Of Pictures, Voices, and Words: Making your Memories MultiSensory

On Memorial Day, my mom posted a picture of her dad, my grandpa “Pete”, on her Facebook page, mentioning he was a lieutenant colonel in WWII. Grandpa “Pete” died before I was born, and I never got to meet him. When I first discovered my mom’s post, I was struck by the fact that here on my computer screen was an image of a man who was genetically and spiritually close to me, yet because I am blind, I couldn’t interact with that image at all, or join the chorus of other friends and relatives commenting on his appearance. It was a lonely feeling.

On reflection, though, I realized this was another case of calling something a disability problem when it was really just a lack of imagination. Although I couldn’t *visually* study Grandpa Pete’s picture, I was mainly interested in the history of who he was, where he was and what he was doing at that moment. So, I wrote to my mom and asked her to tell me about his military career. I read the comments from friends of hers, who knew him, describing who he was. And I showed the post to my husband Jason, and felt the warmth of sharing another part of my family with him.

Storytelling and memory making are universal human activities. At first, the only way we could preserve memories was through oral storytelling. Then, written language allowed us to capture memories in words without needing to pass them directly from person to person. Once the camera was invented, we began to capture the visual aspects of our experiences, creating stories that were both verbal and visual in nature. Today, with the advent of social media, visuals often dominate the memories we share with others. But that doesn’t mean that blind people can’t participate. In fact, with a little forethought, we can create memories that engage multiple senses, and that are accessible to all.

Fortunately, I did know my other grandpa, “Dave”, who was alive until I was 11. A few years before his death, my dad and aunt interviewed him (on cassette tape) about his ancestry, his life, and his values. Recently the recording was digitized and shared within our family. This was of benefit to our entire family, not just to me. But it is especially powerful for me to hear his voice and connect with his stories in the absence of pictures. Video, too, can offer a real sense of being present in the moment for all, and if there is a good balance of dialogue and action, videos can engage people with visual or hearing impairments.

When making memories for yourself, or for a loved one with a disability, think of how you can preserve moments in ways that engage multiple senses. Of course, photo, audio and video all capture moments in different ways. I like to involve my sense of touch by saving small items that remind me of a particular experience, like a souvenir from a vacation, or a ribbon or button I received from participating in an event. Or the clamshell ring holder that Jason gave me on our wedding day, that he apparently bought on his bachelor trip to Europe when we first started dating (and kept it a surprise for four years). Smells and tastes conjure memories, too; in fact, some studies suggest that smells can trigger more vivid memories than any other sense Some of the first meals I learned to cook were old family favorites that rewarded me with their familiar smells and tastes.

I want to conclude this post with some practical guidance for posting accessible photos and videos on social media. In a phrase: text captions. The beauty of today’s technology is that it can show words in either visual form (print), auditory form (text-to-speech), or tactile form (braille, if the reader uses a braille device). Presenting a brief verbal description alongside a photo or video allows people to learn about the content using the sense that works best for them. Even for people without sensory disabilities, captions can help set the scene and add additional context. Captions needn’t be long; I recommend a sentence or two describing the setting, important people pictured and their relationships (e.g., “picture of my family, my graduating class, etc.), and a brief explanation of any actions (e.g., my baby boy crawling), or props that are important to the story (e.g., if someone is wearing a silly costume or intentionally striking a weird pose). When you caption an entire album, your words become a story of its own.

Facebook has a built-in caption box as part of the uploader for individual photos and videos, and if you upload an album, you can return to each photo and caption it individually. On a website, captions can be included as part of the code next to the image. There is also a feature known as “alt text” which can be used in HTML to add image descriptions which are only “visible” to people using screen readers. This may be useful if you don’t want to clutter a page with printed text, but still want to make your images accessible. But, keep in mind that some people with low vision may not use screen readers, but might still appreciate a caption.

In closing, here are a few pictures representing my favorite memories, and one short audio clip, with captions. Enjoy!

Picture from my weekend on a farm during my study-abroad trip to Australia, 2007.
Silverman family photo taken sometime in the 1990’s, with our dog, Teddy.
This is the main piece of artwork in our apartment. My mother-in-law gifted us with a wooden plaque that has our wedding vows wood-burned on it, flanked by a tree of life (Jewish symbol) and Celtic knotwork (a symbol of Jason’s Welsh heritage).
Jason and me on our wedding day.
Celebratory dinner after our Ph.D. graduation with Jason, his parents, and close friends from Arizona and Colorado.

Audio from beach hike in Seattle

9 thoughts on “Of Pictures, Voices, and Words: Making your Memories MultiSensory

        1. Hi, Yes I use the WordPress editor, when you upload media to a post there is an edit box to add a caption as well as an alt tag if you want the text to be there for blind readers but not visible to sighted ones.

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