Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Learning About Blindness

The topic of blindness has been of interest to me since I was a small child. I credit Little House (Mary Ingalls), a book my mom read to me about Helen Keller (and later her autobiography), and Seeing Fingers (Louis Braille).

When I began Acktorek, I discovered that Carla, one of my key characters, is blind. It isn't a decision I consciously made—these things rarely are—it just simply is. It's not her defining characteristic. I'd define her more by her musicality, imagination, and selflessness. Her blindness is just a characteristic, like Anne Shirley's red hair. Part of what makes Carla Carla.

Once I'd written the first draft, I realized I really needed to learn more about blindness to portray it accurately. (I can't say I do it perfectly, but I do my best.) As a very nearsighted person, I'm not a stranger to visual impairments, but there's a huge difference between looking at a fuzzy world until you put in your contacts and being completely blind since birth.

I first thought of rereading Helen Keller's autobiography, though she was also deaf (and lived a long time ago), but I ended up not doing that. My friend Kendra recommended I read Light a Single Candle by Beverly Butler, the story of a teenage girl losing her sight, based on the author's own experiences. I read it, loved it, and read the sequel as well. I also, through googling different things related to blindness, came across two useful YouTube channels: The Tommy Edison Experience and Molly Burke. Note: I haven't watched all the videos on either channel, so while all the videos I watched were fine, I can't vouch for content.

Watching these videos, I learned how many misconceptions there are about blindness. As a sighted person, it's hard to comprehend life without vision. There are so many things that we interact with visually that it's hard to comprehend how someone can operate without sight. How a blind person can interact with the same things we rely so heavily on visuals to use. But it's actually not that complicated. It's just different.

Like smartphones and other touchscreen devices. They actually have built in features for the visually impaired. Look at your iPhone settings in the "Accessibility" features. The "Voice Over" feature is really cool. It changes the touch screen commands somewhat to accommodate the features and reads out your screen to you. There's also a "Braille" feature, which I'm assuming is for output to a refreshable Braille display, but those are SUPER expensive, so I couldn't try it out. But yes, a blind person can use a smartphone.

Blind people can enjoy movies. Tommy Edison is "the blind film critique." Some movies have descriptive audio but he chooses not to use it, simply to follow the story via the ordinary audio track. And you know, that's not impossible. He talks a lot about how you can hear people's emotions in their voices. Think about it. You really can hear when someone is smiling, or when they're upset.

I checked out some Braille books from the library. One is a picture book (yes, with regular pictures, still trying to understand that one), and the other is a volume of the Bible. I'd intended just to see what a Braille book looked like, but since the picture book has regular printed English as well as Braille text, I've actually been reading the Braille. So now, I can read some Grade 1 Braille. I'm super slow at it, but I know most of the alphabet and I'm starting to recognize punctuation. It's pretty exciting to me. Now, the Bible is a lot harder to read. Largely because it's in Grade 2 Braille. Basically, Grade 1 is just a 1 for 1 conversion. Grade 2 makes use of abbreviations for certain common syllables as well as some vowel omission for space. Grade 3 is essentially shorthand, but an article I found said that Grade 3 isn't standardized, so it isn't used for official publications. Braille books are a lot harder to come by than print books and are more expensive, but I found a website that sells Braille books (including some of my favorites, like Narnia and Ranger's Apprentice) some for as low as $30. Not all that much more than the standard list price for a new hardback book. But of course, the longer books do cost significantly more. And when you live in the days of text to speech and audiobooks for just about everything, you've really got very open access to the literary world, even if you don't have a refreshable Braille display.

The biggest problem with blindness that I've found through my research isn't in the limitations caused by blindness at all. I mean, sure, there are things a blind person can't do, like drive a car, but there are plenty of things I'm incapable of doing even as a sighted person. The bigger problem is in people's attitudes. Molly Burke addresses this in several videos, such as her "questions not to ask a blind person" videos. She'll be out with a friend, and people ask her if the person is her helper. Or they'll be talking to her, discover she's blind, and proceed to direct all further conversation (about her) to whoever she's with. Blind people are still people who live normal lives. Don't assume because someone can't see that they're less of a person. Their lives aren't of less value just because they can't see. They're just different. And different is good. If we were all the same, the world would be an awfully dull place.

There are so many other ways to interact with the world besides sight. My library is using the system's VR system this month, and one of the experiences we have for it is "Notes on Blindness." It uses the journal of a man (I forget his name) on his experiences with blindness as well as sound effects to give you the experience. It was fascinating just how much was identifiable by the sound. It's so easy to tell the difference between high heels and sneakers just from the sound. Yes, if something is silent and not encountering your other senses, it's basically invisible, but you'd be surprised just how much you can learn from your other senses.

Right now, I can hear the clothes rattling around in the dryer, there must be something with a button or a zipper because I can hear the clattering. The washer was spinning, and is now filling with water. The air condition is running and I can feel the gentle wind from the ceiling fan on my face. When I went to work on the laundry, I could feel when I walked from the carpet onto the hardwood floors through my socks. I knew when I stepped on the rug, and when I was on the linoleum of the laundry room floor. There's no particular smell I'm identifying right now, but I can often tell what's been cooking by the smell. I can usually identify which family member is coming down the stairs by the sound of their footsteps. I can make my bed simply by the feel of it.

Close your eyes, walk around your house, see what you can find out about your surroundings without sight. You'll be surprised. Your brain is already taking in all that information, storing, processing it, it just more than likely takes back burner to your visual stimulation. But it's there. Enhancing your world in ways you may not even realize. All of our senses are amazing. And something I love about writing Carla is learning to experience the world in a completely different, but just as fantastic way.


  1. This is so neat! I've wanted to write about a blind character and now I have some references. It always amazed me when my friend who was blind could make his way through a crowded cafeteria directly to the table where we were located. I thought-how awesome is this guy, to overcome his disability and not let anything hamper him! That's why I more look up to those people than treat them as less than equals. However, I can see how people not be the same. I have wanted to invest in an audiobook version of my own novel because I want it to be more accessible for others. The expense is too much currently for me, but I hope to join other authors in doing so soon. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and it's helpful to you! It's been amazing learning about blindness and how people overcome it. They definitely deserve lots of respect.


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