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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Lesson 3: Tools in Your Toolbox, Using Your 11 Senses to Perform Everyday Tasks

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Is it difficult to insert the key into your front door? Do you worry about identifying your medications correctly? Do you lack confidence in matching your clothes? If so, it's time to take charge of every area of your life as a person who is blind or visually impaired. You will be pleased to know that you don't need to learn how to do hundreds of tasks all over again. The best news is that every task you ever performed as a sighted person, and any new task, can be accomplished with little or no vision.

Virtually no task is done with only your vision. Ninety-nine percent of all daily activities depend on movement from your fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, legs, and feet. Though you may have little or no vision, your body still remembers how to perform every task you’ve ever done on a regular basis. This is called muscle memory, and you can use it to insert a key to unlock a door, identify your medications, match your favorite slacks with your favorite sweater, and enjoy favorite leisure activities such as pottery classes.

Empish putting the finishing touches on her mug before the firing process

Lesson Goals

  • Identify and describe the 11 senses;
  • Collect at least 25 examples of ways you can use your 11 senses to perform daily tasks.

Click here to review the learning checks before reading the lesson.

So what is the visual impairment toolbox? It works something like the toolbox you may keep in your garage or utility room. When a door handle gets loose, you look in the toolbox and get out one or two or more tools to do the job. Just as you don't need every tool in the utility room to tighten the screw in the door handle, you don't need every tool in your visual impairment toolbox to wash dishes, match your clothes, or shave. This lesson discusses your toolbox containing 11 senses and describes how to use your senses to do almost every task you choose as a visually impaired person.

The Senses

No doubt you are familiar with the five primary senses: vision (ocular), touch (tactile), hearing (auditory), smell (olfactory), and taste (gustatory). However, there are 11 "senses" that you use every day! Several may be less familiar to you. For example, muscle memory incorporates the action of three senses (kinesthetic, haptic, and proprioceptive). Stereognosis enables you to identify three-dimensional objects with your hands. The vestibular sense controls your balance, and the cognitive "sense," or memory, enables you to learn and remember what you learn.

In this lesson, you will learn how important every sense is to your ability to live as a visually impaired person. Each sense is described in this lesson and examples are provided for how to use them. Every task you do requires the use of several senses. Learning how to interpret information from all of your senses will enable you to live more productively and independently. (For this lesson, the common names for the senses will be used.)

List and Description of the 11 Senses

  1. Visual (Vision) - Processes light that enters the eyes into electrical impulses carried by the optic nerve to the vision center in the brain where the electrical impulses are converted into images

  2. Auditory (Hearing) - Processes sound that enters the canals of the ears into electrical impulses carried to the brain by the auditory nerve

  3. Tactile (Two-dimensional touch) - Provides the ability to discriminate among heat, cold, wet, and dry and to identify two-dimensional objects through the nerves in the skin

  4. Stereognosis (Three-dimensional touch) - Provides the ability to identify a three-dimensional object with the hands using the object's weight, form, texture, density, and the like

  5. Olfactory (Smell) - Provides the ability to discriminate among smells and flavors (the sense of smell, not taste, provides flavor)

  6. Gustatory (Taste) - Provides the ability to recognize texture, size, and contour through the nerves in the tip of the tongue and sides of the mouth

  7. Kinesthetic - Makes the whole body aware of how the body and its parts relate to space

  8. Proprioceptive - Turns information from muscles, joints, and tendons into specific action

  9. Haptic - The ability to differentiate and match objects of similar size, length, texture, and weight through touch and movement

    The kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and haptic senses are the three senses known collectively as "muscle memory." They never function independently of each other.

  10. Vestibular (Balance) - Provides information about the body's movement and relation to gravity through receptors in the inner ears

  11. Cognitive (Memory) - Processes information via memory, aptitude, and abstract thinking

Sense of Hearing

For the person with vision loss, almost every sound has a purpose or represents something specific. For example, the whirr of a refrigerator and the whirr of a dishwasher sound different from one another. Distinguishing these two appliances can help you remain oriented in the kitchen. Begin paying attention to sounds in your everyday environment. What causes the sound? Where does the sound come from? What are the qualities of the sound? In other words, is it the dishwasher or toilet making the sound? Is the sound behind you, above your head, or in another room? Is it the whirr of an appliance, the clink of something dropped on the floor, or the rush of running water? Notice the sound of the toaster when the bread pops up. When making coffee, notice the sound of the brewed coffee dripping into the pot. Your sense of hearing can become basic to performing many tasks. Practice listening to and identifying the sounds in your environment. In time you will learn to discriminate between sounds. You will even learn to recognize when a familiar sound doesn't sound right. For example, if a burner on the gas stove makes the clicking sound but doesn't make the swish sound, you know the gas did not ignite. If you turn on the coffeemaker and it doesn't sound right when the coffee begins to drip, perhaps you failed to put the pot under the spout.


Echolocation is not another sense but is another way you can use your sense of hearing. As you move about, speak, or make any kind of noise, the sound is reflected off walls, furniture, trees, buildings, and other surfaces back to your ears. In places like bathrooms, closets, and narrow hallways, the sound will bounce back to your ears quickly and give you a feeling of being closed-in or in a small room. When you enter your living room or another large room, you will experience the opposite sensation. In a large room or open space, sound travels farther before it comes back to your ears. In time, you may be able to tell when you are approaching a closed door or passing a car parked along the street or when you've left an open area and are passing along the wall of a building. Some people like to hum a song or make some kind of noise to help detect objects in their pathway. You may or may not find this helpful. Begin using echolocation when getting around in your home.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on echolocation and using your hearing to move around your home.

Adding Sounds to the Environment

Adding a sound to the environment can help you stay oriented. Turn on a radio in a large room or place a loud ticking clock at the end of a long hallway. Wind chimes or a radio on the patio can guide you back to the house after working in the yard.

Sense of Touch

If you have little or no vision, your sense of touch is vital to performing many tasks. Your entire body (hands, feet, legs, arms, face, etc.) has nerve endings that react to cold/heat, wet/dry, soft/rough, heavy/light, and so on. You can locate a sticky spot of toothpaste on the bathroom counter by running your fingers over the surface of the counter. You can set the security system in your home by running your fingers across the keypad. Clothing can be recognized by touch. For example, the texture of your brown suit may be very different than that of your gray or navy suit. The navy and gray suits may be similar, but the buttons or pants pockets may be different. Practice using your sense of touch to select clothing for a specific outfit. Through your feet, you can distinguish carpet from ceramic tile or hardwood floors, letting you know where you are in your environment.

The sense used most frequently to identify and differentiate objects with your hands is three-dimensional touch. With your fingers, you can learn to differentiate a quarter from a nickel and a penny from a dime. Quarters and dimes have rough edges, while nickels and pennies have smooth edges. Nickels are a bit larger and thicker than pennies. You may be able to distinguish your door key from a luggage key if one is square and the other has scalloped edges. Perhaps the containers of mustard and ketchup in your refrigerator are easy to tell apart. If not, the next time you shop select products with containers you can easily differentiate.

The medications you take regularly might be shaped differently from one another. One may be a capsule; another might be shaped like a football; another small and oval, and another round and flat on top and bottom. If you have two medications that are difficult to distinguish from one another, one way to tell them apart is to wrap a rubber band around one of the bottles.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on using your sense of touch to move around your home and for other tasks.

Sense of Smell

Your sense of smell alerts you to fire, spoiled milk, trash that needs to go in the garbage can, and it helps you enjoy a bouquet of roses. Smell is very important to daily life and the safety of people with little or no vision. A person who is visually impaired depends on their sense of smell, especially when preparing food. If you are preparing a soup that calls for several spices, you may use your sense of smell to find the ones you need. If the burner on your stove did not ignite, you will probably smell a rotten egg odor as a warning that gas is escaping. A burning smell coming from the vacuum may indicate that something is caught in the beater bar.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on using your sense of smell to move around your home and for other tasks.

Sense of Taste

The sense of smell is required for a strong sense of taste. That's why your food doesn't taste as good as usual when you have a cold. The sense of taste for sighted and visually impaired individuals is important when eating. Through the sense of taste, you tell if something is spicy or bitter or contains a food you do not like. Only through the sense of taste can you tell if you've added too much salt or pepper to a dish you are preparing for a pot-luck. The tip of the tongue is very sensitive to cold and hot, which may prevent you from burning your mouth.

Muscle Memory

What we call "muscle memory" is action produced by three senses—kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and haptic—working together. They cannot function independently. These three senses, along with the sense of touch, provide the visually impaired individual with the most complete and reliable information.

Every task requiring some type of action depends on movements from your muscles, joints, and tendons from various parts of your body. For example, to hang a picture it takes repetitive blows of the hammer against the nail created by muscles, joints, and tendons in your hand, arm, and shoulder. Through touch and movement, you can differentiate and match objects of similar size, length, texture, and weight. For example, you may have six pairs of white socks among the clean laundry to separate and match. Three pairs are calf length, and three are slightly shorter, but one pair has a different ribbing at the top. You need to compare each sock to determine which is the longest. Then you need to compare the tops of the shorter socks to locate the ones with the different ribbing. When you are visually impaired, you can use muscle memory to still sign your name, slice a tomato, ride a bike, or play golf.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on using muscle memory.

Sense of Balance

Your sense of balance is frequently overlooked until you feel dizzy, but it's absolutely crucial for everything you do. Whether sitting, standing, or walking, virtually no task can be performed when you feel off balance.

Learning and Memory

The cognitive sense is essential for learning for following a series of steps to complete a task and for retaining memory of how to perform the task over an extended period of time. You may not think of memory as a sense, but basically, your brain "rewires" to accommodate vision loss. If you have always learned by visually reading instructions or observing someone doing a job, learning by listening to instructions may take time to develop. Be patient with yourself.

Sense of Sight

Because the primary goal of this lesson is to introduce you to ways you can use your non-visual senses to perform most tasks, vision is not discussed in this lesson. However, if you have some usable vision, you are encouraged to develop techniques for using it efficiently along with your other senses. For an explanation of lighting, size, contrast, and other essential low vision techniques to include in your toolbox, see Lesson 7: Techniques and Devices for Maximizing Low Vision.

To help you better understand each sense and how it functions, this lesson has described them individually and given examples that demonstrate each. Most tasks, however, utilize two or more of the 11 senses, as seen in the following scenario.

You wake up hungry but a little later than you intended. You decide to have a quick breakfast of an English muffin with peanut butter and a glass of orange juice. You quickly find the English muffins because your sense of touch lets you identify them by their round shape. You place one half on each side of the toaster and press the lever. While the muffin is toasting, you locate the round plastic jar of peanut butter. You decide to add a few raisins, so you grab the rectangular box of raisins sitting next to the jar of peanut butter. Next, to spread the peanut butter, you identify a knife by its shape. These are three items you've retrieved using your three-dimensional sense. As you take a plate from the cabinet, you hear the toaster pop up, and you know your muffin is ready. As you open the jar of peanut butter, it's familiar smell rises to your nose, making you even hungrier. You spread some peanut butter on your muffin and sprinkle a few raisins on top. Before getting your orange juice, you put the peanut butter and raisins back in the places where you found them so that they will be easy to find the next time. You grab a tall glass and set it next to your muffin. In the refrigerator, you have milk and orange juice. Your milk is in a plastic bottle with a handle, and the orange juice is in a square carton, so you have no trouble telling them apart. As you pour the orange juice, its pungent smell convinces you that this was the right choice for breakfast. One taste of each confirms it!

Along with your senses of touch, smell, hearing, three-dimensional touch, and taste, you used muscle memory to grab the items you needed, spread the peanut butter, and pour the orange juice, creating a delicious breakfast!

Now choose a couple of activities and think about the different senses you can use or are using to perform those tasks. In time, you won't have to think about it. Using your non-visual senses will become as natural as riding a bike or driving a car without looking at the pedals.

In Lesson 4: Tools in Your Toolbox, Techniques to Perform Everyday Tasks, you will learn about a set of 12 techniques and examples for how to use them. These techniques also belong in the toolbox along with your 11 senses. With these tools, you can do almost any task you want.

Learning Checks

What sense would be most helpful when determining if a plate or a countertop is clean?

  1. Touch
  2. Hearing
  3. Balance
  4. Muscle Memory

Answer: a

For which of the following tasks would you find three-dimensional touch most helpful?

  1. Washing dishes
  2. Telling a quarter from a penny
  3. Operating your TV remote
  4. Making a bed

Answer: b

Which two senses would you use to tell that the gas burner on the stove did not ignite or that something was hung in the beater bar of the vacuum?

  1. Touch and taste
  2. Muscle memory and balance
  3. Hearing and smell
  4. Three-dimensional touch and visual

Answer: c

What is the group of senses that creates the action for all tasks?

  1. Learning and memory
  2. Hearing and echolocation
  3. Muscle memory
  4. Taste and smell

Answer: c

Click here to return to the beginning of the lesson.

VisionAware Resources

The following links will take you to VisionAware online resources that support this lesson. Please be advised that information in these links may go beyond the scope of this lesson or this course.

Maximize Your Senses

Echolocation: Using Your Ears to Help You See

Use Your Hearing to Move Around Your Home

Use Your Sense of Touch to Move Around Your Home

Use Your Sense of Smell to Move Around Your Home

Use Your Kinesthetic Senses As Someone with Vision Loss

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