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When I first opened my art studio I was fortunate enough to have a young man who was blind enrolled in classes. Both he and his twin brother (who was not visually impaired) started classes with me when they were seven. It was important to their mom that I accommodate, but not substitute curriculum for Nick, the visually impaired twin. At first I was hesitant, not wanting him to feel singled out, different or less than the other students. I soon learned that my reservations about his impairment were my handicap, not his. Nick was a remarkable child; brilliant, extroverted and so well adjusted that I marveled at his sense of self and his extraordinary confidence level. He was always willing to try new material and tools and elevate his level of learning. He kept the students around him entertained in lively conversation and imaginative musings. His enthusiasm was contagious. He participated in the same projects that the sighted students took part in, with minimal assistance from me. When they painted, he painted, when they sewed, he sewed. My biggest task was keeping him on task as he tended to get socially distracted.
In class he talked openly and easily about his visual impairment and answered questions from the other students and myself about what life is like for a blind person. We talked about color, and line and form. Although three dimensional activities were easier for him to comprehend, he engaged in drawing and painting as well. One of the favorite activities in the class was for Nick to draw lines on paper while the other students would tell him what they saw in his drawings. He would choose color as carefully as a sighted student for his projects and when asked why he chose a particular color he would always give a thoughtful and creative answer. Once I bought him specially scented crayons, thinking that he would enjoy being able to identify them by scent. ”What are these?!” he scoffed when I handed him the new pack. ”Scented crayons. Try them.” He opened the box, took a sniff and handed them back. ”I ‘d rather have the real crayons.” he stated.
One particularly busy afternoon several years into his tenure at the studio, he asked one of his usual provocative questions; ”Tere, do you think that someday I will be able to drive?” I was preoccupied with helping another student, but being very familiar with his level of candor I was comfortable enough to answer him honestly. “Drive??” I asked ”Like a car? No Nick. I don ‘t think you will be able to drive.” With a little humor I added “And please, at least not while I am still on the road!!” We all laughed, I continued on with my busyness and then he retorted, ”But someday they might have a car designed especially for visually impaired people. Don ‘t you think that can happen?” “Yes, I do.” I replied. “But Nick, someday they might have an operation or procedure that would allow blind people to see. Wouldn ‘t you rather have that?” He thought for a moment and responded with a simple “No.” All at once everyone stopped working. I looked at him as if I couldn ‘t believe what I had heard. ”Why not?!!” I asked. His reply was careful and unforgettable. “Because, ” he began, ”What I think things look like in my head and what they really look like might not be the same and I don ‘t want to be disappointed.” I stood speechless and small as paradigms shifted and every preconceived notion that I had up to that point about the visually impaired shattered in the wake of his genuine, honest answer. Never again would I be so arrogant as to think that my sighted world was any richer or fuller than his unsighted one.
Nick is now sixteen and thriving as a very active, very creative high school sophomore. He is also part of the cast of an extraordinary documentary called Do You Dream in Color? being produced by a team of independent filmmakers based in California. The documentary hopes to bridge the gap between the blind and sighted worlds by following a group of blind teens as they pursue their life dreams and as they share with the camera their nocturnal ones. Dreaming was a conversation that we had in the studio with Nick. He shared that when he dreamt, he did indeed “see” things and this documentary endeavors use art and animation to portray what the dream world of a blind person might look like. The movie trailer and information about the project is available at www.doyoudreamincolor.com.
As a visual artist I am wholly dependent on my sense of sight and until I met Nick I often pitied those who can ‘t marvel at the beauty in the world around us. But through working with students like Nick and watching my own father struggle with macular degeneration I have come to realize that it is not their world that is limited, it is mine. I am a prisoner of reality, while their reality is limitless. I read Antoine De Saint Exupery ‘s book “The Little Prince” years ago, but it wasn ‘t until meeting Nick that I fully understood one of the most important lines in the book: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.