top of page

A Touch of Europe: Intercultural Travel Through Blind Eyes

Dr. Shawn Carruth and Dr. Roy Hammerling

When it comes to international education and intercultural education, the blind are non so much handicapped by their lack of sight as they are hindered by the narrow vision of others towards them.


When a blind student (hereafter "Claire") at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota decided to travel overseas to Europe for one month with the Religion/Women Studies May Seminar, her instructors were both delighted and apprehensive about their ability to make the trip meaningful for her. They wondered, "How do the blind learn in an educational setting where visual stimulus is often the primary mode of learning?" International education in particular takes students to sites ( or should we say "sights") to see and learn about the wonders of the world. Bur how do instructors convey the visual awe of a cathedral, for example, to one whose primary means, of making memories comes through the four non-visual senses? This article offers some humble insights of hope and cautions concerning these questions and examines that intercultural education,. can be a meaningful experience for the seeing impaired, but it requires work, creativity, and mostly of all, compassion for both instructors and students to be successful.


I. Preparation for Taking the Blind Abroad: A Rocky Start Concerning Logistics and Assumptions


A key component of the May Seminar at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota is the requirement of a class, which prepares students for the month-long May cultural encounter. Claire's instructors had no concerns with her intellectual abilities; Claire was an excellent student because she was intelligent, articulate, and able to express herself in oral and written forms with passion and beauty. She was, however, the first blind student to choose to travel abroad in their history of the Concordia College, and thus her presence in the program was uncharted territory for her instructors and the school in general. 

Her instructors had some logistical concerns. How would Claire handle the mechanics of travel? The trip, which traveled to Iceland, Germany, France, Ireland, Wales, and England, focused on Medieval Europe and therefore included some treacherous terrain. How would Claire negotiate the looming rocky cliffs of castles, not to mention the awkward room accommodations of some hotels where toilets and bathrooms lie at the end of labyrinthine hallways? With a group of about twenty students to look after, the teachers also wondered about their ability to give Claire the attention that they assumed she might require. All of these fears were unfounded. 

A narrow vision of how the blind deal with safety issues in everyday life limited the instructors' ability to see the truth about how adept the seeing impaired are. The presupposition was that the blind handle familiar surroundings safely, but that unfamiliar settings are more of a danger to them than to sighted students. They falsely believed that Claire simply would have more difficulty than the others with the ever-changing schedule and landscape of their European journey. The instructors were completely misguided by their lack of experience and knowledge of how the blind are able to cope with every day life, whether it be in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else in the world. In fact, Claire, like the blind in general, and any sighted person for that matter, faces obstacles related to her own safety on a regular basis, even in familiar settings. 

This is not to say safety was not a concern while traveling. On the contrary, it was. The 
focus on safety, however, was a constant issue for all students, not just for Claire. By singling out Claire, thinking that she needed a different kind of help from the others, the instructors unwittingly arginalized her in a way that was inappropriate. Both the blind and the sighted have to learn how to deal with the physical and cultural landscape of new countries. Likewise, everyone has to do it in their own way. Fortunately, the teachers came to this realization with the help of an honest and compassionately direct Claire even before the sojourn began. In the end, instructors and students always must work together to make sure all are safe when navigating new environs. As a matter of fact, Claire proved to be one of the more adventurous members of the group. She scaled the walls of Mt. St. Michel, climbed the towers of Chartres and Salisbury Cathedrals, and enjoyed spelunking through secret passages under Germany's Castle Rheinfels and Ireland's Knowth burial mounds, all with a broad smile of absolute wonder, while some sighted students stayed behind and watched with agoraphobic and/or claustrophobic concern.


A related example of shortsightedness on the part of the instructors also occurred early on. The teachers heard that Sasha, a close friend of Claire's, desired to come on the trip. The instructors approached Sasha and asked her if she would be able to "help" them "look after" Claire. The aforementioned perceived "problem" concerning Claire's safety was the instructor's primary concern. Nevertheless, when Claire heard of this she immediately went to one instructor to complain. '"Why do you think I need help?" she wondered. The stunned instructor slowly realized that his assumptions concerning Claire were wanting at best and prejudice at worst. Claire, in fact, required no more aid than any other students, and was as fully capable of dealing with Europe as the others were, and as had been noted, was even more willing to take risks that most of the students avoided. The idea, namely that Claire's blindness meant that she needed special assistance beyond what the instructors might be able to offer her, was nothing less than misguided insensitivity on the instructor's part.


Claire was equally concerned that the request by the instructors to "help" her might actually affect her relationship with Sasha and other students. Claire questioned, "Would Sasha and she always be roommates? Would Sasha feel obligated to stay with Claire if the two of them wanted to see or be involved in different historic or cultural sites or events?" And so on... The instructors had unknowingly created a situation, which ignored Claire's needs and abilities and feelings. Likewise, it put Sasha on the spot. In the end, the friendship of Claire and Sasha admirably survived their instructor's meddling.


Before leaving for Europe, one instructor, a creative and compassionate campus counselor, and Claire met to explore the question, "How do we make this trip as memorable as possible for Claire?" Or to put it another way, "What can we do to make traveling to Europe a more tactile, auditory, tasteful, fragrant, and less visual experience in which she truly encountered the culture to the best of her abilities?" The one piece of invaluable insight the counselor gave was both simple and direct: "Claire is the expert. She knows how she has created memories in the past and she knows how she wants to make her own memories now and in the future. Ask Claire and encourage her to be honest and frank with you throughout the trip." Had Claire been reserved, this would have been difficult. Fortunately for her instructors, her healthy confidence was a great help in this regard. Together they had many fruitful conversations and an eventual strategy developed for getting in touch with Europe; the well-traveled instructors benefited at least as much as Claire lid from making Europe a more sensual, albeit less visual, and culturally enriching experience. 

II. Abroad: Getting in Touch with Europe

The trip unfortunately, was not without mishaps. While taking in a magnificent view and eating a wonderful group dinner on the Eiffel Tower, one remarkably insensitive student had the gall to wonder out loud to her instructors, "I don't see why Claire came along on this trip. after all she can't see anything. I don't think this trip would be worth it if I couldn't see things like this tower." Others may have wondered the same thing, but they at least had the decency to keep their thoughts to themselves. Nevertheless, comments and thoughts like these flow out of a number of erroneous assumptions that unfortunately too many people hold. Some others are as follows. First, seeing is the primary, if not the only way, people make memories. Second, without sight, one's experiences of the world are worth little or nothing. Third, people can only truly value any grand setting if they can encounter it visually. Fourth, the blind might as well stay in familiar surroundings, like their own homes, because they cannot really appreciate the world to its fullest anyway. Finally, the most insidious of all, the blind are handicapped, and the sighted are not.

The teachers knew very early on that they desired to translate the normally visual international and cultural class experiences into more non-visual encounters for Claire, and ultimately all their students. The question was how? By the end of the trip, the teachers developed - with Claire's considerable help - a few principles, which aided all (especially the instructors) in getting in touch with Europe more completely.


The first principle is to describe one's surroundings, i.e. especially whatever is primarily accessible only to sight, to the entire group in as rich a descriptive language as possible. When traveling on a plane, train, bus or boat, the view is often the only way to encounter the scenery. Therefore, teachers must be ready to describe in accessible and creative terms whatever happens to be streaming by. For this reason, the teachers asked Claire to sit close by them when traveling, if she so desired. This allowed for spontaneous conversations with her if the instructors did not have access to a microphone with which they could talk to the whole group.

Vivid descriptions aid all students who travel. Even though sighted students can see 
objects whizzing by windows for themselves, if they are awake, the descriptions help students process more fully what they are seeing and also give them a vocabulary for relating their trip upon their return. Teachers, however, need to be cautious not to talk too much. A good rule of thumb is to name and describe whatever students cannot fully understand by simply looking. For example, when passing a forest it does not help to note that there are a lot of trees outside. It is useful, however, to point out what type of trees there are as you give the characteristics of the foliage, etc. Information concerning the cultural significance of forests, e.g. issues concerning acid rain, medieval livestock practices, and other facts can also be useful. Likewise any historical data, e.g. an explanation of the name of the forest or famous historical events that took place there, makes the forest even more memorable. Names and historical or cultural information about castles, cathedrals, buildings, areas, cities, mountains, and the like all can be very enlightening. When one encounters long stretches of similar scenery, this can be a good time to discuss other cultural and historical information about the country you are passing through, and how the terrain of a particular place is reflected in the identity of a nation. For example, Iceland's cultural identity as a nation is profoundly affected by its geography, namely as a barren and ruggedly beautiful island in the cold north Atlantic, as is Germany with it's lush green forests and castle laden countryside.


At times a helpful exercise can be to have students describe to each other what they are seeing. This forces them to think about a historic and cultural objects or pieces of breathtaking scenery in a new way and takes the burden off instructors to keep this up for a month. In preparation for our trip, students had to pick a country and cultural area and an historical site to give presentations on. Students were at times encouraged to keep in mind non-visual ways of describing their sites. Descriptive language requires creativity and not all people are equally adept at it; it takes work and creative energy.


Even when the group is not traveling, visually descriptive language is essential. Descriptions should include size, shape, texture, a sense of the surroundings, and a language of concrete comparison to familiar objects. For example, when the students first saw an Irish monastic tower, one instructor described it as a fat pencil with the eraser end planted in the ground and the sharp point sticking up into the sky about 100'. The instructor continued, "The tower is made up of rough hewn rectangular rocks. with each block being slightly curved and 2' by 4'." At this point, the teacher had Claire touch the blocks in order to feel its size and texture. Without further prompting, most, if not all, of the other students did the same. Then he walked Claire around the tower counterclockwise, having her put her left hand on the tower itself in order to give her a sense of its circumference, which was roughly I 00' or so; other students followed suit without prompting. Claire immediately noticed one of the features of such towers with this exercise, "But where's the door?" The instructional moment had occurred without sight. The instructor explained that the towers have no doors at ground level. Rather the lowest door first appears about 20' up. The reason for this is twofold. First, some scholars think that a door at the bottom would have been structurally unsound and it would contribute to the early collapse of the tower. Second, monks and nuns, when attacked by Vikings, would put a ladder up to the door and they, along with all their valuables and food, would climb up into the tower and pull the ladder up after them, bolting the door securely behind them. Hence they and their belongings were safe inside from the .raiders. Then the instructor could also point out that the towers were freestanding, generally a good distance away from other buildings and hills. 

Some realities, however, are not so easy to explain. For people who have been blind from birth or early childhood, the notion of color, light, and shadows are harder to grasp. While offering Claire a hands-on walking tour description of the construction and function of Stonehenge, she noticed that one instructor who was leading her around stopped frequently to take pictures. 'Haven't you been here before?" she asked. "Yes, many times," said the instructor. "Then why are you taking more pictures?" she wondered. "Well, every time I come here the shadows are different, and it gives a new look to the place." At this point Claire asked one of the most difficult and profound questions of the trip, "What's a shadow? I've heard people talk about them, and the basic concept is in my head, but to be truthful I've never really understood what they are."


A few points need to be noted at this juncture. First, notice the trust that Claire had in her
instructor. Her trust developed over the semester of preparation and the three weeks prior to their visit to Stonehenge. Second, notice Claire's willingness to risk a basic question. A less courageous student in her position might not have asked such a question for fear of looking ignorant. After all, Claire herself knew that the question was silly for a sighted person, still in the spirit of curiosity she asked.


The instructor struggled to come up with an analogy that would help her grasp the 
concept. After much discussion about how shadows are created by the blocking of light (another concept that Claire wondered about), the instructor offered this inadequate, but somewhat useful description: "Imagine yourself sitting in a large bath, and the water you are sitting in is cold. Your feet are up against the tub Just under the spigot, and your knees are slightly bent. Then, you turn on the hot water. What happens next is that the cold water recedes in the wake of the hot water, which flows in to fill the space in front of you while the cool water is pushed out to the edges oft of the tub around you. That's similar to a shadow. As the light flows down from the sky, like the hot water, objects, like your body, block it. Between you and the sun is the warmth of light, but behind you, where the light does not flow directly, a cool shadow is created. The more shadows the colder darker it is. The more light the warmer/lighter it is."

When traveling with the blind, some caution concerning the use of descriptive imagery is needed. Talking about color, light or shadows generally is not very productive or easy to convey, hence textured or tactile descriptions are essential in transmitting an in-depth sense of an object. The smooth straight and rather slender marble pillars inside of Chartres Cathedral in France stand n sharp contrast to the more rough and massive leaning pillars of St. David's Cathedral in Wales. By contrasting similar structures, Claire was able to make distinctions between them in her mind more easily. Claire, for example, often asked about the roads that we walked upon. Never before had her instructors thought to mention in any depth this aspect of European life to their students, but Claire constantly noticed the difference between cobblestone, soft woodland paths, cement paths, and the like. In other words, "Don't overlook the obvious." Claire gave her instructors and fellow students a new appreciation for floors, which in many buildings, especially medieval ones, often have intricate designs and patterns. Claire, it is safe to say, has touched and examined more floors in Europe with her hands than other travelers have even noticed they tread upon.

Superficial examinations of objects lead to superficial analyses for all students. The instructors learned early on that they needed to make more pointed descriptive distinctions between one castle cathedral, monastery, medieval city and the next in order to make their explanations more memorable for all students, but especially Claire. In other words, finding the distinctive in the common helps to distinguish places in one's memory. The drawing of these distinctions benefited all of the students, who often thought that one cathedral resembled another. For example, Claire in particular appreciated knowing the cathedrals are often laid out in the shape of a cross. By telling Claire which part of the cross they were standing in, she was able to visualize the overall structure better. Variations on the cross theme also helped her to distinguish between cathedrals. Likewise, making an effort to climb towers, stairs, and walking around both inside and outside the cathedral helped Claire begin to grasp the grandeur of these structures. After the trip, however, she still readily admits that such buildings remain a bit of a mystery to her.


Another principle we developed was to take advantage of whatever sense is the most 
available at any given moment in order to make a memory. In this regard, the sense of touch is perhaps the most versatile: When traveling through Europe, museums are both a blessing and a curse in this regard. In Pans, the Cluny Museum, which is the best medieval museum in the city, is wonderful. Having contacted the museum ahead of time we were given a guide who allowed Claire to touch many of the ancient exhibits, which the other students were not allowed to touch. Cluny even has some replicas of tapestries and other objects, which the blind can touch to get a better sense of the object. The Louvre of Paris, on the other hand, has security measures in place, such as laser beams, which make it impossible for most items to be felt. Hence, descriptive language once again must be employed.

Always tell museum personnel when you arrive that you have a blind student. Often they are very accommodating. Still, there are times when you will not be able to get a satisfactory response. The instructors generally encouraged Claire to touch objects in museums when it was not entirely obvious that doing so would be condoned. There was on instance where a museum guard came up to the instructor to discourage the felling of a particular object, but before the guard said anything, he noticed that Claire was blind. At that point he smiled and went back to his seat. In almost every instance, we found that museums and their personnel were very understanding, unless you set off security alarms, which we did on occasion. Try to be aware if such devices are being used. This advice goes for places that act like museums, such as cathedrals and castles.

One technique that Claire and one instructor developed to inform her better about objects involved drawing m Claire's hand. For example, when explaining the difference between a rounded Romanesque and pointed Gothic Arch the instructor drew the difference on Claire's outstretched palm. On a few occasions, an instructor traced Claire's hand over a map to give a sense of shape of landscape, distance, and topography. Likewise, as mentioned, in cathedrals the instructor might draw a cross shape and then point out where on the cross they were standing in the cathedral. This technique proved useful in a variety of settings.


Another principle is not to expect too much. One instructor, at times, placed Claire's 
hands on small sculptures and asked her to guess what the object represented. Claire was rarely even able to venture a guess, and when  she did it was always wrong. What the instructor thought might be a fun way of discovering an obJect turned out to be too difficult to be of use. It worked on rare occasions when the instructor said, "Here's an animal sculpture. Can you guess what it is?" At least Claire had m?re of a chance to narrow down the possibilities, but in the end, it was always a guess. Hence, the instructor abandoned this idea early on. Rather he'd say something like, 'Here's a sculpture of a smiling angel. Can you find her smile, wings, etc... ?" 

Folklore often can be an aid in creating touching memories. Glendalough monastery in Ireland has a famous relic known as St. Kevin's cross. Legend has it that if a person can reach around the large cross and touch their fingers on the other side the person will go to heaven. Claire's arms, however, were about six inches too short. The local guide also informed us that, "If you can't reach around yourself, a friend can help you find your way to heaven by completing the circle with you. Simply make a large circle around the cross,joining your hands together." And so Claire and one of her instructors clasped hands and experienced a metaphorical image of little bit of heaven on earth in which student and instructor both gained more than they could alone in this touching experience.


Claire and her instructors also set up some goals with regard to touch for the trip. Claire decided that one thing she wanted to do was to dip her hand into the great rivers and waterways they encountered. She placed her hand and sometimes her feet into the Rhine, Seine, Thames, English Channel, the holy well of St. Brigid, and much more. A concern for health, however, also led Claire and the instructors to make sure they had liquid alcohol washing solutions available to cleanse her hands thoroughly after splashing around. Sometimes this simple goal proved to be much more difficult than was originally conceived. For example, the River Thames is lined with tall concrete walls in London and access to the water is very hard to come by, but we did manage it with some adventure.


Touch also helped Claire with some cultural problems. Fortunately, the Euro has different sized denominational paper bills and the same is true of the coins. Hence, Claire was able to feel the difference between a ten and twenty Euro bill, which made it easier for her to pay for items when she went shopping.


Claire also collected objects; we might call them three-dimensional pictures. On the Hill 
if Tara where St. Patrick preached the sermon about the shamrock and the Trinity, Claire collected a shamrock. She often bought objects or collected stones and other memorable trinkets, which she can recognize by touch. All of these objects jog Claire's memories in the same way a photograph reminds a sighted person of a particular place.


While touch is the most versatile of the senses, the other senses are not to be neglected. Sound, for example, is always present no matter where we are. Too often we have learned to block out sounds around us, and we ignore them. Still, sound can create powerful memories. There is a great difference between the sound of walking through a German forest and the bustle of the London underground. Claire noted that she gains a sense of the size of buildings by the sound of echoes that reverberated in them. The sound of different languages - take German and French for example - are unique. Claire speaks French, and so she was particularly attentive to it. Even the sound of English in Ireland, Wales, and England contrast sharply with the English spoken in the USA. Vocabulary and tonal inflections were especially interesting to take note of. The London theatre and the wonderful music of the play was something that Claire, a fine musician herself, was able to appreciate more fully than others. It was helpful, however, to whisper judiciously during some productions to Claire about the visual aspects of the play, especially when the crowd was laughing at a sight gag.

Taste is perhaps one of the more enjoyable senses to be attentive to. Claire explored the differences between the cuisines of the various countries with a willing curiosity, and was richly rewarded. For example, merely exploring the contrast between different types of chocolate can be a worthy and enjoyable endeavor, but also noting what spices are unique to what culture, what dishes seem to be favored from place to place, and what drinks are preferred is an interesting thing to note.


Smell is an ever wafting experience, but often goes ignored. Claire has a particularly 
sensitive nose and was the first to notice if there was incense in a cathedral or flowers nearby. Often, since her instructors overlooked this sense more easily than others, Claire was the one who had to ask questions about aromas. Once on the crowded subway in London, Claire said to one instructor in a normal voice, "It smells like a toilet in here." In fact, it did. What Claire could not see what that the Londoners pressed close to her turned to stare when they heard the comment. Whether they were offended or in agreement could not be determined, but for the instructor it was a tense moment, which soon passed. It would have been better to warn Claire about making such comments in a public place, or at least work out a whispering protocol for such comments.


Another way to create memories is to discover what activities the blind student enjoys and make sure that she gets the opportunity to do them both in and outside of the group. Claire loved walking, climbing, and crawling through tunnels. Hence, Claire often climbed to the top of most of the highest places we visited and slipped through the lowest and smallest underground passages with delight.


Likewise, make sure the blind are not excluded from normal group activities - no matter what it may be. About half way through the trip the instructors realized that they had not given Claire the college digital camera. All students were required to take the camera for a day and record whatever pictures they wanted onto the web for families at home to see. So one day the instructors gave Claire the camera with which she took pictures, sometimes with, and sometimes without, the aid of others. She fulfilled the assignment with alacrity.


III. Conclusions

The blind indeed are not so much handicapped by their own lack of sight as they are hindered by the impoverished vision of others towards them. In every instance, whatever obstacles Claire faced, before and on the trip, were placed there by the shortsightedness of others. Fortunately, Claire is a remarkably patient and kind young woman. She was patient with her instructors, whose insensitivity often led to misunderstanding and confusion. She was kind with her fellow students, who were often unwittingly patronizing towards her. Claire often handled insults with humor and grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that she shouldn't have to endure such insensitivity. After Claire experienced one particularly egregious insult concerning her blindness from one of the other students in the group, the instructors agreed, against Claire's wishes, that the student who made the extremely insensitive remark should be confronted by one of the instructors. Claire thought it was her problem and she should deal with it alone. Her instructors explained that such 'insensitivity is insulting to humanity and that the moment was a necessarily teachable one. In the end, we all have a responsibility to confront and correct prejudice as best we can. Instructors, in particular, have a responsibility to do so. Claire noted that, "It is important for me to act alone when I feel offended. Maybe some people need others to intervene on their behalf, but I speak out when I disagree with something. This is especially important because what you might think is offensive might not be offensive for me."


In the end, Claire was an excellent co-teacher, if not the primary teacher on the trip. Her instructors had to learn how to teach in a less visual way in order to facilitate her memory making. The trip was rewarding for all parties involved because Claire had taught her friends and teachers how to see. that is touch, Europe in a new way. As one of Claire's fellow students wrote in her journal, "One of the greatest experiences of this trip was learning from Claire. Claire showed me how to see things I would have otherwise passed by, such as the intricate textures on statues and buildings, and the subtle smells in the air. Most of all, she showed me what it really means to be brave." 

bottom of page