10 Bits Of Facebook I’ll Never Quite Get

These days, it’s rare to see actual statuses being posted to Facebook and Twitter. When I scroll through my newsfeed, the majority of content looks like this: “so-and-so shared a photo”, followed by a string of incomprehensible numbers and letters (which is how a screen reader interprets an image). Much of Facebook is totally visual now, so my level of interaction is lower than I’d like. Here are just some of the aspects of the network that I’ll never be able to grasp.

1. Pinterest—pictures galore, and I can’t appreciate a single one.
2. Photo sharing—people do this to excess on Facebook, and of course I can rarely figure out what’s going on.
3. Selfies—it doesn’t seem like I’m missing out, mind you.
4. Articles that use images—many, many times, an interesting article is unreadable for me because the text is embedded within images. Sadface.
5. Instagram—that whole platform, besides the occasional video, is a no-blindy zone (which makes sense, of course, but it still sucks).
6. Cute, fluffy creatures—every now and then I get to listen to a den of kittens purring away, but generally I miss out on the kittens and puppies that dominate my news feed.
7. Graphic design and visual art—I have friends who are tattoo artists and graphic designers, and they use Facebook as a promotion tool. I can’t applaud them for their work. More sadfaces.
8. Dialogue-free videos—and there are so many of these! I get to hear pretty music, but most of the time I haven’t a clue what any of it’s about.
9. Viral nonsense—people do love to share videos and articles on sites like Upworthy, but often the article is just a bunch of images. Other times, the video player is either inaccessible, or missing altogether.
10. Virtually anything on Tumblr—again, people love to link to Tumblr content on Facebook, but more often than not, I just can’t access it. I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, but I have never, ever had success with Tumblr.

So, if you notice that I never “like” your posts, or comment on your content, please understand that it’s probably because I don’t get most of it. Never fear: if I’ve added you on Facebook, I like you, I promise.


Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It)

Note: As of January 2020, this post has been updated to correct some assumptions I no longer hold, describe new experiences I’ve had, and clarify a few points that have come up in the years since its original publication. I hope it is better and more useful for it.

I’ve heard the case against braille books, and it’s a compelling one. Braille books are bulky, because the braille alphabet is oversized compared to print letters. They aren’t terribly common, as the market for them is so small. They are expensive to produce, so most of us don’t own our own books. We usually end up borrowing them from special libraries and resource centres.
Braille is undeniably inconvenient. Throughout secondary school, my backpack weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 pounds, because it was crammed with volumes and volumes of braille. If I also had to carry my laptop case, braille notetaker, and/or my Perkins Brailler, I’d be carrying something like 40 pounds of equipment and books back and forth every day. That was a third of my body weight, and I am quite sure some of the neck and back issues I suffer from began with all those books.
Then, there’s the multiple volume problem: most braille textbooks and longer leisure reading books are too long to come in one volume. My first braille dictionary, a short one meant for children, was 25 volumes in length. My high school chemistry book, which included enormous tactile diagrams, was 53 volumes long. Each volume only contained the equivalent of 20 or so print pages, so I would sometimes run back and forth during class to fetch the next volume of braille (my books had their own storage room, true story). When I had chemistry or math homework, I’d have to carry several volumes of braille, instead of just two books like every other student. It was a logistical nightmare, especially when I’d miscalculate and bring the wrong volumes home with me. If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you about all the times I came home distraught, because I’d realized, too late, that I didn’t have the correct volumes with me. Oh, the tears I shed over braille books.
So, yes, I understand the case against braille, and I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. Some blind people never master it, and others simply don’t like using it. Auditory learners, in particular, seem to do better with audio books and text-to-speech than braille, and that’s valid, too.
That being said, I’m not shy about my belief that braille needs to stick around, and cannot be replaced by audio technology.
People keep insisting that braille is dead. Irrelevant. Frivolous, even, given our digital landscape. With screen readers and other text-to-speech products, what do we need braille for? Blind bookworms, students, and professionals can just sit back, relax, and let their computers read to them. Who needs to have the actual text in front of them? Isn’t being read aloud to enough?
For me, and for many, many blind people, it’s nowhere near enough. It’s not enough, because we still deserve to read in the ways that best suit us. It’s not enough, because it’s still nice to be able to pick up a book (or, in some cases, to cuddle up with electronic braille). Most importantly of all, it’s not enough, because blind people, especially those who are deaf-blind, still need access to more than one literacy tool. They still need to learn to read just like everyone else.
Imagine how a sighted parent would react if, upon sending their child to school, the teachers decided that reading is optional, frivolous, irrelevant. Imagine the outrage if instead, teachers just read aloud to that child, not letting them see or understand how the alphabet works because it’s too much bother to teach them.
Now, imagine that the teachers then insisted on teaching that child to write, without letting them read. Sure, a child can be taught to type and never have to know how to write by hand, but learning to write when they cannot read would be a wee bit complicated, no? And wouldn’t learning to spell be far, far trickier? Would the average sighted child ever be subjected to this bizarre methodology, just for the sake of convenience or frugality or the idea that they don’t “need” to learn? Not likely.
Nearly everything I know about language I learned from reading. If you want to be a good writer, you have to watch other writers at work, and this necessitates a lot of reading. Yes, I can still learn by having my computer read a book aloud to me, and I’m not one to disparage audio books as “fake” reading. But I find that I don’t retain information quite as well just by listening. Not every blind person is an auditory learner, least of all me, so reading on my own is still a crucial skill, and I literally couldn’t do my editing work without braille. Spotting subtle punctuation errors and common misspellings that automated software won’t catch would be cumbersome if I relied on my ears, and would slow me down considerably.
Speaking of spelling, I’ve noticed that while bad spelling is by no means exclusive to blind people, we have to work harder than most sighted people, simply because without braille, we don’t interact with text the same way. If you hardly ever “see” the words on a page, you have to put in a lot more legwork to ensure you’re not missing things. It’s easier to be a good speller when you have the opportunity to memorize the words, and you can’t do that as easily without reading independently. While I am a decent speller, any word I picked up in a braille book is much easier for me to remember than a word I picked up by listening. These days, I do the majority of my “reading” by listening to audio books or text-to-speech software, so I have more difficulty spelling newer terms. Here are just a few of the pitfalls a lack of braille access has caused for many blind people I know:
• The Beatles becomes The Beetles
• Def Leppard becomes Deaf Leopard (logical, but still wrong!)
• Too, to, and two become hopelessly mixed up, even more than usual
• Names are commonly incorrect (Sarah vs. Sara) and names based on deliberate misspellings and wordplay are especially difficult
Unless we are diligent about checking the spelling of anything new, mistakes like these will keep cropping up in the blind community, and minor as it seems, it can be genuinely embarrassing for a lot of us.
Mindful of this, I find excuses to read braille as often as possible, both because I enjoy it and to keep my spelling skills up to par. Sighted people will almost always have the luxury of knowing how a thing is spelled the moment they read it. The only way for me to replicate that is to read a lot of braille and do a lot of googling.
“But Wait!” you say, “isn’t spelling sort of secondary to all the other aspects of literacy? With the ever-present Spellcheck, isn’t the ability to spell less valuable?” Maybe, though as a professional writer and editor I do know that Spellcheck won’t save you every time. Even if we discard spelling, though, grammar and general syntax still rely on the ability to read, and not everyone can pick that up just by listening. Braille gives you the opportunity to read aloud to yourself, which will help improve grammar and flow in your own writing. (Screen readers aren’t so natural-sounding as to read with a human’s sense of flow, and as I learned while preparing speaking notes for other people, screen readers don’t help you catch unintentional tongue-twisters!) If you’re not an auditory learner, learning a new language, or improving your mother tongue, is much easier if you can read directly to yourself.
So, no, braille is not for everyone, and braille proficiency is not, as I once believed, a non-negotiable ingredient for blind people’s literacy and professional success. But love it or hate it, braille is the only way in which blind people can learn to read in the same way sighted people do, and for people wired the way I am, it’s the optimal method for absorbing and retaining new information. Braille is inconvenient, and expensive, and problematic, yes. But it’s not redundant. It’s not pointless. It’s definitely not dead.
Please, stop trying to kill it.

“But…I Meant Well…”

Ah, good intentions: everyone’s favourite get-out-of-jail-free card. It seems that you can get away with anything, as long as you were trying to be a good person. Every day, people excuse discourteous, disrespectful, and even dangerous behaviour because they “meant well.”

A stranger assumes a blind girl wants to ride the escalator, leading her onto it without explanation. Dangerous, but it’s okay, because she assumed she was being kind.

A mother rearranges her son’s entire apartment while he’s away, so that he doesn’t know where anything is when he returns. Discourteous, but it’s okay because she was just trying to help him out.

A teacher addresses her third grade class, assigning a student to play with the only blind member of the group. Humiliation (for the student) and resentment (from the rest of the class) follows. Disrespectful, but it’s okay because she was just trying to foster tolerance and inclusiveness.

I’ve said a hundred times that it’s okay to make mistakes. I’ve also reassured sighted people that their kindness is appreciated, even when it’s misguided. What I’m weary of doing is looking the other way when someone tries to cancel out the damage they’ve done by citing good intentions. I’ve witnessed people say and do terrible things in the name of “meaning well”, and I’m sick of pretending I’m okay with it. It’s not okay with me, and it’s not okay with the vast majority of blind people I know.

It seems to stem from the belief that any help is good help; any kindness is worthy of gratitude; and every time a sighted person deigns to do something nice, we should all be brimming with thanks. But what if we don’t really want that specific help? What if we like how our apartments are organized? What if we had no intention of going on that escalator, and could find it ourselves if we did? And what if we prefer to make our own friends, rather than having people assigned to us?

Generally, we know exactly what we want, and we’re normally okay with asking for it. This does not give us license to be demanding, but it does afford us the opportunity to choose which types of assistance we can benefit from and which we’d rather discard. You might think you’re helping me if you follow your charitable instincts and “fix” bits of my life for me, but the cold, hard truth is if I didn’t ask you to do it, chances are I didn’t want it done.

Still confused? Try a thought experiment. How would you feel, as a sighted person, if your mother came over one day and waited till you left to completely reorganize your home? You did not ask her to do this for you, and you definitely did not appreciate having to hunt for everything once you got back. It’s even worse for blind people, because it takes us so much longer to find everything once it’s been displaced. We occasionally use complex systems of organization, so moving our stuff around has greater consequences than you might imagine. That’d be fairly irritating, yes?

Let’s skip past the sheer inconvenience and danger of having yourself or your belongings tampered with in the name of good intentions. Let’s amble over to the area of respect, because it needs attention: if a sighted person treated a fellow sighted person the way they treat blind people, there would be uproar. You’d need an awful lot of nerve to go around messing with other people’s things in general, wouldn’t you? And you’d have to have even more nerve to grab a complete stranger without permission and direct them elsewhere, right? So why does overbearing and presumptuous behaviour magically become acceptable if the person in question is disabled? Is your need to do your good deed of the day more important than their need for personal autonomy? I hope not!

Most people aren’t consciously aware that what they’re doing is neither wanted nor appreciated, but I know an awful lot of people who have been warned, and warned again. Still, they persist. Parents and other relatives, especially, are notorious for this; they assume that whatever they’re doing is okay, even if they’re asked to stop. They mean well, and that should be the only thing that matters. Shut up and be grateful, why don’t ya?

It’s not acceptable. It never was and it never will be. If you want to flex your kindness muscles—and I recommend that you do, by the way—ask how you can help. Except in very, very special cases where a disabled person is in immediate danger, put your good intentions away and pull out respect. That is something I can be grateful for.

You’ll Never Be a Copyeditor!

Last fall, I published ““The Dreaded ‘Can’t’ Word” in which I discussed an instructor’s refusal to accept me in her copyediting class. The course, which is an integral part of my Bachelor of Communication Studies degree, was one I had been looking forward to for more than a year. I’d long been interested in pursuing editing as a career path, and the copyediting course was to be the necessary foundation.

Stricken, I fought the decision. I argued that a blind person can do at least 80% of what a sighted copyeditor can do, if not more. I argued that I’d still be employable, even if I had to go about things in a different way than this instructor was accustomed to. I even offered to drop out in the event that it became clear things weren’t working out, either for her or for me. All in vain, I’m afraid. She ultimately told me I’d never be a copyeditor, and that she would not waste time teaching a student who would not be employable anyway. And that was that.

I’ve since taken the course under a different instructor. It was incredibly difficult, and while I did manage an A, I slaved for it. It was one of the hardest, most stressful experiences of my academic life. It’s not what you think, though: it had nothing at all to do with the actual coursework, and everything to do with the extra burdens I felt I was carrying. You can be the most brilliant student alive (I’m definitely not that), but if you’re stressed enough, you will flounder every time.

Most blind people I know have had to “pave the way” at some point in their lives, whether it be at work or in school. There’s a first time for everything, and people with disabilities tend to end up with a lot of those firsts. For example, I was the first blind student my local school division had ever dealt with, at least in recent memory. I was certainly the first blind student any of my teachers had ever taught, so my education was filled with a lot of trial and error—emphasis on the error, might I add. For the most part, they were brilliant—innovative, compassionate, and eager. For years, I thought I was tragically bad at math, because passing those courses took twice as much effort as any of my other subjects combined. I later realized that, while I’m no math genius, the bulk of my struggles was due to an inability to process the visual concepts we were being taught. Many of my math teachers taught in exclusively visual ways, and didn’t know how to make the material comprehensible to me. Several other blind people—being naturally excellent with numbers—overcome these challenges with ease. If you’re like me, though, being unable to see the material is going to make math a living hell.

I was pleased, then, to transition to university, where I didn’t have to be the very first. Sure, I was the first blind student to enter the relatively young BCS program, but not the first blind university student. There was even an entire department dedicated to helping students with disabilities. Indeed, all was smooth sailing until I reached this copyediting course, in the third year of the program. Abruptly, I was hitting a wall: for the first time, I was being told “you can’t do this.” And, after fighting as hard as I did to get the chance to try anyway, I felt that I could not fail. The margin for error, I felt, was entirely nonexistent. If I messed this up, I thought, I’d be letting a whole host of people down, including my instructor, future blind students, and myself. No pressure, yeah?

Feminists have often grumbled that a woman must work twice as hard as any man to be considered half as valuable. I definitely felt that type of strain while doing this copyediting course. I felt that I had to be absolutely brilliant, as though my place in that class needed to be justified. No sighted student needs to justify her presence in a classroom. As long as she has the prerequisites, she is free to pass or fail, and no one will question her right to be there. I, however, had the uncomfortable impression that I was a case study of sorts. A trial run, if you will. You want blind people to be allowed into copyediting courses? Fine. Show us what you’re made of, missy.

As is typical, this was all in my head. No one from the administration said anything of the kind to me. My instructor treated me like any other student, and was more accommodating than I ever could have imagined. All my friends and family were convinced I’d be just fine. Fellow students in the program rallied around me in unexpected but welcome ways. Nearly everyone was wholly supportive, and no one was worried but me. Yet, I walked around with this heavy burden on my shoulders, almost entirely of my own making.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we take responsibility for things we cannot possibly carry? Why did I place such unnecessary stress on myself? Was I so arrogant as to believe that my progress in the course would have an effect on future students?

Hindsight tells me it had nothing to do with arrogance. I think it was a mixture of pride (I can so be a copyeditor!) and fear (I hate to let people down). I thought that perhaps if I did well, the university would be even more willing to accommodate students who may face unique challenges. Perhaps the instructor who had been so pessimistic would change her tune. Perhaps my experiences could be used to help someone else in a similar situation. I really think I carried these burdens—real or not—because I wanted to please everyone, including myself. I wanted to justify my place here, to myself as well as to others. I wanted to belong, and I believed that in order to belong, I’d have to positively shine. Being mediocre was not an option, not for a blink.

It looks like I’ll be a copyeditor. Despite the hardships, I thoroughly enjoyed the course and I am now taking the higher-level editing courses. I’m having a great time and I’m really finding my feet. I’m becoming more confident every day. But I won’t soon forget how this past semester felt.

I’ll conclude by saying that if you ever find yourself in a situation like this—where you are, in essence, a trial run—don’t do what I did. Consider me your cautionary tale. Focus on you, and what you’re doing. If you’re proving anything, it should be your ability to ignore the unwarranted pessimism of others. You’re not responsible for someone else’s future. You can only be responsible for your own. Educate, by all means. Advocate, by all means. Work hard and do well, by all means. But do it for yourself.

An Open Letter To journalists Everywhere

I recognize that writing about people with disabilities is challenging. There is immense pressure to be politically correct, inoffensive, sensitive. It seems that no matter what you do, you’ll offend someone. So, because it’s so difficult, I want to give you some guidelines. I’m not perfect, so they won’t be, either. Still, they should be useful.

Dear journalist: call a spade a spade. Don’t stumble too much over the most politically correct terminology. Don’t refer to us as “differently abled”—we’re not. If some part of our bodies does not work, we are disabled, end of story. It is probably best to refer to us as “people with disabilities” because it places the emphasis on the person rather than the disability. Honestly, though, the distinction isn’t vital. No one should be hanging you out to dry over writing “disabled person” instead. If you’re covering blind people, just call them visually impaired. Not everyone is totally blind, so visually impaired covers all the bases quite nicely. I’ve never personally witnessed a blind person be offended by that term, so you should be safe.

Dear Journalist: we are not inspirational by default. Most people with disabilities are just “normal” people living their lives as best they can, like anyone else. Occasionally, we’re capable of inspiring things, but automatically referring to anyone with disabilities as “inspirational” drives most of us crazy. Look it up: you’ll find numerous articles on the subject. We know you mean well, but it can feel patronizing; it’s almost like a backhanded compliment. I’m not inspirational because I manage to attend university, or get a job, or do a myriad of other things everyone else does. Calling me inspirational for such mundanities borders on insulting. If a blind person manages to pull off brain surgery, then we’ll talk. Until then, don’t do it.

Dear journalist: it’s not all about the disability. If you are interviewing someone whose accomplishments have little or nothing to do with their disability, leave the subject alone. In “My Blindy Senses Are Tingling,” I talk about a cat breeder friend of mine who was being pestered about the “special bond” she must have with her cats simply because she can’t see. While some aspects of cat breeding and showing are more difficult for her—grooming for shows, for instance—she repeatedly denied that she had a truly special bond that only blindness could facilitate. The interviewer seemed annoyed by this, and the interview was never published. So, there is a lesson here: don’t fish for what isn’t being readily offered. Sometimes, we’re just people doing ordinary things. And, when what we’ve done is extraordinary, don’t harp on the disability aspect unless it’s relevant. There is more to us, I assure you.

Dear journalist: please don’t glorify everything we do. I continually see (see what I did there?) headlines like “Disabled Person Does (insert random and boring action here)—What A Hero!” No. Just … no. Again, it’s patronizing and potentially insulting. We’re not heroes because we do things. I follow a lot of people with disabilities on Twitter, and I see the following all the time:
“A disabled person does stuff!” – journalists everywhere
It’s so frustrating to see that one of us is in the news again, for something that shouldn’t be newsworthy. It shows the public that they should be surprised and inspired whenever they witness a person with disabilities doing something even mildly interesting. It reinforces the misconception that we are hopelessly abnormal, and every little good thing we do should be glorified. We already fight this mentality enough in our every day lives; please try not to perpetuate it.

Dear journalist: don’t glorify others, either. I actually read an article the other day, which praised somebody for guiding a disabled person across the street. Apparently this is what passes for news these days, but I digress. One would hope that such helpfulness would be commonplace. I have received a great deal of assistance from total strangers over the years (some wanted, some not), and while it’s appreciated, I wouldn’t necessarily write a news article about it. Again, this perpetuates the stereotype that we are in constant need of help—which we are not—and also tells the public that anyone who does help is something more than a nice person. Suddenly, they are special just because they showed someone kindness. This would never be considered unusual if a person helped someone without a disability. So you helped a woman carry her groceries out to her car…do you want a medal? Maybe a cookie? No, of course you don’t. You were just being a nice person, right? Don’t publish articles simply because someone did something nice to a disabled person. Pretty please?

Finally, dear journalist, don’t worry too much. None of us wants you to mess up, and most of us will not spew invective if you do. We realize that there are so many ways to get it wrong. If you make mistakes now and then, no one should be crucifying you for it. You’re just doing your job. I get it. Just be careful. Try to follow these basic guidelines, and you should be fine. I know you don’t intend to propagate negative stereotypes, or myths, or misconceptions. I have enormous respect for what you do; I know I couldn’t do it. So, with this in mind, do your best to respect us. That’s all any of us ever wanted.