This Is What I Gained When I Went Blind

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Dear Blindness,

As with all good and bad memories, the day you came into my life is a day I will never forget. After years of being able to see, imagine my surprise when you showed up.

At first, I hated you. You took so much away from me! Because of you, I would never drive a car again, I would never see the sunshine or the smile on my husband’s face. Because of you, I would no longer see the flowers blooming in the spring after a long hard winter. Because of you, I would no longer have a life.

Or so I thought.

But…

Because of you, I don’t worry about getting stressed out fighting with traffic.

Because of you I hear the smile in my husband’s voice.

Because of you I feel the warmth of the sun upon my face or the coolness of the rain against my skin.

Because of you, instead of looking for the color of the rose I actually take the time to smell it.

Because of you, dear Blindness, I’m no longer afraid to speak to strangers, and some of those strangers have become dear friends.

Because of you, I no longer sit on the side lines while others advocate for what is right. I’m leading the pack!

So, I have to say, dear Blindness, for everything you took and for all the anger and tears you caused, you gave me so much in return. You didn’t take my life; you just taught me a different way to live it. In a way, you helped me find the person deep inside I always was.

You gave me, me.

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Meet Smiley, a dog born without eyes who now works as a therapy dog at St. John’s Ambulance in Stouffville, Canada.

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Joanne George rescued Smiley from a puppy mill when he was about 1 or 2 years old, according to ABC. George also owns a deaf Great Dane named Tyler. While Tyler is more energetic, Smiley has great people skills and does well in crowds. He uses his charm to connect with nursing home patients. Smiley works as a service dog and visits nursing homes and schools with his owner.

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The Incredible Way Blind Museum-goers Can Now Experience Famous Paintings

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In museums all over the world, one rule trumps all others: look but don’t touch. But what if you can’t look? Why should being blind prevent a person from appreciating works of art that are not only masterpieces but also an important part of their country’s cultural history?

That was the question facing the Madrid’s Prado museum. The Prado has worked hard over recent years to widen access to its collections, investing in outreach programs or simply installing wheelchair ramps throughout its historic galleries. Up until now, however, blind and partially sighted people have been unable to enjoy the museum’s vast collection, which includes iconic works by Goya, El Greco and Velázquez.

The solution, the curators concluded, was not simply offering audio or braille guides, but to create elaborate 3-D replicas of key works, which visitors could touch. By inviting them to break the “no touching” rule in their new “Touching the Prado” exhibit, visually impaired visitors can at last gain some appreciation of the works on display.

Photo courtesy of the Prado

As Marina Chinchilla, the deputy director of administration at the Prado, explained: “Our ultimate goal is to open the museum to the public as widely as possible, giving as many people the chance to enjoy the artistic treasures we have in our collection, including those with no or limited sight.”

More than a year ago, then, the museum invited companies from across Spain to pitch for the project before choosing Estudios Durero, a Basque company specializing in the fine arts. What set them apart from their rivals was that, rather than using standard 3-D printing, they have developed a technique that they call “Didú,” which allows them to produce works that are both rich in texture and color.

“You have to remember that not everyone who is registered blind can see nothing at all,” said Cristina Velasco, the head designer at Estudios Durero. “Many have some at least a little vision. For this reason, we knew we had to replicate the original colors as closely as possible. This ruled normal 3-D printing out as even the most advanced 3-D printer still cannot come anywhere near reproducing the colors and shades of a masterpiece.”

While keen to keep the exact details of their process a secret, Velasco explained that it involves taking a high resolution image of a painting and then working with the blind and partially sighted members of the team to identify which details need to be emphasized to provide reference points for a blind person’s hands. For instance, the eyes of a painted figure always need to be made concave rather than convex to provide a universal reference point for blind viewers.

“Blind people think of the eyes like holes, and these give them a good starting point from which they can work outwards,” Velasco said.

Courtesy of the Prado

At the same time, the curators gave their input into which works from the extensive Prado collection were most suitable.

“If there’s too much fine detail in a painting, it would be too hard to convey this using the technology we have, and it would be too much for the reader to take in,” Velasco said. “So we had to choose paintings that were artistically significant yet not too detailed. Plus they had to be the right size. Could you imagine trying to feel your way around [Picasso’s] ‘Guernica?’”

The designers incorporated these details into a new image printed with special ink. A chemical mix was then added to the marked areas, giving them texture and volume (“just like you add yeast to bread to make it rise,” Velasco explained), and finally, the real image, complete with the original colors was printed onto this contour.

The finished exhibition features copies of six paintings, all historically significant masterpieces. These include “A Nobleman With His Hand on His Chest” by Goya, “Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan” by Velázquez and a contemporaneous copy of the “Mona Lisa.” Alongside these are braille guides and audio commentaries that also help guide visitors through what they are feeling.

So, can the clever use of textures and contours really bring a masterpiece to life this way? So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Courtesy of the Prado

“I know I’m never going to be able to see colors or experience this art the way a sighted person can, but this is still a major step forward,” said Rocio Fernandez, one of the first visitors to the exhibition.

A Madrid native, Fernandez was born blind and is only now visiting the Prado for the first time. The 3-D printed copy of the Velázquez work merits special praise as she uses both hands to read the contours.

“Yes, I can feel the texture of the skin, the short beards and even the look of surprise on the men’s mouths,” Fernandez said. “We learned all about the great Spanish artists at school, of course, but it’s only now that I can start to understand what made them special in their own unique ways. But again, I do know that I am still missing out on so much.”

However detailed the replicas done for this exhibition may be, opening visual art up to the visually impaired is still in its infancy.

“We’re constantly looking at new ways of representing skin, hair and fabric so as to give the most realistic portrayal of the original work as possible,” Velasco said. “We’re also working on representing images of different materials like metal and glass through touch.”

Plans are also in place to further expand the current exhibition to incorporate a wider sample of the Prado’s collection and to make other museums and galleries more accessible to the visually impaired.

“This project has been getting quite a bit of attention around Europe and, though I can’t say who, we are in talks with other institutions about the possibility of working with them in the future,” Velasco said. “Most curators are now determined to make art even more accessible, and now we have the technology to do it, giving blind people the chance to share this part of our culture just seems the right thing to do.”

Written by David Hewitt

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When you become visually-impaired, you lose a lot of your confidence and your pride is shaken,” Linda Audain, who works at Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, told ABC. “And when I came here and got the training… I felt like I got my swagger back.”

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Ben Yonnatan, 13, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was diagnosed with retinal dystrophy last year and since then, his field of vision has dramatically narrowed, according to CBS News. Now, his range of sight is comparable to looking through a straw.

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