What Is This, Anyway?

I’ve sometimes pondered how much of my waking life I’ve spent simply identifying stuff. Being blind necessitates devising elaborate strategies to keep track of things like canned goods, important paperwork, and even clothing, depending on the complexity of your wardrobe. There are a lot of tools out there to help us, from free apps like CamFind to very costly Pen Friends—devices that allow you to “tag” certain items and have the pen tell you what it is later. The latter is efficient, but not everyone has a couple hundred bucks to shell out for it.

As I’ve said, there are some free (or inexpensive) apps designed to help us out, but they’re often difficult to use properly. I, perhaps more than many blind people, am hopeless at taking good pictures of things; the other day I was going through my tea collection, trying to find a certain bag, and I had to take them all out and sniff them to find what I was looking for. I eventually lost patience (I have a lot of tea), and pulled out my cell phone to use image recognition. One little problem: the pictures were either too blurry, or taken too close up, or taken too far away, or entirely inaccurate because I’d photographed my lap, or the floor, or anything else but the bags I was trying to identify. Generally, you just point and shoot, but I swear there are days when the apps just don’t want to cooperate. In fact, when photographing a particularly stubborn bag, my app cheerfully informed me that the tea was called “tips about relationships”. Gee, thanks.

Lighting and placement are other concerns that I struggle with. I don’t always consider how dark it is, or how many shadows might shield the product in question. I also sometimes accidentally place the product among others, which makes it harder for the app to know what I’m trying to photograph. I get better at it the longer I play with it, but I’m still a long way from perfect.

There are some relatively unusual tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years. I can, for example, identify a can of green beans by shaking the can and listening to the squeak the beans make. No other canned vegetable that I know of makes that particular sound. When I tell sighted people about this, they don’t believe me until they try for themselves. I’m also good at finding minute differences between, say, a matching set of shampoo and conditioner, though I have had some interesting experiences when the bottles are identical.

Despite all the technology, organizational systems, and detail-oriented planning, I’ve definitely gotten myself into some very strange situations. I once found what looked like a candy dish on my living room coffee table. Thinking that my mother had thoughtfully put out candy, I picked up one of the curiously smooth treats and popped it into my mouth. All I tasted was dust: I’d tried to eat a decorative rock. I’ve put conditioner (and body wash) in my hair instead of shampoo; I’ve nearly put frozen berries in a dish instead of peas (luckily the smell tipped me off); I’ve poured instant oatmeal into my travel mug instead of hot chocolate mix. All this, and much more.

Gregg is fond of telling the “bath bead story”. When he was a little boy, he found a strange-looking dish in the bathroom which appeared to be filled with candy. Having disassembled (and failed to reassemble, naturally) a gumball machine the day before, he assumed that his mother had transferred the gumballs to this dish. Undeterred by the fact that people don’t usually store candy in the bathroom, he grabbed a candy and took a big bite. He immediately found his mouth filled with scented foam. he’d eaten one of his mother’s bath beads. He’s also had a hair mishap; he got a shampoo bottle and mayonnaise bottle mixed up, and nearly washed his hair with the latter. I’ve since informed him that mayonnaise is actually good for the hair now and then, but I’m not sure he believes me.

If there are any blind people out there who have good stories of this nature, please share them in the comments; we’d all love to indulge in a little schadenfreud…uh, I mean, we’d all love to share our compassion and sympathy. Yeah, let’s go with that.