Tuesday, January 1, 2013

COMMENTARY: Writing Blind

 Last night, I read a young adult novel by a New York Times bestselling author. The concept was good. One of the two POV characters was excellent for the most part. My issue was, her blind sister--the second protagonist.  Among the issues I had with the book were: she felt the ground (action, no sensory input) and her sister who'd taken care of her smiled at her reassuringly. Really? Someone who cares for a blind person knows they don't get visual input and one of the key characteristics of the little sister was that she knew from an early age she was in charge of her sister.

This is the case of a sighted author writing blind.  That's bad in mainstream, but young adult novels are all about teachable moments and growing empathy in the readers for the oppressed. She missed a huge opportunity to help both her sighted readers and the blind people she might encounter.  

So, how do I know about being blind? I am legally blind.  I was born with congenital cataracts and through the course of complications, I have lost the sight in my right eye and what little I have in my left is deteriorating. My next step will probably be a service animal. Through the course of eight surgeries to correct my condition as much as possible, I have spent a good deal of time with eyes bandaged and sandbagged--virtually blind. I have also had several close blind friends.  So, yes, I have paid my dues.

How do writers open their eyes to blindness? 

The best advice I've heard was from Merlin, the wizard in the movie, Camelot.

"Think like a fish. Feel like a fish. Breathe through your gills. Now, be a fish."

The problem with the first bit of advice is that it's scary.  Sight is perceived by many as the most important of the senses. Scotomaphobia is the clinical term for the fear of blindness. According to a study conducted by Pfizer in 2008 about glaucoma, twice as many people are afraid of going blind than heart disease or premature death. (1)  A wider study conducted in India showed that fear of blindness existed among 90% of the study group. (2) A third study conducted by physicians addresses the correlation between the fear of blindness and suicide. (3)

But writers have to be brave to put themselves out there. When you're shying away from a topic, that's when you really need to just sit down and write it out. Frankly, I shied away from writing this blog. I finally decided doing this was part of my dues for asking sighted people questions about driving and other activities that my vision has precluded me from doing. 

Another issue is perception. Can you imagine how many people see my white cane and don't know what it is?  One lovely lady in Atlanta thought I used the cane for dog training. Others have believed it was a fashion accessory.  I won't even get into the number of people who shout at me believing my vision issues also involve my hearing.

So, how do you get less "blind" about blindness? 

Think like a blind person.  Your eyes give you 70% of the information about your environment.  If you don't have sight, how do you accomplish the tasks you set out to do? 

Feel like a blind person.  Write what you know comes in here. That used to scare me until the amazing author Mel Odom gave a talk to a group of aspiring writers about the craft. He said this is the hardest advice--in his case, he came from rural Oklahoma and didn't feel like he'd experienced anything.  However, everyone has feelings and they can translate those into authentic writing.  Every person has had feelings of loss, inferiority, incompetence.

Become a blind person:  The safest, most comfortable way is to talk to blind people. If you don't have a local group of visually impaired persons, here are a few national organizations. Many have discussion boards and educators who'd be glad to talk to you. 

American Council for the Blind

Knights Templar Eye Foundation

A scarier way is to go blind. I don't mean damaging your eyesight, but get a sleep mask that lets no light through and try to negotiate through your home. This is actually how people with low vision in some rehabilitative schools for the blind are taught how to cope with their limitations. The reasoning of these schools is that many people with limited vision (like me) will eventually go blind. It's a tough love situation. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a "blind walk" in your area, you can be blind with a supportive group. A few years ago, Atlanta Station offered a Walking with the Blind course where groups were given white canes, taken into a darkened room, and walked through an obstacle course with a blind guide. My husband and I took the course. Both of us gained amazing insights from the program.

If you don't understand blindness, it's time to learn before you write a blind character.You owe it to yourself as an authentic author, to your readers, and to the people who live with blindness every day. 

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

(1) 2008 Pfiser Glaucoma Study

(2)  Fear of Blindness and Perceptions about Blind People. (India)

(3)  Fear of Blindness Study Conducted by Physicians

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