memory," Austin says. "Even memories of things you learned as a kid."

More Rigorous Use

Although hearing doesn't improve with loss of sight, it is called into more rigorous use. "When you don't see, you listen with much greater intensity," Berney says. "And you hear a great deal more."

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