Enabling Technology


Touching the Rock

John M. Hull

Doug Williams

Touching the Rock is a self-selected compilation of entries from John Hull’s personal journal that chronicles his fall into blindness. John was born in 1935 with an apparently healthy set of eyes. It was at the age of thirteen that John experienced his first problems with vision. A cataract left him with vision in only one eye. Months later a second cataract kept him seeing only a milky fog. This prompted the first of many corrective surgeries he would endure to secure his vision. At the age of 17, John was diagnosed with detaching retinas. Several failed attempts to correct both the cataracts and fully detached retinas eventually led John to succumb to his enduring blindness. It is this fall from vision, the slow progression of his detaching retinas and prolonged fight for vision, which allows his memoir to speak so loudly; rarely are we allowed into the effects of blindness from a crafting story-teller such as John Hull. Due to the largely disconnected structure of the book, I choose to cover some of the standout themes and stories of the book for this report.


As it was a life-long, chronic illness for John, Asthma was a disease that he had known since his birth. However, after the loss of the sight, he found the effects of asthma to be nearly unbearable. John often found the asthma attacks a nuisance, something that merely kept him slightly behind the others on the field, but never life threatening. However, after he lost his vision, the freight of an asthma attack was much more than a nuisance. It is interesting that John feels as though this disease “forces” him deeper into the seclusion of his body. John describes one such incident as: “an intense feeling of being enclosed… I felt that I was banging my whole body against a wall of blindness. Somewhere out there, there was a world of light, and I had to get out into it. (Hull, 46)” Continuing in this entry and elsewhere in the book, John seems to equate the feeling of strangulation from his asthma as yet another physical limitation further removing him from the world outside his body, that he is unable to see. A reader learns later in the book that John is able to eventually overcome the felling of helplessness associated with his asthma when he begins to autonomously learn techniques to control his breathing subsequent panic created by an asthma attack. It is interesting that his blindness can change the effect of other illnesses and his perception of his body as a whole.


A reoccurring theme found in the book was the removal of independence felt after the loss of sight. Although John remained able to walk, work, and survive a relative independent life, all of John’s personal contact became almost completely dependent on other people. Further exacerbating the issue, John noticed the feeling of responsibility sighted individuals felt for him when the two were in contact. Therefore, as John lost his independence, so did his accompanying friend. For instance, when John and a friend would walk down the street, the accompanying individual would often overcompensate for John’s blindness. “Like a hitch-hiker, I am being towed, moving more rapidly than I would normally be (Hull, 100).” Therefore, not only was John loosing his ability to stand on his own, but the ‘tower’ was carrying the burden of his presence as well. Interestingly enough, John developed a method to deal with this feeling of burden during situations such as parties where he would meet many new individuals in a controlled setting. John describes interactions with new acquaintances being easy for a sighted person since they have the ability to scan the room for new opportunities of discussion. However, not only do people feel the need to remain with John as he is ‘helpless’ but John lacks any similar ability. To this end, John simply asks the new acquiescence to use his eyes and network to take/introduce John to another member of the party. In this way, not only is John able to meet a larger number of people, but he is able to relieve acquaintances of his burden. This is just one example of the many adaptations and alterations from normal behaviors that John had to develop to cope with his blindness.


As John decided to end his fight for vision, his wife had just given birth to his first born son. As his eye sight was horribly deteriorated by this point, he was only able to see very little of his son’s appearance. Aside from the desire to see his children (he also was blessed with a daughter later in his marriage) grow up, he was able to experience an uncommon glimpse into development as his son’s understanding of his blindness. He chronicled this in a number of entries. On passage tells of his son’s quest to understand the difference between the visions he uses and that of his father. For instance, his son thinks that his father is able to see in darkness because John never turns the lights on out of habit. His son also knows that when John asks to see something, John means he needs hold/touch the object in question to gain knowledge about the object. In the culminating entry of this story, John asks his son what it means for his dad to be blind. He eventually makes the connection that blind, lack of sight, and his father all mean the same thing. The understanding that his son eventually develops and the vision that John develops for other’s perception of him was a poignant portion of the entries.


Work proved to be a challenge for John. As a lecturing professor he had a number of struggles to overcome after loosing sight. Previous to loosing his sight, John wrote all of his notes and work with paper and pen. This information would become unavailable to him after his finial operation eventually failed. He relied mainly on cassette, graduate student support, and Braille, with the former not regularly striking his fancy. He described the task as arduous; where he was once able to cover multiple chapters, he finds solace in getting through as few as three a day. He also finds difficulty in delivering lectures. He struggled to find a viable alternative to the outlines that he once utilized to guide his teaching. He attempted Braille outlines but found these too clumsy to be use. He was unable to quickly locate the brief information he needed. He tried cassette outlines but found these more trouble than good. He tried taped lectures but these were received as dry and boring. Eventually he relied on taping an outline and replaying the tape over and over before the lecture until the outline was memorized and easily remembered for the lecture.

I originally read this book because I felt that it would be of the greatest benefit to my project which included elements of blindness. As I found out, the experience of a person without sight is much more dynamic and extraordinary than I could ever have imagined. Through John Hull’s Touching the Rock I am now able to better see how the life of a individual without sight is affected with the condition.