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.

 

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