What is a Visual Handicap?

In posing this question, I’m not referring to the traditional notion of visual impairment in terms of a reduction in visual acuity or constriction of the visual field. Nor am I alluding to visual disability in terms of what qualifies for accommodations on standardized tests or more generally in learning environments. I have something different in mind, though not entirely unrelated.

Chances are you’ve heard of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It is generally depicted as eight domains, though he has toyed with a ninth that he refers to as existential intelligence.

What concerns us directly, as developmental, behavioral, or rehabilitative optometrists, is the domain of spatial intelligence. As in the graphic above, this has been represented as the ability to visualize the world in three dimensions. That’s not quite the way Gardner himself explains it. As you can see in this video around the 8 minute mark when he overviews his model, Gardner describes spatial intelligence as the intelligence to find your way in wide space, as a navigator or airplane pilot would, or in a more constrained space like a chess player would on a chess board.

There is renewed interest in Gardner’s Theory owing to the recent publication of his memoir, A Synthesizing Mind. I want to share with you a long passage from the first chapter of the memoir, titled “My Ten-Year Old Mind”, that speaks to the question I posed in the title of this blog:

To the extent that young children think at all about the minds of others, we assume that everyone thinks and feels the way that we do.* A dividend, but possible painful concomitant, of the decline of so-called childhood egocentrism, is the realization that most others have minds quite unlike our own and that our minds might even be unique in certain respects. My performance on Shadow Stumpers helped me to realize that I am at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to visual performance.

To begin with, I lack stereoscopic vision: I can see through only one eye at a time. Vision in my right eye is much worse than vision in my left eye; and so I will never enjoy 3D movies or indeed anything in three dimensions. [Note: Gardner is 76 years-old at the time of this writing – LJP] Interestingly, both my maternal grandfather and my brother Erich were also essentially monocular, having a so-called lazy or wandering eye. (Erich even wore a patch over the ‘strong eye’ in a perhaps vain effort to strengthen the other eye.) I am also quite color-blind and can hardly recognize any numbers on the Ishihara test, the standard test for color vision. To top it off, I am also prosopagnosic: I can’t recognize people by their faces. This is another heritable trait, shared presumably with my father and clearly with my daughter Kerith. In fact, if I were to meet you and talk to you, I would likely say: ‘If I see you tomorrow, I probably won’t recognize you and so I hope that you will identify yourself – and please don’t take this personally.’ Despite the obvious superficial similarities, as far as I understand the underlying biology, these visual disturbances are not related to one another.

As I grew up, I became exceedingly interested in the visual arts, even focusing on them in my doctoral dissertation and ultimately being invited to join the board of the New York Museum of Modern Art. I have developed various compensatory mechanisms, but I am distinctly handicapped when it comes to anything that involves vision.”

*Gardner’s opening comment about the extent to which we, as young children assume that everyone thinks and feels the way that we do, applies to vision as well. It helps answer the question as to why most young children don’t “complain” about visual issues that handicap performance, which parents often find puzzling as the child answers our questions in the chair to the affirmative. This also dovetails with his concluding comment about compensatory mechanisms which, even when successful, can come at considerable cost to the balance sheet of development.

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