To Overcome or to Flourish? There Is No Question.

As a professional woman, I often receive praise for overcoming my disability:

“I admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.”

“You are where you are because you overcame your vision loss.”

“You show that with hard work, anyone can overcome a disability.”

“You’re an inspiration because you don’t let blindness stop you from living your life.”

I am an English teacher. I can’t let these statements go unexamined.

I am a poet. I won’t leave lies unexposed.

Overcoming a Disability vs. Living with a Disability

Overcoming means that the problem itself is no longer a problem. According to the dictionary on my computer, to overcome means “to defeat (an opponent or obstacle), to prevail, to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty.” The idea of overcoming is so common in conversations about disability that we, the disabled, regularly use the term overcoming narrative to describe a story where a disabled character is healed, where the disability itself is removed. This is the kind of story where the blind person learns to see and the wheelchair user stands up at the end. Many people view these stories as triumphant: Look how the mind achieves victory over the body!

But living with a disability defies overcoming.

When you live with a disaiblity that cannot be cured – a chronic illness, sensory impairment, learning difference – your daily life is about adapting and planning, not about overcoming. You brainstorm workarounds, backup plans, lifelines. You know who you can call as emergency support when your strategies fail — or more likely, when someone responsible for providing accommodations drops the ball.

Ever since I was little, I have been surrounded by loving parents, teachers, and friends who have helped me brainstorm these workarounds so I can live happily as a blind person. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Mom labeled all the household appliances with puffy paint so I could wash clothes, cook on the stove, and run the dishwasher by feeling the settings I couldn’t read.
  • My mobility teacher taught me to walk with a white cane so I could travel safely and confidently.
  • My vision teacher taught me braille so I could label spices, makeup, and other personal items that are hard to identify visually.
  • My parents and friends helped me find kitchen utensils in bright colors that would contrast with whatever I was cooking. I have bright purple oven mitts and bright red cutting boards. This helps me see what I”m handling in the kitchen.
  • My friends have helped me experiment with dark sunglasses and hats so that I can work in environments that are too bright for me. I wear my sunglasses constantly and keep a pair in every purse I use.

My blindness is still a significant part of daily life. I cannot drive a car, read most menus in restaurants, read many labels at the grocery store. I cannot identify people by sight unless they speak first. I cannot see to navigate safely in most environments. I cannot read many of the apps on my phone. I cannot identify paper money without help. I cannot paint my own fingernails or toenails. Bright lights and background noise are hard for me to handle. This is not a complete list. To list any more cannots is incredibly depressing.

I am happy in my life and I have found ways to complete daily tasks. But I have not overcome my blindness. It is not a foe I have learned to defeat or a barrier I have crossed once and for all. I can’t plan and prepare exhaustively enough to remove every visual complication from my daily life.

Overcome the Lies: Reveal the Truth 

Several factors are being mixed up here: success, sameness, and inspiration.

Most of the time, people do not see what I am struggling with, or they see me in an environment where I am comfortable. They call this vision of me success. They see a blind woman who doesn’t appear to be wrestling with visual tasks, so they assume that I have “overcome” the blindness. They do not realize all the work I have done behind the scenes, the advice I have asked, the trial runs I have made with friends and family.

Most people have a limited repertoire of disabled characters in their daily life. I am often the first blind person they have seen aside from TV — and usually the first disabled person they have talked to. They don’t have an extensive framework of examples to draw on.

When I was in guide dog training, a volunteer approached me and said, “You must have SOME vision.” I asked why she thought so, and she continued, “Because you walk so confidently. How could you walk so well if you were completely blind?” By assuming that sight is needed to walk confidently, this woman was exposing her very narrow definitions of confidence as well as her limited range of examples. Perhaps she had never seen a completely blind person walk confidently. I have.

Our bodies are designed to flourish, to make the best use of the resources we have. “Success” is often confused with “sameness”: We label someone as successful when they have achieved the goals we have achieved. In this mindset, difference stands in the way of success — The woman thinks, “If I would be scared to walk forward without sight, how could any completely blind person walk confidently?” This is logical, but terribly unimaginative.

You do not know how you will do something unless you are actually doing it.

I can plan how I will cross a crowded room with my guide dog, but my experience may or may not match my best plans. Sometimes the task is much more difficult — a person crosses my path, distracts my dog, or steps out in front of me. Sometimes the task is much easier than I could have hoped for — my dog smoothly guides me around outstretched legs, bypasses the table of appetizers and curious strangers, and helps me find a chair. Whether a task goes poorly or well, I have more information to work with for my next endeavor.

And inspiration? Inspiration is when we are completely blown away by what seems like an impossible reality. We see someone doing the impossible, and we feel excited! We want to talk about the indomitable human spirit and the drive to work and create. These are all admirable traits. I love to be inspired and to inspire. I don’t like to meet people who are too jaded to be inspired by daily life.

The problem is that disabled people are not expected to flourish. So when we do flourish in our daily lives, it is seen as remarkable — rather than a reality we can all work toward. Inspiration is too much of a fluke, and it’s too individualistic. Inspiration doesn’t call to mind a community of hardworking people with and without disabilities. It’s a solitary beacon – one disabled person who has overcome their issues to shine forth.

Because you cannot inspire and falter. If you have inspired others, you are not allowed to have difficulties, bad days, frustrations. Your job becomes inspiration. You become the blind girl who doesn’t act blind — and what a relief! If she doesn’t act blind, then we don’t have to appreciate how she might be different, to anticipate what she might need.

We will all flourish at different thresholds and in different environments. Disability does not disqualify a person from flourishing, from enjoying life. Not every disabled person needs to have a career, but they do need a community that respects their right to belong.

We need to make room in our minds for different kinds of flourishing. We need more pictures, more stories, more templates for how humans can live in bodies and minds different from our own. We need imagination and empathy — the eagerness to inspire others by how we welcome a range of abilities.

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Nine Mile Magazine Seeks Work by Disabled & Neurodivergent Poets

Below is a call for submissions from Nine Mile Magazine.

Call for Poetry

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine 

Special Issue: Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip Poetics 

Publication Date: Fall 2019  

Guest Editor: Diane R. Wiener

Background

Nine Mile‘s Fall 2018 issue (Vol. 6, Issue 1) included a section called “Other Engines,” devoted to the work of neurodivergent writers.  Our Fall 2019 issue (Vol. 7, Issue 1) will be devoted entirely to the work of self-identified Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets, with particular attention paid to Neurodivergent—including Autistic—poets.  Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics are at the heart of poetics, well beyond the too-often hurtful and ignorant ways in which disability is used as a metaphor or to forward a storyline.  Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets (whether or not we write about disability) must in our view be represented at the center of poetry publishing.  (More information is below about the Special Issue and Nine Mile.) 

Submission

For consideration, please submit 10 to 15 poems in Word or Text by July 1, 2019 to Diane@ninemile.org, with the subject line “Fall 2019 Submission.”

Previously published work is welcome.  If accepted, it will be the author’s responsibility to acquire republication permission from the appropriate source(s).  

We are not equipped to accept video content or visual images, at this time.  Please only submit written poetry.  

Please also include:

  1. your name, email address, and home address
  2. a paragraph about yourself (background, achievements, etc.)
  3. a statement about your aesthetic intentions (why and how you write “the ways you do”)
  4. a photograph of yourself

If your work is accepted, you will receive $5 per published poem.  

About Nine Mile Magazine

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine publishes twice yearly, showcasing the best work we receive from authors whose work, energy, and vision are deeply entangled with life.  

At Nine Mile, we are committed to featuring diverse writing by diverse writers, including: disabled writers/writers with disabilities; Writers of Color; writers with marginalized genders, sexual and asexual orientations, religious/nonreligious identities and belief/non-belief systems; young and senior writers; experienced and never-before-published writers; and writers from outside the proverbial mainstream.  We are likewise committed to producing inclusive and accessible content, in multiple formats.  Poetry is everyone’s art. 

For more information about Nine Mile, visit our website.   

More About This Special Issue

Since 2007, the online journal, Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature (Editor-in-Chief, Michael Northen), has done stellar work in featuring disability poetics, and literary work by and about disability.  However, Neurodivergent (including Autistic), Disabled, Deaf, Mad (including Emotionally Variant and Mentally Ill), and Crip poets have generally not been well represented in other mainstream or outlier literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.  Moreover, we often do not feel welcomed to or within literary conferences and creative writing spaces, both public and academic, due to exclusion whether intended or accidental.  

The groundbreaking collection, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Northen, and Sheila Black; Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), disrupted this pattern, in its foregrounding of poets with physical disabilities.  In particular, Bartlett’s recent essays in Poets & Writers and The New York Times (including new work by disabled poets, published in August, 2018), and Jillian Weise’s contributions—as herself, and as Tipsy Tullivan (via social media, and in myriad other venues)—have taken issue with the exclusionary trend.  Increasingly, commentaries about these issues are appearing by other disabled and nondisabled poets and writers.  

This Special Issue is part of Nine Mile‘s ongoing commitments, in these and many other important areas.  

Inclusion Unknown: Revisiting Great Expectations

I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as it’s one of my favorites — and one of my few digressions from contemporary nonfiction or poetry. I first encountered this book in an AP Literature course and fell in love with its humbler characters. I love and hate Pip, of course, as I expect most readers do, and I never had any use for Estella or Miss Havisham. But I adore Jo Gargery and John Wemick with each rereading.

When I was first reading GE, I focused mainly on plot and style — trying to keep all the twists and turns of Victorian fiction in my head while I cherished Dickens’ prose. But with this rereading, I was astonished to discover something I had missed.

Dickens can write everyday inclusion.

If I think of disability in Victorian fiction, I am burdened by characters like Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. Tim, the poor crippled boy whose very survival depends on Scrooge’s reformation, has become the poster-child for disability as inspiration — the idea that disabled characters only serve to teach moral lessons to nondisabled characters. You’ll never see Tim get angry, throw his crutch at someone, or wax despondent about his poor health because his job is to be cheerful. I did not know Dickens could do better with disability.

But GE presents at least two portraits of disabled people cared for at home and incorporated into the daily lives of their families. First, Mrs. Joe, Pip’s older sister and the abusive wife of dear Joe the blacksmith, is injured while Pip and Joe are from home one evening. After her injury, she is unable to dress or feed herself and requires a slate and chalk to communicate basic phrases. But Mrs. Joe receives care at home when Biddy, a local girl, comes to live at the forge; Biddy dresses her, feeds her, and sees to her needs. Neither is Mrs. Joe neglected by her husband, who often takes over her care in Biddy’s absence. These characters do not express resentment, distaste, or irritation with their need to care for Mrs. Joe. They lament her injury but continue to give her the best care they can.

Even though Pip soon leaves the forge, he shows us another portrait of inclusion when he visits the home of John Wemmick. Wemmick works for Pip’s guardian, the formidable and austere Mr. Jaggers, and famously has his “London sentiments” and his “Walworth sentiments” — sharply defining the difference between his gritty work life in London and his innovative domestic comforts in Walworth. At home in Walworth, Wemmick has designed his own castle, complete with flag, drawbridge, and garden. He lives with and cares for his elderly father, who he affectionally calls the “Aged Parent,” “Aged P.,” or “The Aged.”

The Aged P. is hard of hearing, and Wemmick has devised several at-home adaptations to make his father more comfortable. The Aged knows when Wemmick has arrived home because a little door in the wall opens to reveal his name. This contraption, a Wemmick invention, also includes the names of other frequent visitors to The Castle, and as Wemmick himself says, “It is both pleasant and useful to The Aged.”

Pleasant and useful — the two essentials of inclusive design. When Pip first meets The Aged, Wemmick says, “Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes.” And as the visit continues, Pip is encouraged to “give him a nod” and he obliges. The Aged P. is also delighted by the daily firing of The Castle’s canon, which Wemmick has knocked up for his enjoyment. And Dickens reveals that Wemmick’s lady friend, Miss Skiffins, has a high regard for The Aged.

Like Mrs. Joe, The Aged’s disability does not exclude him from tender family care — even at the center of the household. Wemmick consistently thinks of ways to adapt The Castle for the comfort of Aged P. and does not seem to begrudge these changes to his daily life. Indeed, Pip shows us that Wemmick’s Walworth residence is a refuge from the hard life of London, the life that turns his mouth into a rigid “post office.”

Before Mrs. Joe’s injury, the forge was not a happy home for Pip, but after her injury, the forge’s inhabitants find the right balance. It develops into a peaceful and restful place, even as Pip grows dissatisfied with himself and his social status. Pip resists happiness at the forge and will spend the rest of the book seeking a happy home like The Castle — a place of acceptance and invention.

Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

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!

Presentation Notes for SAMLA 88!

On Saturday, November 5, my colleague Michele Boyette and I will present the workshop “Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom” at the 88th SAMLA conference! We’re looking forward to an exciting 90 minutes of analyzing disabled character tropes, evaluating accessibility statements, and brainstorming effective communication strategies. Want to see what we’ll be doing? Check out our handout!

Click this link to download the PDF: samla88handout_michael

I’ll Be at TEDxFSCJ in an Unconventional Way!

My Dear Readers:

I was accepted to speak at TEDxFSCJ here in Jacksonville on October 8. However, Hurricane Matthew came to town (I guess he heard about our impressive lineup of speakers), so our event had to be postponed!

TEDxFSCJ has been rescheduled for Saturday, November 5, but I will be speaking at SAMLA 88 that day. As I’ve yet to find a way to occupy two places at once, I’ll be performing my TEDx talk ahead of time so it can be shown at the main event.

I’ve been given the opportunity to perform and record my TEDx talk on Tuesday, October 18 at 2:30pm at FSCJ’s Downtown Campus. My talk is called “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

If you can come, I’d appreciate it! This is an awfully big auditorium, and I won’t have the benefit of all the enthusiasts who arrive to hear my fellow speakers. I’d love to give this talk to a live audience.

Please spread the word and come if you can!

 

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…

“Inside Jokes” published at The Fem!

Today starts a new semester! And the best way to ring in a beginning or ending is with poetry!

So it’s a good thing that my poem “Inside Jokes” was published at The Fem on this day. Read and enjoy! Happy Monday!

A little avian poem in a brand new journal!

Today marks the launch of The Deaf Poets Society, a literary journal that features the work of disabled writers. And I’m honored to announce that my poem “Trading Threes” is on this first flight.

Read and listen to the poem here.

This poem is a tribute to the glorious cardinals who sing day and night in my front yard. I hope you enjoy it and take some time to explore the rest of this brand new issue!

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.