Education Opinion

A world without black and white

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Teaching "colour" to the vision impaired relies on kids using their "finger eyes" to explore and learn (Image by Cherie Moselen)

Bazza and Old Mate explore the mysteries: memory, colour and a world without black and white.

PRE-DAWN FOUND Bazza on his front balcony overlooking the murky Clyde River. Total darkness concealed the river but he knew it washed blue into the Pacific Ocean.

He peered into the inky blackness but first light only switched the colour to cloudy grey as fog consumed the blueness of the waters, the bottle green banks of the river and confirmed the mystery of the bush beyond.

He sipped his coffee and stared into the monotonous greyness. The vivid colours Mother Nature munificently provided whisked away by her troubled offspring — the weather.

He sighed and pondered the connection between memory and colour.

He had just returned from a motorcycle trip to the northern reaches of NSW and into the hinterland of southeast Queensland. From the strobing green black and white of the gum trees on Clyde mountain, it was country awash with colour. Meticulous weather planning by his better-organised co-riders allowed an appreciation of a countryside now bathed in vibrant colours, previously scorched brown by drought.

Bazza peered into the fog and his thoughts on colour shifted to a conversation with another old mate they had reconnected with on their travels. He had spent the intervening decades mastering Braille and was now teaching vision-impaired kids.

The teaching of concepts such as colour, size, gender and distance was essential for these kids to engage in conversation and gain an appreciation of literature.

As the fog began to set in, the memory or experience of colour was all Bazza could rely on. It was reassuring.

Appreciating colour without these visual terms of reference had him squinting into the fog and he contemplated the lines from the song ‘A Lifetime of Nighttime' by Pure Prairie League.

'I feel the clouds rolling in; I can feel the blue skies turn to grey

I feel the darkness settin in and I know the sun is going down

You see my ears they are my eyes now; I can't see a blessed thing

Oh, how I wish I could see again the joys sunlite bring.'

To teach "colour" to the vision impaired, Old Mate would rely on the kids using their "finger eyes" to explore and learn.

For the colour "brown" the student feels the textures of wood, bark or even soil and for "green" the touch of leaves or grass.

For the primary colour "red", he would guide a student’s hand towards a lighted candle and talk through shades of red at varying levels of heat or highlight its different uses by feeling the textures and appreciating the smells of raspberries and strawberries.

Bazza closed his eyes to darkness for a long moment and reopened to the grey-white fog — a world restricted to two colours.

The response to, Surely the colours "black" and "white" are the easiest to teach? had stunned Bazza.

Said Old Mate:

“No mate… almost impossible. A person born blind has no visual terms of reference. Other colours can be taught with the senses, but ‘black’ and ‘white’ are a real challenge. I’ve tried teaching ‘black’ by comparing it to total silence and ‘white’ by using constant noise like a fan or running water, but it’s pretty ineffective.”

Bazza replied:

“A world without black and white, eh? That might solve a few problems.”

John Longhurst is a former industrial advocate and political adviser. He currently works as an English and History teacher on the South Coast of NSW.

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