Functionality vs. esthetics, Sensory substitution vs. sensory augmentation

As I was reading through the weekly product of some of the mailing lists I am signed up for, a news letter sent by the National Federation of the Blind caught my attention. More precisely a statement quoted from the NFB’s president at a recent talk is what raised my curiosity the most. The assertion goes like this:

Low expectations stand between blind and sighted people, and not the blindness.

Now it is not entirely clear to me what the president of the organisation referred to. Is it the low expectation of blind people respect to the quality of the assistive technology made for the blind community, is it the low expectation of sighted people respect to the abilities of what their non-sighted peers can accomplish, or perhaps it is something completely different.

For the time being, let’s leave prejudice aside, and instead concentrate on technology and the blind point of view as most of the time this blog is going to do. Yesterday I participated in an interview set up by a sensory substitution researcher at the University of Sussex. We had a conversation about a number of things, including life before and after blindness, evaluated 5 different assistive tools, 3 sensory substitution tools they are developing at the moment, and also rated each of these devices in terms of usability. We explored aid utilities all together supporting navigation, everyday tasks such as reading, cooking, communication and of course spent a small amount of time on science accessibility.

Before heading on, here is a BBC Click episode introducing a sensory substitution device being developed in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.
BBC Click 23 05 2015 8-12 min

One spot of the interview took a fascinating direction of thoughts. I was trying out a tablet device which converts  colours to sounds. Colour has always been a difficult question when considering blindness. One might ask, just as my interviewer did, how useful such a tablet would be? My response to these type of questions is usually that colour-to-audio transcription has many beneficial aspects for those who are unable to distinguish segments of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It is enough to think about coloured pie charts or three different curves plotted on a graph with varying colour labels. Colours very often have a significant functionality. We don’t even need to think about abstract concepts such as the pie chart but simply consider the scenario of a man walking down the corridor. It is the colours that help the man to find the door he is looking for. The yellow rectangle within the white ribbon next to him. Of course this is an idealised situation, since in real life we have many clues to help us, such as office labels, handles, door frames and so on. Colours don’t only function as navigation aids in finding certain units standing out of a larger element but colours also have very strong symbolic connotations, for instance national flags, traffic lights, symbolism attributed to black or white etc. Without colours we would lose many of our skills very quickly. However, colours don’t only have functions, they also have esthetic values. Most people tend to agree that some colours are calming, others are depressing, other ones are motivating. I can go further than that, just think about arts, especially visual arts. We don’t appreciate paintings because they are useful but because they are visually appealing.
So when it comes to converting graphics and colours to sounds, we need to ask whether we want to convey the information carried only, just the beauty or both at the same time. Do we want to offer visually impaired, colour blind, non-sighted people only the functional factors of colour or the esthetic component of it as well? Do blind people need the esthetic features? Should they be satisfied with accessing useful information and put aside their other needs? When looking for the answers of the above proposed questions, in fact we are exploring the questions of sensory augmentation and sensory substitution. Do we require the extension of our hearing in a manner that we are going to be able to hear colours as their frequency equivalence and match colour names with pitch values, in which case we are more likely to talk about sensory substitution, or we strive to hear the full range of characteristics a colour can provide, possibly with more conscious understanding than natural sight can serve with, in which case we can consider basic sensory augmentation. This is a matter of choice and expectations on the first place.
The idea of functionality vs. esthetics can be generalised for not only colours but a wide range of other things, for example assistive technology. Do we want speech synthesis to only read a book for us doing the job it was made for, or do we have higher standards and wish the synthetic voice to imitate dialogs, emotions, speak clearly and not like a 60s sci-fi robot?Do we want many devices doing various independent tasks, with no appealing design at all, or we prefer a fashionable gadget which can do multiple tasks adjusted to individual needs? Do we really want to carry braille transcribed magazines as giant books instead of air light paper copies or tablets? Most of these and similar issues are already addressed and with enough attention and effort we can hopefully achieve good progress. However, wouldn’t it be desirable to have non-visual access to advantages a blackboard has, a pen and paper can do, a sketch-pad can offer when it comes to noting equations down in an array, rearranging parts of these equations, sketch graphs on the fly without major time investment in plotting a tactile figure? Do we want to teach disabled kids only the pure and dry facts, mathematical tools or shall we show them all the exciting phenomena in nature, funny and easy to remember, outreach like experiments, demonstrations?
So back to where we started from, the low expectations. Do blind people expect only to be able to have access to science education up to a certain level, enough to be able to learn a certain field of science and become a professional, or is it a fair expectation to ensure a joyful and equally comfortable way of acquiring scientific knowledge and experience?
I shall emphasise at this point that although I have a solid opinion on most of the questions asked here, I don’t necessarily know the correct answers, if there are any at all. Though I don’t have exact solutions yet, sometimes it is more difficult and even more essential to ask the appropriate questions.

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