Chapter 2

A review of Definitions of Blindness and Disability, and of Scholarly Research of Aesthetics, Art & Blindness



 If disability is seen as a tragedy, then disabled people will be treated as if they are victims of some tragic happening and circumstances. This treatment will occur not just in everyday interaction, but will also be translated into social policies which will attempt to compensate these victims for the tragedy that has happened to them. Alternatively, it logically follows that if disability is defined as social oppression, then disabled people will be seen as collective victims of an uncaring or unknowing society rather than as individual victims of circumstances. Such a view will be translated into social policies geared towards alleviating oppression rather than compensating individuals.

Swain, Finklestein, & French (1993, p. 62)




Aims and objectives

This chapter investigates the most widely used definitions of blindness and existing academic theories on aesthetic art education for students who are blind, and the academic models they are based on. Its aims are to:

  1. Provide a foundation from which to outline definitions of blindness and disability, in order to inform the epistemological model used in this study
  2. Describe existing scholarly studies of aesthetics, art and blindness, to set the context for the model of the epistemology of education, and in order to be able to judge the context and contribution to knowledge of this study


The chapter’s objective is to present a discussion of the terms and classifications of disability, blindness aesthetics and the use of art used in this study.


The structure of the discussion

According to a model presented in a previous essay (Hayhoe, 2003), studies in the field of blindness, aesthetics and art can be approximately divided into two groups: educational studies – which can be further divided into pedagogy and communication – and psychology – which can be divided into cognitive and perceptual studies.


Consequently, models of psychology appear to be based on a previous philosophical understanding of blindness. In common with many other academic disciplines, traditional psychological studies of people with visual impairments studying and appreciating aesthetic arts focus on the medical classification of blindness. These forms of study appear to use legal definitions of blindness.


What follows in this chapter is a review of these studies, which is split into the following five segments under different bold headings. The first examines the definitions of blindness and disability, handicap and impairment on which contemporary scientific studies are based. The second segment examines the traditional strand of research in this field, and looks at the research into the nature of perception.


The third segment describes educational research and writing that is performed by those with personal experience of teaching or being taught the visual arts and represents, as mentioned above, a more social psychological style of research and writing. The fourth segment represents research into the communication of ideas, which appears to be, paradigmatically, a crossover of studies, and borrows in part from the researchers represented in the first two segments. The fifth and final segment draws conclusions.


This chapter now continues with a discussion on the definitions of blindness and disability.


Definitions of blindness


The regional nature of the definitions of blindness

            The precise delineation within research between people who are blind and those who are sighted or visually impaired appears to be confused by different regional definitions, although in recent decades this problem has been lessened by more accurate scientific definitions of blindness. This arguably makes a totally accurate comparison of studies and a cohesive study of blindness and art difficult. However, each definition appears to describe visual acuity, the ability to distinguish between two visual points[1] at which sight is usable when reading (Feinberg, 2003). – Full total sight is defined as a whole number, and any loss thereafter is expressed as a fraction of perfect vision (Feinberg, 2003).


After the diagnosis of lost visual acuity – the blindness or disability of sight -, medical studies then appear to sub-classify blindness according to either its effect on the body, that is its change of visual perception, or the causes of the disability (Feinberg, 2003). These definitions can be further sub-divided into the stage at which a person is blinded. These definitions, it is argued, also determine how the person who is blind understands their perceptual stimuli. These definitions are now discussed under two minor headings: perceptual definitions of blindness, and developmental definitions of blindness.


Perceptual definitions of blindness

The World Health Authority’s contemporary definition of blindness is 3/60 visual acuity and below (Whitcher et. al., 2001). People who have usable sight but none the less have lost a “significant” amount of visual acuity are defined as visually impaired. However, this definition still appears to be ambiguous, and remains nationally subjective.


In the British Isles a similar definition is applied. The government defines blindness as 5% sight, or 1/20 visual acuity (Coakes & Holmes Sellors, 1992). The purpose of these definitions is to treat the diseases causing blindness, or to alleviate the extreme elements of the sight loss. According to Coakes & Holmes Sellors, these treatments can either be used as a guide to the cure for the blindness itself, such as through the removal of cataracts, or to alleviate the worst effects of the blindness.


However, as Oliver Sacks (2001) argues, in the case of traits such as achromatism[2], this definition can become further complicated as visual acuity can increase through lack of “normal” light. The testing of this visual acuity must take place in what are considered to be normal lighting conditions. Therefore, the whole of the person is judged according to a rigid scientific/medical test at a particular point in time, under certain conditions.


In addition to a specific definition of blindness, blindness is also scientifically explained as a disability, handicap or impairment, depending on the strength and form of impediment to functioning it is felt to cause. These definitions are also formerly encoded by the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, unlike the scale used for classifying legal blindness, these definitions appear to be qualitatively defined.


It can be argued that the WHO’s (1980) official definitions appear to find in particular that disability is related to a belief in the existence of social norms, and their classification of impairment is related to an intrinsic “disfigurement” of the body or mind, whereas handicap is more related to social attitudes related to the outcomes of disability or impairment:

Impairment: Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure of function…

Disability: Any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being…

Handicap: A disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role (depending on age, sex, social and cultural factors).

WHO (1980: p.29)


Barnes & Mercer (2003) argue that the WHO’s definitions of disability, handicap and impairment can become disabling issues themselves. Furthermore they argue that these definitions appear to be based on a rigid belief in the ability of an individual to complete tasks as well as fulfil social, cultural and economic roles. These, they argue, are based on the imposed social and cultural assumptions of a powerful administrative body, which may change according to region. They also appear to argue that such definitions themselves can effect the attitudes of a society when encoded in law, as they themselves classify what are expected to be normal functions within individual cultures.


This segment continues by examining the psychological classifications of these legal definitions.


Developmental definitions of blindness

            Developmental psychologists further delineate between the ages at which people become blind, as this affects the manner in which people who are blind cognitively interpret perceptual data. Berthold Lowenfeld (1981) defines four general categories of age delineation not just according to levels of sight, but also on the age at which blindness occurs, stating that personal experiences of perceptions in early life are of particular importance to cognitive and emotional development. These levels are presented below:

1.      Total blindness, congenital or acquired before five years of age.

2.      Total blindness, acquired after five years of age.

3.      Partial blindness, congenital.

4.      Partial blindness, acquired [after 5 years of age].

Berthold Lowenfeld (1981: p.67)


In his study, Lowenfeld argues that children who are congenitally blind should be seen as an entirely different category to each of the others. These people are, he argues, the only category of person that has never experienced light perception, and therefore have a completely different frame of reference in language and intellectual development.


However the ability to define broad physiological and psychological categories such as Lowenfeld’s are questioned by Simon Hayhoe (2005b) and David Warren (1994). Warren in particular argues that there are so many different influences on a child during their early development, including their social and cultural background and their intellectual influences that it appears to be impossible to categorise blind people so accurately. This, he continues, is the basis of the argument for an individual approach to the definition of people who are blind.


However despite models such as Warren’s, which take account of non-clinical factors, research into blindness, art and aesthetics appears to use their own categories of blindness based on “loose” groups of what is perceived to be a perceptual commonality. The review of this research below, discusses this commonality.


Studies of the Nature of Perception: Traditional Styles of Research


            Historically Richard Gregory (1987) finds that the contemporary study of the psychology and philosophy of aesthetics and blindness dates back to some of the earliest works of the Enlightenment. Furthermore, these studies have created a model which focuses only on total blindness and touch. The earliest studies of people with visual impairment were of their understanding of perception. These seem to be inspired in part by the question of Molyneux in 1690 in a letter to Locke. In this letter, featured in appendix 2, Molyneux asked whether a man born blind could recognise by sight what he had only previously touched after gaining his sight.


Although much philosophical discussion followed on this subject, most notably that of Denis Diderot and Sanderson (Diderot, 2001), prior to the twentieth century this issue was only empirically tested in 1709, when the philosopher and physician George Berkeley was able to study a young man who had recently had congenital cataracts removed.


During observations of this man after he recovered his sight, Berkeley discovered that, although the man did not recognise objects by sight initially, after he had touched the objects as well as seeing them he could shortly afterwards recognise the objects by sight alone. As a result, he offered the initial conclusion to this problem, feeling that people born blind would awaken without an understanding of their conditions and environment. These would have to be learnt again through sight.

[A] man born blind, being made to see, would at first have no idea of distance by sight; the sun and stars, the remotest objects as well as the nearer, would all seem to be in his eye, or rather in his mind...

Berkeley (1910: p.187)


Although the philosophical and medical study of touch and blindness continued for over two centuries, it appears that it was not until the twentieth century that a structured, empirically testable, scientific psychological theory of non-visual touch aesthetics developed. Although there appears to be no specific narrative of the development of this study, it seems that this theory developed in two directions:

  • In the US a psychological theory of touch vocabulary was proposed by Katz & Gibson, which was fundamentally distinct from previous medical studies (Schiff & Foulke, 1982) – such studies borrowed a great deal from a more recent philosophical development of a theory of phenomenology
  • In Europe an empirical study was developed by von Senden, focusing specifically on the replication of Berkeley’s earlier study (Gregory, 1974)


This segment now continues by discussing the continuance of these studies.


The earliest psychological studies

There are documented educational experiments which feature case studies of students who are blind, using touch to understand artefacts from early in the twentieth century by Charlton-Deas in the UK and then, slightly later, numerous museum educators in the US (Charlton-Deas, 1913; Bartlett, 1955). It appears, however, that their empirical nature can be seen as relative to those of other studies in the twentieth century conducted in laboratory settings.


These apparently more subjective observational studies involved descriptive studies of students from local schools for the blind being led around museums and galleries and then asking them to re-create the objects they had experienced. In their conclusions they argued that these students showed an aesthetic appreciation of these objects, and an ability to understand their material and spatial artistic properties. Furthermore they found much could be gained from museum courses based on similar methods in the future.


However, it appears that these studies did not lead to a corpus of knowledge about the aesthetic appreciation of artefacts by people who are blind. Their documentation also does not appear to provide a clear, replicable methodology, or a delineation between or definition of students who were partially sighted and those who were blind.


According to Schiff & Foulke, it was not until Katz & Gibson’s studies emerged that there appeared to be acknowledgements that touch could be investigated as a controllable psychological phenomenon. Indeed, it appears to be Katz & Gibson’s studies that were to later inspire discussion by B Lowenfeld (1980), and which encouraged a train of developmental psychology concerned with the welfare of children who were blind. However, it was not until von Senden’s study, published only in German in 1932, that the more extensive body of replicable theory seemed to evolve (Revesz, 1950).


Nonetheless, Geza Revesz (1950) states that unlike Berkeley’s earlier study, von Senden collected published records of subjects who were blind, but had subsequently been cured through surgery, rather that on observations of patients. Von Senden’s findings, although apparently vague, also appeared to contradict Berkeley’s earlier discovery, and cast doubt on whether people who were early or congenitally blind had any sense of spatial perception.


From this collation, he concluded that the sense of touch of these subjects created little or no part in their conception of objects or space. Von Senden’s findings were called in question by Revesz, and his methods were heavily criticised as lacking both empirical rigour and an understanding of the different developmental categories of blindness. The excerpt below illustrates this criticism.

Senden (sic.) has further paid no attention to the time that has elapsed between the operation and the testing, nor to the presence or absence of any psychological data about the condition of the patient before the operation…

Revesz (1950: P.15)


It is argued in later literature (Gregory, 1974) that Revesz’s own empirical study, which provided a scientific methodology for the study of touch, blindness and aesthetics, later became more important than von Senden’s. In this study Revesz (1950) combined an evaluation of von Senden’s case studies, observations under controlled laboratory conditions with people who were early blind, blind-folded and sighted, who all touched and reproduced artefacts.


Revesz’s analysis included a number of theoretical areas: spatial perception, haptic (active touch) perception of objects and the nature of aesthetics and creativity. Furthermore, during the study Revesz also reviewed a number of historical case studies of artists who were blind or partially sighted. These case studies ranged from artists practicing over a hundred years on Continental Europe, and all but one of these was late blind. He made this choice of subjects as these were the only reliable case studies available.


Most of Revesz’s data is presented as verbal observations, artefacts that were produced during the experiments, photographs of the actions of the creative process and quantitative measurements of making times and ratios of the objects and their copies. Revesz’s analysis of his own observations and case studies tends to suggest that many of the negative assumptions of von Senden’s should be rejected. These appear to be based on the following arguments:

  1. Revesz discovered that there appear to be two types of artistic viewer: the haptic type and the visual type – those that enjoy touching objects and those that rely mainly on sight. Moreover, these two types of viewer do not depend on the viewer’s level of sight.
  2. Revesz found that the viewers who were blind had a form of spatial perception and could understand the objects they were given; they could identify their features and could differentiate between elements of different pieces.


Despite his disagreement with von Senden’s analysis of haptic spatial perception, Revesz (1950) rejected any possible notion of an aesthetic appreciation of beauty or the creation of images of “truly” aesthetic beauty, without any understanding of visual memories. In particular, Revesz concluded that the only source of beauty that can be transmitted from an artists to their viewers are colour and allegorical symbolism. The excerpt below from his essay illustrates this point.

 [From] what sources could a blind person, who has never seen the world with all its wealth of forms and colour, derive those manifold experiences?... [No] one born blind is able to become aware of the diversity of nature and to apprehend all the rich and various appearances of objects.

Revesz (1950: p. 316-7)


From these early twentieth century studies a theme appears to emerge. Educationalists who had worked with students who were blind were persuaded of the artistic ability of their students, whereas theoretical and experimental psychologists, who observed people who were blind from a distance recognised that the abilities of spatial perception and symbolic discrimination could be derived from purely haptic perception.


However psychologists from this period appeared to doubt that any “truly” aesthetic pleasures or a symbolic appreciation of beauty could be gained from this perception. It was however the empiricists who were to create the corpus of theory that could be methodologically reproduced and thus discussed more accurately. Hence the following studies on this subject referred to von Senden and Revesz’s studies, whilst effectively ignoring the earlier museum studies.


Contemporary studies of Molyneux’s question

The next study to test these theories was by Gregory (1974) in the early and mid 1960s, in what became perhaps the most influential contemporary study of recovery from blindness. Gregory studied a man who was congenitally blind (named SB) who had gained his sight at the age of fifty two. To study this phenomenon, Gregory and his assistant, Wallace, followed SB observing his actions in different situations, but mainly contriving situations in which he could be tested by more empirical methods.


These methods included visits to museums and city centres in which reactions to his first visual perceptions could be recorded. In an additional exercise, he was also observed performing set exercises. For example he [SB] found that when looking down from a high window (about 30-40 feet above the ground) he thought that he could safely lower himself down by his hands. (Gregory, 1974: p.101). In an additional exercise, Gregory & Wallace asked SB to draw he was most doubtful of his ability to draw, but once started, he enjoyed it, and attacked it with concentration. (Gregory, 1974: p. 107).


The data collected from all of Gregory’s observations and exercises are partly object based in the form of SB’s drawings and other artefacts. However, in addition, Gregory also presents detailed notes, a case study of all their observations, and health and school records. Gregory also appears at pains to describe the medical history and previous medical diagnosis and legal definition of SB as a person who had been legally registered blind since birth.


In his analysis, Gregory (1974) concurs with the earlier propositions of Berkeley and Revesz, and rejects the suggestions of von Senden that blindness retards a sense of spatial perception. Furthermore, unlike Revesz and von Senden, Gregory suggests that people who have never seen can appreciate objects aesthetically and discriminate between different forms of beauty, imposing emotional judgements and discrimination between objects that are pleasant and unpleasant. It was just that their attitudes were formed from different experiences and stimuli.

One may even say that their [people who are congenitally blind] attempt to see was made long before their eyes were opened to the light, and in this respect they differ not only from most other cases in the literature but also of course from infants...

(Gregory, 1974: p.114)


Unfortunately, Gregory also found that the differences between SB’s blind world and his sighted one were often very confusing and led to conflicts within what appeared to be perceptual “cultures”. Gregory found that SB could, on occasions, transfer his tactile perceptions to his visual ones after a period of time. He called this phenomenon Cross Modal Transfer (CMT).


Gregory also finds that the shock of being faced with a completely new perceptual world led to him experiencing bouts of depression. Although SB often tried to recreate a non-visual world in private, often sitting at home and turning off all the lights, it is reported that he never really became comfortable with his visual world and died shortly afterwards.


More recently, Gregory’s findings have been confirmed in a replication of this study by the neurologist Oliver Sacks (1993). Sacks observed a fifty year old man, Virgil who had been virtually blind since early childhood. He had thick cataracts, and was said also to have rinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that slowly but implacably eats away at the retinas... (Sacks, 1993: p.63) but recovered his sight after an operation. In his study, Sacks appeared to take as detailed an approach to describing the legal and medical nature of Virgil’s blindness as Gregory previously did, although in addition he referred to the diaries of Virgil’s sister, collected from childhood to the time of the study.


In terms of methodology, Sacks discovered that his medical tests provided little usable or objective data, and thus questioned the validity of previous medically based case studies analysed by von Senden and Berkeley. Instead he argued that Gregory’s methodological tools and models of analysis were more useful.


However, despite following Gregory’s lead in his theoretical approach, and unlike the more object based data presentation of Gregory in which he included drawings, Sacks presents a purely verbal case study. For example, after first meeting the subject at the airport, Sacks described [Virgil pointing] to all of the cars we passed... ’Look at that one’ he exclaimed once. ‘I have to look down!’ and bending felt it. (Sacks, 1993: p.66).


In his analysis, Sacks’ findings appeared to largely confirm Gregory’s earlier results, and cast further doubt on von Senden and Revesz’s beliefs that people who had never seen could never appreciate beauty. In particular, Sacks found that Virgil had similar difficulties adjusting to a different set of aesthetic judgements, causing him to become depressed and to recreate his earlier blindness, suggesting that Virgil indeed had a different set of emotional references when perceiving his surrounding environment. Furthermore, unlike SB, Virgil re-lost sight shortly afterwards, leading Sacks to observe:

[Now] a final visual impairment - a visual impairment he received as a gift. Now, at last, Virgil is allowed to see, allowed to escape from the glaring and confusing world of sight and space, and to return to his own being, the touch world that has been his home for almost fifty years.”

(Sacks, 1993: p.73)


What now follows in this segment is a discussion of more contemporary notions of blindness and aesthetic perception.


Further discussions on the nature of perception

            There appear to be differences in opinion amongst contemporary philosophers. This difference appears to differ in part according to methods of analysis and subjects of analysis. Two contemporary essays by the sighted philosophers Bryan Magee (Magee & Milligan, 1995) and Thomas Nagel (1991) relied on the methodology of introspection, and appeared to doubt whether people who have never seen can ever have a true sense of aesthetic appreciation of objects, which they claim are intrinsically visual.


Similarly Robert Hopkins (2003), who reviewed psychological and philosophical literature, suggested that aesthetic understanding is based on an understanding of the media being observed. In the fine arts in particular, having used introspective analysis, he argued that only sculpture can be appreciated for its beauty without vision, whereas two dimensional art works appear inaccessible to people who are blind.


However David Feeney (2004), who analysed literature on the theatrical arts, and Bruno del Tufo (2005) who reviewed the work of artists and students who were blind, in more recent studies of aesthetics and an understanding of language appeared to disagree. They find that the vocabulary and understanding of people who are blind and have observed all forms of artefacts are as rich and developed as people who are sighted, and suggest a developed understanding of their whole environment.


Similarly since Gregory’s study, more experimental psychologists, who have used a range of empirical, laboratory based methodologies, have created a general corpus of theory that would tend to support the broader argument that aesthetics are accessible to people who are blind. In a study of the comprehension of spatial awareness through haptic touch, for example, Jones (1970) compared the tactile perception of several sighted and early and congenitally blind school children, their ages ranging from five to twelve.


Although Jones appears to support a relatively loose definition of blindness, and his methodology does not appear to be as rigid or structured as Gregory’s study - Jones defined blindness as at most perception [of] light, (Jones, 1970: p.37) – his results do appear to show a more sophisticated understanding of the differences in aesthetic spatial perception when derived purely from non-visual means.


During his study, Jones blind-folded sighted children, and compared them by age to children who were blind, in order to create a “fairer” developmental comparison. Jones then pressed the tip of a pencil onto the arms of the children, and they attempted to mark the spot where they had just been touched with their own pencils. The difference was measured, and the results presented quantitatively.


In his analysis of the data, Jones argues that although the blind children are inferior to sighted children in complex shape discriminations, they are more accurate than the sighted in terms of [the] basic tactile... sensations involved, (Jones, 1970: p. 38) arguably suggesting that children who are early and congenitally blind derive more accurate spatial information through their skin, although the shape of objects is better understood when viewed “as a whole” through sight.


Similar conclusions were presented by Dobson (1982) and Dodds (1980) who conducted experiments on the haptic spatial awareness of students who were congenitally or early blind and those who were sighted, and relied only on their sense of touch under laboratory conditions. In particular, they argued that there appears to be a difference that cannot be accounted for using the traditional frameworks and analysis of “understanding” usually associated with studies of sighted awareness. Dodds concludes:

[Von] Senden’s view that the congenitally blind cannot represent space must now be laid to rest. [The] findings that at least one congenitally blind subject could achieve such a feat [understand spatial perception to suggest they understood perspective] leads to a fairly firm rejection of such a notion.

Dodds (1980: p. 133)


This corpus of knowledge is not the only one focusing on the non-visual aesthetic appreciation and understanding of artefacts, based on the philosophical debates of earlier eras. This theme has also been investigated by applied psychologists and educational psychologists, who have tried to apply this knowledge in different branches of the arts and education to the process of student learning. These studies appear to fall into two categories: studies of three dimensional aesthetics/spatial awareness and blindness, and studies of “two dimensional” awareness and blindness. These are presented in the following two segments in this chapter.


Studies of Three Dimensional Aesthetics/Spatial Awareness and Blindness


            Many arts theorists and educationalists have appeared to consider three dimensional modelling to be the main, and occasionally the only, form of art education accessible to people who are blind (Hayhoe, 2003), whilst only a few appear to accept that some two dimensional representation is accessible to students who are blind (Mülheis, 2004; De Coster & Loots, 2004; Harris, 1979).


As a result, previous educational models have appeared to favour three-dimensional art education models, based on haptic (active) or proprioceptive (often referred to as passive or intramuscular) touch. These models appear to be supported by a corpus of research derived from the work of psychologists such as Revesz, von Senden and Gregory, but have more recently led to a separate corpus of theory on the nature of creative activity in education itself.


Although research on blindness and aesthetic appreciation has appeared to determine a “post-Revesz” era after Gregory’s study in the 1960s, researchers continued to use his model to study the three dimensional representation of models by children who were blind under laboratory conditions (Witkin et. al., 1968; Kinsbourne & Lempert, 1980).


However, as important to our understanding of building three dimensional models it is arguable that studies of the understanding and performance of students who were blind in their classes, and those who focused on the use of touch and modelling as a form of emotional and intellectual development, have provided the most valuable insights. In particular they have not only provided an understanding of the nature of perceptual awareness, they have also examined social and historical settings. These are now discussed below.


Studies on emotional development and three dimensional modelling

            The original topic of study in this area was the use of three dimensional modelling as a form of language, similar to an iconic version of the tactile deaf-blind language. This appeared to be a very different focus of study from the parallel studies that were around at the same time as von Senden, which focused on perception as a channel of aesthetic appreciation devoid of any intermediate layer of abstraction or emotion.


It appears that the first educator to study this field was Viktor Lowenfeld, who, after training as a sculptor, started work as a primary teacher in a school for the blind in the early 1930’s. In his first post, Lowenfeld (Micheal, 1981) presented a case study in which he taught a congenitally blind and deaf girl, Camilla, how to sculpt in an Austrian school for severely blind children. This was thought almost impossible at the time.


In this study, Lowenfeld found that through the creation of a system of communication involving both him touching her and her touching him, and through the joint creation of artefacts in a one-to-one teaching ratio, he could build Camilla’s confidence and give her an expressive outlet not present before.


Before he began his educational experiment, Lowenfeld found Camilla rarely communicated with the other staff or students at the school, and was often unruly (Michael, 1981). However, this situation seemed to change after a series of exercises based around modelling. In the example of his first exercise, Lowenfeld formed a model of a human body from clay coils.


After making this model he attempted to communicate her body parts through first touching the model with her, and then touching her body part to which the part of the model had related. At first this method did not work. However, as the excerpt below appears to suggest, after a period she appears to have developed a sense of aesthetic understanding and communication of her body in relation to Lowenfeld’s.

Then one day I had her sitting close to me. I started with the thick coil again. And this time I went over her body again and then took her hand and let her touch the thick coil.... All of a sudden she shouted “Eeeeee!” and she grabbed the clay. For the very first time I had the feeling that we had both communicated.”

Michael (1981: p. 12-13)


After moving to the US before the Second World War, Lowenfeld continued his arts education work and research with children with sight and visual impairments. However, during this time his research method became based more upon artistic objects rather than their creators (this is referred to as object based research), and he presents less case studies of individuals but seems to create much more structured scientific data, constructed around large studies of many students (Lowenfeld, 1959; Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1987).


In addition, it is also noted that from his descriptions, it is apparent that many of his subjects with visual impairments were partially sighted rather than blind. From these later studies, it appears that Lowenfeld became more aware of studies such as those by Revesz, as he used his model of the haptic[3] and visual types to describe two classifications of children, through their making habits.


However, unlike those conducting experimental psychology at the time, Lowenfeld concentrated on developmental definitions of blindness, similar to his brother, Berthold Lowenfeld (1981), rather than visual acuity. Furthermore these appeared to be based on individual aesthetic appreciation rather than levels of visual perception. Below is a description of the two types that Lowenfeld describes.

Some weak sighted people immediately apply their eyes too closely to anything which attracts their attention…. Others, even though they possess considerable visual power, approach everything through the sense of touch… Let us call the first the visual type; and the other the haptic type, although both designations are imperfect.”

V. Lowenfeld (1959: p. 87)


Lowenfeld’s belief in the importance of understanding an emotional as well as physical and cognitive development has also been demonstrated through ethnographic studies of art classes by Hayhoe (1995, 1995b, 2000, 2003). He finds that aesthetic appreciation appears to be developed by individual personality types, based on factors described by Warren (1994), rather than levels of perception.


Furthermore, as Sacks (2003) has recently argued in a review of biographies, an appreciation of the need to touch, like the need to see, has led to a greater appreciation of introspective studies by authors who are blind in their description of a true understanding of touch as a primary perception.


In particular, authors who are blind such as Benson & McNeice (1974) and Hull (2003) argue that their sense of aesthetics is culturally important to them, allowing them to preserve or indeed create a new form of cultural identity as they come to terms with their blindness. In this way, they argue, people who are blind feel that the communication of cultural symbols is of the utmost importance to their sense of social identity, which is often stolen by other means. The excerpt below illustrates this concept.

We have learned much through our hands, through our tactile comprehensions, and proprioceptive deep muscle sensitivities. We truly comprehend the meaning of hundreds upon hundreds of word concepts only because we have literally felt the hot stove, the cold ice, the sharp edge of a knife.

Benson & McNeice (1974: p. 46)


In his review in particular, Sacks (2003) argues that the minds of people who are blind have chosen how to distinguish between objects that are beautiful and ugly, pleasant and unpleasant, as well as choosing to preserve visual memories or to reject them in favour of a new, sightless, emotional world. In this recent review of biographies of people who became blind later in life, Sacks in particular illustrates this notion through descriptions of the imaginative experiences of two authors, Hull and Torey.


Torey claims that his visual perceptions are now enhanced as a result of his blindness. Hull, however, claims to have lost all sense and memory of what it is to see. Both men’s minds, he feels, had therefore chosen a course for their imaginations based on their individual experiences, before and since becoming blind. Furthermore, this also brings into question, Sacks continues, the scope of the other senses in creating emotional images of artefacts or environments.

[One] can no longer say of one’s mental landscape what is visual, what is auditory, what is image, what is language, what is intellectual, what is emotional – they are all fused together and imbued with our own individual perspectives and values.

Sacks (2003: p.59)


This notion also appears to be the subject of more empirical research. This segment continues to discuss these studies.


The role of the other senses in art and aesthetics

            Notions of the role of other senses, and their place in the creation of holistic, emotional and aesthetic images have also appeared in experimental studies, such as the ongoing research of the Secrets of the Senses project at Oxford University (Spence, 2003). Furthermore, although arguably more subjective, an early study by the Senior Master of the Royal Liverpool School for the Blind (1970), showed that the verbal representation of non-visual images also showed a complex picture of emotional “imagery” in his students.


In this experiment, the Senior Master compiled a list of words he considered un-representative of visual concepts. These included words such as “buzz,” “drum” and “deafening.” A group of blind children of different ages and IQs were then asked if they could comprehend these words, and a list of the results was then compiled as rhetorical comments, from the most comprehensible at the top to the least at the bottom. After conducting these tests, the Senior Master concluded that experience had allowed students to cross-reference words they had experienced with words that were often associated with more visual concepts.

[The] liveliness of the children’s response convinced me that the vocabularies of sound, touch, smell, and taste, even though together only equal to the vocabulary of sight, are formed by a common and rich interpretation of experience.

Senior Master of the Royal Liverpool School for the Blind (1970: p. 58)


Although experience of “whole world” concepts have reason to suggest that people who are blind have a developed a sense of aesthetics, studies pertaining to understanding of two dimensional concepts appear to suggest a more complex, more controversial debate. However it is also arguable that their model of development still appears to be based on traditional cognitive reasoning. It is to a review of these studies that this chapter now turns.


Studies of two dimensional awareness and blindness


Yvonne Eriksson (2003) argues that as the study of this phenomenon has been undertaken over a long period, an abundant corpus of data on this particular topic is available. Hayhoe (2003) has also observed that contemporary theories appear to be similar to modern, physiological / psychological versions of the letters between John Locke and William Molyneux, rather than being based on traditional drawing and painting observations.


Within this corpus of research the most prevalent factor appears to be the cognitive process of converting three dimensional artefacts and environments into two dimensional representations. These studies are again undertaken in highly controlled laboratory conditions. They are also still interested only in perceptual comparisons. For instance, these researchers compare the work of children with sight and those who are blind (Gabias, 2003; Jansson & Holmes, 2003; Heller, 2003; Kennedy, 1974, 1993, 1997; Millar, 1975).


It appears that the most common current debate is that of the inherent ability to draw and paint. This debate is now discussed below.


Nature vs nurture in two-dimensional representation

John Kennedy’s (2003) recent review of research examines the tactile ability of people who are blind in comprehending two dimensional artefacts. His own early experiments in particular feature haptic drawings perceived and created by people who were early and congenitally blind. These experiments have shown that people who are blind can perceive through touch alone elements of drawings which were previously only thought to be visual.


Furthermore Kennedy argues his findings advocate a non-taught, inherent ability to draw. Kennedy (1983; Kennedy & Merkas, 2000) in particular feels that by comparing ancient drawings, such as cave paintings, to those of people who are blind, we can observe such elements in their un-tutored, un-manipulated state.


As a result, Kennedy (2003) argues that a two dimensional language can be established that is understandable to all people, whether presented as visual or tactile graphics. Similar findings under laboratory conditions, based on Kennedy’s arguments, appear also to have been established by Ron Hinton (1991). In the excerpt below Hinton finds in particular that studies of raised line drawings by people with various levels of vision appear to show a similar understanding to certain tactile cues, that suggest a commonality of perceptual experience.

In an outline drawing, key facts about the sizes, shapes and locations of objects can be shown in a form of representation that requires less training than any code or language, less time than listening to a description, and little if any translation of its message to be universally understood.

Hinton (1991: p. 82)


Further research suggests a commonality of understanding through touch elements of drawings that are often thought to be purely visual, such as the concepts of perspective and understanding of visual metaphors. In particular Kennedy (1993) studied the comprehension of drawing by children who are early and congenitally blind and children who are sighted, and studied how they understood similar drawings.


During observations, Kennedy discovered that children who are blind not only have a basic sense of foreshortening (Kennedy, 1993), but also symbols meant to suggest distant movements, such as speed lines in a cartoon (Kennedy & Merkas, 2000). He concludes from this analysis that there is also a universal understanding of extreme visual representations of distance after training in this area.


However, Kennedy’s findings are strongly disputed by authors such as the philosopher Rob Hopkins (2000). He feels that people who are blind have the ability to realise that distance leads to a narrowing of objects. This occurs when reaching forward into the distance. This ability, he argues, is learnt more simply, and the cognitive functions that produce this level of understanding must be different for people who are blind and those who are sighted.


Despite disagreements on the inherent nature of perception and cognition, Kennedy (see personal correspondence in appendix 2) claims that a corpus of knowledge is finally developing on the development of a bio-social model of blindness. This can draw from the varying debates on the differences of the reproduction of sighted and blind experiences.


It is also Kennedy’s view that this new corpus is based on a concept in which its participants work towards the goal of understanding the likeness of perceptual ability – a scientific, experimentally testable stance – and, although in contrast to his own theories, allows for the historical and social context to be considered. The ideas that represent Kennedy’s standpoint are again described in the email to Hopkins, interested parties, and participants in a teleconference organised by Art Education for the Blind, New York in appendix 2.


The following segment presents conclusions on this chapter.




            As I have attempted to show in this chapter, the study of blindness, art and aesthetics has a complex history, which has led to many different corpi of theory development, and which has often used the most extreme definitions and diagnosis of blindness as its subject. It is arguable, and this point was made in the earlier review on this topic (Hayhoe, 2003), that because many of these studies have featured the vast minority of the blind population who have never had any usable sight, they appear to be more interested in human thought in general rather than the education of the blind. Thus questions could be raised as to the best methods of researching the aesthetic art education of the blind.


Admittedly, there are many elements of this type of research that are often helpful in the education of students. They arguably represent a more contemporary model of research and writing in the field. Although these researchers were and are fascinated by the structure of thought and how their general understanding could add to knowledge, their research arguably has political as well as practical and humanitarian motives. However it is questionable that their models of research have adapted to these motivations.


It is to a search for new models, and their effects, that this study now turns. In the following chapters, I present a new model of investigating this problem as a study of studies and knowledge, an epistemology. In doing so I historically analyse the contexts of the models created for academic research in this field outside of the laboratory and the philosopher’s study, and investigate why, if as Sacks, Jones and Spence are to be believed, tactility is not the only form of examination we should be investigating, eventhough 300 years of research and debate has focused almost solely on it.


This study now turns to the effect of these 300 years of study, and investigates whether the definitions and the structure of our understanding of blindness and art, its classifications and definitions, have helped or, as I suggest in my hypothesis, occasionally hindered the lived reality of art classes for students who are blind. In particular, this study now focuses on the cultural aspects of an understanding of the visual arts. I begin this process in the following chapter by describing this new model of investigation.



© Simon Hayhoe 2005, 2007

[1]The scientific scale that is used to measure visual acuity is often the Snellen chart, the chart which contains letters which become smaller from the top of the chart to the bottom.

[2] Achromatism is the inability to see any colours other than black and white.

[3] Haptic children are those that refer to non-visual cues when making art works.


Eco Sound Logo 


To contact us:




We are based in:


Leicester, UK