My Blindy Senses Are Tingling!

“So…your hearing must be, like, really really crazy good, right?”

“Actually, no, it’s just that I know how to use—“

“…and your sense of touch? It must be amazing!”

“Again, it’s just that I know—“

“…you must have, like, super senses!”

“No, really—“

“Wait, are you like Daredevil?”

“Noooo!”

 

If you’re blind (or if you have any other disability, for that matter) then you’ve heard this one before. If you’re sighted, you’ve probably wondered about it. Today, I shall make it my mission to dispel the myths once and for all. Tell your friends! Seriously! This is bigger than IOS 8, and you won’t even have to put up with a U2 album!

 

Let me start out by reassuring you that assuming we have heightened senses is both logical and not entirely false. There is evidence that the neurons normally responsible for helping us see would instead find other tasks to perform, since our bodies don’t much like wasting resources. There is also evidence that the visual cortex—so much larger than those devoted to our other senses—might rewire itself after awhile, seeking more urgent work to do. So, to expect that we might have better hearing or a more sensitive touch is not unreasonable. In fact, it may even be that the nerve endings in our fingertips become more sensitive the more we read braille; the fingers I use to do this are definitely more sensitive to fine detail than the fingers I don’t use much. So, do we have heightened senses? Maybe, but if so, the difference is not nearly as significant as some imagine it to be.

 

What we do have is a better understanding of how to use our senses, particularly hearing, touch, and smell. We can all hear echoes, but blind people are better at deciphering what those echoes can tell them about, say, where the nearest building is. We can all smell cafeteria food or coffee, but blind people will probably rely on this as a scent clue to help them locate a particular room. We can all feel bumps on a page, but blind people are particularly adept at figuring out just what those bumps mean without having to look at them first, as many sighted braille readers do. In other words, we don’t have “super senses”; we just know how to use what we have.

 

I’m usually very patient with people who think I can hear far better than they can; as I said, this is a fairly reasonable idea. I’m less patient with the more ridiculous assumptions people make, many of which border on the ludicrous. It’s gotten so bad that I have frequently joked about whether or not we can hear grass growing, paint drying, or the whispering of souls who’ve gone from this world. In fact, Gregg tells me that he’d like to inform you that all paint dries in the key of B flat, just so you know.

 

I’d like to share a tidbit with you that will illustrate some of the more incredible ideas otherwise intelligent people have come up with over the years. A few months ago, Carly Marno, (a Persian cat breeder), was interviewing at a cat show. At one point, she was asked whether she had some kind of “special bond” with her cats because of her blindness. She asserted that she did not. While she does intensively handle all of her cats for obvious reasons—and knows them all very intimately because of it—she does not feel she has some kind of special connection with them just because she can’t see them. In fact, cats are highly visual creatures, which makes the likelihood of a special bond even smaller. Undeterred, the interviewer kept probing, insisting that she really must have some kind of special blindy superpower that linked her with her cats. Carly is very successful, so perhaps the interviewer was grasping at straws, trying to figure out how a blind person could do so well. Who knows? Either way, she refused to give in, and the interview was never published. Coincidence? You decide.

 

I think people desperately want to believe that we have super senses, because it explains how we can be so competent at times. People simply don’t understand how someone without sight could possibly get around as well as we often do, so they rationalize it by deciding that we’re just blessed with superpowers. Not so! Being as competent as we can be takes a lot of hard work, practice, and copious amounts of trial and error. I have even heard people put forth the idea that greats like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were as talented as they were because they had an advantage over sighted people. It couldn’t possibly be because they were, you know, particularly talented. No, people had to justify their success by claiming they had God-given superpowers to compensate. Sorry to say, but we blind people don’t get some kind of consolation prize in return for the loss of our sight. We aren’t given superpowers in other areas to make up for it. All we have is what everyone has, and a particular drive to make use of it. In fact, the idea that we would need superpowers to be successful at all is a bit insulting, no? Instead of assuming we can hear gaps in the sidewalk or, I dunno, smell a person’s emotions, ask us how we do the things we do. Most of us will be very happy to tell you.

 

I’ll draw this post to a close; I have to go and sort my laundry using only my sense of taste! Did you know that white clothing tastes very distinctly of lemongrass? It’s quite a treat!

 

Further reading:

Below are a few articles about the link between blindness and heightened or altered senses. The last link is a blog post by CrazyMusician, which further explains how hearing can help us navigate, and what can happen if our hearing is impaired for any reason. You should also visit Carly’s cattery:  She has cat pictures! Everybody loves cat pictures!

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/superpowers-for-the-blind-and-deaf/

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120508152002.htm

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC544930/

http://blindbeader.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/did-you-hear-that/

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Don’t Get Grabby: Respect The Personal Bubble

I’ll be the first to admit that my personal space is quite small as they go. I’m apt to hug strangers (assuming they’re okay with it, obviously), I love handshakes, and I have no trouble taking someone’s arm in order to be guided—or just to be companionable, because why not? That said, one of the things I have to be hyper-aware of is the personal space of other people. Just because I’m comfortable with casual touch doesn’t mean that everyone is. So, out of simple respect, I refrain from touching, grabbing, or manhandling people without their permission. Seems obvious, right? Not really.

Ever since I can remember, I have been casually touched and/or grabbed by complete strangers, usually without any kind of warning or preamble. Sometimes, it’s justified enough: I’m headed straight for a pole, and someone panics and grabs me to keep me safe. I can understand that, even though I’m often aware of exactly where I’m going, and know that my cane will strike the pole before my face will. I can forgive that kind of protective instinct. It gets a little problematic when people decide to grab or otherwise touch me for very flimsy reasons, the most common of which is because they seem to think that people with disabilities—especially blind people—don’t have a personal bubble in need of respecting.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this, either. Just about every blind person I’ve ever spoken to at any length has mentioned that they’ve been frequently grabbed, touched, or otherwise physically manipulated either against their will, or at least without permission. This might start out sounding a little silly: what’s the big deal, right? So someone grabs you to keep you out of the way of some obstacle? What could possibly be wrong with that, in this otherwise apathetic society?

Here’s what’s wrong with it: many of us have a large personal space, and we don’t appreciate being grabbed, nudged, or prodded without warning, especially if the reason is anything less than “I thought you were going to get yourself killed”. Here are just a few scenarios (because I like lists, sue me), in which I’ve been grabbed or otherwise touched in a way I disliked, with explanations as to why I object. In all cases, speaking to me first would have been the best option. Perhaps, by the end of this little post, people will be a bit more willing to keep their hands to themselves unless the circumstances are especially dire. Here goes …

In my first year of university, quite early in the term, I was headed for one of my classes. Just as I was nearing the door, I felt an arm wrap tightly around my waist, and I was steered bodily towards a hallway I had no intention of going down. I was so shocked I couldn’t say a thing; I just turned my head towards the person who had hold of me, and gaped. Eventually, after a few awkward steps, I was given an explanation of sorts: “The hallway is this way”. “I don’t want to go down the hallway.”

“You were about to run into a door.”

“No no, I was headed towards the door on purpose so I could open it…”

“Look, where are you trying to go?”

“Room 6-262!”

“Oh!” he cried, sounding indulgently exasperated, “it’s right here!”

Where do you suppose he led me? Back up the hallway, and right to the door I’d originally been heading for. He then acted as though I should have been grateful for the guiding. Think again, buddy. You do not just grab a strange woman, especially when she can’t see you, and lead her off somewhere. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?

In the same university, I was heading past a staircase, intending to go down a different path. Suddenly, a woman appeared at my shoulder and locked my left arm in a death grip, locking both my elbow and wrist so that I couldn’t disengage without considerable effort. “Where you want to go?” she demanded, in a frighteningly strident voice. “Um…where I was headed…” was all I could mutter. “Stairs?” she asked, ushering me towards the staircase. “No, no! I’m okay, thank you!” … It took a long time to get my arm back, and I booked it away from her as quickly as I could. I understand that she meant well, but having my arm immobilized by someone so determined to take me down the stairs to some unknown fate was a little on the unnerving side.

My final scenario is one which, while the most benign, terrified me the most. It is illustrative of exactly why you should treat blind people like normal people and respect their personal spaces. I was walking along, quite lost in profound thought (probably imagining what I’d have for dinner or something) when I was grabbed out of nowhere. I could immediately tell that it wasn’t the typical “you’re about to walk over a cliff edge” grab, and it wasn’t the “I want to guide you somewhere” grab either. It was more of a “stop walking” grab, and while I didn’t tell him so at the time, I was absolutely terrified for a split second. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a good friend, and I was very pleased to see him. He’d just wanted to get my attention, and I guess he decided that he really really wanted me to join him over by the wall. Instead of calling my name, though, he chose to simply grab me and move me towards where he wanted me to stand. While I understand why he did it, I still think calling my name would have been far more polite. He really scared me for a second there.

If this comes off sort of bitchy, please try to understand me when I say that this is a very common complaint. It is mostly just annoying, but it can be dangerous at times. Many of the blind people I know have recommended that I take self-defense classes, not just to fend off those who mean harm, but also to free myself from well-meaning strangers who decide to get grabby. I once heard that one poor blind girl was grabbed by a stranger who was absolutely convinced that she wanted to go down the escalator. Escalators are a bit dangerous at the best of times; they’re made even more so when you can’t see where you’re going and have a stranger dragging you alongside them. I have heard of blind people being pulled into streets they didn’t want to cross because someone was trying to be helpful. I have heard of blind people being dragged off somewhere because people decided they wanted them to go there. I have had people grab my hands and been made to feel things, because it was assumed that being blind means you want to touch everything in sight. I have even been hugged and kissed by people who knew me, but who didn’t think to introduce themselves first or even warm me that they were nearby. It’s not okay.

You would never ever dream of touching the average person in this way, so why on Earth would you think it’s okay to randomly grab a blind person? Disability makes us no less human, and we have boundaries, just like you do. Please, for the safety of us all if nothing else, respect them.

Let It Snow! (Just Keep It Away From Me)

So, as many of you may be aware, we lucky Albertans have already seen our first snow. Yes, the calendar says it’s still summer, but Canada has always been something of a free spirit: it shuns all constraints and does what it damn well pleases. Conclusion? We have snow. And soon, it will stick to the ground, pile up in drifts, and hang around being a general nuisance until May or June.

Normally, this is little more than an annoyance: it’s harder to travel, whether on foot or in a vehicle, and we’re forever shovelling it aside. For a blind traveler, however—especially one who uses a cane—it can be an absolute nightmare. As silly as this may sound, enough snow can actually make the entire environment seem hopelessly unfamiliar. Not only does it turn the entire world white (as those of us who can see contrast always notice), but it also makes everything feel and sound different. Most sighted people probably don’t realize that snow changes the way a car sounds as it travels down the street. Instead of being crisp and clear, the sound is muffled and a little quieter than it should be. Cars themselves are quieter than they’ve ever been, so it’s even harder to hear them coming. Scary stuff!

Then, there is the snow’s uncanny ability to hide vital things like sidewalks. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where constant foot traffic insures that the sidewalks are cleaned regularly, but sometimes even I can’t find the sidewalks when I need them. Once, while bumbling around like an idiot, looking for the right path to take through all this new white fluff, I asked a passer-by, “Where did the sidewalk go?”. “There is no sidewalk,” he replied, in a forlorn voice, “…not anymore. Just keep walking in that general direction and you’ll be fine, I think.”. Comforting, indeed.

It’s also a bit of a trial to travel during a snow storm, at least for me. It’s hard enough to feel and hear where I’m going without wind and snow driving into my face on a consistent basis. Even if I close my eyes, put my head down, and charge on bravely like any good Canadian would, I still have to contend with the distracting barrage of harsh, icy flakes hitting my vulnerable little face. I find it difficult to protect my ears as well, because covering them makes it so much harder for me to hear properly. I can’t really win. This holds true for torrential rain as well. I once got lost during a tornado warning, and the rain was so disorienting that I completely missed a sidewalk and ended up lost for ages before I was rescued. Using an umbrella while juggling a cane can be a bit tricky, and that also messes with sound. Remember what I said about not winning either way? … Yeah.

Gregg tells me that when he was growing up in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, his route to school involved walking down a road with no sidewalks. This wasn’t usually an issue, as he’d just hug the shoulder and keep an ear out for cars. When it was snowing, though, he could only really walk in the tire tracks, so if a car was coming at him, he had to book it out of the way before he became little more than paste on the roadway. Luckily, he has yet to turn to paste, so I guess there was lots of luck involved. As I mentioned earlier, the snow makes it even harder to hear oncoming traffic, so it really was a harrowing walk to school on occasion. You know you’re serious about education when …

Just when you thought you’d reach the end of the nasty obstacles snow can create, think about the two-foot drifts which line sidewalks and streets. Mostly, they’re fine: I trail my cane alongside them so that I can feel where I’m headed; in this way, it’s a lot like following a grass shoreline in summertime. The problem arises when I try to cross the street. It’s not a little nerve-wracking when you’re trying to find the sidewalk, and encountering only snowbanks because you’ve veered a bit. Guide dog travelers are lucky in this respect, but we poor cane travelers end up searching frantically for the illusive sidewalk, all the while stuck standing in the street as cars whoosh past behind us. Even though I’ve done this hundreds of times by now, it still scares me senseless every time.

Sometimes, those pesky drifts can make sidewalk travel—assuming you can even find the sidewalk, that is—a bit treacherous. I was once walking down a very narrow sidewalk, trailing the side of a building. When I came upon a very high pile of snow that completely blocked my path, I simply stopped, not knowing what to do. I had to resist the urge to burst into song: “Can’t go under it…can’t go through it…can’t go around it…I’ll have to go over it!”. Some kind soul came along and I asked him if there was any way for me to get around the drift. Without a word, this gentleman took my hand and literally lifted me right over the snowbank, depositing me gently on the other side. Normally I’m not big on people carrying me around without my consent, but in this case, I was more than grateful!

Perhaps the scariest thing about snow travel is the foreignness of my entire environment. Even if I know the area well, the whole world seems strange and frightening because everything feels and sounds so different. I’ve gotten lost a few times simply by veering a few feet left or right. The biting cold doesn’t help, either: getting lost in summertime is bad enough, but getting lost while you’re freezing is even worse. Remember those legendary prairie blizzards so fierce that you had to use ropes to get from your house to the barn and back? Remember poor little Laura Ingalls Wilder waiting hopefully for her Pa to come home because he was lost in the blizzard outside? Yeah, that’s going to be me one day. I’ll have to petition the city of Edmonton for some ropes leading to basically everywhere. (Don’t frown at me: you know you’d use them, too.)

Back when I lived in a rural area, winter was a good thing! The snow was a magical source of endless fun. In the city, though, it’s my worst enemy. As much as I love Canada, I do implore it to be kind to me this year, and keep the cottonfluff storms to a minimum. Will it listen? Stay tuned to find out! (I wouldn’t count on it, though.)

The Dreaded “Can’t” Word

Before I get started today, I must first emphasize that this post is not intended as a poorly-disguised roast of a certain individual (who here remains nameless). The situation was unfortunate, and I have my own opinions about that as you’ll see, but this is not a roast. There are many who know a lot of details about this situation, including the professor’s name, the course she teaches, and the program she is involved in. While some of this may be guessed at, and while I am not bound by anything in particular, I ask those of you who have this information to keep it to yourselves. I discourage any spreading of information that isn’t already in this blog post. I don’t want unjustified backlash to hit this person, her program, or her institution.

Now that that’s out of the way … on we go!

The word disability implies that there will be some things a person will be unable to do if they have one. If you’re blind, being unable to do certain things goes with the territory; you get used to it early on, and maybe if you’re lucky you manage to prove a few people wrong along the way. In general, though, some things are going to be beyond us … and that’s okay. I’ll never be able to colour-coordinate my outfits; I’ll never pick out my own wedding dress (simply liking how it feels isn’t enough, sadly); I’ll never be able to be a photojournalist. (Okay, so I’m at peace with that last one.) And guess what? I’m fine with that.

 

What I’m not fine with is being told I’m unable to do something when I am, in fact, very able. This type of statement usually comes in two forms:

1. “You can’t do this at all, because you’re blind. Sorry.” Or,

2. “You can’t do *all* of this, so you shouldn’t do any, sorry.”.

First of all, unless we’re talking about the painfully obvious stuff (photojournalism, anyone?), no one is a better judge of what I’m capable of than I am. I know myself best, and as long as I know what I’m signing up for, I’m usually right. This goes for things I can’t do, as well: if I insist that such-and-such a task is absolutely impossible, it probably is.

 

Being told I can’t do something when it’s actually true is tough to hear, but I can deal with it. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, etc. etc. However, life isn’t always so kind. A few days ago, I was just beginning my third year in a university program I really, really love. I took this program with fairly specific goals in mind, and third year is when I get to realize some of these goals. I was very, very excited. And then …

 

I got an email right before the class I was looking forward to most; it was from the instructor teaching the class. I was expecting a “welcome to the class” sort of message, but that’s not quite what I got. In effect, the email informed me that the instructor was sure I would be partially, if not totally unable to do the work required for the course; she thought I had probably been ill-advised, and that I should consider alternative paths. After finishing the email, I swear I felt my whole world shift beneath me. It didn’t quite crumble, but it thought about doing so. I was instantly in tears. “There goes my future…” I thought to myself. The class was a core, required prerequisite to other classes I desperately wanted to take. I had paid for it. I had been accepted into the program, and promised that I’d be given  the chance to do as much as I possibly could to be on par with everyone else. And yet, here I was, being barred from one of the most important courses in the entire degree.  That would all have been devastating, but acceptable … assuming the instructor had been right. Sometimes, there are bits I simply can’t master, and that’s perfectly okay with me.

 

I understand where this instructor was coming from: she wasn’t sure how much time it would take to accommodate my needs on a regular basis. She wasn’t certain of how to go about teaching me differently than the other students. She was hesitant about having to mark me somewhat differently than the others. The list goes on. She was very polite, very gracious, and very sincere. I knew then (and know now) that she was not trying to be discriminatory, or malicious, or any of the other descriptors others have thrown at the situation since it got started. If I have her as an instructor in future, I will be very fortunate: she really knows  her stuff. About this, though, I think she might have been wrong.

 

First, I have since discovered that the course can be taught in very different ways: another professor at this same university teaches the entire class on computers, making it very accessible for a blind student. Second, I have discovered that the method this instructor was using was not so standard as to be the only viable way to go about things. I would still be employable, even if I was unable to do the work exactly the way her sighted students can. Deciding not to teach me at all, therefore, put her insistence on sticking to a certain method above my ability to do the work at all. Without boring you, suffice it to say that it came down not to my skills or abilities, but rather to the fact that I can’t use a pencil. That’s it. That’s all it really was, if you look at the big picture. Such a tiny, insignificant detail! And yet it was enough to keep me from pursuing my goals in this program.

 

I accepted everything she said with as much grace as I could. I agreed to audit the course (I’d still pay some tuition but get neither the credit nor the feedback) and went on my not-so-merry way. I thought then (and still think), that she was probably doing the best she could. Maybe I didn’t like the result, but I knew better than to take it personally. While it is my opinion that she should be prevented from doing this to future students unless it’s truly necessary, I do not and will not endorse any roasts, rants, or other negativity aimed at her personally. If you see any of this, know that I neither approve nor validate any of it. I have not included her name, so those of you who know it should please keep that information to yourselves. My quarrel is with the situation, not the individual herself. Let no more be said on that matter, in particular.

 

Here’s the thing, though: her refusal to think outside the box very nearly impacted my degree. I got lucky (another professor stepped up to the plate, brave soul), but others don’t get lucky. Others have professors who mark them down on purpose, trying to get them to fail out of the program. Others are denied entrance into a program on the basis of blindness or other physical disabilities for very flimsy reasons. Others are told that the only things they’ll ever be good for are basket-weaving and maybe some beadwork if they’re truly enterprising. Yes, people are actually told these things. Today. In 2014.

 

Because others are not so lucky, I feel obligated to speak for them. I am fortunate, but others were not, and are not, and will not be. People will be turned away, and set aside, and pushed out of where their dreams take them, all because of laziness, or stubbornness, or fear of progression, or lack of understanding, or any other sad excuse anyone is willing to name. I wasn’t turned away. I was able to go where I wanted to go, and found people more than willing to take the journey with me. Most importantly, I am being given the chance to find out whether that instructor was right or wrong. Maybe she is right, and maybe I’ll fall flat on my face in a heap of exhaustion two weeks into the course. Maybe. … But what if I don’t?

 

Ultimately, I was able to respond to  “you can’t”, and “you won’t”, with “I can”, and “I will”. Let’s help others do that, too. If you see any instances of discrimination, whether intended or unintended … whether well-meant or malicious … whether seemingly justifiable or blatantly ridiculous … say something. Please. The victim may feel that the discrimination is justified. They may feel bound by confidentiality agreements, or politics, or fear of retribution, or serious backlash. I myself was hesitant about speaking up, because I was afraid to damage my relationship with  the university, the program faculty, and anyone else who might want to weigh in on the situation. Most of all, I was afraid to endanger the tenuous relationship I could have with the instructor who turned me away. The last thing I want to face is difficulty in future because I advocated for myself.

If they can’t speak (and sometimes they just can’t), then who will? Sometimes, we can’t do things…but most of the time, we can. And we will.