My Heart Is Not Blind
My Heart Is Not Blind: On Blindness & Perception is a traveling exhibition by Michael Nye, featuring photographs and audio recordings of people with visual impairment that Nye interviewed over many years to understand the nature of blindness and human resilience. The book of the same title was published in 2019 by Trinity University Press.
Not all blind people are blind. Not all sighted people can see. Knowing what the world looks like is not a requirement for understanding. Over the last seven years I have been listening to men and women who are blind or visually impaired. It's been a rare privilege to have these deep and personal conversations. My ears saw much more than my eyes.
As a result of blindness, what have they found out about their other senses? How can new meaning be extracted from familiar sounds? How is perception increased from a cultivation of attention? Why does the general public carry such prejudice?
This exhibition is about the experience of blindness and visual impairment, but also about the nature of perception and human adaptation. It is about what we have in common, and the fragility that is a part of our shared human condition.
Blindness is not what the public thinks it is. For many, darkness and change are deeply frightening. Whenever I hear any sighted person speak of blindness, it is always about limitations. The conversations are rarely about competency or newfound perspectives. When something is taken away, often something else takes its place.
Each person I met who lost his or her eyesight after having vision went through an initial period of depression and desperation. Language seems so inadequate to describe such early seasons of despair. The first year of blindness is extremely different from long-term adaptation. Neuroplasticity is the remarkable story that supports the brain's ability to reorganize itself to favor non-visual thinking and orientation.
When a person loses sight, he or she remains a whole, vibrant individual. They do not lose their intelligence, personalities, personal histories, and all the egalitarian promises of equal rights. Many become more courageous and determined. Burns Taylor lost his vision at age three when his older brother, age nine, shot him in the face. He has been a university professor and author. He describes his essential questions of existence: "How do you learn to live with something that society makes you feel ashamed of; makes you feel that you are not as capable and not whole? That's something that I have to live with every day."
Perception is deeper than we can imagine and more mysterious. Our other senses have their own wisdom separate from sight. Voices expose sincerity and character. Sounds are not just sounds but have origins and destinations. Memory awakens and tilts. What becomes more sensitive is awareness from a cultivation of attention.
To understand another person requires a shift in perspective. I hope visitors who spend time with these wonderful people will be as moved as I have been.
Marti Hathorn spoke emphatically about being fully present in her life. "I wouldn't describe seeing as being a better sense than any of the others. People ignore their other senses. So much is missed. How would I answer someone who says, "Why travel if you can't see? My response to them would be, "Why do anything?" Experience is not just visual. It's feeling emotion. Tactile. It's smelling. It's listening. There are so many ways to experience moments to their fullest."
My name is Dean. I live in Mililani, Hawaii. It's a good-sized little town in the center of the island of Oahu. I live with my wife and we have two grown children. I work for the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in the blindness services branch called Ho'opono. In Hawaiian it means "to make things right."
As a child I was night blind, so during the day was when everything happened. I remember light and brightness. I enjoyed the sunshine and the outdoors. I could imagine bright Sunday mornings and going into the woods behind our house to play with friends. My ability to progress with blindness began very young with a curiosity and a rebellious sort of questioning attitude. I'd ask questions like, "Where does this path go?" I would follow it to explore. I didn't know it at the time, but it was part of the way I learned. I always wanted to know why.
I was born with retinitis pigmentosa. The doctors told my parents that I would lose my vision eventually. They couldn't be precise about when that would happen. For the first ten years and most of my teens, I had day vision. I don't think I've ever cried out of sadness as far as being blind. I have maybe cried out of frustration, and a failure at not being able to do something. What I've learned about frustration is that it's just something that you experience on the way to success. That's the way I look at it now. It's the same if you're doing a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it doesn't come to you right away. You have to work at it, and then eventually all the pieces fit together.
If someone asked me to describe myself, the last thing I would say is blind. The first things I would say are American and father. Later, another was the identity of teacher. When I'm able to touch people's lives in a positive way and effect change that will help them as blind individuals move forward successfully, that is a great thing. One of the biggest confusing things about identity is the blindness part. It changes things. Sometimes it makes you seem limited in the eyes of others. It changes people's perception about you. Someone would say, "You're really good at something for a blind person." I believe that it's important to know another person on a one-to-one basis. When they get to know your name, what you're like, what you believe in, what you do, blindness becomes less important to them. They might even come to the point where they say, "Wow, I forget that you're blind." Good that you forget that I'm blind.
As I lost my vision, sound has become primary. I switched over to auditory learning. It wasn't an easy process but I was able to recognize the anatomy of sound. My hearing is normal. It has tested normal and it's still normal. Beyond that, what has really changed is, now, I'm able to distinguish what I hear. I had to make adjustments and notice many things about the sounds I hear. If I tap on something, depending on movement and direction, depending on the air, depending on the acoustics in the room, that same tap is going to sound different. That subtlety of sound is very important. I am confident of my ability to find my way around. I can hear a building beside me when I walk. It's because the sound is flowing around it. I can walk down a street and even catch the sound of a pole that gets between me and the sound on the other side. I can originate sounds by tapping my cane or listen to external sounds.
The whole world is a tapestry. If you were to think of a bunch of colors, that's how different sounds are coming from all the directions. You could have the same exact sound, but because of what it's around or where it's coming from, you'll be able to give it meaning.
Beauty to me is something that you are attracted to, something that you want to give time to savor and experience. Particularly here in Hawaii, the trade winds kiss your skin. The wind leaves you with a sort of a tranquil feeling under a shade tree. You don't have to see what's around you. Baseball is something I love. I love it in its symmetry, in its rules. I love it in its tradition. There are just moments in a baseball game that can be so dramatic. It's a sport that is quiet one moment, kind of a lazy pace to the game, that suddenly erupts in a burst of excitement. You can feel the energy when you hear a crack of a bat or a ball hitting a glove. And then there's the food that you smell. There are people around you who are having conversations, and it's a totally nonvisual experience that is so rich.
Like sound, touch is a very important sensory system. A lot of people think that touch is part of the hand and the fingertips. It's true, but it's a lot more. It's your skin sensing light, or the sun on your face. You're able to feel things thermally. Touch is also a sense of space. What space are you in? You can identify through sounds whether you're in a big auditorium or a small room. But being spatially aware is knowing where you are relative to another person and being able to move through space.
Blind people need to expand their reach. They need to stretch out their arms. The cane is a very important part and extension of the tactile senses. When people started to see me with my cane—that cane belonged to me and I used it proudly. A lot of people want to hide the fact that they're blind. They might use a folding cane and put it away. That is a mistake. Blindness means you do things differently. But it doesn't mean that because of blindness, you need to be treated differently.
I am the director of the New Visions Program in Honolulu. We change what it means to be blind. Blindness is not a barrier to success. Some people who lose their vision shut themselves down. It's almost self-fulfilling, because they are not doing anything. Some who've been blind all their lives can be socially backward. They haven't been exposed, because they've had parents or teachers who took control of their lives and said, "I need to watch you because I don't want you to get hurt." That person has not been allowed to grow and evolve.
A person coming to our program is not sitting around talking about their problems. What we're saying is, "Yes, we understand. Okay, now let's go to work." We have students stay with us for nine to twelve months and learn to adjust to their blindness and grow in their confidence and skills. Through the Socratic method, we teach critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Questions are the programming of your mind. If you ask, "Why am I blind?" well, you're not going to get a very good answer. But if you ask, "How can I live a positive, happy life as a blind person?" those answers will be a lot more rewarding. We're passionate. Our whole crew is passionate about our program and about teaching a newfound perspective, confidence, and skills to our students.
Many sighted people think blindness means the world is over. No, it's not over! You haven't lived with it. You haven't discovered it. You haven't played with it.
When I got to the point where I lost my remaining usable vision, I just let it go. I couldn't do it anymore. I let go and it was freeing. I felt so unburdened, because now I could focus on my strengths. I could focus on nonvisual learning. And what happened is that the world opened up.
So think of this analogythat the sun represents vision and then all of a sudden it's gone. Well, what is there? There's not nothing. There's a whole universe of stars that reveal themselves to you. If the sun was out all the time, you would never know the stars existed, at least not visually. That's what people don't know about blindness, that when you take away vision, you're not taking away everything. No, you're not! You're basically uncovering and allowing other things to be revealed to you.
Michael Nye practiced law for ten years before pursuing photography full time. He has received a Mid America National Endowment for the Arts grant in photography and two Kronkosky Charitable Foundation grants, and a Warren Skaaren Charitable Trust Grant. His journeys to photograph include projects in Russian Siberia, Iraq during the first Gulf War, Palestine, China, and Labrador. He has participated in two Arts America tours in the Middle East and Asia. His documentaries, photography & audio exhibitions, Children of Children, Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness and About Hunger & Resilience have traveled to more than 150 cities across the country. His new exhibition, My Heart Is Not Blind debuted at the Witte Museum in 2019. Trinity University Press released a book, My Heart Is Not Blind, with extended text and photographs. Nye lives in downtown San Antonio and is married to poet Naomi Shihab Nye. As a child he was called, "Mikey," in middle age, "Michael," and he is now back to "Mikey."