Picture 1: Jürgen Werner Apel
Our intercultural network for gifted, highly gifted, multitalented and extremely talented, highly sensitive and synesthetic native residents, work migrants, refugees and asylum seekers would like to give its members and visitors the opportunity to experience the point of view, thoughts and feelings of those whom we would otherwise never meet.
Those of us who are able to see might view blindness as something terrible, because we don’t know whether we ourselves would be able to cope with it. How well someone is able to deal with blindness also has something to do with confidence and giftedness. This interview gives us the chance to experience first-hand how the world looks from the perspective of a gifted, young blind woman.
In the following interview, our member Kirsty Major, who lives and works in England, shares her thoughts on blindness, giftedness, her business and Brexit.
I would like to thank you, dear Kirsty, for your openness and valuable answers which will open our eyes.
With best wishes from Wuppertal, Germany
Picture 2: Kirsty Major
The interview was carried out by Çiğdem Gül
Çiğdem Gül: Merhaba Kirsty´ciğim, nasılsın?
(Translated from Turkish: „Hello dear Kirsty. How are you?“)
Kirsty Major: İlk olarak röportaj davetin için çok teşekkür ederim, Çiğdem’ciğim. Ben iyiyim. Sen nasılsın?
(Translated: „Dear Çiğdem, firstly I’d like to thank you very much for your invitation to take part in this interview. I’m well thank you. How are you?“)
Çiğdem Gül: Bende iyiyim, çok teşekkür ederim. — Bende iyiyim, çok teşekkür ederim. — I think it’s wonderful that I can talk with you in English, German, and Turkish. I’d like to ask you at this point how you as a blind person learn other languages? How do blind people learn languages, such as Chinese, that have a completely different language logic?
Kirsty Major: At school, languages were one of my hobbies. Firstly because they fascinated me, secondly because I was quite good at them, and thirdly because you don’t need to be able to see in order to learn another language.
When I was about 15 years old, I interpreted for friends, and it was a good feeling. I could do something for them that they couldn’t do for themselves. Without this help, they would have had more problems making themselves understood.
When learning another language, blind people sometimes use their own methods, or find more accessible methods. For example, I didn’t enjoy tv series, because I couldn’t work out what was happening on the screen due to my visual impairment. All the visual information, which would usually help a learner, was no use to me. Also I can’t read subtitles. However I find podcasts enjoyable and practical because I don’t miss anything.
There are blind people who only rely on their sense of hearing.
But when I’m learning a new language and hear a new word, I write it down immediately so that I don’t forget it. When I write it down, and know which letters I need to form that word, it stays in my memory longer.
There is no international writing system for blind people.
When a blind person wants to learn a new language, they have to decide whether they want to learn the corresponding Braille (or writing system for blind people). Even when both systems use the same letters, there are often differences in signs for punctuation and abbreviations or groups of letters. I know both German and Turkish Braille, but don’t use either of them very often.
When I learned Hindi for several months, I wrote the words on my laptop phonetically.
It’s also important to think about which language you want to learn, and whether this language is supported by the screenreader on your laptop or smartphone.
If you would like to find out more about this, you can read this article on my blog
Çiğdem Gül: I have three blind and creative individuals as role models. They are Sabriye Tenberken, Kirsty Major and Yıldırım Budak.
Sabriye Tenberken is a blind German Tibetologist, sociologist and philosopher, who lives in India. In 1997, she travelled alone to Tibet, and founded the Tibetan centre for blind people „Braille without borders“, which began by teaching five blind Tibetan children to read and write Tibetan Braille in Lhasa. Sabriye Tenberken developed a special tactile writing system for the Tibetan language. Now, this is recognised in Tibet as official Tibetan Braille.
Also, I think the blind singer Yıldırım Budak, who lives in Ankara (Turkey), is terrific. (You can find his songs on YouTube: „Efendiler Bağı“, „Ağlama“ und „Canım Yanar“.) His exceptional and passionate interpretations of Turkish folk music get under your skin.
Now we come to the best part of this interview. Now we’re going to talk about you. You’re also one of my role models. We’ve known each other for many years. You approach other people with an intentional attitude to wish others well. I see your world, including the one from within, as pure and wonderful. Not to mention your personality and gifts. Why don’t you start by telling our members and visitors something about yourself?
Kirsty Major: I’m Kirsty. I’m a self-employed English teacher and I live with my partner not far from London. I love languages, dogs, long walks, cooking, reading, discovering other cultures, and helping other people on their journey of discovery into a new language.
At school, my favourite subjects were English, German and French.
I haven’t used my French skills since that time, but I developed my German language skills on my own and with friends. Several years ago, I also began to learn Turkish.
I am also passionate about writing.
Firstly there is my English With Kirsty blog, for customers who want to improve their English, either in their free time or because they need to use at work:
Then there is my other blog, which is called Unseen Beauty. On there I tell my readers about my life as a blind woman, among other things:
I’m a blind woman and I write about my own personal experiences. I can’t, and don’t want to speak for all blind people, because we are as different as „all English people“ or „all women in their mid-30s“. Sometimes I get comments on the blog from blind readers, who tell me that they know exactly what I mean. Then, at other times, we have completely different opinions. That’s normal.
I don’t want blindness to be the main focus of my blog. To be honest, that would be quite boring for me. I am interested in so many other things as well.
When we travel, I explain whether there was an audio guide. When I talk about make-up, I explain to my readers how I do my make-up without being able to see. When I buy products online, I explain in my blog articles whether I experienced any problems as a result of bad or inaccessible web design. Sometimes the articles have nothing at all to do with blindness, such as when I write about dogs or books. My blog Unseen Beauty should be a reflection of my life. Blindness is just a part of my life, and for me at least, not the most interesting part.
Çiğdem Gül: Kirsty, you’ve just said that you are passionate about writing. What inspires you to write?
Kirsty Major: it can be many different things. When I’m writing for my English With Kirsty blog, I answer questions that my customers have asked me during our lessons, so that my readers can learn from these answers as well. I also share my own knowledge, or share from my own experiences as a language learner.
When I write articles for my Unseen Beauty blog, there are different things that inspire me to write. Sometimes I talk about my dear grandparents, who are no longer with us, but who brought me up and taught me many things. They live on in my heart and my stories. I’m very grateful for everything that they gave me, and without them I wouldn’t have achieved as much as I have now.
I also talk about what I have done recently. Sometimes I talk about the beauty and skincare products that I’m using, and what I think of them. I subscribe to several subscription boxes which give me the chance to try out new make-up and skincare products each month. I also write about topics that are close to my heart, which is why I publish articles about animals. Sometimes my readers ask me a question, and I give a longer answer in a blog article. Sometimes I don’t need any inspiration, because I just really want to write. Then I just sit down and write, without having to think too hard, because the words are already there in my head.
I also look to see if there are any relevant events or special days in the coming month so that I can write about them. This is how my articles came about on topics such as Louis Braille Day, (Louis Braille invented the Braille reading and writing system for blind people), and Donkey Week, which highlights the problems of donkeys that are kept in bad living conditions.
Picture 3: Kirsty Major
Çiğdem Gül: Kirsty, what is your job, and how do you work?
Kirsty Major: When I was a child, it was easy. I wanted to be a teacher. But then I realised that teachers work with children, and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t particularly want to work in a school either. So I gave up on the idea.
In 2012, I was working as a Communications Manager in a department of the Ministry of Justice in England. My work involved a lot of work with the English language. In my free time, I gave English lessons voluntarily, mainly through language tandems. I helped my new friends with their English, and they helped me with my German and Turkish. Previously I was the only English member in the leadership team of a German online platform. These experiences showed me that I enjoyed working with languages, and also that you don’t only have to teach children. You can teach adults as well. This is how my idea for English With Kirsty was born – an online language school for adults, and later my English with Kirsty blog.
At the end of 2012, I left my job at the Ministry of Justice so that I could set up my online language school for adults and work on it full-time. Since then I’ve been working mainly with adults in German-speaking countries. Most of them need to improve their business English, but others want to learn English for holidays, or because they have an English-speaking partner. Most of my German-speaking customers live in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Many are originally from other countries, such as Turkey, Russia, and Bulgaria. I love to learn new things about other countries and cultures every day.
I don’t‘ work with printed textbooks in my online lessons.
I put together an individual learning programme for each customer, because every learner needs something different, depending on their goals and language level. I write my own grammar exercises for them. During the lessons, I support my customers and help them to use what they have learned in conversations with me, so that they grow more confident when it comes to taking part in conversations in English.
I know from my own experience that I had a lot of problems with speaking when learning German. I wanted to do everything perfectly, and would rather say nothing at all than take a risk and maybe make a mistake. Now it’s better, but I still remember how I felt at that time. That’s why it makes me really happy when my customers can overcome their fear of speaking.
I don’t write anything about my blindness on my business website for adult language learners because it’s not relevant to my work or my online English training. My not being able to see isn’t important when it comes to teaching English, and I don’t want it to be the first thing that people discover about me. Sometimes I mention it during a lesson, so that the customer knows why I don’t give them eye contact during our video conference calls. I have software on my laptop and smartphone that reads the information on my screen. I can correct homework as long as it is typed on the computer and not written by hand. I wear a headset during the lesson so that I can hear the software on my laptop reading the text, the grammar questions, or our vocabulary list that I write during the lesson.
Çiğdem Gül: When a person’s brain doesn’t or is unable to process visual information, that region of the brain has other functions. Blind people have other ways to „see“. Can you please explain to me pictures as you experience them?
Kirsty Major: I’ve had to learn to rely on my other senses as a result of my visual impairment. I’ve learned to use them more. This means I pay more attention when I’m listening to things than sighted people do, because I rely on that acoustic information to let me know what’s happening around me, and what people really mean when they are talking to me. Using this audible information and subtle differences in the way things are said can help me to work out whether someone is telling me the truth!
There are also differences between blind people. Some blind people don’t really listen or pay attention to what they hear. Some have a better sense of direction, whereas I have to visit a new place several times before I can make a mental visual image of it.
Many people use their sense of smell to enjoy a beautiful perfume or enjoy the smell of the flowers in their garden. I also use mine to know where I am. When I was a child and I smelled the hedge outside our house, I knew that I had arrived home. All of us have lots of information available to us through our ears and nose, but I’ve had to learn how to use and understand them. You could do that too, Çiğdem, if you had to rely on them. It takes time.
Çiğdem Gül: How does someone who is unable to see orientate themselves?
I read an article in the 01.18 edition of the serious German magazine „Geo“, which was called „what can self-driving cars learn from blind people?“. On page 127 it explained how blind people can use the echolocation technique by making clicking noises that allow them to know how far away and how big an obstacle is. Geo also reported about this in September 2013 – „a girl hears how to see“. The technique has been analysed in a study, in which the US developmental psychologist Daniel Kish was involved. He has been blind since early childhood. Three men were chosen for the study, who using the click sounds, are able to walk, play ball, and even ride a bike. The sounds that they use are around 3 milliseconds and are in the range of 2000 to 4000 Hertz.
First results show that clearly blind people have developed a technique in which they can determine the direction of the clicks. Whereas speech can travel through an angle of 180 degrees, the click sounds travelled in a cone of only 60 degrees. Scientists now want to use technology to produce clicks and reproduce the echolocation technique used by blind people. This technology could then be used for self-driving cars.
Dear Kirsty, can you confirm that blind people use this echolocation technique?
Kirsty Major: Some blind people use it. I can’t really say much about it though, because I prefer other orientation methods. I worked with a guide dog for 9 years. It was a wonderful experience for me. We worked as a team. I decided on the direction, and my dog helped me to avoid all the obstacles in our way. She could find things like steps or doors for me. At the moment I use a white cane to get around. There are also apps that help blind people with orientation. They can’t replace a dog or a white cane, but they can give you additional information about what’s around you, or how you can get to where you want to go.
I would feel uncomfortable about drawing attention to myself in public with click noises, because most people don’t go around making these sounds. I also doubt whether this technique would work well on really busy and noisy streets. That’s why I prefer other methods for finding my way around. However, as long as nobody puts themselves or others in danger, everyone should do that which works best for them.
Çiğdem Gül: As a blind person, how do you know how other people are feeling?
Kirsty Major: It’s true that I sometimes miss things. Sometimes it’s annoying for me as a blind person that I miss so many important visual clues in communication, such as the facial expressions or body language of the people around me. I don’t see when someone is sad. I don’t know when someone smiles at me or gives me an angry look. But, on the other hand, I notice lots of things that sighted people around me are unaware of, because I listen really carefully. I don’t just mean the individual words, that someone says to me. I mean the pauses, too. For example, the sound of someone’s voice comes from another direction when they look away. Or the things that someone doesn’t say. When someone laughs, and the laughter doesn’t sound genuine. Also when someone says that everything is ok, but the sound of their voice tells another story. It’s happened on several occasions that I have picked up on things much sooner than my sighted friends.
– End of part 1 –
© Çiğdem Gül
Founder & Moderator
of the Intercultural Network For The Highly Gifted
Change Management Consultant
Intercultural Coach For The Highly Gifted
Online Marketing Manager
Click here for part two
Picture 1 thanks to © Jürgen Werner Apel (Mannheim/Germany)
Picture 2 + 3 thanks to © Kirsty Major (London/England)