Commentary: Understanding Blindness through Virtual Reality

June 14, 2016

Films and stories with characters who are blind always spark my curiosity. Having been blind most of my life, I am always interested to see how vision loss is portrayed in the media. Unless the story is based on a real person, films and books generally seem to depict those of us with vision loss as having super powers – think Marvel’s Daredevil. Notes on Blindness is a new film and virtual reality experience simulating how people who are blind use sound to recognize spaces and form mental maps. Inspired by the diary of theologian John Hull who lost his sight over 30 years ago, the film is intended for anyone interested in learning about blindness.

Virtual reality simulations are becoming more and more popular. From simply enhancing the experience of video game aficionados to teaching doctors in developing countries how to remove eye cataracts, virtual reality can help us better understand our world. In Notes on Blindness, viewers experience a combination of different sounds and abstract visuals to illustrate how people who are blind use their other senses to become aware of their surroundings.

Right now, the closest we can come to simulating visual impairments is by using a blindfold or other specialized goggles imitating various eye conditions. These methods can certainly give people a general understanding about vision loss, but fail to convey how those of us who are blind actually adapt to our surroundings. In fact, it might lead people to have negative views about blindness, according to a recent study.

People commonly believe that when one sense is lost, the remaining four become stronger. While I certainly wish this was true, it is not as simple as we’d like to think. A lot of determination, patience and practice are necessary to adapt and learn how to effectively use our other senses. It can take months or even years to learn to distinguish different sounds and how to become aware of our surroundings. Without a doubt, this is one of the hardest things for sighted individuals to understand. I wish one day people will realize that those of us who are blind are neither helpless or superheroes, and I think this film will help them do just that. It will also help sighted individuals empathize with us and the challenges we face in our day to day lives.

The film, Notes on Blindness, will be released in the United Kingdom later this summer and is scheduled to debut later this year in the United States. You can also watch a short preview here. I personally am excited and have high hopes about this film. While I know it will not be the top selling movie in the box office, I think it will help educate sighted viewers about blindness and what it takes to adapt to living without sight.

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