In Praise Of NV Access

There is a lot wrong with the world, and disabled people deal with a good bit of it. We see the ugly side of people, corporations, and institutions. I spend plenty of time discussing these issues, and I’ve decided to add a little positivity to the blog. In addition to posts about the world’s problems, I’ve decided to begin a gratitude series. Each week, I will highlight some corporation, person, or institution for which I am grateful, and devote a post to thanking them for their efforts and spreading the word about their achievements. I hope these will be shared as enthusiastically as my other posts, as we need to spend time supporting the initiatives that make our lives better and easier. This week, I’d like to praise the good folks at NV Access, who are responsible for the outstanding (and free) screen reader called NVDA.

In high school, during which I depended upon my laptop almost exclusively, the unthinkable happened: JAWS, my commercial screen reader, stopped working quite spontaneously. Until I figured out that the problem was a Microsoft Security Essentials upgrade that had somehow messed with JAWS, (thanks ever so, Windows) I spent several months without it. Since my school division’s tech support team was reluctant to let me perform a simple reinstallation on my own (I’ll never understand this), I was forced to look for alternatives. Being something of a rule-follower in those days, I waited far too long to get fed up and reinstall JAWS anyway. They never even bothered to check up on me, so they never found out. I was rescued by NVDA, and while JAWS remains my primary screen reader, I rest safely in the knowledge that NVDA will always be there for me.

The screen reader has improved dramatically in the past few years, as more features are added and support for the project continues to grow. NV Access relies on donations from grateful users, and while they do receive enough to keep them going, the user base could probably afford to be much more generous. If I paid what NVDA is worth, my wallet would be considerably lighter.

The open source nature of the software allows people to get creative with clever add-ons and enhancements, making it easier to customize the experience to suit a wide array of needs. The blind community is diverse, and there are many enterprising developers out there who want to improve NVDA so it can serve more users. It has a little way to go in terms of competing with commercial screen readers, especially concerning specific software in professional settings, but I am continually astounded and overjoyed by how far it has come.

To the hardworking people at NV access, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Keep doing what you’re doing. Once I find gainful employment, I will be contributing more than praise, I promise you.

You Should Date A Blind Person, Because…

While some are busy advising us to date sighted people, others are equally busy insisting we date within the blind community. These people are influenced in part by a belief that sighted people are either inferior or superior, and that it’s best for us to stick to our own kind. They think you should date a blind person, because…

A blind person will understand you.

It’s always comforting to have people in your life who “get” you. I’m fortunate to have friends to rant to about inaccessible software and the exorbitant cost of braille displays. It’s hugely cathartic to have heart-to-hearts with other blind people who know where I’m coming from when I talk about the demoralizing aspects of blindness. But…
I have blind friends for that. I can join support groups and forums. Understanding of this sort is not difficult to find, thanks to the internet. I do not need to have a relationship with a blind person to experience this catharsis. While I was romantically involved with a blind man, I found that our blindness had little to do with our success as a couple. Our deep emotional connection was not dependent on our mutual understanding of what it’s like to be blind. It was convenient to be able to complain to him about something and have him understand me on a gut level, but I can go elsewhere for that connection, so it’s not his chief selling point, nor is it mine. Now that I’m with a man who has functional vision, I don’t feel the lack. We’re humans, and sighted people can understand us pretty well.

A blind person will accept you.

It’s certainly true that there’s a lot of prejudice out there. I recently discussed the sighted population’s tendency to reduce us to a fringe group, entirely unsuitable for romantic involvement. So, yes, it’s accurate to say that not all sighted people will accept us as we are. The fear of disability is alive and well.
Not every sighted person is this way, however. In fact, I’d say many sighted people are not this way, especially once they’ve met a few of us and realized we’re pretty normal. While I wouldn’t go so far as to disclose my blindness on a dating profile (opinions vary widely on this point), I know that being blind is not a recipe for a lonely life. It may take sighted partners time to do so, but many of them will eventually accept us.

A blind person will have more in common with you.

This idea usually comes from blind people who have been quite sheltered and have not ventured beyond the blind community enough to feel comfortable on the “outside.” They have somehow confused mutual understanding with general human compatibility, and do not necessarily know what it’s like to have things in common with someone who isn’t exactly like them. Most of my friends were and are sighted, though my network of blind friends and acquaintances has grown considerably in the past few years. While there were situations where they did not understand me, we generally get along like a house on fire because we enjoy the same activities and share some of the same views. A friend and I may not be able to hold long conversations about screen readers, but we can ramble on about various hobbies we both enjoy. One of my oldest and closest friends and I bonded because we were both introverted and both adored books. Another of my oldest friends was introduced to me through a mutual love of musicals. My blind partner and I bonded over a love of literature, a thirst for knowledge, and the same idea of what is absolutely hilarious. My current partner and I enjoy shared values, adventurous spirits, similar senses of humour, and mutual respect for each other and for the wider world. Most of the conversations that take place in my life are not about blindness-specific thoughts. They’re about animals, and books, and music, and education, and human relationships.

A blind person will let you be yourself.

If you’re lucky, any partner you choose will let you be yourself. It’s sort of the point of finding someone to spend your whole life with. You may as well throw your lot in with someone who won’t expect you to live a lie just to please them. The blindness-specific argument usually goes like this: blind people are abnormal by default; blind people cannot control their odd behaviours; blind mates will tolerate this; sighted mates will not. Ergo, blind people should stick to their own kind, so they don’t have to live under constant stress.
Okay, so sometimes being around a sighted person makes me nervous, because I feel scrutinized even when they’re looking the other way. I start to agonize over the way I’m accomplishing various tasks, like cooking, for example, in case I’m being eccentric about it. I now know that this pressure is compounded by choosing a sighted mate, because I want to remain attractive to him. If you’re choosing responsibly, though, you’ll try to find someone who will let you get on with life, and allow you to abandon the quest to appear as normal as possible at all times. Ideally, you’d choose a mate who won’t cringe with embarrassment every time you bring out the cane.
Then we come to the other part of this argument—that blind people are always abnormal and can’t do anything about it. Blindisms, like rocking and hand-flapping, can be difficult impulses to suppress. I was about twelve before I was able to stop eye-pressing altogether. It does take some dedication, for some blind people, anyway. Subscribing to the belief that we can’t rein ourselves in and that we shouldn’t even try is disempowering and blatantly false. I’m not saying that deviating from normative behavior in any way is automatically wrong, but if you want to be part of the larger world, you’re going to have to fit in to at least a small extent. It’s how life works, and sighted people with peculiar habits need to cultivate the same self-control. Dating a blind person so you won’t have to be too normal is a harmful lifestyle choice.

The moral of the story is this: date people because you like and are compatible with them, and not because they have or don’t have a disability. Get it? Got it? Good.

You Should Date A Sighted Person, Because…

Anyone with a love life knows full well how much people enjoy meddling in it. Everyone has an opinion about the ideal mate, and by God, they want you to hear about it. These opinions are sometimes sound enough, but they’re still just opinions, and not necessarily reflective of your needs, preferences, and values.

I, like many blind people, have heard all kinds of opinions about how I ought to manage every aspect of my life, down to which mobility aid I should use and how passionately I should desire a cure. When I began dating my previous partner, who happened to be blind, people were quick to loudly and emphatically express the opinion that I should choose a sighted mate, because…

“A sighted person can take better care of you.”

We begin with the pervasive assumption that blind people can’t take care of ourselves. Some simply mean that we struggle more with everyday tasks (which is often true). They point to the driving issue: wouldn’t it be so nice, they suggest, if your partner could drive you everywhere? They could come pick you up when you get lost, or help you shop so you wouldn’t need to bother the customer service people, or find your keys when you drop them, or walk with you so you don’t get hit by cars.
While some of these arguments might have merit, I don’t particularly need taking care of, at least not to the extent to which I’d need a live-in caretaker. Besides this, I don’t think most sighted people would appreciate a mate who selects them in whole or in part because they could act as caregivers. Even if a sighted person got off on that idea, I’m not interested in being someone’s source of validation. No thanks.

“A sighted person makes more money.”

Okay, so there’s no denying that many, many blind people find ourselves chronically unemployed. The job market is more limited and less welcoming. Despite diversity quotas and affirmative action, it’s still difficult for us to land and keep jobs, even when the economy is booming. So, technically, choosing a sighted mate would mean that at least one of us would have an easier time finding gainful employment. But…
Blind people can still work. We still establish and maintain high-paying, fulfilling careers. We attain the same level of education as sighted counterparts, and are still more than capable of making a living independently.
We’re supposedly past the stage where we believe women ought to have a man so they can be supported financially, so my argument is that, if I can live independently as a single, educated woman, than I can live with a blind guy, whether he is or is not rolling in it. Again, who would want a disabled mate who chose them because of their employment prospects? Seems a little shallow, no?

“A sighted person will keep you normal.”

Blind people, like many other disabled populations, are usually perceived to be alien. Sometimes, we are socially awkward, hesitant, and even a little sheltered. Some of us never outgrow common blindisms, like rocking, eye-pressing, or hand-waving. These are techniques we use to self-stimulate as children, and while some of us left these things far behind as we entered the adult world, others have more difficulty eliminating these habits. Beyond these very specific issues though, blind people are about as normal as any others, but sighted people don’t always believe this. They think of us as having our own little tribe, and encourage us to mix with sighted people to dilute the blindy weirdness as much as possible.
So, the logic follows that, if we date sighted people, we’ll be forced to stay as normal as possible to retain our attractiveness. There will be no room for letting things slide, or sinking to a lower standard of behaviour. Blind people, after all, encourage each other to act strangely, and don’t value normal human interaction, right?
All I’ll say to this is, there are a hell of a lot of strange sighted people in this world, and most of my blind friends are as normal as can be. Besides, I’m capable of befriending someone without adopting their exact lifestyle and mannerisms. So, even if I dated the wackiest blind guy alive, I’d probably be the same, normal-ish Meagan. (Hey, why are you laughing? Stop that. I can be normal! Seriously!)

“A sighted person is more of a catch.”

So, so many people are under the impression that I was settling by choosing a blind mate. I chose him because he was attractive and compatible with me; I did not settle for less by dating him. Sighted people are not better mates by default, even if they do have an easier time getting a job and are able to drive me to an unfamiliar place. My current partner, who is closer to being fully sighted than he isn’t, is also attractive and compatible with me. I selected him for the same reasons as my blind ex, and benefit far more from his sweet disposition and kind personality than from the various perks his vision can offer me. My relationship with a blind mate failed for reasons independent of disability, and my current relationship thrives for reasons unrelated to my mate’s sight.

If you liked this post, drop by next week for its companion piece, in which I discuss the reasons we should only date fellow blind people (and why they’re totally ridiculous).

No Sex Please: We’re Disabled

When I was about fifteen or so, I was scrolling through some disability-related books, not paying much attention to most of them. I became very alert, however, when I stumbled across a book (whose title escapes me) about society’s puritanical de-sexualization of wheelchair users. The book also delved into the experiences of other physically disabled populations, exploring the myth that we are not and do not want to be sexual creatures. This was a new idea to me, or so I thought. But, as I continued to read, I realized it wasn’t new at all.

I cast my mind back to a family trip to Mexico when I was about thirteen. This is well past the age when girls generally become convinced that kissing someone would be more fun than icky, and I was experiencing a tame awakening of my own around that time. As my sister and I walked down the sidewalks, with our elaborately braided hair and colourful bathing suits, the eyes of nearly everyone slid over me completely, or opened wide in fascination as they noticed the long white cane—that conspicuous symbol of otherness. These wide-eyed stares came from all genders, and I remember several people running back the way they’d come just so they could get a better look! (My sister and I joked that people should forget about taking pictures with monkeys and take pictures with me, for a fee, naturally.) If you’ve got it … flaunt it, I guess?

Now, if I was as stunning as my sister, it may have made a difference in the way people looked at me, but I’m not convinced of that. People tend not to actually see visibly disabled people, unless they’re gawking, that is. Beyond making us feel like monkeys ourselves, it can also seriously stunt our love lives.

I’ve talked about feeling like I wasn’t a real girl, and how I’m only just discovering that I’m satisfactory the way I am. That does not mean, though, that the rest of society has caught up with me. All throughout grade school, only other blind people showed any interest in me at all, and they could only communicate with me via the internet or telephone. (Most of them were as desperately lonely as I was, so I didn’t put much stock in their judgement.) I’m sure many sighted people didn’t flirt or approach me at all because they simply weren’t interested; that’s not a big deal. You can’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I am quite sure, however, that many boys I grew up with simply didn’t consider me based on my broken eyes, even if they did so unconsciously. There were girls, and then there was Meagan: normal enough to be friends with, but too alien to date.

Once I started talking to other disabled people about this, I discovered that they, too, were often rejected outright because of their disabilities, with people only realizing how attractive disabled people can be once they could get past their discomfort (assuming they ever did). If I put my cane out of sight and manage not to bump into walls, I don’t look blind, and I’m told that people actually look at me differently. Suddenly, I’m a human–a young woman who is potentially attractive to at least one soul out there somewhere. As soon as that cane comes out, though, I’m reduced to an asexual, undesirable creature who is off limits to everyone, romantically speaking anyway.

The worst bit is that some people apparently believe we want it this way! They believe that we wouldn’t want to become romantically involved, or that we don’t like or can’t enjoy sex. I can understand the confusion when it comes to severe cases of paralysis, though people need to do their research and be more open-minded even then, but it baffles me that someone whose body is in fine working order would still be de-sexualized. Even those whose bodies aren’t up to statistical standards of normality should not be ruled out; you’ll just have to get creative. Aside from all this, a disability should never rule someone out as a potential romantic partner right off the bat, based solely on the idea that they’re not datable. Judge them by their personalities, general physical traits, outlooks on life, and all the other attributes you’d evaluate in any able-bodied mate. Preferences are fine, but ignorance is not. We’re not children, and we’re definitely not puritans by design.

Next time you see a pretty girl in a wheelchair, go talk to her. Next time you meet an attractive blind guy, go have a chat. Next time you encounter someone with a disability who appeals to you, assume they’re a viable option until you discover otherwise. Finally, never, ever write them off as disinterested by default. How can you know until you try?

I Need You To Need Me

While on a camping trip one summer, my cousin came over to my chair, plopped her infant son into my lap, handed me some grapes to feed him, and headed off to do something or other with her hands. I sat frozen for a moment, taking this in. For the first time ever, someone automatically assumed I’d be able to look after their child while they were busy. I felt so normal and useful and…human. Never had I been allowed to cuddle a child without some concerned sighted person hovering anxiously at my elbow, offering to take them back after half a minute. Never had anyone trusted me to babysit. Never had anyone asked me to so much as change a diaper. Here I was, at long last, snuggling a baby like I was a normal person or something.

Disability is a package deal, and there’s no point denying it. Along with all the obvious stuff, like the inability to accomplish certain tasks, there is the dynamic in which you are receiving help and support more often than you give it. With notable exceptions, blind people are all struggling with that dynamic with varying degrees of success. I’m sad to say I’m one of the not-so-successful ones, though I’m trying mightily hard.

All relationships require interdependence—healthy ones usually mean the ratio is equal—and that’s okay. Humans should need each other; we’re social animals and supporting one another is what social animals do (when we’re not tearing each other to pieces over competition for resources, that is). This raises an important question, though: how much is too much? At what point does an imbalance of dependence in any relationship become unhealthy for both parties? I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer, but what I do know is that most blind people seem to have at least one relationship that is slightly unhealthy simply because of increased dependence.

Worse than this, though, is the common perception that we need more help than we actually do. Many people assume I need help with just about everything, but this is simply not the case. What does this misconception lead to? Well, many things, but the one I’m zeroing in on is the fear of “burdening” us by asking us to help out. Whether we’re talking about household contributions, childcare, or party planning, it comes to the same thing: people are loath to need us in any way…and we desperately want to be needed. Being depended upon is excellent for confidence and general mental health, so it’s imperative that we find a place of usefulness within our relationships.

The main issue is circular reasoning: we’re incapable because we’re never allowed to learn new skills, and we can’t learn new skills because we’re incapable. It’s a tough cycle to break, and can involve growing pains on both sides. We require a degree of trust from sighted people. We’re asking them to overcome their anxiety and trust us with difficult tasks. They hate to give us responsibility, thinking we either don’t want it or can’t possibly manage it on our own.

To add icing to this distressing little cake, (I’m hungry, and hunger always justifies bad metaphors), we end up proving people right because we are awkward and inefficient while learning something new. Instead of treating this as normal and letting us get on with it, people jump in and finish tasks for us because it’s quicker and easier. So, we never get to learn, and they never get to lean on us.

It saddens me that I have so few memories of being trusted with complex and vital tasks, and I’m sadder still that those few memories stand out in my mind with such clarity. I should not be ecstatic over being allowed to hold and feed an infant without anyone hovering over my shoulder. That should not be an aberration, and it definitely should not be as fulfilling as it was. Times like that make me realize how starved I am for the feeling of usefulness. I want to matter to people beyond, say, my ability to sing them a pretty song or act as a sounding board for their problems. I’m sick of being given busywork, or being ignored by other students because they think I can’t do the same work they do. I’m sick of being passed over because of the mythology surrounding blindness. I’m sick, most of all, of feeling helpless.

At the moment, I do feel appreciated for being a good friend and a good writer, but my friends don’t call on me when they need babysitting done, or when they need house-sitting done, or even when they need food to be brought to a gathering. More than once, I was told not to bring any food to a party, only to discover that everyone else had been asked to bring something. I am capable of cooking, even if my repertoire isn’t huge, and I’m more than able to just go out and buy something. The Martha Stewarts of the world might clutch their pearls in consternation, but most people wouldn’t care.

The only remedy I’ve found is to be pushy about what I can do, and to be honest about what I can’t. I barge my way into a situation where I think help might be needed, insisting I would like to pitch in and not leaving people any room to protest. I’m adamant about assisting where I can, and also more insistent when it comes to learning a new skill. After numerous discussions with blind people from all walks of life, I have concluded that this is the only way forward for us. I hope that, in time, things will get better. Until then, I ask only that sighted people open their minds and allow me a way in. I can be useful, too.