I Ask My Poetry

The young writer struggles with self-definition. So many incredible reputations hover above us, casting sparks in all directions. Every established literary presence is crisp and luminous, an identity in complete control of its own labels.

So I ask my poetry for this control, and it withers. I find I possess nothing worthy of a poem. What could be poetic about my unestablished self? About my identity testing its limits?

I ask my poetry to be perfect, to appeal to everyone, to help others feel what I feel when I read Rilke. Rilke advises his young poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

I ask my poems to be round and lively, filled with knowledge that transcends my individual experience. And as I reach for this transcendence, this selflessness, I realize just which parts of my self I am sacrificing.

I am concerned that others will read my work and see only disability: a dismal vision that makes them turn away rather than turn toward me. I am concerned that their fear of blindness—so widespread in common culture—will tell them, “Close the book, and it will never happen to you.” I worry that any “blindness poems” that don’t offer some nugget of nonvisual bliss will tap into the well of pity carried by people who don’t really know me.

“That must be what it’s like to be her. Poor thing.”

So I ask my poetry to silence the part of myself that helps me interact with the world. I ask my poetry to censor disability so that it will appeal to more nondisabled readers. I cut off part of myself—and then I’m surprised when my poetry wants spirit and individuality.

I didn’t realize how thoroughly I’ve been silencing myself. My prose is flowing smoothly, but I’ve only written 5 poems this year. Last year, I wrote 67. In 2013, I wrote 97. The prose is steadily coming, but the poems are being choked off. I’m telling myself the usual things: I’m not in the mood to write poetry, not all those poems last year were good, numbers don’t mean much when it comes to Art.

But inspiration only works if you value the craft that asks for it.

A year ago, I wrote an essay that helped me define myself as a poet. The essay happened in the midst of April—I was celebrating Poetry Month by trying to write some kind of poem every day. I was playing with forms: pantoums, villanelles, sonnets, sestinas. The exercises and the essay worked on paper. So I published the essay,  framed the thoughts, and forgot to engage with them.

About a month ago, I applied for a slot in a series of local readings that will occur in November. I offered myself as a poet whose poetry would discuss “writing as embodiment and sensory experience”—a neat way of saying “blind poetry” without using the word. I didn’t see the fancy words for what they were: a cloak. Just in case the panel of judges would freak out over seeing “blind” on the page.

I wanted to read my poems instead of my prose because they are generally shorter and won’t provide as much of a visual challenge. I’ve never felt overly confident about my ability to read aloud.

My poems don’t mark me as a blind poet in as much as my essays mark me as a blind writer. My poems focus on minute experiences, rarely stopping to explain that they were written by a blind woman. But my essays are longer explorations of important aspects of my life: music, teaching, disability, dogs. In my essays, I don’t avoid the blind label: they flourish because of my perspective.

So why do I hold poetry to a different standard, a standard of erasure? I can puzzle out a few reasons. I’ve met few blind poets on the page, though of course they exist. I even have several works by blind poets sitting on my poetry shelf.

But poetry hinges on a paradox. We expect it to bloom with human experience—particular, poignant, real. And at the same time, we imagine that such a high and beautiful art must come from the minds (not bodies) of high and beautiful people. Prose seems to us the writing of everyday life—even if this is an unfair judgement. Prose can certainly be beautiful, graceful, evocative. But prose is the place where you discuss how to clasp the belly-strap of your guide dog’s harness; poetry is the place where you describe the wild warmth of meeting his large brown eyes—perhaps the first pair of eyes you’ve ever been able to meet.

It is an unfair binary that segregates these two genres, and practicing this binary has helped me to make war on my writing self. I didn’t see it until I read it in a piece by Steve Kuusisto, a blind poet: “Its possible to have a disability and live your life pretending you don’t have one. Plenty of people have done so. But getting away with this charade in literary terms means the imagination has been suborned—bribed—you’ve tricked yourself into thinking there’s a pot of gold that will be yours but only if there isn’t a hint of physical difference in your work.”

I am an advocate, an activist, a scholar, a teacher. I contemplate all day, and often into the night. I never imagined I could be so thoroughly tricked by the same myths that silence other disabled poets. I’ve been helping to sequester my own experience, and effectively telling others that it is nothing of value—all to avoid being misunderstood, pitied, alienated.

Kuusisto echoes Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, saying:  I’m a poet who not only admits the defective body into literature—I think the imagination is starving for what that damned body knows.” But the difference is, he’s talking about me. I didn’t know Rilke was talking about my experience, too. And I couldn’t ask.

I could’ve questioned poetry itself, but I didn’t have the courage or the imagination. If I didn’t ask for admission, I couldn’t be turned away.

I’m going to stop asking my poetry not to come.

I’m asking all poetry: Are you talking to me?

Blind Magician

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s extensive epic, The Lord of the Rings, much attention is given to the One Ring, a powerful weapon that changes the hearts and minds of men, dwarves, elves, and wizards. After encountering the Ring of Power, many characters discover a hunger for ability, a yearning to wear and wield this small gold weapon that can reshape the world. Though the Ring claims the spotlight throughout the three books, other magical implements exist – working for good and evil within the story. My favorite of these is a staff belonging to Gandalf, the tale’s wise and cantankerous wizard. The staff sometimes appears as a humble walking stick. At other times, it is the light in dark places. Gandalf rarely appears without the staff in hand – it banishes demons, conjures fireworks, and harnesses his magical abilities.

As an admirer of Tolkien’s work and a blind woman, I feel affinity for this magical accessory. My desire to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth compels me to parallel the White Wizard’s weapon with my own commonplace talisman – a slender, foldable creation, wrapped in white reflective tape. For me, the white cane is a wizard’s staff in humble costume. It transports me to unforeseen environments, grants me helpful attentions from others, and allows me to change my world by presenting an active, capable picture of blindness.

In each tale of magic and self-discovery, a moment of epiphany and acceptance opens the world of an ordinary person to fantastical possibilities. Arthur sees and retrieves a sword from a stone; Frodo steps forward and offers to destroy the One Ring; Harry Potter opens the impressive letter from Hogwarts. In an ordinary world, a protagonist must decide to accept the magical token – a cloak of invisibility, a victorious sword, a lucky feather – before his or her life can become extraordinary.

As the heroines and heroes of fantasy accept wise council and magical heirlooms, the ordinary blind person accepts the cane. This acceptance is far from easy. When I was ten, I started training with the cane, but I was reluctant to use it in all environments. Afraid that the cane would set me apart, I convinced myself I could travel without it. I did not fully accept its power until I was fifteen. Confronted by necessity, I pulled the sword from the stone, put on the cloak, tucked the lucky feather in my pocket. I decided to embrace the magic that had been waiting for me for five years.

Like a mystic word that opens locked doors or answers riddles in invisible ink, the cane carries me to unknown realms. With a cane in hand, I feel confident enough to travel independently. The cane is a far-seeing crystal that extends my knowledge of the world – if only by 48 inches. It sweeps the ground before me, describing changes in my environment – steps, curbs, piles of leaves, signs, golf carts, boxes, and people whose existence I cannot visually detect. With cane in hand, I wield a prophetic power that prepares me for safe travel.

While some magical tools gain prestige by rendering their user invisible, the presence of the cane makes me more visible. The cane marks me out as an exception to the rule. In most groups, I alone sweep the white staff as I walk. This rare, bright implement of independence catches the eyes of passersby and works spontaneous miracles. Doors swing open, people step out of my way, friendly greetings fall on my ears.

A powerful symbol, the cane signifies many kinds of existence. Some see it as a crutch, a sign that indicates my weakness and vulnerability. To them, the cane is not a single staff but a heavy cross. I wield it like a biological scarlet letter – a signal of my deplorable and inferior life. Surely I, with this heavy cross in hand, cannot enjoy the pleasures that the observers enjoy.

For others, the cane is more than a powerful symbol: it is a symbol of power. They see the cane as a mark of my fierce drive to be independent, present, and successful; they recognize the work that prepared me for its use. They understand the hours of toil that fit a person for carrying a magical device. Perhaps they too have trained with their own symbols of power; they know the cost, the upkeep, the discipline needed to use such a staff as mine.

A third group of observers sees the cane as a sign of mystery. Unsure of its powers or uses, the courageous approach with questions. The cowardly stand aloof and gossip, their voices louder than they realize. With these people, the cane’s protective powers are amplified – it grants me a quick method for determining a person’s character. Even when the questions or comments are clumsy, those who bring them have a ready stock of goodwill for me. Those who would rather speculate from afar will not prove themselves worthy friends.

Gandalf’s staff marks him as a wizard, and my cane marks me as a blind woman. This mark allows me to carry the idea of blindness into new and exciting realms. Often, I must create the place for my talisman, because it is the first to appear in these frontiers. Onstage with my chorus, my magic staff changes shape, becoming slimmer and more compact. A long, slender pocket on the side of my chorus costume – the creation of our chorus seamstress – accommodates the compact ID cane I use during performances. The seamstress’s masterful addition keeps the cane from rolling around underneath the risers or getting misplaced backstage. This measure ensures that I won’t be parted from my talisman.

If a cane user cannot realize the power residing in the slender dimensions of a white cane, I recommend a healthy dose of whimsy and an understanding of metaphor. The everyday magic of canes is impossible to ignore. I first accepted the cane for its superficial powers, its compensations for my low vision, but, like the Ring that creates the Fellowship or the external magic that reveals internal strength, the cane continues to unfold new powers. To accept the cane, I had to accept myself. To embrace its power, I had to decide who I wanted to be. Now, my cane is a portable charm against diffidence and fear. I carry courage in its 48 inches.

My daily existence rarely offers me the experience of traveling with another cane user. I treasure the handful of times I’ve spent strolling beside someone whose familiar tapping and sweeping echoes or prefigures my own. Like a secret handshake or code word, the sound of another cane in use grants me a sense of kinship, a spiritual resonance. I rejoice that another carries the quiet power in the white staff, and I hope he or she uses it with care.

Blind Teacher II: The Saga Continues

Just before lunchtime, I receive an urgent call. The colleague, whose class I’ll be taking over in two weeks, needs me to start tomorrow. Tomorrow!? I’d planned to go in and observe tomorrow; I’d given the assigned poems a cursory reading. I wanted to sit in the back and be unobtrusive. I must dispense with these half-plans and begin new ones.  Luckily, I know where the classroom is; another colleague helped me find it when we were activating our electronic keys.

I begin the process of making the materials accessible. I send a series of emails to our department secretary, asking him to enlarge the poems for tomorrow’s class. In their current state, they’re dingy photocopies – not as grungy as some I’ve seen, but far too small to be legible. The photocopies were made in the usual manner of English professors: Open the thick book and mash it, pages down, onto the copier glass. The thicker the book, the more the professor resists copying each page to its own sheet of paper – so the text slips and curves into the graying vortex of the book’s spine and the edges of each page are muddy and dark.

To make these texts accessible, someone – usually our meticulous secretary – will have to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to the existing PDFs. OCR will change the way that the computer interacts with the PDF. Instead of treating the PDF as a giant picture, OCR will allow the computer to recognize individual letters. Then using the text-to-speech function, my computer will read the texts aloud to me. This accounts for half of the ideal accessible text.

The other half of accessibility is visual; I must be able to visually interact with texts. Here is where I usually clasp my hands and stare woefully at the ceiling – Why oh why did I choose a profession that demands such intense interaction with texts? – but it can’t be helped. I know that any career I choose will present its own challenges.

Because I will thoroughly annotate each text and later read it silently or aloud under the variable lighting of a classroom, I require a larger font than I would use at home or in my office, beneath the cozy mood lighting I like best. This means that the dreadful 2-pages-per-sheet photocopies must be printed so that one book page covers one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to enforce “bigger is better,” enlarging my work to fit on 11×14 paper, but this measure begins a textual misadventure. Because my visual fields are limited, I work better with smaller areas, like the 13-inch screen on my laptop. To work with a larger screen up close, I would have to scan it more frequently. If I stand a few feet away, my central vision can accommodate larger areas.

My use of text in class is intimate and specific. I need a clear font with serifs, like Times New Roman or Cambria, and I need the text printed on a manageable area – standard letter-size paper. For longer texts, I need clear (enlarged) page numbers and a solid system for organization, whether it’s staples, binders, or tabs. Fortunately, for this class, I am dealing with two short packets of poems – each packet is about 15 pages long.

Because of the short notice, I worry that I will end up teaching without accessible copies of the poems. I am unfamiliar with the two poets, and I can only reason that I’ll ask students to read some of the text aloud. This will be my first time teaching these students, and I know the need to appear confident and capable.

Just hours before my class begins, my colleague and I briefly discuss the poems. She describes major themes, and I suggest possible directions for the class. Our secretary manages to enlarge them in the nick of time, and I shove the two packets in my bag on my way to another meeting.

All too soon, I stand before a low table at the front of my new classroom. Though I have folded my white cane, I have not removed my burgundy-framed sunglasses – the overhead lights are intense. My colleague introduces me briefly and asks the students to introduce themselves. My hands slide idly along the edge of the table. I feel my fingers start to tap the table, and I stop myself. I remember that, though I can only see parts of them – fuzzy heads, colorful blurs of clothing, dark lumps that must be schoolbags – they can all see me. I refuse to think about the loose bow on my shirt (is it straight?) or the shine that a warm classroom and two pairs of glasses add to my face. I smile, grateful that I remembered to apply lip balm.

Even before I’ve given the blind professor spiel, introductions flow smoothly. All the students speak clearly, and most speak cheerfully, giving me their name, major, and an interesting fact about themselves. Once my colleague has fielded a handful of questions about past assignments, she leaves me alone with the new class. I take a breath and begin The Talk.

I explain that I’ll be identifying them by their voices: “If I don’t hear you, you’re not here. So you’ll want to speak up often.” I say that I’ll be asking them whether the whiteboard is clean before I write on it. “It’s a pain to write over some previous math class,” I intone seriously. When I am greeted with silence, I grin, “That’s a joke. You can laugh.” They oblige – my first clue that they’ll be a fun and cooperative group. Lastly I ask, “Where’s the lightswitch in here?” A male student leaps to his feet, offering to turn off the lights for me, but I resist.  “No, I’ll do it – just direct me.” I explain that this is an informal test of their ability to communicate clearly and use direction-specific words. That gets a genuine laugh. Several voices chime in with succinct and accurate directions, and I flip off three of the four switches. Lastly, I add that they’ll need to submit their assignments in 18-point font. “And if your printer is running out of ink,” I pause dramatically. “Do us both a favor and print from the library. Faded ink is not fun to read.”

The students receive this information stoically, though they chuckle in all the right places. There are no questions or complaints; they seem to digest what I’ve said without a problem. I can’t believe I’m at the end of my “this is how your professor is different” talk already. Don’t I have more to say? DId I forget anything?

After my introduction, I lay out the plan for that day’s class – a length of 3.5 hours with three 10-minute breaks. As we move through collective and individual peer review, an informal lecture on poetics, and an interactive annotation exercise, we subtly amend the course plan. The students readily answer my questions about the course procedures and the day’s material. At one point, they can’t remember the criteria for individual peer review, so we invent a new procedure. During the final break, students chat about the feedback they’ve received. “We don’t get a lot,” they tell me. “We don’t get graded.”

“Do you know why?” I ask, knowing full well that my colleague has explained her methodology to them. But because it’s so new and foreign, they don’t remember it.

I offer them an explanation, and they indulge me, letting me pontificate for ten minutes on the value of the teacherless writing class. I scrawl Peter Elbow’s name on the board and explain, with more zeal than eloquence, the need to make writing a daily habit, the virtues of freewriting, and the growing confidence and command of words that accompanies such a pedagogy. I finish by saying that they’ll always read more willingly the material that interests them – but there is also value in learning to read texts that don’t interest them. Like the daily practice of musicians and athletes, writing takes rigor and commitment before you can expect to perform, to produce something of value.

I doubt my speech pleases them, but I can sense that they are happier knowing what philosophies structure this course. I am excited to watch them grow as writers, curious how much they will choose to develop. And I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself. I expected the class to be chaotic: I imagined myself stumbling through unfamiliar poems, trying to articulate someone else’s theories, while students unaccustomed to the quirks of my instruction gave stilted responses or none at all. I feel an intense gratitude for the cooperation that brought us all success – a powerful appreciation for my colleague’s guidance, my secretary’s resourcefulness with the myriad and confusing features of Adobe Acrobat, and my students’ willingness to help me settle into the new rhythm of our course. Yet again, I find myself amazed at how quickly challenges disappear when people decide to work together.

Blind Teacher

On final exam day, I sit at the front of a quiet classroom, listening attentively for the sound of my students writing. Pens are a lot quieter than they used to be; I can barely hear them marking their papers. The test, four pages of literary terms and grammar exercises, is free response, so I should be able to hear something—maybe a student loudly tossing his pen onto the desk in frustration, another sighing heavily, or a third compulsively clicking her retractable pen as she ponders the difference between active and passive voice.

As I sit at the low table at the front of the room, I think about the many silences that have occurred across the semester. They usually represented a discussion in the making, a classroom of students waiting for me to answer my own questions or afraid to venture their own opinions. On the first day, the silence was unique—pregnant with nervous energy. I remember sitting behind the large teacher’s desk, checking the time on my phone, not wanting to start class too early. I could barely see over that desk; I felt small and inadequate behind it. Soon I started dragging one of the student tables toward the dry erase board and positioning the large teacher chair behind it.

Sitting at this shorter table, I can see my students as a collective group. I can distinguish body shapes but not individual features. I can observe posture. I watch them taking their exam and realize that their backs are straight. None of them hunch over the desk, their noses inches from the paper, as I would have done—as I still do when I write at a desk. Up until now, I’ve equated that hunched posture with concentration. The more intensely I concentrated, the lower I bent over the desk. I only leaned away, only sat up straight, when I had finished reading or writing. I sat, back straight, when I discussed course material or answered questions—these behaviors were a breeze for me.

Watching my students, I can’t help but wonder how I looked as a student, bent over my paper in ardent concentration. What did my teachers think seeing me doubled over the desk? What changed when I sat up? Did they think, “Oh that’s just how she has to do it?” Could they see what that posture meant for me?

Twenty minutes pass in relative silence, with the occasional sound of a student scratching out his answer and rewriting it. Finally, the quiet breaks as a student flips her exam over, stands, gathers her things, and zips her bag. My ears place her on the right side of the room, and I hear her traveling toward me. She calmly offers me her test paper, and I track the flash of white, extending my hand to take it. She wishes me a relaxing winter break and leaves the room.

These sounds repeat as other students finish the exam and bring me their papers. At my desk, some pause awkwardly, unsure which of us will speak first. A student says, “Here,” and hands me her paper. I thank her and smile. She waits half a second and then blurts out, “I’ve had an amazing semester—you’re a great teacher!”

I am stunned. I stammer a grateful reply and she hurries away. Other students repeat similar remarks as they drop off their exams.

“I really enjoyed your class.”

“I hope we can keep in touch.”

“I learned a lot from you.”

“I appreciate all you’ve done to make me a better writer.”
I am shocked, not because I feel diffident about my abilities, but because I don’t remember making declarations like these as a freshman. I remember turning in exams and getting out of there, desperate for a coffee and some holiday shopping. I don’t remember thinking to compliment my instructors until I reached my upper level courses.

I think about all the things that worried me—not seeing their hands in the air, writing over my own writing on the board, being unable to find what I’d written, not seeing them texting or using their computers during class, being unable to read their body language and facial expressions—an endless list of incompetencies. I was sure that these things would make me a bad teacher, one that students would mock. A teacher they would ignore. A teacher they wouldn’t take seriously. I was afraid that all my individual struggles would amount to a pathetic reputation—that I wouldn’t be able to demonstrate my skills because I regularly made gaffes in small, everyday ways.

Then students stopped at my desk. One student gave me a loaf of pumpkin bread and a handwritten letter of appreciation. Another lingered, even after turning in his exam. He said that I was different from the instructors at his previous school, that I cared. The handwritten letter, which I read later in my office, reiterated this gem; the student said that she was touched by my enthusiasm. She was amazed that I wanted to share my love of the material with students. She said that’s what mattered.

So many of my first-semester concerns can be laid to rest now. My students don’t mind printing their work in size 18. They have learned to tell me when I’m writing close to the board’s edge. My inability to detect their raised hands doesn’t make me a bad instructor. In my classroom, students were willing to suspend the conventions that have been a part of their education since kindergarten—Don’t interrupt! Raise your hand! Be quiet!—and respect my unconventional space.

Transition Lenses

Several personal items sit atop my nondescript office desk: a red aluminum water bottle, a set of keys, my folded cane, a red cellphone, a silver and gray lamp, a box of tissues (nearly empty), a carafe of peanut butter M&Ms (almost empty), and my sunglasses. Of all these items, the sunglasses are easiest to find on the dark desk surface; their shiny lenses and large frames readily draw my eye. I wear them each time I leave the comfortable dimness of my office. I’ve forgotten my cellphone and keys multiple times, but I’ve never left the office without my shades.

The sunglasses are large, fitting over and wrapping around my prescription glasses to offer peripheral protection. They do not fit in a traditional glasses case. They are smooth to the touch, glossy, with occasional rough spots on the temples or nosepiece from their four years of wear. They complement my regular supply of cloche hats. Because I wear them over my regular glasses, they tend to make my face feel warm after an hour or so.

When I first started wearing the sunglasses four years ago, I hated the way they looked. I was convinced that they were too large to be attractive—sure that they obscured so much of my face that I no longer looked human. Despite family, friends, and strangers telling me that I looked like a celebrity, that big sunglasses were “in,” I felt awkward behind them. I felt that people treated me differently when I wore them. I blamed the sunglasses for effacing me, stripping away everything that I thought of as myself and offering A Stereotypical Blind Girl instead.

Only their extreme practicality redeemed the sunglasses for me. Reluctantly, I started wearing them inside as well as outside—in bright classrooms, grocery stores, and even onstage. Wearing them during chorus performances earned me the nickname Stevie, and, each time a chorus member affectionately called, “Come on, Stevie,” the sunglasses became more dear to me.

I started to experience the sunglasses as a creative, rather than destructive, force; they began to nurture my identity as a blind musician. I laughed when chorus members said that I looked like a rock star, wearing them onstage. I got excited when a saxophone player told me that my cane and sunglasses reminded him of Diane Schuur, a famous blind jazz singer and pianist.

However, these new feelings of positivity were “extras”—the objective circumstances of the sunglasses never wavered. Behind the shades, I felt intense and instant relief from any oppressive lights. They significantly reduced my level of eye fatigue. I felt able to function in unforeseen environments: bright sunny afternoons, classrooms where I couldn’t adjust the lighting, conference auditoriums, and countless stores lit with glaring fluorescents. I was able to dine alfresco without complaint or discomfort. I still couldn’t read menus outside, but I could enjoy the weather and listen to a friend read for me—an ideal compromise. Even when I detested the look of the shades, I couldn’t ignore these changes. The nagging refrain, “Life feels better behind the shades,” played in my head each time I prepared to leave my house. The measurable improvement in my quality of life incited me to pack the sunglasses—and choose different bags or purses to accommodate them.

The sunglasses became a point of pride, an implement of my independence and identity. I quickly learned to wear them when I needed them, a lesson solidified by positive reinforcement. Sunglasses on: discomfort gone! However, learning to wear them as a statement of identity took more time; it involved a process of self-acceptance that wasn’t written on the product packaging. Wearing the sunglasses without shame, without an oppressive need to “look normal” or avoid “looking blind,” involved a change in my own thinking. I had to accept my need for the shades and discard the idea of “looking normal.” I had to understand that “looking blind” wasn’t really about blindness; it was about stereotypes of blindness.

If you were a blind person who looked blind, that meant that you stumbled, wore mismatched or stained clothing, gazed vacantly at people, and groped for objects in front of you. As I got to know myself as a blind woman and met others in the blind community, I came to realize just how little truth resided in these ready phrases. Like processed convenience foods, the ideas of “looking normal” and “looking blind” didn’t offer any substance; they couldn’t nourish the woman I wanted to become.

Four years ago, the style of sunglasses I needed came in one size, the size I currently wear. Now, that size is called Medium, and the exact same lens color and shape comes in a Small. I have the chance to downsize, and I am going to try it. As long as the new smaller shades will offer me the same protection, I can’t resist the convenience of being able to pack them in a traditional glasses case. Since they’ll cover less of my face, I’m hoping they won’t be as hot to wear over my regular glasses.

I also can’t ignore that the look of my shades will change. These new ones will be closer to the “normal” end of the sunglasses spectrum—perhaps not as obvious as a symbol of blindness. To be excited about the  new “more normal” look feels like a betrayal of the struggles I experienced, learning to love my sunglases and myself. To be sucked into the idea that these new shades will “look better” takes me out of my own perspective and puts me in the eyes of someone outside, looking at me. Is this the perspective I want?

From behind my current shades, I say no. I say that it’s important to focus on function, not form, here. I say that I need to use the tools that help me to feel most like myself, regardless of their fit with current trends in fashion. I do not want to throw away the self-acceptance I have earned. I certainly took a long time finding it, and it was not an easy task.

Literary Resonance

Unfolding my cane and donning my dark glasses, I leave the Writing Lab and walk to the lobby to collect our next tutoring appointment. I stand at the mouth of the lobby and call the student’s name. I wait, listening for the rustling and zipping that indicates a student gathering his or her things and moving toward me. When I can distinguish a tall, lanky boy coming my way, I say, “Come on back, what are we working on today?”

The student takes a seat at our round table and pulls out a notebook and papers. He hesitates as I fold my cane and place it beside my large blue water bottle. I take off the shades and repeat, “OK so what are we working on?”

“A paper,” he says quietly. “Um we are supposed to analyze this…this short story and talk about how the character changes…” Tentatively, he places a hand on top of his printed pages.

“Cool, what story?”

“Um…The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver.”

Who’s Raymond Carver? What is “The Cathedral” about? Well, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read analyses of it. Georgina Kleege mentions the story in Sight Unseen, her book about cultural representations of blindness. Thomas Foster cites it in How to Read Literature like a Professor; he discusses the famous meatloaf scene where the unnamed narrator sees Robert, the blind character, using a fork and knife like a normal person. The quick-and-dirty version of “The Cathedral” runs like this: a bigoted, narrow-minded drunk confronts his stereotypes of blindness (or “the blinds” as he calls them) when his wife’s blind friend, Robert, comes to spend the night. Robert and Narrator share the experience of eating a fantastic meatloaf, smoking dope, and drawing a cathedral—collectively, these experiences show Narrator that Blindies Are People Too!

(Please note, I am not knocking Carver at all. Actually, “The Cathedral” isn’t a bad story; it’s just responding to a cultural need.)

So the student sits across from me, fidgeting and fumbling with his school supplies, and I try to imagine the awkwardness of his inner dialogue. “I came to the center to get help with a paper about a guy confronting the negative stereotypes of blindness…and I got a blind tutor. Thanks, Fate! I wonder if she likes meatloaf…”

Slowly, I nod and smile at him. “What are some of your concerns with your essay?” When he doesn’t immediately respond, I gently prompt, “Style? Grammar? Structure? Do you have the rubrics or assignment instructions?”

“Grammar, I guess. No, I don’t have the rubrics.”

“OK, then we’ll just read through and look at everything,” I assure him. I slide his paper across the table and pick it up. I bring the pages close to my face to read the small, double spaced lines.

Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve come cane-to-cane with cultural representations of blindness. As a lover and writer of poetry, I’m always running into Homer and John Milton. As a singer, I’m forever meeting up with Stevie, Ray, and Diane Schuur. Know any blind painters? I can’t think of any. Good thing I’m not much of a painting enthusiast!

There’s a blind girl in a Dickens story that irritates me. She and her father live in poverty, but, to soothe or entertain her, he tells her false stories about their living conditions. Here, I think, Dickens, you didn’t know any real blindies, did you? I wouldn’t fall for a hoax like that! Couldn’t she tell their house was cold?

Literature is full of blindies who don’t act like blindies—characters probably written by people who couldn’t tell braille from Morse code! So I’m thankful for Robert, because he enjoys his meatloaf. I’ve enjoyed meatloaf before. All blindies have.

I’d certainly prefer to meet Robert in a student’s paper. I was once editing a novel-length work for another student, when she dropped the aphorism, “Blind people’s lives are so much simpler, because they can’t see the material concerns of the world.” Ah, that sounds rather like Dickens and his angelic little blind girl! She doesn’t care that Daddy can’t afford food or coal, because she’s blind! And blind people can’t see food or warmth, so they don’t worry about such things.

I took my revenge when I met my client face-to-face. Prior to our meeting, we corresponded only by email. She had no idea that her editor, recommended by English department faculty, was blind. When she approached me in the lobby, I stood up to greet her, unfolding my cane. Her initial silence and subsequent awkwardness were quite rewarding.

So, this is a thank you to the God of Literary Representations of Blindness. May He continue to cast the users and abusers of these caricatures into my path, because they bring me much laughter.

Blind Student

Before time pulls a fine, shimmering mist over my academic experiences, I must write from the perspective of the blind student. Though my studies pass beyond each graduation, I find myself in a new role, the teacher’s role, and my ideas about students are changing.

So, meet me at the door of all my classrooms, and let’s wander through the experiences of a student like me.

First, you’ll notice that I arrive early. I’m here a few minutes before you, running my fingers over the braille at the classroom’s entrance. Paranoid that I’ll enter the wrong class, I want to appear competent. Let’s walk through the door that our instructor has just unlocked. I’ll want to find a seat close to the front of the room. I’ll fold my cane, place my large schoolbag under the desk, and pull out my notebook and pen. Depending on the classroom’s lighting, I’ll either remove my shades or keep them on. I’m hoping for dim lighting; I’d rather take off the shades.

No doubt, our instructor will begin passing out a syllabus. Two things about this process will make me anxious: 1) I won’t be able to tell that the instructor is handing me a paper unless he or she announces this, and 2) I won’t be able to read the syllabus, since the instructor has probably printed it in size 11 or 12.

Of course, each circumstance has its exception. When I choose classes with an instructor I’ve experienced before, I can count on some measure of accommodation on the first day. In one such case, a Rhetoric & Composition professor printed my syllabus in size 24! When he placed it before me, I felt surprised and gratified. I immediately flipped through it, delighted that I could hold the paper farther from my face.

In most cases, however, I endure the first class without accommodation. I cannot expect instructors to intuit my needs before I introduce myself. After that first class, I hurriedly shove my books into my bag, whip out my letter from the Disability Resource Center, and attempt to catch the instructor in conversation.

Most professors are kind, willing to assist, and welcoming. I’ve never had an instructor refuse me accommodations. I tell them, “If there’s something on the board, I won’t be able to read it.” I say, “If you’re calling on me, you have to use my name—otherwise, I won’t know that it’s my turn to speak.” I explain, “Any materials you pass out in class need to be enlarged for me, to size 18, Times New Roman.” (I tell them how I hate Courier New, that it was handcrafted in Satan’s workshop as the bane of all visually-impaired students.) Finally, I tell them that I am excited for the class and that I readily speak up for myself. “I won’t let you ignore me,” I insist with a smile.

My professors ask me for basic reminders and offer benevolent disclaimers:

  • “Could you shoot me an email the night before the exam, so I’ll remember to print yours?”
  • “You’ll have to remind me to call on you—I might forget! And it will take me a while to learn everyone’s name.”
  • “I’ve never had a blind student before. I’m happy to help, but I might take a while to get used to what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” I want to assure them. “I’ll actively participate in class! I will be so talkative and engaged that you won’t be able to forget I’m here. I’ll muster enthusiasm for texts I don’t enjoy, attend carefully to your lectures, and attempt to make brilliant observations—all in the hope that you won’t forget to enlarge my tests or use my name.”

But of course, they forget. They show up on exam day with an armful of copies printed in size 12. They look at me with confusion or embarrassment and ask sheepishly, “Is there any way you could just use the regular copy?” Inclined to say yes, I learn to say no. I answer, “I’m sorry, that would be really difficult for me to read.”

When they don’t forget to enlarge my copy, they forget to bring it. They say, “Oh gosh, I left your copy in my printer! Let me just run to my office and get it!” Meanwhile, they don’t collect the copies they’ve already passed out. Around me, students begin the exam, and I wait for my test. My anxiety mounts—I’m painfully aware that other students are completing their exam while I don’t even have mine. I’m aware that it will take me longer to read the test. I worry that I won’t finish on time, not because of my reading speed, but because my instructor takes 20 minutes to dash to her office and return with my exam.

In these moments, I cannot panic, pontificate, or patronize. I cannot say, “Why don’t you put a sticky note on your computer, reminding you to print my exam in size 18?” Just between you and me, I can read size 14, but I’ve since learned this valuable lesson: when you ask for size 14, professors try to give you 12. They say, “Well, I mean—it’s close, isn’t it? Can’t you just make it work for today? I’ll print your next one larger, I promise. I won’t forget.”

Occasionally, the forgetfulness sparks a creative solution. A professor who forgets to enlarge poems for me begins reading them in a slow, sonorous voice. When he reads, I don’t miss the print copies; I easily follow the poem. His reading precipitates an excellent discussion and furthers my blatant preference for the oral approach to poetry.

Another professor rushes across the room to narrate scenes of a film for me. He crouches by my desk and whispers (not very quietly) into my ear, describing an important scene. I assure him that this isn’t necessary – the classmate sitting beside me excels at audio description – and, reassured, he hurries back to his desk.

When I feel frustrated with my professors’ absent-mindedness, I remember the inclusive efforts of a certain Dr. Rae. She treats me so well that I take five courses with her. After the first day of class, and across those five courses, she forgets to enlarge one assignment. ONE assignment. When she realizes her mistake, she insists on typing the homework, a piece of Old English prose that we must translate, by hand. I find it waiting in my inbox just two hours after class.

She doesn’t tell me, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve never done this before.” She doesn’t say, “Oh dear, I’ve left your copy in my office.” She says, “I have a disabled sibling; I know what it’s like. I’m going to do my best for you.”

She spoils me for other instructors. When they forget to accommodate me, I remember that she rarely forgets. I begin to measure them against her, thinking, “If she can remember, why can’t others?” Surely, she has the same workload, amount of courses, lists of names to memorize, and piles of articles to read. But I never have to fight for anything in her class. I never receive a sigh of frustration, confusion, or embarrassment. When the rest of the class easily navigates a text that hasn’t been enlarged for me, she understands my acute feelings of exclusion. And I suspect that she gets my bravado as well. She helps me feel the value of my whole self,  mind and body connected.

I intend to model myself on Dr. Rae. Already, I have adopted her circular classroom arrangement and short response papers. Now, I am waiting for my population of disabled students, so I can extend her fervent consideration to them. I cannot wait to accommodate!

Blind Customer

My friend Katie arrives at my house promptly at 10:00a.m., receiving an enthusiastic greeting from my parents and Ozzie, our cairn terrier. I walk to the front door, laden with preparations: my purse, a huge bag of books to turn in for credit at the used bookstore, and a handful of extra canvas bags for carrying our purchases. Obligingly, Katie offers to carry my bags, which I greatly appreciate. As yet, I have not developed a good system for carrying things in my arms and using my cane.

We begin our day at the Starbucks in Five Points. Eagerly, I order an iced vanilla latte and hand the cashier my Starbucks gift card – the one I refuse to discard because it has “Starbucks” on it in braille. The card was released back in October for Disability Awareness Month and it depicts autumn leaves beneath the braille. Every time I hand it to a cashier, he or she lets out a little “Oh!” of surprise; it starts a lot of great conversations.

Katie and I settle in with our coffee and a stack of my poetry, which she has agreed to edit for a chapbook I’m assembling. Coffee and editing is a heavenly combination! We spend about an hour going through poems, nodding in appreciation, crossing out letters, and reformatting lines. We finalize our itinerary for the day and toss out our empty coffee cups.

The first shop on our list is a store called Midnight Sun. A long-time favorite of ours, Midnight Sun offers an eclectic collection of merchandise – books on yoga and meditation, candles and incense, purses, wallets, and clothing, hair accessories, and lots of jewelry. The staff is friendly and helpful. They let me touch everything.

Often when I’m out shopping with a friend, she has to tell the sales assistant things like, “You can hand it [the object I’m considering for purchase] to her.” If I need her to get the assistant’s attention, she’ll say something like, “Excuse me, we have a question for you.” She will take a step back and let me do the talking. Other times, the assistant will continue to direct questions to my companion, so I clearly and deliberately answer each inquiry. In one extreme case, I asked an assistant for help finding a pretty common product – a box of pore strips – and, failing to understand me after my third repetition, she shouted to my friend (standing at the other end of the aisle), “Ma’am! Ma’am! What does she want? WHAT DOES SHE WANT?”

Cases like these are usually followed by a checkout experience where I am commended for being able to swipe my own debit card and correctly enter the pin. Most cashiers are dazzled by my ability to perform these tasks. Even cashiers who have been resolutely taciturn change their tune when they see me use my debit card with ease. My favorite instance of this? A surly cashier saw me swipe my card and burst out, loud enough for the rest of the store to hear, “Girl, that’s so good she can put in her own PIN!” This was the only thing she said to us.

My day of shopping with Katie stands in direct opposition to these unpleasant experiences. At Midnight Sun, the woman helping us places the objects that catch my interest in my hand. Without being prompted, she gives a brief verbal description of each, engaging me in conversation. When it’s time to check out, she offers me the PIN pad without excessive ceremony. She hands back my card and says, “Here’s your card back” – the verbal cue alerts me to the location of her hand. She does the same with the bag containing my purchases. I hear her say, “And here’s your bag.” Her voice and the crinkling of the bag make it easy for me to extend my hand and take the bag from her.

Throughout the day, I encounter employees that display a startling level of finesse with me – speaking to me directly, placing objects in my hand, telling me when they change the position of something I’m using, and giving me specific directions when I’m looking for something. At Moon River, the server places my refilled water cup on the table and says, “Here you go – here’s your water!” At Chamblin Bookmine, the woman behind the counter directs us to our favorite authors by using the words “right” and “left” and referencing aisle numbers – rather than the conventional, “It’s right there” that so many seem to prefer when directing me. At Grassroots, the cashier engages me in conversation and hands me my receipt and debit card with a helpful verbal cue. In each place, the employees engage both Katie and me in conversation

Perhaps these conversations facilitate the excellent treatment I receive. I wonder if it’s easier for a clerk to understand my capabilities – like entering my own PIN – if we’re already talking. Maybe it’s not a matter of understanding my needs and more an instance of doing what feels natural. The verbal cues and considerate descriptions that define good customer service for me have an uncomplicated, intuitive feel about them. I can’t imagine helpful clerks sitting behind the counter with a pad and pencil, nibbling on the eraser and thinking, “I wonder how I could help potential customers with low vision…”

Blind Date

Hello. My name is Emily and I will be your blind date for this evening. Don’t be alarmed. As I’m sure you could intuit from our previous conversations, I’m not a blind date in the traditional sense, and this venture we’re about to embark on isn’t what the sitcoms or glamor magazines would call a blind date either. But I am a blind date, and I’d like to help you understand what I mean.

You see, this isn’t a traditional blind date because I am not likely to be dating anyone I’ve never met before. Hopefully (if I’m talking to the right person), you’re someone with whom I’ve had a few conversations. Maybe we met at work, in college, or at my favorite bookstore. Are you still there? Please let me know if you decide to leave the table for any reason, or else I’ll be talking to empty air without realizing it.

Speaking of the table, I should mention that, since this is an ideal blind date you’re speaking with and an ideal blind date we’re on, you and I are sharing a candlelit table at my favorite Greek restaurant. The restaurant’s lighting is very dim, and the place is cozy, the smell of garlic pervading the air. All the staff have lovely Greek accents, and the most attentive server conscientiously rearranges my bread or salad plate when he places a new dish before me. Unlike most fancy, dimly-lit restaurants, this place does not have white tablecloths on each table, and that’s a blessed relief to me. Have you ever tried to find a clear water glass on a white table cloth? It’s probably not much of a struggle for you, but when you have low vision, it’s not a fun game to play. Especially after the third glass of pinot grigio.

Are you ready to order? I’ve been here before so it doesn’t really matter that the print on the menu is too small. Anyway, if I have to consult the menu here, I’ll pull out my Ruby, which is a small video magnifier. You’ve probably seen me use it before, since we’re so well-acquainted. It even allows me to change the text to white lettering on a black background, which is so much easier for me to read.

But look at me getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to when you first picked me up…

You arrive at my house promptly, which I greatly appreciate. I award points for punctuality. As someone who doesn’t drive, it can be frustrating to be waiting on your ride to show up. No doubt, you’ll offer me your arm to escort me down the front stairs. I appreciate this as well. Don’t be surprised if I don’t unfold my cane in my front yard. It feels so strange to use it there, in such a familiar place.

We walk up to your car and, being courteous, you open the door for me. If you are kind enough to stand by the door and continue talking to me, it will be easy for me to find the vacant space where I should attempt to sit. However, if you open the door quietly and walk around to your own door, or if you open the door quietly and don’t say much, it is harder for me to estimate where my seat is. So I recommend a simple, ‘Here you go,” or “The door’s open,” if you’re not feeling garrulous.

(I understand if my stunning appearance or captivating perfume moves you to silence. It happens.)

Truthfully, I don’t object to opening doors for myself. It’s a good way for me to learn exactly where things are. Often, someone will hold a door for me, and then it is harder for me to find the space that I should be walking through. So if you feel like opening the door, just give me a verbal cue. And if you’re not the door-opening type, you can tap the handle of the door and I’ll find it.

A similar rule applies to pulling out chairs for me. I know these actions are considered courteous, but honestly, if you pull out a chair for me, I no longer know where that chair is. If you want to display this kind of courtesy, I suggest that you take my hand and place it on the back of the chair that you have so considerately pulled away from the table. Otherwise, I am not likely to benefit from your gentlemanly behavior. (Insert a picture of me missing the chair and sprawling on the floor, laughing hysterically. Follow this image with us getting kicked out of this fine establishment and having to settle for fast food. It could still be a good date, but I’m in the mood for Greek food. So save this trick for next time.)

Well our server has arrived and taken our order. You might be surprised by how friendly I am to servers. If you think I’m flirting too much or being exceptionally chatty, I assure you there’s a method to my madness. If I engage a server in conversation, he or she is less likely to direct questions about my order to you. I like to speak for myself, but, since you know me already, this should not surprise you.

The meal is bound to be fantastic. I have chosen this place for a reason. I hope you are willing to split dessert with me, although, I warn you, I am not very good at sharing dessert – not because I don’t like to share, but because getting bites of cheesecake or pie onto my fork from a plate that is farther away, equidistant from both of us, proves more challenging to my hand-eye coordination. You could be a sweetie and push the plate closer to me. I promise I won’t return this kindness by eating more than my share of the cake.

We’ve pretty much concluded the restaurant portion of the evening. Let’s move on for what you’ve planned after, a trip to the symphony. Where would the perfect date be without a trip to the symphony?

If we’re walking downtown, the cracked sidewalks and uneven streets are going to play havoc with my cane. I’m just warning you – I might need you to slow your pace a bit.

And the ushers are most likely going to ask YOU if I want a program. You have several options here.

If you want the rest of the evening to go poorly, you answer for me. It doesn’t matter what you say. Answering for me without consulting me will effectively mar the date.

If you want the rest of the evening to be pleasant, you can choose any of the following options. When the usher hands you a program but doesn’t give you one for me, you can say in a voice of theatrical surprise, “Oh Emily, he/she didn’t hand me a program for you. Would you like one?” This might make the usher blush and say, “Oh…I thought she couldn’t see…Here you go!” He/she will hurriedly shove a program into your hands and, seeing that we’ve found seats, he/she will then make a mad dash for the bathroom to sob with embarrassment. (This is the ideal scenario.)

Alternatively, the usher will ask you, “Would she like a program?” to which you can respond, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask her?” or “I don’t know. Emily,  would you like a program?” Here, it’s important to help the usher realize his/her misstep – not directly engaging with me. Encouraging him/her to ask me directly, or asking me the question he/she should have asked, helps underscore the absurdity of asking someone else to intuit whether I’d like a program.

And, since you know me so well, you know I want a program. We’re at the symphony, after all. Of course I want to be able to read the historical information and calendar of future events that the program includes.

The third option features the usher directly asking me if I would like a program. This rarely occurs, so we don’t have to prepare for it. Suffice it to say, I’ll answer for myself.

After the symphony, perhaps we can go for coffee. Or a nice walk. Anything that will allow us more time to continue our fantastic conversation. Really, who wants this night to end?