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!

October Interview: Spark, Startle, Enlighten!

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, age 53, is an  associate professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University (in Bowling Green, Ohio).  She teaches technical linguistics courses for people who wish to teach English to speakers of other languages.  She says it’s a marvelous job: “I sort of love it.”

She has a scattering of background hobbies such as bread baking, knitting, whittling, and reading good science fiction and nonfiction science books.  And she likes standing on beaches feeling simultaneously small and exalted.

But music is what takes up most of her free time and makes a good try at her non-free time as well.  She’s one of the Grande Royale Ükulelists of the Black Swamp, a strumming, picking, harmonizing, rock-and-rolling, song-writing, carrying-on quartet which is maybe the most fun she’s ever had; go to http://www.grubsmusic.com for all the happy details. Find her and her band on Facebook and iTunes!

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I have been blind since birth.  I could perceive a little light and color as a small child, but lost all light perception more or less around age 12.  Although I have no external light perception whatsoever, what I perceive visually now — perhaps due to some ongoing random stimulation of my retina — is unpatterned brightness in a variety of colors which I can no longer accurately name but which I have learned to control to some extent.  This is sometimes very disorienting and sometimes moderately interesting.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I use a cane.  Always and only a cane.  Although I love dogs, I prefer to get into my own mischief.  I can also tolerate the foolish things sighted people say to cane travelers better than I could tolerate the foolish things they say to dog guide users.  The cane is so much a part of my identity that I sometimes find myself stopping when reading an action sequence in a book thinking: “Wait! If he’s running down the hall, and he’s got the alien artifact in one hand and his laser rifle in the other, how is he holding his cane?” Yeah … I know.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

To start, I’m going to sound like a very broken record here — or perhaps today we say a skipping CD — the most consistent frustrations I face related to blindness are the public’s bizarre, distorted ideas about blindness, and their perverse inability to notice, examine, and discard those ideas. They are fiercely ingrained, and anything that contradicts them is dismissed as an “exception to the rule” rather than evidence that the rule itself is faulty.

For example, I was appalled by the dependent blind character in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot  See, but many of my sighted friends had no trouble with her passivity or her literal inability to put on her own shoes. What I read as destructive stereotypes went unnoticed by most of them.

If, to take another example, I talk to my students about prejudice against disabled people and negative stereotypes about blindness in particular, the majority regularly inform me happily that these no longer exist: “You have a good job,” they say, and that finishes the deal for them. I become silent. What am I supposed to say?

So, I suppose my problem is that the harmful stereotypes that keep 70 percent of blind folks unemployed … simply do not exist in the minds of sighted people. They are omnipresent and thus invisible.

How do I handle it? Increasingly, I write. I try to let the experiences which enrage or frighten or dismay me flow in and out through my fingers.  I feel like … I hope that … it helps. And, maybe, if I keep doing it, these little sparks born of frustration will fly out and startle, or enlighten, or bring hope … or set fires. Here, for example, is a YouTube video I recently made in response to the destructive yet perversely popular #HowEyeSeeIt campaign from the Foundation Fighting Blindness:

 

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

There are, of course, my indispensable friends who hold space for me in the ordinary/extraordinary way that people can do for each other. (I hope that this is everybody’s answer to this question.) Beyond this, my very own front line defense against despair, rage, and exhaustion is dropping into wordless music. It’s planless: I don’t know if it’s the playing or the waiting to hear what will be played, but a space is cleared around me when I pick up an instrument to play and let go of whatever else I’m carrying. I can feel the day receding and the space opening, and afterward, I’m both more distant from, and more entirely a part of, whatever it was that set me off. It’s a connection that gives me courage and serenity, and inspires musings that are sometimes inexpressibly sacred and sometimes very satisfyingly profane. It is my power source.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

The belief about blindness that harms me most often is that blind people are viewed as basically useless in most situations. If there is a table to be moved, or something that needs retrieved from a high shelf, or even a long line to stand in, I am offered a chair while the work goes on around me … “Because it’s easier.” When I hear “because it’s easier”, I also hear exclusion from responsibility and isolation from the community.

And, horribly, part of me has gotten used to it. I’m so conditioned to things being inaccessible that I am not the first to jump when someone yells, “Who can get this?” If I’m standing at the side of a soccer field, and a ball rolls my way, I often stand unmoving, unwilling to risk diving for it, even though diving for it would be the fun thing to do. And I know why. I grew up in the same culture as everyone else, absorbing spoken and unspoken information about race, gender, and ability along with my language and my style of dress. These beliefs are everywhere, and I know that my own little acts of education or compassion or assertiveness are not going to sweep them all away. But I’m still hopeful; as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” So, that’s what I do: I spend my days birdwatching and tending my tresses.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. What can I say about this book? The blurb pulled me in: “Puerto Rican Jesuit linguist in space”. For real. Who would not love that?But the bit that fixes the attention is not the well-wrought story or the lovely prose; it’s a story about people who leap guts-first into life, struggling together with humor, compassion, grace, and dignity to do the right thing, and (quasi-spoiler alert!) when they fail, reassembling with courage and humility.  Ms. Russell asks the big questions, and the answers — when there are answers — are complex and beautiful. Rereading this book restores my faith that people are good, smart, and will work toward justice and peace … once they understand what that is.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

The next ten years? I’m still sort of figuring out Saturday.

I would like to become a more precise and effective voice in the ongoing struggle for equality for disabled people, and in case that sounds too pretentious, I would also very very much like to become a more expressive and powerful musician and make more and better music. I would like to continue to simplify my life so that I can concentrate my attention on the things I can do that might make a difference. That, and please let me go back to Hawaii again where I can practice being small and exalted for several uninterrupted days!

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about? What topics would you prefer to discuss?

If you had asked me about interview questions when I was 25, I would have said that journalists are incapable of detecting any kind of complex human existence beneath the dazzling light that reflects off a white cane. Everything I did had to be about blindness. Now, though, I seem to have emerged into new cultural territory. The media feeds on young disabled people who they can present as inspiring or old disabled people who are either heroic or poignant. In the middle, blindness, at least, is less interesting. I stopped being a prototype around 30, I think: middle-aged blind women aren’t as useful for inspiration porn, and my children are old enough now that nobody thinks to ask me how I raised them. So, in many ways, I am freer now than I have ever been before to be a linguist, musician, or anything else I want to be … and maybe because of this freedom, I am now actually ready and willing to talk about blindness. However, it is often clearly communicated to me that what I want to say about blindness is not nearly as welcome as the things they want to ask about blindness. But I’m not a young woman just starting to sort through these things any more; now, I’m a much older and stronger woman … with a power source, and an increasing desire to swat birds out of the sky.

 

October Interview: Faith in a Life After Loss

April Ogden, age 45, is a full-time manager with the Florida Department of Education in Northeast Florida. She enjoys reading and traveling. You can learn more about her on her LinkedIn page.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I was diagnosed with Glaucoma during December of 1989,shortly after graduating from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, a performing arts high school, in June of 1989. Previously, before December of 1989, I had not experienced such significant vision loss. Over the years, and more specifically, after the birth of my two children, my vision slowly began to decline. My depth perception began to fade, and later I experienced a severe decline in the loss of my central vision.

What was once seen with my eyes as thick black bold print on a sheet of paper, over time became a faded thin black line, which eventually became an all-white sheet of paper. No matter the number of characters on a page demanding my attention, my vision only allows me an opportunity to see a blank sheet of paper, at best on a good day. My vision fluctuates from day to day, and some days, I’m unable to even see the sheet of paper at all.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I use both a white cane and sighted guide in order to assist me with my orientation and mobility needs. I use the white cane to travel independently and safely in familiar areas.  The sighted guide is used when I am in an unfamiliar area.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

I have certainly experienced my fair share of challenges. I would have to say the challenge that bothers me the most is a challenge I experience consistently in professional settings.

I am a very independent individual. In a professional setting, I require very little assistance. I call this level of independence my coat of colors. This phrase refers to a person’s inability to understand another person’s knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities, without focus on the vision limitations.

The challenge for me in the past was that I became aware that many sighted persons had low expectations of those who are blind or visually impaired. The majority of the individuals without vision limitations do not believe in this notion; however, there are enough individuals who think like this to perpetuate the lack of advancement of well qualified individuals who are able to contribute to a conversation, project, the progress of an agency, and so much more.

By communicating, demonstrating, and educating individuals more about me and the strengths that I possess and/or the areas in which I may want assistance, I’ve been able to work more closely to help others understand that people with unique abilities are just as deserving of an opportunity to be successful and live meaningful lives as their non-unique ability counterparts.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I have found that having a great support system is key. You have to balance the use of your support system. Relying too much on your support system enables you to be more dependent and less independent. Your support system should be aware of the resources to assist you in being more independent. For example, a family member could contact the local State agency for the visually impaired or blind to learn more about resources to help an individual to become independent. Moreover, a member of your support team may contact a local Community Rehabilitation Program, to learn about resources for individuals with vision loss. There are so many resources available to educate families, support teams, and most importantly, the individual living with the vision loss.

As your independence grows, you should expect the structure of your support system to change. What I described above, is a support system for someone new to vision loss or who has experienced a decline in vision.

My husband, children, and family members have all been an excellent support system for me.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

The most harmful belief that people have about blindness is that people who are blind are satisfied with mediocracy. We are not, and we want more than just an opportunity, but we want an opportunity to exceed the expectations of others.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

The Bible is a book that I could read over and over again. Throughout the pages, countless examples of changing one’s prospective is provided to the reader. Examples of how to recognize and face a challenge are displayed all throughout the Bible. The ability to face a challenge and overcome that challenge is so important to me.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

For me, it is my Bible. My faith in God, has been a part of who I am before my sight loss as well as after my sight loss. It has not only encouraged me, but it’s allowed me the chance to encourage others.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

The many dreams that I will accomplish in the next 10 years is that I will work in a Senior Leadership role within the federal or state government. My work experience and education supports this goal. In this role, I will be able to create effective policies, procedures, and standards that will promote the advancement of individuals with cross disabilities. I will be able to be in a position where I’m evaluating overall agency programs and services. Most of all, I want to have a significant positive impact on the lives of others who are faced with what I’ve overcome

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

Usually the questions are limited to rehabilitation technology, and the discussion of how did I lose my vision. Rarely do I have an opportunity to discuss life after vision loss. It does exist!

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I was satisfied with the list of questions presented. It provided me with an opportunity to express myself.

October Interview: Understanding Begins in Presence

Jennifer Pearlstein, age 26, is a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at University of California -Berkeley. Outside her professional life, she enjoys reading, running, and spending time with her dog. She has recently started a blog on issues related to vulnerability and identity.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I describe myself as having low vision. I was diagnosed with a form of early-onset macular degeneration at age 17. My vision progressed passed the threshold of legal blindness within a couple years. My central vision is very poor – I see a gray fuzzy blur when I look directly at something. However, I have functional peripheral vision.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I recently received orientation and mobility training and have since begun using a cane. I generally use an ID cane at times when my vision is weak, such as at night or when the glare from the sun is particularly bad. I also gravitate to using my cane when traveling in unfamiliar places, shopping alone, and various other contexts in which it helps me for those around me to be aware of my low vision. My dog is a trained service dog (not a guide dog), performing tasks centered on helping me navigate crowded spaces, perceive depth, and regulate my low-vision related anxiety. Although I still use him in lieu of a cane when traveling and hiking, I do not use him daily anymore; primarily because he required guidance and attention that distracted me from my environment.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I started working with the Department of Rehabilitation about a year ago, and they have been instrumental in introducing me to resources. Beyond technology, Braille, and orientation and mobility, working with the DoR has enabled me to connect with others experiencing low vision and blindness. The practical aides of technology – many of which I truly could not succeed professionally without – and the connection to others in the community makes the DoR a phenomenal resource.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

I see the most harmful and annoying belief as having two parts: first, that people experiencing blindness or low vision are defective and second, that overcoming the limitations imposed by blindness is incomprehensible and inspirational. The ramifications of these beliefs range from outwardly and obviously offensive (i.e. strangers making derogatory comments) to the subtle and unintentional (i.e. family, colleagues, and friends referring to my way of completing tasks as unfathomable and remarkable). I realize the intention is generally compassionate, and I acknowledge how challenging it is to strike a respectful balance between acknowledging how a disability impacts individual identity while simultaneously not defining an individual by the presence of a disability. Nonetheless, this belief stigmatizes the blind as being different from “normal.” Perceiving the way the blind navigate the world as incomprehensible further denotes an “us” – the sighted, and a “them” – the blind.

I think correcting this belief involves a shift towards showing blindness as part of normal experience for millions of people. The media and popular culture generally (1) ignore people with disabilities, (2) portray people with disabilities as decrepit and (3) depict disability as an experience foreign and impossible to imagine. Publicly revealing the blind are just people. We are friends, parents, professionals, athletes, and artists. As is the case with any marginalized group, the blind are underrepresented politically, culturally, and in the work force. Until we are seen, we will continue to be misunderstood.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it

I am generally most attracted to nonfiction, especially memoirs. However, I am also a fervent Harry Potter fan. When stressed by life, I gravitate to rereading the series. I grew up reading these books, and feel nostalgic when reading them. I cherish the characters, disappear in the magical wizarding world, and deliberate on the broader implications of the themes. I appreciate the series both for its entertainment value and for the important messages embedded throughout.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I aim to graduate with my PhD!

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I feel centered by mindfulness. I find reading, practicing, or learning more about self-compassion, non-judgment, and focus on the present grounding.

I am most attracted to these themes in the context of individual authenticity One example that comes to mind is Kay R. Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Dr. Jamison powerfully reveals her personal experience with bipolar I disorder while simultaneously sharing her professional expertise as a clinical psychologist. I admire her for taking the chance to be exceptionally vulnerable. I get the privilege of revisiting this gem often through my research and clinical work and every time I reread this, I gain a more profound understanding of the science and phenomenology of bipolar disorder. Works like these that weave together informative content and portray a unique facet of human experience are particularly striking to me.

October Interview: Scholar, Teacher, and Guide

Eric Harvey, age 34, is a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. He studies the texts, religions, and cultures of ancient Israel, Syria, and Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). He is writing his dissertation on a group of biblical Psalms which reused pieces of older texts. He lives with his wife Kristin, 2-year-old daughter Jane, and dog Faye in the San Francisco Bay area. For hobbies, he hangs out with Kristin and Jane, reads a lot, listens to too many podcasts, and enjoys strength training and yoga. Find him on Twitter and at his blog.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

Both. I have always had low vision, but in the past four years it has begun to deteriorate in earnest. I have a diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa, but it is unusual in that I am losing central vision first.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Our dog is a good dog, but she’s not a guide dog. In fact, she’s kind of an anti-guide dog, and she can get me into trouble when I try to walk her. So I have a cane. I don’t use it all the time, but more and more often I feel safer with it than without. I always use it now when I venture far from home or take BART.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

The unpredictability. I have a degenerative retinal disease, and my vision varies wildly from day to day, even hour to hour. Some days I can see and do certain things just fine, and the next I can’t. Also having to retool every habit and workflow that I have ever learned.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Oh wow—so many. My family and friends first and foremost. My wife is a huge support and cheerleader. Knowing my daughter relies on me to show up and care for her every day keeps me centered and focused on living life day to day. The rest of my family has also been incredibly helpful, but I don’t want this to turn into an Oscar speech!
Also, books. I’ve been binge-reading blind-lit for the past few months. I love to read memoirs by blind people who refuse to be held back by their blindness.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

I think a lot of people feel there’s no right way to talk to us, like if they open their mouths at all their foot will inevitably find its way in. It’s true that people say a lot of dumb stuff to blind people. Blindness activists in the last century rightly fought against the open mockery and condescension with which blind people were often treated. Now in the post-ADA world, the political and social climate is such that people don’t voice those noxious opinions as much (even though some still hold them). Instead, people tend to tell us how inspiring we are. But disabled folks have pointed out (again, rightly) how hard those comments are to hear over and over, how they objectify us and betray the speaker’s diminutive expectations for us. So now I think sensitive, thoughtful people are afraid to say anything at all, lest it cause offense, and this is not really a solution. It prevents dialogue and understanding, and leads to a greater sense of isolation among the blind.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem on a societal level, but for myself I take it as a challenge to be a teacher and a guide to sighted people. Those of us who are blind know much more than the sighted about blindness—what it is, what it isn’t, and what it means to live with it. We have thought through all of these things because we have been forced to. Most sighted people know no blind people, and meeting us prompts them to think about issues of blindness often for the very first time. Whenever anyone starts thinking about any topic for the first time, their thoughts are bound to be simplistic and naïve. They ask us the natural first questions, the simple questions that we asked and answered for ourselves long ago.

When I hear those questions, I try to remember that this is what’s going on, and that this is a chance for me to teach someone about something new. I try to have an answer ready to questions that I hear more than once—not a snarky witticism that shuts the conversation down, but an answer that invites them to rethink their assumptions. It’s not easy, because a lot of these questions poke at our exposed nerves. It requires a kind of strength and self-awareness from us that the people we engage with often do not demonstrate. But I think the effort is worth it, if it leads to more engagement and connection between the blind and sighted worlds.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

I seldom reread books, because that’s time I could spend reading a whole new book. I’m a novelty junky. I do have the strange urge to reread a book right now, though, so I’ll mention that one: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is a beautiful, nuanced depiction of family, generational strife, American religion, and small town life that unfolds in a series of letters from a very old Midwestern pastor to his young son. It ends up being about something unexpected that reframes the whole work in a surprising and poignant way.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this one. I feel centered with my wife and daughter, or when I’m reading and engaging with new perspectives or new information, or when I’m alone and chewing on ideas from things I’ve read or heard, or when I’m doing yoga, or… I guess a lot of things make me feel centered. I feel decentered when I’m overwhelmed or pulled on from too many different directions.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I want to finish my Ph.D. and get a job teaching somewhere.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

No clue. This is my first one!

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I’m happy to discuss anything: my field, adapting to blindness, fatherhood (I’m the primary caregiver for my 2-year-old daughter), hobbies, the history of language, etc.

October Interview: Magic, Swimming, and Social Acceptance

Alan Brint, age 19, is a swimmer at Beloit College in Beloit, WI. He loves to read and watch sports. He describes his vision as light perception from Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). He travels with a white cane. You can find him on Facebook as Alan Brint.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

Socially it can be hard to fit in sometimes. But even then I am not doing poorly in it. Sometimes I do not know what is going on when, but I almost always eventually figure it out someway, although it is not always a consistent way. I have to ask sometimes, which can be a bit embarrassing, but such is life.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

I tend not to use my blindness as a crutch ever—well except in a car, although my brother decided even that was an unacceptable place to call it a crutch when I was 13. Don’t worry, it was just a parking lot where he put me behind the wheel, and my parents had enough brains to almost take away his license. But now that he is 23 and I am 19, we have brains and we don’t do that, but I guess you can say that I go to my brother as my way of living “sighted.” But honestly, I have a good friend, Peter, who I go to with questions about blindness related stuff. Also, you would be surprised how receptive friends can be. It is more than you would think, even if they are not blind themselves.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

It is extremely shocking how dumb people can be sometimes. People think we cannot get around physically. We have two legs that function just as well as most pairs of legs. We can do absolutely anything anybody else can do with our legs, just not necessarily in the same way as everyone else. People are always shocked out of their minds when they hear me say that, but unfortunately that is a good thing and I look for those reactions in people sometimes, it makes me feel really good.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

Harry Potter. I am rereading the books again. It is just such a universe, and I get immersed in it all the time. It is great. Who knows, the Foundation Fighting Blindness may not be needed anymore if J.K. Rowling can come up with a spell that will give full sight back to us? If you can think of it, please charge me in dollars for the wand, I do not have galleons, sickles or knuts in my pockets. I guess their hard work is for nothing…

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I love it when people believe that people can always do everything, just not necessarily the same way. This is the perspective that many of my friends have, and it makes me feel the best about myself.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I want to swim across the English Channel. I am not sure if any people have done it without sight, so it would be very cool. Plus, a challenge in the water is where I am most like me.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

I typically am asked about swimming in interviews honestly. This is the time where I got interviewed the most. They ask me how I do it differently than most people, and the answer is simple and consistent with what I have said before: not that different. I don’t need to see the wall when I get used to a 25 yard pool.

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I can talk about anything with any intelligent people. As long as your question doesn’t ask about my physical mobility, I am all in for anything!

October Interview: Love, Work, Play, and Pray Like Everybody Else

Welcome to October, and welcome to Blindness Awareness Month! On the Blink is celebrating blindness with a second round of October Interviews. In the coming days, you’ll hear from blind friends and colleagues as they describe their passions, their challenges, and their perspectives on disability.

Our first October conversation features Katherine Schneider, Ph.D., a retired clinical psychologist living in Eau Claire, WI with her ninth Seeing Eye dog. Katherine has published a memoir To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities, a children’s book Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold, and a book for seniors, half of whom will develop disabilities, Occupying Aging: Delights, Disabilities and Daily Life. She originated the Schneider Family Book Awards for children’s books with disability content through the American Library Association and an award for superior journalism about disability issues through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

Locally, she started the Access Eau Claire fund through the Eau Claire Community Foundation to help non-profit organizations work toward full inclusion of people with disabilities. She’s a passionate advocate for access for all to the good things of life. Subscribe to her blog for details.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it? 

I’d say information access is the biggest problem. I handle it by trying to learn and use every technology possible, asking early and often for what I need and advocating for better access to information whenever and wherever I can.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Information from many sources about how others have dealt with a similar problem is helpful as are good friends who listen. When it’s a crisis, prayer and friends who just show up help the most.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

I think the most harmful belief is that we are so different from them that they stay away. Yes I may do some things differently, but I want to love, work, play and pray like everybody else. I reach out by getting involved in community activities and I do disability education in schools, university classes or wherever I can find an audience.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

I read very few books over and over; so many books, so little time. If I had to name one, it would be the Psalms from the Bible.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I’m a backrow liberal Catholic Christian with ecumenical leanings.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I’d like to read the Bible from cover to cover, but am only in Leviticus after several gallant efforts. I’d also like to become a member of the 50 year club at Seeing Eye; I’ve now had Seeing Eye dogs for 43 years.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

They usually ask about the guide dog, the technology, is access getting better and what’s your next book going to be about.

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I’d also like to discuss what other people can do to make access to the good things of life better for those with various disabilities.

*  *  *

Keep celebrating Disability Awareness with On the Blink! My call for interviewees has been widely shared and answered, so we’ve got more fascinating perspectives on the way!

Poetry as Activism, The Rhetoric of Empathy, and The Breaking of Beliefs: My interview with Primal School

I am honored to be featured on Hannah Lee Jones’s fabulous poetry blog, Primal School. Her blog is designed as a place to discuss poetry outside the academy, to go back to basics and understand what makes a poem tick. In this interview, she asked me to describe my motivation and process for “A Phenomenology of Blindness,” which was published by Rogue Agent this summer.

About the interview, Hannah says:

[Emily K. Michael’s] poem ‘A Phenomenology of Blindness’ is a lesson not just in poetic craft but also how to talk about disability: ‘There’s a sense with the average non-disabled person that we should try to minimize or hide our disabilities — as if their discomfort is our discomfort. That’s another reason I write as a blind poet; I want people to know that I’m bringing blindness forward. I’m not ashamed. It’s a part of who I am. It’s something that belongs in poetry — not as a novelty but as a reality.’ Read, learn, and if so moved, please share widely — Emily’s work is vital.

Read the full interview here.

Sacred Space Interview: Calling for Balance with Faith, Hope, and Love

We’re starting the week off right with a luminous interview from Elizabeth L. Sammons. Elizabeth’s interview bridges the Sacred Space series and the October Interview series—opening a dialogue about faith and disability that is rich and rewarding. I know you’ll enjoy this extended conversation!

Elizabeth L. Sammons, age 50, is a Program Administrator with Ohio’s disability vocational services: Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. De facto she conducts extensive research, outreach and writing for their agency statewide including both blindness and other disabilities. In the past, she has taught English serving in Peace Corps in Hungary, represented our culture in the then Soviet Union on a cultural exchange program, and served as interpreter for cross-cultural, faith and government meetings.
She enjoys creative writing, both fiction and nonfiction; paid and unpaid community interpreting using Russian and French fluency; keeping track of friends locally and around the world, particularly as touches the faith experience.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I was born with cataracts on both lenses; operations before school age restored vision in one eye to encompass color and basic shapes. I use Braille and audio for my reading and writing needs.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Always a white cane. It’s true that a cane won’t show me directly to a door or elevator, but nor do I need to feed, water or clean up after him; his name is “Stickie.” Nor do I have to tell his funny name to nosey strangers, and I feel secure with him swinging over the pavement to guide my path.

Are you active on social media? If so, share any of your links that you’d like my readers to know about:

I lack the time and patience to delve into any social media except what I call my “literary scrimmage site,” which is my blog. I invite you to visit for a mixture of poetry, memoir, humor and philosophy written over the past 4 years. I utilize NFB Newsline for much of my current events reading.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

A lot of people think that someone “afflicted” as many people say, with a disability, faces this disability as the major difficulty in life. In my case, this is not true. While I readily admit the inconvenience of living life in a physical world not labeled, leveled or linked with nonsighted people in mind, the far greater challenge for me is to balance the idealism of a perfect world and spirit that I have held since childhood, with the day-to-day “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” encountered by us all. I think that many middle-ability, mid-intelligence, mid-income, mid-life people have come to a balance on this question, accepting the monotony or the petty aggravations pertaining to most days in our lives as simply the things that happen… the things to expect. Most likely it is my desire not to compromise which has given me the label from others of being “passionate,” and my internal label, “disquieted by the act of living.” Regarding how I handle these dissonances, see next question.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Since I’m thinking about music, I will give a quick point to this question with the song title “I Get by with a Little Help from my Friends.”
Words and music are a very present help in time of trouble. I never worked to develop this, but I have the idiosyncrasy of coming up with songs containing a certain word. For example, as soon as you say the word “Bridge,” I might think of the phrase/song “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and also “London Bridge is Falling Down” or even “Shall we Gather at the River” since the word “Bridge” converts to a picture of “River” in my mental gaze. This word association with music often comforts me and just the right lyrics, both secular and sacred, come to mind for me, a blessing not called for consciously.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness?  How would you change this belief?

People who inhabit able body’s under-estimate the abilities of people with disabilities including blindness. When able-bodied people are in a role of authority (employer, teacher, counselor, parent, mentor etc.) in the life of someone with bodily challenges, that person unfortunately often conforms to that belief without even examining the life he or she could live instead. I use humor in responding at times “I have half a century of experience on this… you don’t even have a day, so why do you think I can’t do such and such?” Another response I gave especially when I was younger was “OK, just give me a chance and let me show you how I can’t.”

In faith communities, a grave error people can make is viewing a congregation member who is nonsighted or with any disability as the object of one-way charity. It is an empowering act when that person can serve on congregational council, help in child care or teaching, pass out bulletins, offer artwork, interpret for non-English speakers, or any other role that frames the person’s ability and communal presence.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

Ah, there are so many books! If I had one and only one book, it would need to be the Bible, not only because of faith, but for its mix of history, poetry, philosophy and voices over centuries of compilation.  . If you take mercy on me and allow me a second book, I suppose it would need to be a form of Wikipedia, because my curiosity is never satisfied.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

I came across Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light during one of the hardest times in my life. Her perspective, gained through two out-of-body experiences and enriched by her Native American heritage, indicates that we are living as spirits in this world through the bodies we inhabit. Our purpose and connections are things that we cannot see in larger perspective while we walk on this earth, but we must be conscious of our neighbors, our influence and our joyful duty to illustrate love in everything we do and in every choice we make. While I fall extremely short of this faith philosophy, I agree with Carl Schurz: “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.”

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I have written one secular book and am now researching and writing a second novel, which is a faith novel based on the life of Stephen, (Christianity’s first martyr, Acts 6-7.) I hope to finish this novel and to find a non-self-publishing opportunity for both these fruits of my mind. The work of my pen is the only mental fruit that I can leave when I depart our era, and I pray that anyone interested or in need of these writings will find them at the right time, both during my time on earth and afterwards. For a reason I cannot rationalize, I feel a profound peace and assurance that this prayer will be fulfilled.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

Many people are intrigued that I speak 3 fluent languages and an additional 3-4 languages with reasonable competence. I love the tongues, tones and trumpets of faith as they play out in various cultures. Our journey of faith is necessarily as much a cultural experience as it is a spiritual walk, and it is fascinating to me to see the translation of faith in many ways of singing, means of accepting messages, houses of worship and foods/drinks of sharing. To me, a language is like a code-cracking puzzle or joyful equation to solve. I feel deeply moved and blessed that I have had the chance to speak with so many people who without my taking the effort to walk into their linguistic territory, I could never have known.

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

While it brings me pain each day to walk along the imperfection of what we call “life,” I believe that the best is coming when my road ends on earth. Some close friends, particularly those raised in Communist countries, have asked me “Why does someone of your intellect believe in God?” On one hand, I can give an easy answer that even as they were raised atheist with little caring about matters of faith, I do not remember a single meal growing up when we did not open with prayer or a week when we did not dwell on faith questions together in my family. Thus both of us, the atheist and myself, were imprinted to travel certain mental and spiritual paths.
But that answer is incomplete. Beyond cultural context, while I understand many arguments pointing to God’s nonexistence, I equally comprehend those in favor of God, and the faith experience is my choice between the two. It is a decision that will do only good and no harm in my life, and I wish my post-Communist friends the hope that I lean on.

If I were speaking to a disability audience I might add that as a blind person, all my life, I have had to rely on those with sight to tell me many things about this world that otherwise I would not know… soaring of a gull vs. flapping of a sparrow… copper gutters turned tingly green with age… the smile of Mona Lisa vs. the grin of a Cheshire cat. If I lived only by what I knew through my own experience or intellect, my life would be limited indeed. If I stuck to my own experience, my world would be so small. But on the good days, borrowing another’s lens, I sometimes think that I can see nearly to heaven.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

While I simply say “God” and “Jesus Christ,” I believe as our Islamic brethren say that God has a thousand names… and perhaps more than that. Regarding other spiritual forces, unfortunately there are also evil forces in both human activities and in divine struggle.

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

Faith, Hope and Love. This reply may sound pert, but if you think about it, what elements beyond this do you need in pursuing a meaningful life? (These words come together at the end of I Corinthians Chapter 13 in the New Testament, also called the “Love Chapter” for those who wish to read further.)

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

I find prayer, song and recitation in a group context of great meaning. These acts, along with communion, make me realize that I am connected with not just one congregation, but generations, centuries and even millennia of believers of completely diverse cultural backgrounds, but who anchor their souls and spirits in the faith, hope and love in which I desire to live out in my own little life and generation.

Describe a moment when you knew that this faith was right for you.

Though I hold rather traditional Christian beliefs and was raised in a conservative background, I do not try to actively convert or evangelize. However, when friends and family have been in crisis, it is the well of my faith that has usually provided the insights I need to be of comfort or of meaningful presence. This included a recent death experience, the passing of my best friend. “The worst is behind you; everything ahead is good!” I told her…not “my” words, but words that came to me along the way to the hospital.
When I take the time to pray, ever so quickly, when I am in a conflict or a situation where I am contemplating a less loving or more destructive path than I could take, there has never been one time when some idea, person, or calm did not come to my rescue. My problem is taking that time and effort to call out for help.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

It’s difficult for me to depict a single miracle moment in answering this question. However, I can safely say that the level of my awareness of God and his hand in my life is directly proportional to the difficulty of the situation. The more difficult the situation, the closer I feel my spirit to be linked with higher forces, as long as I take the time to ask for help.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I have met far more people than I deserve along my half century of life who have shown me levels of love, respect, kindness and belief that were completely unmerited in the situation. One who comes to mind is a Jewish refugee whom I met in the USA at age 80, when he immigrated here with his children and grandchildren. He tutored me from an elementary level of Russian into exploration of the Russian great writers, and along the way we became friends. Always in departing from him, I felt a great awareness and love that wrapped my spirit like a blanket. I have tried to repay some of his generosity in serving other immigrants here and in depicting him in disguised form as a small but pivotal force in my first novel.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

The congregational experiences I mentioned above are one way, but another is when I go into nature, particularly when I am alone. No matter what my mood, the ocean speaks to me as no other force can.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

One can be a deeply believing Christian, even a conservative Christian, without being narrow-minded or intolerant of others as today’s media seems increasingly prone to depict. We can define the rights and wrongs that direct our spiritual walk without enforcing them on others. The example of how we live and relate to our neighbor is a far more vivid “Bible” than what most people will ever read.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

When I get into my blackest mood, I sometimes assign myself the exercise of taking one hundred breaths and with each one, thinking of something I am grateful for. It can be anything – as vast as the universe or as small and funny as my cat’s husky voice when he wakes up and makes me laugh. After the hundred breaths, I cannot help laughing and realizing that things may be in chaos, but that I am better off than I was feeling. Try it at least once and you’ll always breathe easier.

A Day in the Life

Today an instructor I’ve never met before walked into our shared office. We had the following exchange.

Colleague: Hello. You teach here?

Me: Good morning. Yes. I teach writing.

Colleague: And you’re blind?

Me: Yes.

Colleague: So…do you have any assistance in the classroom?

Me: No, not really.

Colleague: Wow, that’s just incredible! I really admire you!

Me: …

Colleague: I really admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.

Me: … *looks for the exit*

Despite the fact that the colleague is using words like “admire” and “incredible,” I won’t be pinning this exchange on my wall of treasured compliments. Perhaps I sound churlish or ungrateful, so let me explain why I, and other disabled people, don’t enjoy this kind of attention.

As a teacher of effective communication, I am bothered by this scenario. The colleague expresses admiration as a consequence of my exceptionalism. She assumes that the default position of disability is ineptitude. She is surprised, and thus excited, to learn about a competent and independent blind teacher precisely because she does not consider the competent blind person the norm. In her worldview, all disabled people are marked by the perpetual need for help.

Holding this worldview does not mean she is a nasty, terrible, or unpleasant person. In fact, she seems to be making an effort to converse and be courteous. She cannot help the fact that her world is populated by stories of disability as disaster. She can only try to adopt a new worldview, and perhaps she needs time for such an adoption.

But the change won’t occur if I keep silent. So, let’s adjust her logic.

Here’s the other problem with her line of reasoning: it makes no room for me as a professional or colleague. She compliments me on my ability to defy her stereotypes, but she does not actually know anything about my teaching style. She says it’s incredible that I can teach independently and that she admires me. But she hasn’t seen me in the classroom. How does she know I’m any good? I could be terrible! I could be a train wreck. She is congratulating me for living a life other than the one prescribed by the tragic stories of disability—not for making a difference in the lives of students, as all teachers seek to do.

This dialogue got me thinking about how she must see my life, how she thinks I live each day. So I present you now with two agendas.

A Day in the Life of a Blind Person, as Imagined by Too Many Sighted People:

  • Wake up. Grope for cell phone or extremely large alarm clock. Attempt to turn it off.
  • Enjoy a few blissful moments with my eyes closed.
  • Open my eyes and remember I’m blind.
  • Shed 3-5 tears. Wipe them away.
  • Realize that I can’t see the glittering tears rolling down my face. They glitter with all the possibilities I will never accomplish. Shed 6-10 more.
    • Recommended for Weekends: Shed 6-8 initial tears because weekends are more social and I’m disabled. So I won’t be doing any socializing.
  • Get out of bed. Feel my way to the kitchen.
  • Prepare special Blind Person’s Breakfast: all finger food, nothing messy. Nothing that requires excessive chewing.  No coffee. Tired of spooning in salt instead of sugar. Caffeine withdrawal headache.
  • Get dressed in mismatched sweatpants or other lounge wear. Run fingers through hair. No makeup. Sunglasses.
  • Find favorite chair—any chair—in living room. Sit.
  • Spend the next 3-5 hours contemplating how great life would be if I could see things. Then have lunch. All finger food. No mess.
  • Rinse and repeat until dinner.

A Day in the Life of One Blind Person, as Planned by Me

  • Wake up, Press snooze button. Wake up again.
  • Take dog outside, bring him in, feed him.
  • Do short yoga routine (5-10 minutes, 4-6 poses, I’d like to learn a few more).
  • Eat breakfast: a KIND bar and a string cheese, neither of which is messy. I choose this breakfast because it’s quick, and I don’t have to think about it. I’ll get a cappuccino at work.
  • Check personal emails.
  • Get dressed in outfit I’ve laid out the night before. It’s professional attire: a skirt and blouse or a nice dress.
  • Part hair and put product in. Scrunch curls. Moisturize face. Put on makeup. Put in earrings. Put on braille watch.
  • Take dog outside again. Listen to birds. Wish I’d brought my phone outside so I could record them.
  • Pack bag for work—dog’s lunch, my lunch, graded assignments, books, laptop.
  • Go to work. Teach classes. Challenge students.
  • Come home. Have dinner with family or friends. Plug social appointments into calendar for weekend.

What’s that, colleague? My daily agenda looks like yours? Wild! I wonder why that is…

Poem Published in Rogue Agent!

The July issue of Rogue Agent is out, and one of my poems graces its cyperpages! You’ll find my piece, “A Phenomenology of Blindness,” in Issue #16 of this journal of poetry, art, and embodiment!

Read my poem here.

Interview: “Dialogue on Blindness and Writing”

With other disabled writers, I participated in an interview for the September issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature:

“Jill Khoury, Emily Lund, Emily Michael and Kristen Witucki are four writers whose work in poetry and fiction has openly addressed issues of physical disability. Wordgathering invited them to take part in a discussion surrounding issues of craft and publication for writers with visual disabilities.”

Read the full interview here.