One of the common beliefs about blindness and vision impairment in the general public is that people who are blind or visually impaired have enhanced senses. People with vision impairments tend to hear frequent remarks like, “Your sense of touch must be amazing.” “Can you smell things from a mile away?” “I’m sure your hearing is ten times better than mine.”
Although it is a reasonable assumption that people with vision impairments have brains that have compensated by giving them a bionic nose, it is not always quite that simple. In some ways, the brain of a person with a vision impairment can utilize parts of the brain typically designated for visual perception for the purposes of other sensory experiences. However, the amazing sense of hearing or touch that a person with a vision impairment seems to exhibit is often from having learned sensory efficiency.
What is Sensory Efficiency?
Sensory efficiency refers to a person’s ability to use her senses to access the environment. For a person who is sighted, visual perception makes up a significant portion of the information that is absorbed and processed. Individuals with vision impairments must learn to access information from the environment in a somewhat different way. A student with low vision may learn to use a handheld magnifier to access the menu at his favorite restaurant. A person who is blind can learn to recognize the sounds of passing cars to understand how traffic is moving through an intersection. Still another student who is deafblind can learn to recognize vibration patterns on a watch to determine the time of day. Sensory efficiency includes learning specific strategies for using all five senses, as well as the additional vestibular and kinesthetic senses that contribute to a person’s sense of where her body is in space. Orientation and mobility instructors and teachers of students with vision impairments can both offer essential skill learning opportunities for students to establish sensory efficiency.
Understanding Sensory Efficiency
Sensory efficiency involves the use of all of an individual’s senses, including:
For those students with any remaining vision, sensory efficiency involves a student learning how to use residual vision effectively. This can involve learning specific strategies, such as how to determine the origin of a perceived light or how to track an object’s movement. It can also involve the use of specific adaptations to allow for a student to maximize the functionality of remaining vision. Examples could include using a monocular device to see street signs or placing high contrast markings on stairwells.
Using hearing efficiently and effectively can involve learning to listen to and absorb material from an audio version of a textbook, listening to traffic patterns in a busy intersection, or using a hearing aid to maximize residual hearing in a person with mild to moderate deafness.
Sensory efficiency through smell and taste can involve things like food identification and learning to determine if a food is fresh or spoiled, using smell to pick up on environmental cues when traveling, or identifying clothing items that need washing.
Many students with vision impairments rely on a sense of touch to communicate, either through the use of braille or through tactile object symbols. Touch is an important component of exploring the environment, including using the feet to feel a change in terrain on a walk. Sensory efficiency in this realm can also involve learning tactile discrimination between things like clothing fabrics for outfit selection, food items for meal preparation, and locating personal belongings. (i.e. a student finding her own jacket in a classroom coat closet).
Kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and vestibular senses:
These senses refer to a person’s sense of balance and awareness of where her body parts are in relation to each other and in space. Sensory efficiency in this area can be beneficial for independent travel, sports and other physical activities, and learning to exhibit appropriate body language in social situations.
Students with limited vision must also learn how to integrate the use of their senses for functional purposes. For example, a student may learn to recognize her favorite teacher by the sound of her voice and the bright, bold-colored earrings she always wears. Another student might be able to tell when he has arrived in his school cafeteria by picking up on the sound of loud chatter and the smell of the infamous mystery meat being served that day.
Sensory Efficiency and Transition
Sensory efficiency is necessary in all components of an individual’s life, and this is no less true for students preparing for transition into adult life. Learning sensory skills can be integrated with many other components of the Expanded Core Curriculum, such as independent living skills and compensatory skills, in order to prepare for transition. A student who learns to use a tactile marking to find his cubby at school is learning components of organizational skills and of how to keep track of his personal belongings. A student learning how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is using sensory skills to discriminate between the jelly and the peanut butter, and these sensory skills are contributing to her meal prep and daily living skills. A student learning tactile discrimination of various clothing types is learning skills that will help when it is time to select an outfit for a job interview. Sensory skills are relevant for students of all ability levels; they are equally essential for someone working with staff on life skills as for someone working with a job coach at an employment site. Sensory skills will help a student move through life with a strong awareness of the body and environment, which is key for developing greater independence and confidence in the world. These skills help individuals with vision impairments to connect to and interact with the world around them; to be active learners as children and adults; and to approach activities with a sense of security, confidence, and understanding.