Sight for the Blind: The Growing Success of Seeing with Sound


Searching for Alternatives Some eighteen months ago, Juli's parents received test results that confirmed that their daughter was permanently blind due to a genetic defect. They can still remember how horrified they were at that time -- less by the blindness itself than the fate that, in their view, awaits many of the blind. They imagined their daughter slouched over the arm of a guide one day, perhaps on her way to a school for the blind, where most children like her are separated from others. Her father then went searching for alternatives. "When I found out about Daniel Kish on the Internet, it was clear that he was our man," Zimmermann says.

Frida's parents were also quickly convinced. Now the two families want to turn others on to this kind of training for the blind, and are working to found an association called "Anderes Sehen," or "Another Way of Seeing." The plan is now to have Frida and Juli learn everything they need from the very beginning and not just the most basic skills.

With their curiosity and love of movement, children of their age learn quickly. Juli is an active child with a sprightly tongue. "Juli talks practically nonstop," says her mother Ellen Schweizer.

She walks up to the table holding a book, touching the paper and smiling with a satisfied look on her face. "Nini Naseweis," she says. Her fingers tell her exactly which one of her roughly 50 children's books this is. "Juli can tell them all apart. And she knows what's inside, too," says her father. Perhaps because of all the reading her parents do with her, she has become a bit of a bookworm. Early on they worked to strengthen Juli's imagination, filling her mind with stories.

Her world is rich in words in other ways as well. She collects them from all over and loves the hardest and rarest ones most. "Baby phase" is one of her favorites, and -- though she might not understand what she's saying -- she can recite entire verses from one of her father's poetry books. During a recent trip to the pediatrician, her parents showed her something new. "Look," they said, "a stethoscope." But, using the correct German genitive grammatical structure she corrected them, saying: "Frau H├╝bschmann-Mehl's stethoscope."

"Children who can see beam at their parents to get a smile in return," says Juli's father. "But Juli loves to use words to make us laugh."

'H' for Helpless

When Juli plays outside, she is just like all the other kids. She steers her training bicycle fearlessly past posts, dogs and bicycles parked at an angle, chattering away the whole time. Her parents make a big effort not to appear anxious. Juli is supposed to learn how to find her way by herself. She is allowed to play around on chairs and to climb rope ladders on playgrounds. "One bump on the head won't kill you," her father says. He and his wife only allow themselves to warn her when she is in real danger. Doing so is the only way to make sure that Juli learns to deal with the frightening things that can happen in the real world.

But this isn't how the story usually goes. An official has already stamped her identification card with an "H" for "helpless person." For most blind people, this designation is the start of a very limited existence. There is school, and later work -- and the way back and forth that they learn by heart. After the bus stop take 120 steps to the left past the houses, then cross the street and take a right at the cobblestones.

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