visual communication

From: Abraham Nemeth 356-5353 (
Date: Mon Nov 28 1994 - 08:36:59 PST

[ANovember 28, 1994

>From Dr. Nemeth to the NFB R&D Committee and friends:

     Here are just a few thoughts and remarks prompted by Tim's
discussion dated November 26.

     For people with normal sight, pictures are the "native" means
of communication. No one has to be taught to comprehend a
picture. Children at a very early age can associate a picture of a
familiar object with the real object and call it by name. Text
is by no means a native method of communication. Learding to read
and write is laborious and takes several years of learning and
practice to acquire a creditable skill. Some people remain
illiterate or semiliterate throughout their adult life, although
they can perceive the content of a picture immediately. This is
why pictures have so much more appeal than written text.

     Although I am congenitally and totally blind, many of my
mental activities are visual. When I read with the Optacon, the
point appears in my mind's eye as black letters on white paper.
I have to remind myself from time to time that my left index finger,
and not my eyes, is the input channel. When I deal with
geometric figures, even with three-dimensional ones, they appear
in my mind's eye as having been formed with white chalk on a
blackboard. The figure in my mind is complete with labels for the
points, lines, and planes. When I discussed such figures with my
students during my teaching days, I could read the labels off the
image in my mind just as surely as if I were reading them from an
open page before me. No other mental process other than "reading"
was involved. We are "wired" that strongly to receive and
respond to visual stimuli.

     That much having been said, a picture is meaningful only if
the object which it depicts is familiar. AN untrained biologist,
for example, could not look at the picture of a double helix and
recognize it as the basic structure for DNA. Therefore, a verbal
explanation would have to accompany such a picture in a textbook
where the double helix was first introduced. Would the verbal
description alone enable you to comprehend this double helix?
Probably not. The verbal description is intended to help you
understand the picture better. On the other hand, the picture
by itself would have no meaning without some accompanying
explanation. The same type of analysis applies to pictures of
deep space taken by a powerful telescope. Sometimes a
three-dimensional model would help, as in the case of the double
helix, and sometimes not, as in the case of the deep-space

     The problem of pictured keytops is easy to solve. Math
books, even at the elementary grade levels, routinely contain a
"calculator" corner or a "computer" corner in which pictured
keytops are a regular feature. Not only are keytops pictured, but
so are a screen or a display window showing the result of a
computation. The Nemeth Code provides a standard method for handling
these situations which has been around for years and which all
transcribers use who do math books or technical manuals.

     An additional reason for the proliferation of pictures is the
increasing illiteracy rate in this country. At any McDonald's, the
cashier does not press a sequence of keys to enter the price of a
Big Mac; she presses the key with a picture of a Big Mac on it.

     Books at the lower elementary grades have always contained more
pictures than words. At these lower grade levels, children have
not yet acquired sufficient smill of reading words, so that
pictures must be the primary method of communication. Besides,
cute ducks, frogs in fancy clothes, and outrageously colored
butterflies speak much more eloquently to children of that age
than does a stodgy collection of words.

     As Tevye, the harried and poverty-stricken character in
"Fiddler on the Roof" said as he turned his eyes toward Heaven:
"Please, Lord, send us the cure; the disease we already have."
Our problem is large, but we have to start somewhere. I propose
that we start by attempting to classify the kinds of visual images
from which we would like to extract meaningful information. There
is no assurance beforehand that such a classification would
prouce significant results. But even if it dines not, it may
point the way to a different approach. Our first steps must
necessarily find us groping for a path along which to travel in the
quest for a solution to this majoo problem that confronts us.
We always knew that blindness was a nuisance.

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