This article will be published in the upcoming DVI-Q.
Anyone who has worked with people who are blind or visually impaired knows that very few things are learned incidentally or casually. Such was my experience with photography. On my first school picture day, the photographer told me to open my eyes for the camera. At age five or six, I apparently opened both them and my mouth as I smiled. When my mother got the pictures later, she said, “Why were you laughing with your mouth open?” But we also talked about how I had opened my eyes so much that they didn’t look anything like my eyes look in daily life, sometimes closed and sometimes open. I am sure I still look a little stiff in pictures unless they’re candid shots, but I now know not to “stare” at the camera.
At first, I dutifully collected photographs, because everyone else did. I had pictures in frames or in albums or other types of collections which I could show people, and I knew, either from the order I placed photos, the types of frames or the size or type of photograph which picture was who or what. But capturing visual memory did very little to help me preserve my own kinds of memories.
In junior high, we received our first organized yearbooks. I thought the covers were beautiful, but other than that, they did very little for me, even with descriptions of pictures from people: “Here’s a picture of the soccer team or the jazz band.” It was customary for people to write messages to each other in the yearbooks as well. I would ask people to write in my book, hand it to them and wait to receive it back. I asked my mother to read the messages to me so I could transcribe them for myself in Braille.
When high school came and yearbooks became a regular occurrence, I knew I had to revise my method of memory making. My help came in the form of the APH handicassette recorder. I began to tape random moments like band concerts and occasionally class lectures from teachers I admired. And instead of asking teachers and friends to write in my book, I handed them the tape recorder and requested that they talk for me. No one ever told me they didn’t want to talk. Some would write their messages ahead of time and would read it out loud on tape, while others preferred improv. But whatever method people chose, I could return to those tapes and could hear, not only their words, but their voices, which conjured up other memories as I heard them.
I also adapted this technique for assignments which required personal photographs. Instead of making a photographic autobiography, I made an audio autobiography, which incorporated my own narration, audio clips of meaningful moments and relevant background music. When I handed my final project to my English teacher, he was at first a little chagrined by its length, though as soon as my face fell, he quickly apologized and listened to the project for a few days on his commute. He was amazed by the length of time a sound memory can take compared to glancing at a photograph but felt that it was a good experience for him to absorb the meaning of my life in a different way.
Giving students the tools to create memories which they can genuinely understand and appreciate helps them to realize that non-visual memories don’t lack richness, importance or the need for preservation. As StoryCorps says, “Listening is an act of love.” So is helping students to learn to listen.