Losing a “sense” no obstacle to discovering Colombia claims researcher

Jorge Andrés Colmenares sits at his desk, typing when I enter his office. He stands up, stretches out his arm and we warmly shake hands. I am at the Institute for the Blind in Bogotá where Jorge, who lost his vision when he was two years old, is the director of the Sensoroteca – Sensory Library. “There is an idea, among all of us, that when someone loses a sense, the others automatically develop,” says Jorge, explaining his personal experience with disability. “I don’t believe this, because it takes a mediation between the environment, learning and education to make this happen. Perception only makes sense when it is possible to attribute a meaning to what is being perceived.”

In Jorge’s case, it was his childhood surroundings, that his parents lovingly created that awakened his four remaining senses. Having a blind son prompted his family to give him alternative ways to discover the world. “My parents not only taught me things, but helped to create a meaning and a sense of the world through detailed and sensory descriptions such as touching, smelling and tasting,” remarks Jorge. His mother tried to involve as many senses as possible to ensure that Jorge grasped the meaning of words.

After finishing high school in Bogotá – studying with children who could see – Jorge went on to study Anthropology, followed by a Masters in Economic Science at the National University of Colombia. During his studies, he came across century-old theories proposed by the Italian educator Maria Montessori, the French education reformer Célestin Freinet and Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky who all agreed that for children to fully perceive the world around them, their senses need to be stimulated in multiple ways. Unknowingly, Jorge’s parents had applied this exact concept to his upbringing – formally called Multi- sensory education.

Inspired by his own life’s experience growing up in a stimulating environment, he was motivated to dedicate his career to multi-sensory learning. He has written research papers on the topic, and as the director of Sensoroteca, responsible for creating sensory objects such as tactile puzzle maps, geometric shapes to learn the multiplication tables, and embossed artwork and photographs. However, he strongly believes that multi-sensory education isn’t only for people with disabilities, but for every person. “Disabled people are just an excuse to implement this kind of education,” says Colmenares. “Our senses unify us.”

Colmenares believes that we shouldn’t act on our differences, “rather on the common communication channel that define what we refer to as a sense.” Creating this equality, however, remains a challenge for many institutions. He explains that by having separate programs for the blind and deaf, is expensive, inefficient, and impossible to cover everyone’s needs.

In 2011, Jorge was asked to advise the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá on its multi-sensorial policy. “It was one of my most beautiful experiences,” he says. The task was to come up with an alternative, multi-sensory experience that would integrate everyone regardless if they had a disability or not.”

Jorge’s evaluations led to the idea of guides carrying small replicas of objects associated with the museum. These included bones and original ceramic fragments donated by archaeologists. “Allowing people to touch fragments that are thousands of years old is very exciting for visitors,” says Colmenares.

Following on from this initiative, Colmenares’ passion for writing and traveling led him to write an interactive, multi-sensory travel guide for Diners Club called Colombia 4 Sentidos. In this guide, the investigator describes experiences traveling around Colombia solely from the perspective of hearing, taste, touch and smell. It is evident by our conversation that Colmenares is passionate about helping Colombia become a more inclusive society for those with disabilities. “When we help people who have lost sight or sound, we also activate our own senses, and in doing so, enrich everyone else’s life at the same time.”