Watch my presentation: “Creative Activism: The Poetry of Disability and Disclosure”

In November, I participated in the Brown Bag Series hosted by UNF’s Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society). I had the opportunity to read my work and discuss the challenges and joys of writing as a blind poet. Here’s what it’s about:

As a blind poet, Emily K. Michael understands the politics of disclosure. Publishing in disability journals and mainstream literary magazines, she hopes her work will introduce a new story of blindness into genres where disability is seen as irrevocable tragedy or simplistic blessing-in-disguise. But this activism requires a sense of balance, a poem that doesn’t preach. Michael discusses the decisions that shape her process—from creating a poem to seeing it published. She outlines the pressures facing disabled writers and develops her poetics of protest.

Check it out!

Watch my TEDx Talk, “The confluence of disability and imagination”

About a month ago, I gave a talk as part of TEDxFSCJ: Engage. The process involved a lot of work—rehearsals, revisions, workshops—but it was an incredible experience. I was blessed with the TEDxFSCJ crew to guide me, including a test audience and awesome speech coach!

Here’s how the video is described on YouTube:

Today one hears a lot about disabilities and about how best to talk about persons with disabilities, but Emily Michael believes there is no one term, definition, or “right way” that makes every disabled person feel comfortable, included and worthy. Drawing on her experience living and working as a blind poet, Michael urges us to resist simple dichotomies, whereby disabilities are either downplayed as mere inconveniences or magnified into epic tragedies. Instead, we should learn to negotiate one another’s disabilities as we do any other fact about a person—through dialogue, openness and understanding.

Now for the big reveal…You can watch my TEDx Talk below! Enjoy!

Appearing at SAMLA 88!

Literary scholars, mark your calendars for SAMLA 88! The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s annual conference is coming to Jacksonville in November—with the theme of Utopia/Dystopia: Whose Paradise Is It?

And guess what?

They accepted my workshop proposal! Michele and I will be presenting a fabulous workshop you won’t want to miss! Don’t believe me? Check out our proposal below:

Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom

In this workshop, Emily K. Michael and Michele Boyette map the conflicts between literary and literal bodies, exploring the paradoxes and pleasures of disclosure. The safe distance of metaphor and the legality of red tape have contrived a minefield for academics—both disabled and nondisabled. We disabled faculty hardly expect nondisabled colleagues to be conversant with the latest activism, yet we seek the most productive and empathetic environment for our disabled students. This nebulous landscape harbors a failure of imagination; our colleagues and students have no guide beyond the literature they discuss.

Most academic encounters with disability occur in print or onscreen. Professors and students fathom disability through assigned course materials often created outside the disability community. When we experience disability as chiefly secondhand, we learn to view disability as a frame for analysis and interpretation, rather than a commonplace human condition. Disabled students and faculty become impromptu teachers regardless of their expertise or interest in teaching.

Once on campus, disabled students disclose their disability and learn to negotiate accommodations. However, the red tape that protects a student’s privacy can also foster silence and estrangement. The disabled instructor’s disclosure is equally fraught with complications. She travels in a department that regularly employs problematic representations of the disabled body.

Emily K. Michael, a blind adjunct instructor at the University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville, creates productive dialogue with disabled students and redesigns course language to invite disability into the classroom. She helps faculty to examine their syllabi, course texts, and assignments to produce an empathetic, three-dimensional understanding of embodiment.

Michele Boyette, instructional coordinator at the UNF Writing Center, speaks from her position as a nondisabled instructor who encounters the invisible and visible disabilities of students and staff. She complicates the uneven responsibility of disclosure by highlighting the impracticality of red tape in appointment-based tutoring sessions.

Together we open a space where faculty are unafraid to examine disability off the page. We target faculty who have found little occasion to research disability on their own. We offer practical strategies for widening academic imagination to welcome the disabled student or colleague. This workshop is an informal and informative playground for the tabooed bodies and minds appropriated by our academic environments.

Exceptional Fallacies

At the beginning of my classes, I ask students to define rhetoric. I teach one of two classes—Rhetoric & Writing and Rhetoric & Narrative. And even students who have taken one of these can’t voice a handy definition for the term in the title of their class.

They’re not alone. This is not an exercise in student-bashing. The thing is, we use rhetoric all day, every day, but who besides English professors keeps a tidy definition in their pocket? And why should they?

Let’s start with my definition. I tell my students that rhetoric is communication designed for a particular audience, context, and purpose. Some may argue whether rhetoric is deliberate—or just the spontaneous effects that our audience, situation, and purpose have on how we communicate—but I think it’s deliberate. Sure, there are factors in our personal communication styles that we can’t consciously control—how we learned to read, write, speak—but we can call on specific resources to get a particular message to a distinct group of listeners, viewers, or readers.

Intent vs. Interpretation

Why should we know what rhetoric is? Because so often, we set out to say one thing and  end up saying another. For example, someone means to pay me a compliment, so she says, “Oh honey, you look really good today! Who helped you with your makeup?” This utterance has two levels: the message and the metamessage. The message is literally what’s on the screen, but the metamessage is the subtext, the tone, the “between the lines” meaning.

The person offering me this compliment thinks she is sending a message of affirmation. But because she asks who helped with my makeup, she’s conveying this metamessage: You need help to look good. If I say, “No one helped me, I did it myself” she will be appropriately surprised. “Wow, really?” Again, a metamessage: blind people can’t do makeup, so Emily is an exception.

This is a snapshot of why disabled people rarely bask in the lavish compliments of others. So often they contain a subtext that says, “I never expected you to be able to do that, so good for you!” We’d rather have the belief than the astonishment.

If you find yourself in a sea of communication mishaps, they’re likely the result of a conflict between your intended message and the metamessage that you inserted—or someone else interpreted. Really, it’s a miracle that language works as well as it does!

What frustrates me the most is when someone sends out a message of encouragement, solidarity, or affirmation with a metamessage that undercuts the good vibes…and it’s all to do with their logic and grammar!

“I’m the Exception!”

Lately I’ve seen a lot of social media posts that are trying to be disability-positive, trying to send a powerful thrust of “Disabled people are awesome” out into cyberspace. But I don’t share them on my page because these messages don’t work. Sometimes it’s a disabled person promoting herself or her services:

“Martha doesn’t let blindness keep her from being stylish!”

“Though he’s a paraplegic, Reggie is so in tune with his body!”

Another meme I did not pass along used the line “This is what blindness looks like,” and presumably showed several diverse, stylish people. The person who shared it (not actually a friend of mine, phew!) said that she and her other blind acquaintances were super awesome because “we don’t look like the stereotypical blind person.”

What is “the stereotypical blind person”? A person with a cane, dog, or dark glasses? Or do they mean someone who is stumbling, lost, confused, or poorly dressed? Either way, the stereotype, not the exception, wins, because it is still being used as a piece of logic rather than a convenient half-truth.

A Fallacy for Any Occasion

Do any of these statements rub you the wrong way? If they do, it’s because you’re tuning into a fallacy—a faulty line of reasoning, or a leap that doesn’t quite make sense. Fallacies come in all shapes and sizes, and they can be emotional, logical, or ethical. Scare tactics are a fallacy. Hyperbole is a fallacy.

So let’s spell out the fallacies being invoked in these seemingly positive statements. First of all, exceptionalism in marketing yourself isn’t a bad thing. If I’m trying to get published or hired, you can be sure I’m going to say, “Hey I’m a fabulous teacher, and I have a superb and unique grasp of grammar. Hire me!” But in this self-exceptionalism, I’m pitting myself against colleagues, discussing comparisons that are actually relevant.

The exceptional fallacy that’s happening in the above statements on disability, however, is invoking disability as a relevant trait when it’s not really relevant.

If Martha says, “Hey I don’t let blindness cramp my style,” I and many other blind people feel compelled to respond, “And why should it?” If Reggie says, “I’m a paraplegic who can still appreciate my body,” we say, “Duh—why  shouldn’t you?” When disabled people use exceptionalism to say, “I’m way cooler than those other disabled people,” it’s a slap in the face—not a gesture of solidarity.

And here’s how I see it. The ADA, passed in 1990, allowed me to be mainstreamed throughout my fantastic education, got me the services I needed—but that’s not legislation I fought for. I wasn’t crawling up the steps of government buildings; I did not picket in those early days before disabled people had their civil rights. Others fought for me to have the access I currently enjoy. I don’t believe I have the right to promote myself using the same stereotypes that my colleagues and cohorts have been fighting since before I was born.

Perhaps these statements are logical fallacies, but I also see them as ethical fallacies. Relying on the common stereotype of disability as incompetence: that’s an unethical choice for a disabled person to make. None of us invented the world we work in, so let’s use language to build more empathy and respect.

 

Essay: “Stylish Negotiations”

My latest essay, “Stylish Negotiations,” was published in the March issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. This essay decodes the submission guidelines of several disability-related journals and magazines and offers a course of action for handling stories of disability. It begins as follows:

“Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Perhaps because I seek out publications that share my interests–ecology, feminism, disability, music, language–all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s ‘About’ page and submission guidelines. Here is where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, ‘send us your best work’ or ‘we only publish good poetry.’ I won’t let my students use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as standalone terms for evaluation, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities…”

Read the full essay here.

Reverse-engineering rhetoric: Some informal thoughts

So many disability resources and testimonials talk about regaining dignity. With the help of a new product, service, or skill, a disabled person can reclaim their independence and sense of self. I do not dispute this at all.
 
But if this “reclaiming reclaiming dignity” message is the go-to strategy in disability services, perhaps we can see it for what it is: a lens onto a culture that devalues disability. So perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to buy, learn, or sell dignity. Perhaps we should reevaluate the identities we’re willing to give disabled people. If we are determined to see a loss of dignity with the onset of disability, then we will need a recovery. But what if there was no loss of dignity? What if we accepted that our bodies and minds could be frail, unpredictable, or messy? And what if we said, “Hey, that’s MY frailty, MY mess, and it’s a sign of being alive.”
 
I don’t think life is about perfecting our bodies so that our genes never garble or trip. I don’t think it’s about building bodies that never make mistakes, that perform every task with mechanical accuracy. I think it’s about building a society that respects and endorses difference, a society that doesn’t seek to push disability to the margins.
 
Because what I see most often is that disabled people themselves think they have dignity that needs reclaiming. They face a physical or mental impairment, but they internalize a loss of self. They feel they have something to prove—as if they must earn our respect and their own self-respect all over again.

My letter to the Purdue OWL coordinator

Good evening, [Moderator],

My name is [Modwyn], and I’m teaching a business writing course at [my university]. My students are beginning a unit on appropriate language use, and I’m directing them to the OWL’s excellent entry on this topic.

While reviewing the entry on stereotyped and biased language, I couldn’t help but notice the omission of any language relating to disability. As a disabled writer, I’m well aware that the language used to describe disability is highly contested among disability rights activists and scholars. Though members of the disabled community may not unanimously vote for the same terms or the abolishing of person-first language, I can safely say that a list of offensive terms definitely exists. I bring this to your attention because mainstream sources often employ and laud these terms: “differently abled” is a fine example.

I imagine that adding disability to the categories already listed on this page would be an ambitious project, but I believe it’s a worthy one. Many students may find themselves writing for disability services organizations or medical organizations that regularly address disability and disabled people in less-than-human terms. Many professors who frequent this page may realize that the commonplace language of disability – so rarely chosen by the people it discusses – is just as inappropriate as the linking of intelligence and hair color. Even a short paragraph addressing some of the flagrantly passe words and phrases would be a gesture of inclusion to any reader connected personally or professionally with disability.

Thank you for maintaining these excellent resources and helping us share in the delight of teaching writing.

With best,
[Modwyn]

Exploring a Writing Tutor’s Magic

This article appeared in the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Summer 2014 newsletter under the section, The Tutor’s Voice.

*  *  *

The lobby of our campus tutoring center resembles a doctor’s office. Students occupy moderately comfortable chairs, waiting to hear their names from the friendly voice from the writing room. A writing tutor steps forward, calls the student’s name, and leads her into our small space. I am the only tutor who performs this ritual with a white cane in hand.

I imagine that some students are perplexed to see that their tutor is blind. My questioned competence hangs in the air, but “Will she be able to read my paper?” changes quickly to “How will she read my paper?” Students want to know how I will judge them – their ability to write. Their competence, not mine, becomes the central question.

I begin with brisk instructions: “I’m Emily and I’ll be helping you today. What are you working on?” The student offers a nursing paper, a teaching portfolio, a literature essay. Whether a student brings a digital or paper copy of her assignment, I ask her to read it aloud. My request inspires several insecurities; students are self-conscious about their voices, affected by accent or infrequent practice. I insist that they won’t be the worst reader I’ve ever heard; everyone feels awkward when reading aloud.

As we read, I get used to the students’ voices. Some are slow and meticulous, correcting every slip of the tongue, while others read so quickly I can barely catch each word. I ask them to slow down, helping them laugh at their occasional spoken errors. The moment of pure triumph comes when they recognize that the out-loud process catches issues glossed over in silent reading. When the student becomes adept at hearing her mistakes, I’m an audience the student needs because she can’t imagine reading to an empty room. I am her writer’s training wheels.

To bridge diffidence and triumph, I emphasize the inherent power of writing: I shamelessly craft a persona of grammar mystic and blind magician. I love the revelation of audible punctuation.

A student reads a sentence aloud, and I ask her to stop: “Do you have a comma there?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

I meet this question with a silent smile.

“You heard it?”

“Of course.”
Other grammar magicians and linguistic wizards will not be surprised by this apparent talent of mine; punctuation wants to be heard. But students unfamiliar with descriptive grammar are dazzled. My ability to hear punctuation initiates them into the craft of writing. Using examples from their work, I transfer the gift – making them aware that they, too, can hear the place of punctuation. Though I use the rhetoric of revelation, I am only helping students discover what they already know. So much of writing is remembering – pulling disparate pieces of experience and knowledge together – and it is not a student’s voice that matters: it is her willingness to search for that voice. Schools frame this search as standardized obligation, but writers know the working truth. We find linguistic power from a place of dreams and fantasy.

Author bio: Emily K. Michael is a writing instructor and tutor at the University of North Florida. Her work has been published in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, and Artemis Journal.

Total Revision: Conversations in the Red

This semester, I am living out one of my long-cherished dreams: teaching a series of intensive grammar workshops for multilingual learners and struggling student writers. On Friday afternoons, my colleague and I face a group of students who willingly admit their bad relationship with grammar. So far, we’ve had four sessions, teaching anywhere from 2 to 16 students each time.

In our first class, I introduced the difference between grammar and style—a distinction often conflated even by literature teachers. The principles of grammar describe the inherent structure of a language; they explain how a language behaves and help speakers and listeners understand the text. Style encompasses how we use the language in a given situation—whether we dress it up or dress it down. Where grammar entails certain rules—though not as many as most people think—style is created through a person’s choices.

A few weeks ago, a student came for writing tutoring to improve her grammar. Handing me her essay, she explained, “My professor says my grammar is terrible.” As I looked over her work, I noticed a handful of grammatical mistakes: one issue with pronouns, a forgotten apostrophe, and a typo that Spell Check wouldn’t catch. However, her writing was far from appropriate for the formal assignment; she frequently slipped into second person, using lots of “you” and “your,” and she chose informal words, like “kids,” “guys,” or “great.” I noted, too, that she used contractions, which are usually discouraged in formal academic writing. Her writing displayed stylistic issues, not grammatical mishaps: her paper was trying to wear a bathing suit to the opera.

Because this student was writing for a sociology professor, I was unsurprised by the misinformation she received. I don’t expect instructors beyond the realm of composition or linguistics to handle writing feedback with such nerdy precision. Still, I am irritated by this mix-up. I cringe when I hear about comments that are critical and erroneous; I know how damaging professors’ feedback can be. As a writing tutor, I often hear students say, “I’m an awful writer” or “My teacher says I have the worst grammar,” and I hear similar sentiments from my own students.

Even positive feedback reveals students’ lack of confidence: after I praised one of my students for her excellent summary assignment, she said, “I’m just so glad you don’t think I’m dumb!” This student emails me with questions, comes to my office, tries her best on all assignments, but, like countless others, she has been labelled a bad writer. Her years of teacher-centered education have taught her one prevailing lesson: the teacher-authority will always judge you more accurately than you judge yourself. If she believes in herself but her grades don’t confirm this belief, then she defers to the grades. She lets the letters and numbers assess her gifts and learns not to trust herself. Thus, even though she claims to enjoy creative writing and journaling, she insists, “I’ve always been a bad writer.”

Of course, “bad writer” is an umbrella term that catches all kinds of writing struggles: grammatical confusion, misinterpreted assignment instructions, late-night drafting, learning disabilities, the influence of other languages, procrastination from serious writer’s block, lack of coherent grammar instruction. Some of these issues can be handled directly in the classroom while others require special one-on-one attention. In my courses, I address process issues like writer’s block by devoting an entire class session to planning for an upcoming paper. Students claim that they don’t know what to write about, so I design activities that help them gather quotes from their text. Once students have collected enough evidence, they feel empowered to write the essay.

Too many students are intimidated by the challenge of producing “good” writing, so I encourage students to think of grammar and style as “final draft concerns.”* Because of my passion for grammar, I can’t easily suspend my grammatical awareness when drafting. However, I recognize that my best work comes when I have a clear idea of where I want to go—even if all the components of a piece are drifting lazily through my conscious mind like the globules in a lava lamp.

It takes a long time for my students to understand that grammar and style are not priorities of the planning stage. I suspect that their undue apprehensions about these features stem from previous classes, where their grammar errors earned them the label of “bad writer” or “careless student.” I’ve heard of nefarious practices that colleagues use to assess students’ grammar: some calculate individual deductions for every error while others remark on the quality of the grammar without offering advice. These techniques only intensify grammar’s reputation as a fearsome and mysterious power—flaunted by instructors and withheld from students.

I do believe in grammar as a kind of magic. In classical and medieval education, understanding the grammar of an object meant that you could have power over it: if you wanted to fix a broken horseshoe, you had to know the grammar of iron. My students think I’m stretching the truth here, but the etymologies of grammar and glamor are connected.** Therefore, understanding English grammar gives people the ability to weave magic with words—to have an influence. Effective texts can breed empathy and awareness: miracles worthy of sincere faith.

When I think of grammar as a kind of magic, I realize that my expectations change. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a violin to become a world-famous musician. I don’t expect everyone who can walk to have a masterful or confident gait. I realize that my grammatical understanding is a privilege fostered by my personal interest, solid education, and leisure time—which I fill with the reading of grammar books.

If grammar is magical, then the study of grammar cannot be remedial. Like the mastering of any other craft, grammar skills require lifelong dedication and practice. When we free grammar from the realm of the remedial, the slow, the sloppy, we begin to understand that we can all be bad at it, and we can all be good at it. Then we lose the need to punish without empathy those who break grammatical rules—to destroy the confidence of student writers because of a dangling modifier and a misplaced comma.

So my series of workshops are a dream come true. They offer me the chance to teach the magic of effective writing to those who want and need to learn. In these classes, deliberately placed outside courses where students focus on a grade, I can create a safe and mirthful space for exploring the structure of language.

 

* Though I practice this advice regularly, I did not invent it; Peter Elbow and Nancy Sommers articulate higher-order concerns  in their texts on the writing process.
** This discussion of grammar can be found in David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

An Unlikely Pair

This semester, I teach my three courses in two different classrooms, located on a back hallway crowded with benches, recycling recepticles, and lounging students. I enter the building, veer left, and travel down a long, wide hallway—dodging drinkers bending over the water fountain and near-invisible columns guarding arbitrary places. Just where the hallway begins to expand into a windowed sitting area, I take a left. Now traveling this narrower space, I keep to the right, listening for the sounds of shuffling papers, sloshing drinks, and zipping backpacks that indicate the presence of students.

Between the doors along the hallway, people sit with their legs stretched out. Students sitting on opposite sides will find themselves locked in games of inadvertent footsie; the hallway’s width won’t accommodate two pairs of outstretched legs. As I move closer to my classrooms, my cane tapping and sliding scratchily along the carpet, I hear pairs of legs retract—students attempting to slide themselves out of my way. Occasionally, when a student fails to move, I must say, “Excuse me,” in a voice of battlefield cheerfulness. My volume and inflection rouse the absent-minded, and the legs draw up quickly.

Occasionally I piece together an unconventional narrative from the sounds I hear on the hallway. As I walk, I notice the sound of fabric sliding on carpet: students are yanking their feet out of my way. Today I travel along the hallway, which is only half-occupied with students. As I near a girl whose legs seem longer than average, I don’t feel like saying, “Excuse me.” She should be able to hear my approach, but she doesn’t move her legs. My cane taps lightly against something hard—her leg? her foot? I have no way of knowing. I move beyond her and approach my classroom. While I reach for the classroom doorknob, a guy on the opposite side of the hallway addresses her:

“Did that hurt?”

A mumbled response renders no words. Ambivalence on the part of the afflicted.

The guy continues, “Yeah. She’s hit me before.”

I stand maybe two or three feet away from the conversation, easily within earshot.

What is my problem with this brief exchange? I will bring my literary training to bear.

Let’s examine the structure of the guy’s claim: “She’s  hit me before.” This sentence is a prime example of active voice, the grammatical pattern that sets up an “X does Y” relationship. In English, active voice is our storytelling voice. It’s the voice we use for quick-and-dirty explanations: “Rain falls in the afternoon,” “I go to college,” “Marcelle baked a cake.” This pattern assigns clear agency—the X is active, a doer with intentions.

In humanities courses, students are encouraged to write in active voice, rather than passive voice. Passive voice is the syntactical pattern used for scientific research. It follows the formula “Y is done by X,” and the “by X” is often omitted. There are several passive sentences in this paragraph. Passive voice finds its usefulness when someone wants to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made,” “A vase was broken,” “The data was collected.” We don’t know who the X, the agent, is, so there can be no agency.

So our hallway guy chose active voice, and with his active sentence comes an unconscious demonstration of preferences—he prefers the story to the study. But his story bothers me.

In his story, I am the attacker, the one who hits deliberately. He offers his sentence to the girl leaning against the opposite wall as a cocktail of bravado and consolation: “Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ve been hit too. I am tough, but I understand your irritation. I’ve been there. We’ve both gone through something together.“

How do I know that all of this emotion was packed into just one sentence? Because he had to say it then and there—The blind girl hit me too! There was no humor, no wry smile, no “Isn’t that the worst? Well, what can you do?” There was a desperate reaching out, an utterance powered by empathy and a need to unite in the face of adverse circumstances.

Solidarity at the expense of civility.

I wonder if I’ll ever hear someone defend me during one of these exchanges.  Will I ever move a few feet away and overhear someone say, “Yes, she’s hit me before, too. But that’s what the cane is for. I don’t think she can see us.” At this stage in my experience, I doubt if I’ll encounter such perfect responses in the real world.

People are more likely to say, “No, she travels so well—I bet she isn’t even blind. She is just faking it.”

If we achieve human connection at the expense of others, what have we really achieved? How can we create a space for civil stories and inclusive explanations?

Why Identify?

When I introduce or identify myself as a disabled woman, I often encounter surprised reactions. People frankly reply, “I don’t think of you as disable”—and why would they? For most nondisabled people (that’s “able-bodied” people in outdated lingo), the word “disability” summons a troupe of negative conditions. Suffering, impairments, trips to the doctor, the inability to hold a traditional nine-to-five job, designated parking spaces (that may or may not be the best ones on the lot), and inspirational Lifetime movies—these are the average pieces of the disability  word cloud. For those whose lives are untouched by disability, there is little incentive to see disability and its bearers in a different light.

However, once you “cross over” and become a member of that often-pitied, frequently misrepresented group called “the disabled,” your perspective on disability might change. Depending on how disability affects your life, you may start to rethink the language that you use—and critique the language others use to describe you. Perhaps you’ve lately acquired an impairment or condition that allows you to come among our ranks. Or maybe you’ve been disabled for years, but you’ve been hiding out with the “normies” (another term for the nondisabled). Attempting to conceal a disability and appear nondisabled is called “passing.” Successfully passing as nondisabled can be more feasible or totally impossible. Since I am a blind woman who employs a cane and dark glasses to safely navigate my environment, passing is not a practical option for me.

So, if taking shelter under the colorful umbrella of “disability” only broadcasts a swirling mass of negativity, why would anyone choose to identify as disabled? Wouldn’t disabled people prefer some euphemism, like “differently abled” or “physically challenged”? Why choose a term that only makes nondisabled people uncomfortable?

Under the umbrella, I understand the entire disability word cloud.

For disabled people, “disability” does not connote only suffering, loss, envy, and despair. Disabled people do not spend all their waking hours gazing longingly at the nondisabled counterparts who can perform the tasks that disability has complicated. Our lives are not Lifetime movies.

This is not to say that we don’t have our moments of intense suffering, pain, and frustration. I experienced my most recent feeling of “sight envy” at my sister’s wedding. Everyone present was torn between two incredible visions: my sister coming down the aisle, beautiful and smiling with a huge bouquet of yellow tulips—and her new husband, elated as he watched her approach. In such an intense moment, my low vision excluded me on two levels; I couldn’t see the joy that the bride and groom independently carried, and I couldn’t witness that joy multiply itself when they saw each other. It was a visual exchange that I knew I’d never share—the “first look” that characterizes the wedding experience. I felt deeply separated from the delighted onlookers in this scenario. I’ve since thought of ways to adapt this experience to suit my own abilities, but these adaptations don’t countermand the pain of that moment.

Despite the poignancy of such an experience, I would not describe my life as a constant refrain of sight envy. I have my routine frustrations—I can’t drive (yet), I can’t pluck my own eyebrows, I can’t readily identify colors—but I don’t focus on these things. Similarly, I don’t elevate my disabled experience as some delayed-release enlightenment. My disability doesn’t make me a saint or superstar. If I inspire others, let it be because I am myself, not because I am disabled.

My relationship to disability is symbiotic: disability is part of my word cloud, and I am part of its word cloud. It affects my perceptions, decisions, behaviors, and attitudes, and I contribute to its characterization.

People identify as “disabled” to emphasize a shared experience. This is not to say that every blind person lives the same life, with identical frustrations, joys, and fears. Some blind people program computers, climb mountains, enjoy talking watches, and refuse to use braille—all unappealing activities for me.

Ministries, education courses, and service organizations often insist that disabled people come together to bolster each other through the negative experience of disability, and the “support” groups that are fostered in these places respond to this negative bias.  I’ve been to support groups for blind people where, by way of introduction, people list their condition after their name: “Hi, I’m Joe, and I have RP” or “Hello, I’m Janet, and I have macular degeneration.” Groups that encourage this kind of introduction also encourage a “medicalized” focus: “We are who we are by virtue of our diagnoses. And we’re only here because our doctors thought it was a good idea.” This support emphasizes the “loss” in vision loss and encourages moments of sight envy.

Meaningful support encourages the sharing of all experiences, both positive and negative, significant and mundane. Effective “disability groups” offer a chance for their members to talk about all areas of their lives, because disability affects all areas of a person’s life.

By identifying as disabled, I can participate in the dialogue among disabled and nondisabled people. I can engage with the experiences of suffering, pain, and exclusion, but I can also enjoy the discussions of humor, surprise, and delight. Most disabled people can relate to the awkward approaches of curious strangers, but many can also relate to the new friendships born of a person’s curiosity—or the unexpected delight from an episode of graceful, unsolicited assistance. I will not go so far as to say that disability is a “blessing in disguise,” because many disabled people must still fight for their rights to education, accommodation, and—in some cases—life. However, to understand “disability” as a tag for explicit inferiority of mind, body, or experience is a serious and limiting decision.

For most of us, disability is not a choice, but the label is. We choose to identify, because we choose to share, to fight, to rejoice—to experience our humanity together.

 

* For a complex discussion of the vocabulary of disability, see “Reassigning Meaning” from Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998).

 

 

The Sensuous Semicolon—and Other Romantic Punctuation

If you are asked to dredge up the principles of grammar you learned in middle school, you might give voice to the following claims:

  • An independent clause can stand alone
  • A dependent clause can’t stand alone.
  • A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought.

When I hear these claims from grammar unenthusiasts, I notice two things. Firstly, these facts are easy to memorize but hard to apply. They don’t provide enough practical information to help the diffident writer navigate the churning whirlpools of grammatical variation. For example, an independent clause should be defined as “a clause that can stand alone because it contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete action.” But this definition is unwieldy—arming the reader or writer with a cumbersome and tedious checklist for examining prospective clauses. Any time the reader meets a new clause, she has to conduct the following tedious interview: “OK…do you have a subject? Where is it? And do you have a verb? Where is it? Oh, and do you express a complete thought?” Like most grammatical concepts learned by rote, this definition isn’t user-friendly, so users keep only what seems to be the essential idea—an independent clause can’t stand alone.

Secondly, these claims emphasize the inherently social nature of sentences. Certain sentence parts can’t stand alone—they need friends, cohorts, stronger companions to help them feel complete. Sentences just want to get together. That’s what writing is all about.

English teachers never want to talk about the secret romances of good writing, the elicit affairs of comma splices, the close-knit relationships enabled by semicolons. They want to discuss “subjects” and “main verbs”; they would rather pontificate on the principles of coordination and subordination. But the reality is that these terms are all part of a secret code, and every English teacher has sworn this oath: “I shall never reveal to my students the intimate social underpinnings of the words they use!” With true Victorian sensibility, they cover the sensuous material of language with elaborate and evasive terminology—grammatical jargon that effectively douses the expressive desires of most writers.

Well, I’ve decided to violate the oath and bring you the secret to syntactic harmony. All the time you’ve been reading and writing, you have probably noticed a certain chemistry among sentences—an inner music, a palpable cohesion. This is the sign of healthy grammatical relationships. So how do writers keep the romance alive?

The secret to syntactical bliss lies in punctuation. But first, let’s examine the power of independence.

We call a clause independent when it has a subject and verb that create a complete story. The story will be small, but the sentence makes sense on its own. If you run into a room and declare, “Albert went to the store,” your listeners will feel a degree of satisfaction. Curious bystanders may ask, “Which store?” or “What did he get?” or even “Who is Albert again?” but you have no obligation to answer these questions. You’ve given the necessary information. Someone did something. X accomplished Y. The story, however boring, is complete. We call this sentence a simple sentence—but we can also call it a sexy single. She’s a sentence who’s got it all. She can walk down the page, unhampered by awkward modifiers and unashamed to be solitary.

And sexy singles like to hook up with other sexy singles. So if our first gal, “Albert went to the store,” meets a kindred spirit, “Betty went to the park,” they can go on several kinds of dates. If they are just getting to know each other, they will go on the grammatical first date—using a comma and a conjunction. A snapshot of their date looks like this:

Albert went to the store, and Betty went to the park.

This first date is also called a compound sentence.

As they get closer, their dates will look a little different. How are they relating to each other? If they’re clicking on several levels, they may keep that “and.” If they’re feeling contrary, they’ll trade it for a “but.” If they’re agreeing to disagree, they might use a “so.” And when things really start to heat up, they’ll invest in a really romantic piece of punctuation…the semicolon.

Albert went to the store; Betty went to the park.

Look how close and cozy they are! That semicolon allows them to settle down together on a comfortable sofa in front of a dying fire with mugs of hot cocoa. That semicolon means that she’s wearing a soft floral perfume and he’s been working out. They’re staring into each other’s eyes and talking about their childhoods. They’re leaning over a book of poetry, and one arm slips around another’s shoulders. They’re dancing cheek-to-cheek.

But the variety of their dates is infinite. They can also go out for a nice em-dash, a long hyphen that changes the mood of the situation.

Albert went to the store—Betty went to the park.

This isn’t as cozy as the semicolon, but it’s a fun time. Perhaps they’re going bowling with friends—its a date for these two, but the friends are there too. Maybe they’re at an amusement park, holding hands on the Ferris wheel. They’re at the movies, and it was her turn to pick. They’re eating Fondue, and it’s not his favorite—but he’s still having fun because they’re together.

These are all scenarios where the date is going well, but what if the date goes wrong? What if he’s on his phone the whole time or she’s talking about her previous relationships? What if the restaurant is shabby and ill-lit with dirty plates? What if, at the last second, she refuses to pay for him or he for her? What if it’s their 5-year anniversary and he takes her out for fast food? How would that look?

Albert went to the store, Betty went to the park.

We call this cheap date, this uncomfortable situation, a comma splice. Neither sentence has invested enough to make the experience pleasant. This isn’t an unexpected victory over adverse circumstances. This is a lowest-common-denominator event. This is grammatical settling, and neither sentence will be happy about it.

And what about when partners become indifferent? We call that a run-on sentence, and it looks like this:

Albert went to the store Betty went to the park.

They’re too blasé to buy any punctuation for each other. And you can forget about conjunctions; they’re just waiting for the relationship to fizzle out. Semicolons, colons, commas, conjunctions—these love-tokens strengthen relationships. But in the run-on or fused sentence, nothing holds our two singles together. They’re not moving toward each other; they’re just existing in the same space.

And what about clingy partners? Well, we call them dependent clauses because they’ve got a subject and verb but they can’t stand alone. They don’t want to be alone. They’re looking for a curvy, strong, confident clause to curl up with. Here’s our lonely single: “While I was at work.” Read it aloud and you can hear the desire for social inclusion; this clause wants to be part of something bigger. If she gets a date with one of our sexy singles (whose previous relationship dissolved because of too many run-ons), it will look like this:

While I was at work, Betty went to the park.

She’s leading our independent clause across the page, but what if the sexy single wants to lead her new, dependent partner? Their interaction will look like this:

Betty went to the park while I was at work.

When the independent clause leads the way, the sentence doesn’t need to buy a comma. The independent clause effectively clears a path for the dependent one.

It’s important to notice that these dates look different from our compound sentence dates. In these scenarios, called complex sentences, one clause gets most of the attention while the other becomes subordinate, less important. But since sentence parts love to be together, the subordinate clause doesn’t mind. Life is all about give-and-take, right? Sometimes we get to be the main clause; sometimes we have to be the subordinate clause. Sometimes we’re in the first paragraph, and other times, we’re in the footnotes.

I can’t end my description of cohesion, or sentence romance, without tipping my hat to that grammatical maverick, the sentence fragment. Edgy, unconventional, and occasionally irritating, this rule-breaker doesn’t worry about labels, dates, or promises. Fragments are just there—sitting in the corner in a beret, smoking a foreign cigarette, and reciting obscure poetry. Sometimes they breeze across your page, leaving you with only a faint hint of their exotic cologne. Sometimes you hear their husky inflections from around a corner—but you round that corner and they’re gone. They’re unpredictable. They won’t be pinned down. And most rule-following English teachers won’t even allow them in the classroom.

We call them “incomplete sentences,” because they may lack a subject or a verb. But they’re only “incomplete” if we elevate those self-reliant, intoxicating independent clauses as the gold standard for sentences, the complete package. Fragments have their place. Even if we can’t always say what that place is.

Overall, these numerous and varied sentence dates—these instances of cohesion—create a more stable relationship among all sentences. We call that larger harmony “coherence.” Coherence is when everyone is getting along, when each sentence is feeling connected and supported on all sides. Coherence is what we call the best grammar party you’ve ever been to, where the food is perfect, the music is not too loud, and the conversations are so riveting that, before you know it, you’ve spent seven straight hours talking to the same people.

I Only Have Eyes for…Grammar: Creating a Multi-Sensory Method for Teaching Writing

As a writing instructor with low vision, I spend my life trading between a large white stick and a small white stick. The large one, of course, is the cane that helps me navigate my work environment. I open my classroom door, cane in hand, and proceed to my desk. At the desk, I fold the cane and it disappears – a quick sleight of hand for the students present. Students who enter the room after me and leave before me will not know I use it. I trade the cane for a small white stick with a black cap, the dry-erase marker that enables me to convey my thoughts in visual language on the large whiteboard behind my desk.

Despite my blindness, vision occupies the central role in my classroom. In each class session, I trade one tool of vision for another—oscillating between the cane that compensates for my low vision and the marker that relies on the sight of my students. Even when I am not using my small white stick, my students complete primarily visual tasks.

In my first class, I guide the students through an exercise called Flash Peer Editing (FPE). FPE is something I created on the way to class, but I’m sure that the idea isn’t really mine. When you study, teach, and tutor writing, you forget who invented which pedagogy. However, I try to put my own spin on this exercise by incorporating aural and visual processes.

Flash Peer Editing works like this. Students bring two copies of their paper to class, keeping one in front of them and passing the other copy to their right. At this point, I use my little white stick to write a series of “rules” on the board, each brief rule corresponding to a round of rapid editing. At the end of each round, students pass the papers to their right. In Round 1, students should mark 3 things that are well executed in the paper, such as graceful sentences, apt word choice, or logical arguments. In Round 2, students should mark 3 sections for improvement—like awkward phrases, misspelled words, ill-defined concepts. They do not have to correct the problem—they just have to draw attention to it.

Round 3, another visual exercise, offers students the chance to search the paper for words from my Banned Words and Phrases list. The list contains 40+ words and phrases that tend to weaken student writing—phrases such as “The writer does a good job of X” or “The writer is just trying to Y.” Words like “very,” “utilize,” “totally,” and “huge”—and phrasal verbs like “talk about,” “back up,” “point out” and “go on to say”—are also on the list. My goal here is not to make students afraid or ashamed of using these words. Rather, I hope to show them that there are more descriptive words out there (and “out there” is also on the list). In Round 3, students readers circle any banned words that catch their eye as they read. They do not have to complete a meticulous search for every banned word in the paper.

Finally, in round 4, students experience their paper in a chiefly aural way. Students pass their papers to the left until each has his or her own work again. Then, they keep the marked copy of their short paper and hand the clean copy to a partner. Turning over the marked copy so that they won’t be tempted to look at the text, they listen to their partners read their work aloud. As the partner reads, students note any observations  they have about the sound of their work. They repeat this process twice, so both partners can hear their work aloud.

This round is undoubtedly my favorite because my classroom suddenly fills with the sound of self-conscious students reading aloud. Sometimes they adopt funny accents or pretentious voices to cover their unwillingness to read another’s work; other times, they read the writing faithfully and seriously, without attempting to alter pronunciation or inflections for comic relief. Invariably, the students listening to their own work begin to giggle and squirm. They seem to say, “Did I really write that?” Occasionally, the listeners express delight and surprise at the sound of their well-constructed sentences.

While this version of peer editing does incorporate aural and tactile elements—students hear their work aloud and mark another’s work—I am disappointed by its primarily visual nature. I want students to understand the importance of hearing their work aloud. Often, we edit as we read visually—our brain runs a sophisticated “autocorrect,” transforming hastily mistyped words until they resemble what we intended to type. Reading aloud thwarts this process, especially if you choose an unsympathetic reader who will stumble and stutter over your awkwardly worded phrases. Even if your reader can guess at your meaning, this guesswork takes some time; it will not occur within the first read-aloud.

I am spoiled by the text-to-speech software on my computer. During all the stages of my writing process, Alex, the obliging voice on the Mac OS, reads my work aloud—and, though he is remarkably expressive, he is also unsympathetic. He stumbles over my misspellings and convoluted sentences just as any human reader would.

In my second class, I again pick up the dry-erase marker to begin a highly visual explanation of sentence parts. I scrawl three sentences on the board:

  1. Today I got an umbrella.
  2. Sandra was driving to the store.
  3. Ms. Michael loves pumpkin spice lattes.

My students are having trouble with be-pattern sentences: sentences that use forms of to be as the main verb. These sentences look like this: Jane is sad, Andrew is in the car, Cecilia was angry, Marvin was the winner. Often, my students confuse these types of sentences with sentences like #2, “Sandra was driving to the store,” calling “driving to the store” an adverbial, a phrase that describes the verb was. I explain the difference in words, gesturing with my hands, but I am met by complete silence or the sound of a student tossing a pen aside in frustration. So I must illustrate the difference visually

I turn back to the board, searching for where I wrote my sentences. It is not always easy to find my own writing on the huge white surface. I ask students for the main verb in the sentence, and some courageous voice says, “Driving!” I draw a squiggly line underneath it. Then I point to “was” and ask, “So what do we call this?” Another brave participant says, “A linking verb!” and a student who has done her reading says calmly, “An auxiliary.”

I illustrate the incorrect labeling of sentence parts by drawing brackets around the sentences. I draw huge swooping arrows to convey which parts modify, or describe, nouns, verbs, or phrases. I draw boxes around subjects and squishy brackets around direct objects. I break up the sentences and write them in passive voice, drawing arrows to show how the subject is no longer doing the action.

As I scribble my version of grammatical geometry, I literally face the highly visual nature of my own grammar knowledge and instruction. I understand grammar in a visual way. Like many of my peers, I was forced through countless hours of diagramming sentences—plotting sentences on long horizontal lines and relegating modifiers and less important phrases to the space beneath the lines.

As I teach these lessons, I cannot help but think, What if I had a totally blind student? What would I do? How can I translate my visual understanding of grammar and my sight-based editing techniques to a nonvisual thinker? I harbor secret dreams of taking a braille essay and cutting out every individual word, so that the words could be plotted and rearranged on a large surface. Perhaps I could teach diagramming sentences in the way that I was taught the basic templates for street crossings. A mobility instructor arranged bright yellow strips of velcro on a large black felt board, making T and plus-shaped intersections and asking me to navigate the “route” with a finger. I felt like I was in kindergarten again, but I enjoyed this tactile approach.

Though my current methods are proving effective, I continue to strive for a multi-sensory approach. I cannot love the sound of poetry and feel of editing without wanting students to experience these sensations for themselves. When I draw complex diagrams on the board, I am visually representing what I believe to be the anatomical structure of living language—a structure that could easily become three-dimensional with the right tools. My task now is to find these tools and implement them. I want to make students take writing into their own hands, to feel their words in their fingers and break and remake sentences at their natural junctures.

Word-power

In the autumn of 2010, I took one of the most fascinating and challenging courses of my entire graduate program, Introduction to Old English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was spoken by the inhabitants of the British Isles from 449-1066AD. A Germanic language, Old English is an ancestor of Modern English (what we speak now). During the first class session, the professor explained that we would learn the rudiments of Old English grammar and history, complete our own translations, and read canonical texts – including schoolbook dialogues between lords and shepherds, beautiful epic poems, medieval sermons, and charms to ward off a swarm of bees.

To begin steeping us in Anglo-Saxon culture, our professor insisted that we choose Old English names. We would use these in place of our legal names throughout the course, creating helpful place cards for our desks and writing them on all our assignments. To inspire us, the professor wrote a series of words on the board – things like “gar” (spear), “wine” (friend), “beorht” (bright), “æthel” (noble), “treow” (tree/true), and “cyne” (great/mighty). She said we could assemble a name from these 20-30 words or create our own, using our simple Anglo-Saxon/Modern English dictionary.  In true Anglo-Saxon style, we would craft an identity for ourselves by marrying two strong words together.

After some deliberation over the dictionary, I sought help from an enthusiastic friend. Katie and I found a database of Anglo-Saxon words online, and she suggested the name Modwyn. “It means ‘heart’s joy,’” she said. “Perfect for you!”

At the next class, our professor went up and down the rows, asking each student to spell and pronounce the Old English name he or she had chosen. With some students, she asked for an explanation – why had they chosen that particular name or what did they think it meant? For others, like the student who dubbed himself “Gar-cyne” (Great Spear), little justification was desired.

When it was my turn, I pronounced Modwyn proudly. I stressed the first syllable, gave a tall, elegant, long “oh,” and a playful short “i” in wyn. MOHD-wyn.

“Brave joy.” My instructor noted the name and the spelling and smiled at me. “Beautiful.”

“I thought it meant ‘heart’s joy,’” I said.

“It does,” she explained. “But mod is your heart, your mood, your innermost self. It also means brave. And wyn, of course, is joy.”

Perhaps because I adored the class and the language, I began to internalize the concept of brave joy, an inner joy indomitable by outside forces. I thought of my own happiness as a small, private ember that I nourished through music, learning, nature, and frequent laughter. It was an ember that rarely winked out, and, because I was happy most days, I thought, “I’m just a happy person.”

However, I know that thought is no longer true. I’ve lately remarked to my mother that being an adult really sucks. I have bills and responsibilities, and I’m a citizen of a world with an excess of violence and hardship. Sometimes I feel burdened by the problems that are too big for me to solve. Other times, I feel panic and anxiety because I can’t imagine the future. In these moments, I forget my own strength. I forget the joy that inspired my Old English name. I want to find delight in small things – birdsong, the smell of sautéd garlic, a friendly greeting – but I fear that my joy makes me seem naive or irresponsible.

Only when I am coming out of one of these difficult times can I remember my own strength and the resilience I’d like to have. In these moments, I realize that each day’s happiness is an act of courage, not an act of naiveté. To commit to living a joyful life, I must fight for the joy I want. I must put away the impressions of others. It is absurd to think that only naive people are happy, but this is a sentiment I face daily. Maybe because I am young or blind or female, others often take my happiness for granted. They look at me and think, “She is just a happy person.”

There is no such thing as “just a happy person.” Happiness is a daily commitment, and joy requires effort and courage. There is no name for weak joy or tired joy or craven joy. All joy is brave joy.

I’ve kept the name Modwyn because I want to commit myself to living with brave joy, a feeling that empowers me to handle my work and responsibilities with integrity and passion. I blog under the name Modwyn because this blog is where I display my commitment to courage and happiness. Anger and frustration will continue to motivate some posts, but I hope that joy will inspire many more.

This is my sincere expression of gratitude to the readers who have been with me so far and my extension of welcome to those just joining. I started this blog for myself; I wanted to encapsulate the funny and frustrating moments of my life. I expected only a handful of family members and loyal friends to take an interest. But now, as others read, share, and respond, I realize that it can be so much more than I ever imagined. I know that the brave joy will spread.

Walking on Words

Today my campus is covered in words. All over our sidewalks, the following messages call out in cheerful pastel chalk:

“Delta Gamma’s purpose is to stop blindness before it starts.”

“80% of all blindness in adults is preventable or curable.”

“Delta Gamma’s service for sight began in 1936 to stop blindness before it starts.”

“1/4 of all visually impaired are women.”

“Rates of blindness will double by year 2020.”

“Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.”

“A child goes blind every minute.”

Friends tell me that these and similar messages crowd the sidewalks around the coffee shop and quadrangle. As we walk in search of coffee, they read the messages aloud. We stop, they proclaim a chalked statistic, I ask them to write it down, and we shuffle forward to repeat the process. Sometimes we don’t even have to move; we just turn around, confronted on all sides by these messages. As we get coffee, we cannot avoid walking across the messages. I walk over them when I head to my classes. On the way to my office, I walk through these words.

Regardless of their truth, these messages advance what the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, calls a “single story.” According to Adichie, a “single story” is a one-dimensional version of events. Promoted by narrators with political or social power, single stories can overrule others, becoming the only story that is ever told. This is what Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.”

(Watch Adichie’s TED Talk here.)

These seven sidewalk messages narrate a powerful story, a drastic epic of frightening deficit and miraculous healing. In alarming statistics, they tell the tale of blindness, a persistent disease that strikes quickly, leaving its victims bereft. They tell of Delta Gamma, the ministering nurse and courageous hero. They speak of the “80%” – those whose misfortune could have been prevented and may yet be cured. We don’t know how their blindness could be prevented. Perhaps they are to blame.

The writings don’t tell the story of the 20% – those born with congenital visual impairments, those who have lost their vision in accidents, or those whose vision deteriorated over time. They don’t include those who are not eligible for gene therapy, those whose vision loss is cortical, or those who no longer have eyes. In this single story, blindness is neither the conflict nor the rising action.

This is a story that ends with blindness. Because blindness in itself is An End.

The sidewalk reads, “Every 7 seconds someone in the U.S. goes blind.” As a writer stumbling across this story, I ask, “And then what happens?” The answer is that nothing happens. Nothing could happen. You’ve gone blind. There’s nothing left.

The sidewalk reads, “A child goes blind every minute,” and I ask, “And then what?” Again, the sidewalk doesn’t offer an answer. The answer is implied. The child suffers. The child is broken and miserable. The child doesn’t make friends. Without Delta Gamma’s intervention, the child will not be cured and restored to a happy, sighted life.

Perhaps my readings of these sidewalk scripts seem drastic, but they are the readings of a frustrated writer. I am tired of this story of blindness. It’s old, worn-out, and sterile. It produces nothing but fear and exhaustion. I am afraid of how quickly it gains power, and I am exhausted by how often I must fight it.

Let’s try a simulation. Can you remember the happiest day of your life? Can you wrap your mind around the beauty of that happiness? I’m sure you can; we all can. We think of first kisses, wedding days, new jobs, new babies, published poems, and graduations. Now, imagine the world telling you, “No, you weren’t really happy.” Every time you insist that, yes, you were happy then, the other storytellers reply, “No, honey, no you weren’t. You just thought you were.”

Adichie says that this is the power of the single story – the ability to supplant another’s story with your own, to say, “My version of you is better than your version of yourself.” She tells her audience at the 2009 TED Conference that, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” The single story of the sidewalks turns blind people into medical statistics. It replaces their ability to laugh, fight, love, feel with a magnified, defective eye. In this story, there are no blind characters, because to be a character, one must have a life. This is not a tale of blind lives.

I want to live in a world that lets people speak for themselves. I want to exist in a place where someone will believe me when I say I’m happy and unbroken. I know that my experience of blindness cannot stand for all experiences of blindness, but I want mine to count. I want to advance as many stories of blindness as I can.

Finally, I want it to rain. Is that too much to ask?