The Man Who Taught Me To Fish

Being disabled means having your competence questioned at every turn. It means accepting that your intelligence, your autonomy, your very worth are always up for debate by those least qualified to make judgments. It means, therefore, that you must be strong, whether or not it comes naturally. Finding this strength, this essential self-reliance, can come about in many ways. For me, one of the fortunate ones, the tools for independence were introduced early and often.

* * *

We kneel together on the thin carpet of my bedroom. My favourite cassette tape, a collection of fairytales, is in my small, tentative hand. Speaking softly, my father explains how to slide the tape into the player—gently, now—and places my fingers on “play.” As the opening music rings out and understanding of my new skill breaks over me, I can only smile widely enough to split my face, thinking dreamily of how delicious growing up can taste. It’s a small step, playing my own audio books, but the joy lingers.

* * *

Each time I learn something new–even something as mundane as, say, the location of straws at the Starbucks near my apartment—I experience a moment of undiluted triumph. Often hesitant and rarely overconfident, I am not the archetype of success some would wish me to be. Instead, I skirt the gaps in my knowledge and abilities with an unthinking ease bolstered by years of practice. While my blind peers pursue adventure and hone new skills for the sake of doing so, I hold my shameful passivity close to my chest, owning what is necessary and burying everything else. Showing weakness, I have learned, is a grievous sin; admitting I’m comfortable with where I am is worse. Even so, when I break this ancient habit and push my boundaries, I feel a thrill that once coloured each day of my childhood, when there was someone there to rejoice along with me. Of course he would still do so, if I called him on the phone and said “Hey, Dad, I learned a new route today.” Surely, my cheerleader is still waiting in the wings, should I ever need him.

* * *

We are traipsing through an amusement park in the sweltering summer heat. I am sulky and bored in that particular way of children. I’ve had my fill of rides and novelty food; I am ready for familiar surroundings and a good book. As I prepare yet another whiny entreaty—let’s return to the car, get a cool drink, pull out the Harry Potter novel I wish I was reading—Dad pulls me aside to examine a life-sized, intricate statue of a cow. It occurs to him that I’ve never touched a real cow before, despite having driven past them a hundred times. As he runs my hands over the statue, describing each part with astounding patience and enthusiasm, I realize I’m feeling just a little less blind.

* * *

The process of spontaneous discovery was a common feature of my childhood years. Seized by inspiration and vicarious wonderment, Dad would pause and encourage me to notice a truck, an earthworm, a bird’s nest. New kittens were placed delicately in my eager hands, and I was free—encouraged, even—to hammer in a few nails and help paint a wall. If it captured my interest, it was mine to touch and try and learn. Assumptions about safety and propriety and ability were seldom made. Mine was a world of discovery, because Dad had no doubts, no reservations, no unreasonable fears.

And so, I had no fears, no doubts, no reservations of my own.

* * *

“I’m just bad at math, okay? I’m stupid, I guess.”

Salty tears stain the Perkins brailler I’m using to hammer out surface area calculations. Slightly flummoxed by all the tears, Dad makes a joke about me rusting the metal brailler if I don’t stop crying. He coaxes a grudging laugh from me, but the levity doesn’t make the work any easier. I have sat before this useless tactile diagram of a cube for literal hours, convinced that I must be less intelligent than fellow students, all of whom had exclaimed that this unit was incredibly simple. I, a star student then, had trouble accepting this reality in which I was in need of help with my homework.

I look up to find Dad placing a wooden cube in my hands.

“I went to the shop and made you some shapes. I think your problem is that you’re not understanding the book’s diagram. I think this will make way more sense for you. You’re not dumb; I know you can understand this. See?”

Sure enough, as he points out each facet of the cube, telling me how they correspond to the ones on the page, something clicks into place. Suddenly, I’m finding surface area as easy as everyone else had, all because someone was able to teach in a way I could grasp.

I am not stupid after all, or terrible at math; I am just blind—blind, and very bad at deciphering diagrams, apparently.

* * *

Blindness has taught me to work more diligently than others. In my slow, steady climb, there is little room for surrender or self-doubt. On this journey, there is no room at all for giving up. When everyone else seems poised to give me an out, to say, “Well, Meagan, you tried your best; you can go home now…” I am compelled to reply in the same way each time: “Never.” The stubbornness and refusal to concede, (the very qualities that justly infuriated my father while I was growing up), are the sources on which I draw for support through each new hurdle.

When voices say, with stolen authority, “Meagan, you’re blind. You will never—“ another voice pipes up, strident even in its secret uncertainty: “Watch me.” Much as Dad must have cursed my inflexibility, I think he has grown to respect its power. He should, for I believe he is the one who gave it to me.


Dad taught me to fish, of course. I’ve been fishing since I was so small that my rod had to be tied to my life jacket. He taught me to cast and jig and reel in even the most unwilling ones. (He also taught me to respect the fish, never causing undue suffering or taking more than my share.)

But, as you may have guessed, he taught me to fish in other, less obvious ways. His unwavering faith in my personal abilities meant I was rarely allowed to think of myself as excessively disabled. I was not permitted to wallow in self-pity or allow anyone else to feel pity, either. Through patience and determination, my father convinced me that I am strong and capable—not constantly, but often enough to succeed. To this day, my dad is the person I think of first when I prove to myself, once again, that blindness doesn’t have to ruin my life or my career or my dreams. Whenever he describes something new or lights a much-needed fire under me, I remember and honour the joy of learning to fish—because at the end of the long, hard day, all I have is me. I have my father, among many others, to thank for making sure I’m a damn good person on which to lean.
So, thank the people who taught you how to fish, and those who remind you that you still know how. You owe them a lot.

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In Praise Of My Mother

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted something warm and fuzzy, and I think Mother’s Day is a perfect excuse to do so. I was blessed with terrific parents, and what better way to honour them than with a blog post?
Today, I write a tribute to my Mom, who taught me the meaning of strength and perseverance, even when you’re tired and you’re frustrated and you just don’t wanna.
Don’t worry, Dad: yours is coming in June.


“It hurts to be beautiful,” my mom would say as she pulled my unruly hair into a ponytail, “now hold still.”
I did not want to hold still, however. I wanted to read a book, or run around the yard, or sing to myself in a corner. Ultimately, I wanted to do anything but sit, unmoving and docile, while my hair was tugged and twisted and manipulated in ways I was sure must violate some kind of child abuse law.
“I don’t want to be beautiful!”
“Yes, you do,” Mom would mutter distractedly through the pins in her mouth.
“What’s the point? I don’t care what I look like.”
There it was: the argument that was difficult to win when dealing with a blind child who treated “girly” like a curse. I was usually okay with playing dress-up and so on, but when it came to the everyday agonies of making oneself presentable, it took me a lot longer than I’d like to accept that, even though my own eyes didn’t work, other people’s did—and what they thought mattered.
Even if I’d been an obliging child, raising me would not have been easy. Mom’s responsibilities extended far beyond wrestling me into some approximation of “well-groomed” after all. Raising a child with a disability meant both my parents were forced to recognize that sometimes life simply isn’t fair. Having a blind child, though challenging, was probably the least of Mom’s problems. Society has always gone out of its way to shame mothers, and Mom was not exempt. If anything, raising a disabled child actually made her more vulnerable to it. More than once, another mother has told her that, had I been their child, I’d have turned out better—more independent, perhaps, or more competent, etc. In these cases, Mom, who is a far nicer person than she has to be, has simply shrugged it off, reasoning that “if they knew what it was like, they wouldn’t be saying that.” Let’s just say I’m glad I won’t be having kids; I don’t think I could be half so tolerant.
Yes, having a disabled child means that several parents you meet, regardless of how ill-informed and inexpert they may be, will feel comfortable telling you all the ways in which you’re messing it up. Some are so confident that they’ll insist they could do it better, and as the parents who actually know how difficult it can be, mothers like mine are left to shake their heads and get on with it.
Then, there is the mama-bear instinct to channel or suppress, whatever the case may be. The world is a cruel place, and Mom had to come to terms with the fact that not everyone wanted to make that world easier for me. She had to learn that we live in a world where a teacher could tell her, to her face, that she should be grateful I was allowed to go to school at all. She had to listen to me cry while dealing with accessibility issues and unsympathetic educators, all the while knowing that this was the new normal. She was forced to stand by while a potential employer refused to hire me solely because I would be defenseless against armed intruders (yes, that is the excuse they used). She had to understand—and I imagine this is an ongoing process—that my life was going to be a little harder than it should be, and that she could not shield me. Instead, she’d have to let my independent spirit do the shielding, while offering support from the sidelines. There is a time to be your child’s fiery advocate, and a time to step back and let her figure it out. It’s a hard lesson to master.
There is so much we owe to our mothers, whether we are disabled or not. While all mothers have plenty of trials to face, I believe mothers of children with disabilities, illnesses, and other traits that make them seem abnormal to the rest of society have an especially heavy load to bear. Mom gets extra points for dealing with me; sadly, I can’t blame my difficult daughter status on blindness, as convenient as I’d find it.
So thanks, Mom, for shouldering all of these things while managing to treat me like a “normal” kid, and raising my sighted sister at the same time. Thank you for putting up with my grumbling long enough to make ponytails and take me clothes shopping and all the other unspeakable tortures about which I was so vocal. Most of all, thank you for keeping your head up when society wasn’t kind. Being a mother is tough when all the odds are with you, and you didn’t have that luxury.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.


If you haven’t yet done so, give your mom a call and thank her for whatever special gifts she’s given you over the years. Moms like it when you call.

In Praise Of TapTapSee

I’ve always been skeptical of image recognition apps that try to compensate for a pair of broken eyes. I remember, rather too vividly, a CNIB demonstration of a colour indicator. The thing was outrageously priced, and in any case it really didn’t work. The salesperson didn’t do a very good job of hiding her dismay when it failed, during multiple attempts, to get the colour right—or even close to right. Since then I’ve been, perhaps unfairly, disenchanted with image recognition technology.

an image recognition app called TapTapSee came on the scene and encouraged me to think differently. Sure, it had a few kinks to be worked out, and even today, it’s not always spot on. (During one memorable session, it informed me that a teabag I was photographing said “tips about relationships.”) Despite its occasional mistakes, and its apparent inability to master colour indication, its uses cannot be quantified. It recognizes labels on packaging, articles of clothing, and almost anything else you’d need help to identify. Sometimes, it’s so descriptive that it scares me a little: it once told me that my profile picture included a “woman in a black tank top smiling in a field of yellow flowers.” The detail (and accuracy) was enough to make my jaw drop. It’s worth noting, however, that the magic happens largely because of the efforts of sighted volunteers. Without their insight, the app would be just as clumsy and ineffectual as all the others. Those volunteers, in particular, are what make TapTapSee shine.

It’s still best to label everything and keep my belongings organized. However, it’s nice to know that a clever app like TapTapSee has my back. It has only improved with time, and I can’t wait to see where image recognition technology goes from here.

In Praise Of L’Occitane

I tore excitedly into a parcel sent by a friend in the UK, knowing there would be plenty of luxury inside. Sure enough, nestled among the high-end chocolate was a bottle of lavender-scented body milk. I didn’t notice anything special about the bottle, besides its impressively authentic scent, until my friend went over the contents of the box with me.
“The brailled stuff is L’Occitane. It’s very, very high-end. Don’t share it with anyone.” (In fact, I did share it, though I sent some of it to a friend in hospital to make her stay a little more bearable, so it was a good cause.)
Confused, I reexamined the bottle. Sure enough, there was braille inscribed right on the bottle itself: it read, “body milk” … and I fell even more in love with this French cosmetics company.
It’s such a simple gesture, labeling a product in braille, but it carried considerable weight with me. Here was this bath and body company, known for its posh products and sophisticated scents, bothering to braille almost every single product so we could shop with more ease and accessibility. Here was a company with, as far as I’m aware, no specific affiliations with the blind community, making a concerted effort to enhance our ability to shop independently. I had to know the story behind this, so I did some digging.
The story goes that L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan noticed a blind woman browsing the perfume section of his store, taking in all the different scents with obvious concentration. He realized, then, that he had to make a change. From then on, more and more L’Occitane products with braille labels began to appear on shelves around the world. Even glass perfume bottles, which are difficult to inscribe with braille, came in brailled boxes. Their shower gel bottles look exactly alike, but I no longer have to pop them all open to tell them apart. My L’Occitane collection is well-organized anyway, but each time I take down a bottle of hand cream or some roll-on perfume, I know exactly what I’m holding before it even reaches my nose.
As I said, it sounds like an excessively simple courtesy to be grateful for, but for whatever reason, L’Occitane’s commitment to accessibility makes me incredibly happy each time I think about it.
So, thank you, L’Occitane, both for your excellent products and your efforts to make my life just a little bit easier. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In Praise of Voice Dream Reader

I’m a voracious bookworm, and I do mean voracious. I devour books as though they are my lifeblood, and if I go too long without a good book, I wilt like a neglected little flower, languishing in my own personal desert. When I discovered Voice Dream Reader, my reading experience improved dramatically. Instead of reading EBooks through apps like Kindle and iBooks, both of which work but are clunky and inefficient for power readers, I could load them into a highly-accessible app that boasts outstanding features and always delivers robust performance. I could listen to audio books without resorting to the dreaded iTunes. I could navigate EBooks with an ease I’d never yet encountered outside of a PC application, and I could choose from a wide variety of text-to-speech voices to read to me as I tackled my leaning tower of dishes.

While the app is very useful for blind readers, it’s also designed to accommodate low-vision readers who require high contrast and enlarged font. It’s even tailored for those with dyslexia, brand new readers who need to trace each word with a finger to stay on track, and dedicated speed readers who want to use the “pack-man” method developed by Harvard and MIT. In short, it really does have something for everyone.

When a new update was released, carrying with it some substantial changes, I discovered that some unhappy user, apparently opposed to change, had given the app a one-star review. Everyone is entitled to dislike an app, but many disgruntled users give unjustifiably low ratings based on personal preferences, sparing little thought to the impact these reviews have on the developer. App developers need to contend with the massive hit the app’s standing will take from even a single one-star review. This customer may have had his reasons, and I don’t think it was immoral of him to give the app such an abysmal rating, but I have joined the ranks of those grateful users who have rallied around the developer, reiterating that we love the app and appreciate the hard work that goes into its development. I hope this post will serve as encouragement, reassurance, and well-deserved praise. Voice Dream Reader is my favourite app by far, and I do not anticipate that anything else will top it for a long time to come.

In Praise Of AccessibleApps

Being an insatiable bookworm and busy student means I read an awful lot of books. Many of those books are in the dreaded PDF format, which has a nasty habit of being partially or wholly inaccessible at worst and a demon to navigate at best. Simply mentioning PDF documents might be followed by a sharp intake of breath or a pained groan from many a blind person; it really is that bad. While Adobe Reader and Acrobat are usable in a pinch, they’re by no means convenient, and on my system at least, they enjoy crashing. So, when I discovered a beautifully accessible eBook reader called QRead, my life got easier in a real hurry. Suddenly, wading through academic journals and complicated course outlines wasn’t quite the ordeal it used to be. I no longer felt the urge to snuggle up to a bottle of wine each time an instructor sent me an assignment in PDF. I only lament that I spent so long grappling with Adobe!

Accessible Apps, the company behind QRead, is also responsible for a range of accessible software that is designed with the blind in mind, if you’ll pardon the cliché. They have everything from an RSS Feed reader, to a Twitter client (which I adore), among others. There are plenty of blind developers working on similar projects, but I haven’t integrated as much of their software into my life as I have with this source. I find myself stopping to be grateful each time I open a PDF in QRead or scroll through tweets with Chicken Nugget, the afore-mentioned Twitter client (no, I don’t know why they called it that, either). Their mission statement proclaims that they create “useful, innovative software,” and I have to agree. They develop no-frills, practical tools that focus on ease of use rather than impressive features nobody will use.

So, thanks, Accessible Apps. You’ve made this busy bee much more productive, which frees her up to do fun things like drink coffee and blog about all the ways the world really sucks. Keep it up!

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.