Is Visual Art Important for People with a Visual Impairment?

I have always stood by my belief that creativity is for everyone. However, are all forms of creativity for everyone? I wanted to delve deeper into how visual arts, and other practices that focus mainly on visuals, can become accessible and valuable to people who are visually impaired or blind.

As I began to read about the issues surrounding visual impairment, my own ignorance became very apparent. For example, did you know that only 10 – 20% of people with a visual impairment are totally blind? The majority of visually impaired people have some sort of vision, whether that be the ability to see light and dark or tell between different colours.

Gorgina Kleege’s claim that “the average blind person knows more about what it means to be sighted than the average sighted person knows about what it means to be blind” pinpoints the realisation I was having. Kleege points out that for visually impaired people “the language we speak, the literature we read, the architecture we inhabit, are all designed by and for the sighted”. It could be argued that this is the same for anyone with a disability in a culture that thinks only on the able-bodied, ‘normal’ human being. Wheelchair users live in a world built for legs, and those without hearing live in a world made for noise.

However, my research revealed another dimension to sighted people’s relationship with sight. Researchers Magee (sighted) and Milligan (visually impaired) who were researching in the early 20th century came to the conclusion that “by the sighted, seeing is felt as a need”, a sentiment that Kleege agrees with. For a sighted person, to close the eyes is often a scary, disorientating and panic-inducing experience. It can make us feel vulnerable and isolated. This is reflected in a lot of literature where, as Kleege points out, “traditional metaphores that equate blindness with a tomblike imprisonment” are present again and again. Sighted people are also likely to link sight with emotion. Jim Gray is a visually impaired musician who wrote ‘America the Beautiful’, which became very popular after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Whilst being interviewed on radio, the interviewer commented “Was this maybe one time in your life where not having to see was a relief?” Not only does this suggest that Gray usually wishes to be sighted, which he may well not, but states that as Gray couldn’t see the twin towers falling, he would lack the emotion and empathy to have a reaction to this horrific event.

For a sighted person to believe that closing their eyes is creating the experience of a blind person is inaccurate. As a sighted person, our senses have developed in a completely different way to someone who is visually impaired. Helen Keller, who was born deaf and blind, writes about the senses and criticises the traditional categories of touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision as inadequate. As someone who relied heavily on touch, she developed touch of vibration, touch of temperature and touch of texture as ways to start getting more detail into the sense vocabulary. As a visually impaired person your senses will develop in a different way to a sighted person, as your primary sense is not your vision. As Kleege says, visually impaired people “do not feel themselves to be deficient or partial – sighted people minus sight – but whole human beings who have learned to attend their non-visual senses in different ways”.

So, if people who are visually impaired have developed their non-visual senses, where is their benefit from visual arts? I discovered a convincing argument that visual arts have a significant positive impact on visually impaired people despite their lack of sight.

Starting at a cognitive level, I read “Neural and behavioural correlates of drawing in an early blind painter”. The observation was made that “Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision”. This suggests that drawing is even more important for someone without sight, as it works parts of the brain that would not otherwise be fully utilized. It was also noted that “he is also able to reveal his internal representations though highly detailed drawings that are unequivocally understood by a sighted person”. I disagree that the value of this man’s work should be decided based upon whether it is understood by ‘a sighted person’, but the point stands that visual art has become a method of self-expression, the same as for many visual artists. Art Education for the Blind go further, claiming that visual arts don’t only aid self expression for visually impaired people, but improve matters at personal and community level;

“Our fundamental belief is that people who are blind or visually impaired must have access to the world’s visual culture if they are to participate fully in their communities and in the world at large, that it improves the quality of their lives, and helps them gain skills crucial to their education and employment opportunities”

To stand alongside cognitive, personal and social value, there are many visually impaired or blind artists that make a living from their visual arts practice. Esref Armagan, Keith Salmon (working in Ayrshire), Sergej Popolsin, and Giovanni Gonelli to name a few. I read the transcript of an interview owithCraig Royal, another visually impaired artist, who said that “photography has allowed me to keep my passion to create alive and that my Vision is not impaired by my vision”. His inspiring words didn’t stop there, as he encourages other budding visually impaired artists “Just do it! No matter the degree of vision loss there is a way to work around it”

My investigation into the value of visual art for visually impaired people has left me with a lot of questions. It has also been a crucial reminder that assumptions about visual impairment, or any other impairment for that matter, can be wildly wrong even if they are widely accepted in able-bodied dialogue. Visual art is important, useful and enjoyable for people with impaired sight and in my practice I will aim to include those who may feel they lack the right senses in an art form they are entitled to. As Royal says, “If you have vision loss, don’t loose sight in the beauty of life. If you have lost sight of the beauty in life you are truly blind”.

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