Reading Without Sight: A Blind Experience of the City

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

September 18, 2014
Reading the City as a Blind Person
Chris Downey, Architect and Georgina Kleege, Department of English

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Downey and Kleege spoke on their experiences navigating cities as a blind person, with perspectives shaped by their professional backgrounds.

By Jon Pitt

If the navigation of a city is a narrative movement, a linear progression from point A to point B, how does this act of reading take place? UC Berkeley English professor Georgina Kleege proposed this idea of narrative navigation in connection with her own experience as a blind person moving through the city. There may be temptation, for those with sight, to closely link vision with the act of reading. While there are obviously ways of reading texts without sight (for instance braille and numerous adaptive technologies), the metaphor of “reading a city” (if it is actually a metaphor is another question) without sight becomes a multisensory experience of its own, one described well by both Kleege and Architect Christopher Downey.

courtesy of Rosa Downey

According to Downey, the environmental sensory experience for people with sight is 80% visual. This, Downey says, does not mean there is an 80% deprivation of experience for the blind, only that this experience is more multisensory than it is for the sighted. Touch, smell, sound, and taste all become the means through which the city is read, and both Kleege and Downey’s recounting of their personal experiences of cities fleshed this out: the feel of the texture and gradient of the sidewalk, the smells and sounds of businesses with their doors open, music a little too loud coming out of ear buds.

As a student of literature, I couldn’t help but think how these seemingly small details are the very things writers, at times, try to work into their descriptions of cities. If a well-written passage that evokes a multisensory experience is relished on the page, and yet in our daily linear progression, those of us with sight rely as heavily on vision as Downey claims, wouldn’t a reassessment of our “reading habits” lead to a potentially richer and more “literary” experience of our daily navigational movements?

Jon Pitt is a graduate student in the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department studying Japanese Literature.