The Year of Eating Fire

“The only way to do it is to do it. … There is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire.” ~ Tessa Fontaine, The Electric Woman

An inspired, fresh-start feeling comes to most people in January, filled with promise and hopeful resolution. By late March, many of us realize our goals feel far less attainable when not bathed in the glow of New Year motivation. By the end of the year, only the extraordinarily disciplined remain standing.
In my case, motivation came calling in springtime, in late March of last year. January and February had trudged by in a haze of inertia. My job had hit a dead end. Chances seemed slim for finding another. My lack of disability-related skills was weighing on me more heavily than ever, and my desire to hide from those who might look down on me left me frozen. Time had failed to pull me from my rut, and fear, not to mention despair, was taking over.
And then came CSUNATC—a tech accessibility conference in California that was, by the grace and generosity of a dear friend, within my reach. All I had to do was overcome my fear of mingling with the disability community, muzzle my travel anxiety, and say yes. Pretty simple, or so you’d think.
But saying yes to CSUNATC was, for many reasons, one of the scariest things I’d ever done. Crowds aren’t my thing. Travelling terrifies me, as do fellow disabled people. Just to add to the drama of it all, the friend who agreed to be my guide was someone I’d never met in person. It was as though some sinister committee had conspired to invent circumstances that would encapsulate my personal nightmares. All that was missing was a nest of angry insects.
As many of my readers know, I said yes anyway. Clarity pierced my fortress of quiet desperation, convincing me this would be good for me. Maybe it would open some doors, professional and social. At the very least, it might shake me from my funk, and deprive my anxiety of some of its power.
I attended the conference, faced a multitude of demons, and wrote a recap so emotionally vulnerable that total strangers reached out to thank me for my courage. Perhaps it was the sudden change of pace, the audacious decision to publish my failures, or the landslide of goodwill from a community I’d assumed would judge rather than embrace me, but I understood, all at once, that there are no shortcuts to true forward motion. No “one weird trick” or easy lifehack would help me conquer my fears. There was only the choice to say yes, grit my teeth, and do the scary thing. The only way to eat fire is to eat the damn fire, after all.
Buoyed by this revelation, I began eating fire every chance I got. My springtime resolution wasn’t an easy one to keep, but it stuck where dozens of others had failed. To this day, I don’t have a proper exercise routine, and I am incapable of keeping a regular journal. But touching my tongue to flame has become a valued part of my life, if not second nature.
A few months after returning from CSUNATC, I applied for an internship, even though the competition was fierce and I was certain I’d not measure up. (They hired me).
I tried my hand at speechwriting, which a university course had persuaded me I’d never master. (I’m now a full-time strategic writer, crafting speeches for people more important than I will ever be.)
I practiced being more assertive in everyday life, advocating more consistently and experimenting with “No” rather than letting courtesy outweigh common sense. (I’m now rather good at getting people to let go of me.)
I explored intermittent fasting, regardless of how drastic it seemed. Restricting food made my anxiety spike, but I persisted. (I’ve kept it up for months now, and it has transformed my relationship with food, all but eliminating disordered eating along the way.)
I ask for what I want, not because I am entitled to a thing but because if you don’t ask, you’ll surely never get. (I have taken on several side projects at work that would not have materialized if I hadn’t spoken up.)
The ultimate manifestation of my new resolve was a little like metaphorical flaming-sword-swallowing. I reached out to an orientation and mobility instructor who had recently begun working in my city, and asked her to make me into a respectable blind traveller. In just two lessons, I’ve corrected my cane technique—breaking a decades-long bad habit was no mean feat—and have begun to really understand how cities are put together. (I even let her blindfold me, without the debilitating panic I’ve come to expect from blindfold training.)
It sounds straightforward and unremarkable when I lay it out this way, rather like the automatic revolving door that gave me such grief a year ago. But in my world, these were huge steps forward, a series of daunting obstacles, and there was no shortcut to navigate any of them. There was only my choice to say yes, grit my chattering teeth, and plunge straight into the scary thing. Planning is important, and impulsiveness will never be my custom, but there’s a lot to be said for closing your eyes and swallowing that flame down—because while you’re standing still, waiting for the fear to ebb, time has a way of ticking along at an alarming speed.
The upside of regularly staring terror in the face and carrying on anyway is that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. It may not go the way you hope, but you’ll always have the knowledge that you’re capable of working through fear, and nothing can take that away. My small but mighty triumphs at CSUNATC, and the subsequent support I continue to receive from many faithful cheerleaders, assure me that while I can’t guarantee good luck, I can be brave when it matters.
Skills are great. Experience is useful. A large network is handy.
Courage? Persistence? These are essential.
It may well be that at least one person reading these words is hesitating, waiting, praying for motivation. That person might be you—or if it isn’t you now, at some point it probably will be. More than likely, you’ll face a task so unpleasant, so uncertain, that you’ll retreat into your very own fortress, hoping motivation will spring from nowhere, or that inertia will outlast the fear.
There is nothing I can say to lessen that fear or quiet that anxiety. But I can tell you that I’ve sequestered myself in that safe space many times. While it has occasionally spared me the trouble of confronting that fire, I can promise you it’s never left me better off.
So go ahead: say yes, grit your teeth, and do the scary thing. Whether it turns out well or leaves you singed and disappointed, you’ll still have the knowledge that you can be brave when it matters.

Skills, Skills, Skills

For most people, skills are associated with employment, sports, and the arts. Unless we’re talking about early childhood development, few people think of cutting a steak or crossing a street as a “skill.” The era of lifehacks and “you’ve been doing these basic things wrong your whole life” articles is slowly changing that, but for the most part, nondisabled people don’t waste much time fretting over life skills. Surely such a term is too lofty for the everyday minutiae of life? Being highly-skilled implies specialization and, if you’re lucky, acclaim.

In the disabled world, the landscape can look quite different, in the realms of socialization and daily living. My writing and editing skills win me a fair bit of respect, for example, but what nondisabled people don’t realize is that I find travelling infinitely more demanding than writing, and spend almost as much time agonizing over the way I navigate my city as I do about the key messages I write every day.

Why do I spend so much time worrying? It’s not about safety or quality of life, so much: I know enough to function, and I’m getting better at asking for help. No, the bulk of the anxiety comes from the blind community’s obsession with skills. I call it “skillification,” where every minute task a blind person struggles with turns into a conversation about skills and methods and philosophies. A simple thread about knife technique can morph into a bloody civil war, as people scramble over each other to be heard, especially online. This commenter thinks there’s only one right way to use a knife. That one believes disabled people shouldn’t use knives—do you know how dangerous knives can be? A third thinks people should just do whatever comes naturally, and damn the textbook approaches. Another admits that he just gets his mom to do it. Someone else is squalling because blind people are so pathetic these days. At one point, somebody will probably mention American training centres, prompting someone else to start grousing about the NFB or the ACB or the IDB–insert alphabet soup here. Meanwhile, the unwitting author of this conflict just wants some tips on chopping the freakin’ onion.

Whenever I watch this play out, I always think the same thing to myself: “You had one job, blind community. Your job was to answer this person’s question as best you could, and you turned the whole topic into a judgmental philosophy discussion. You blew it. Well done.”

Don’t get me wrong; skills training is just about essential for any blind person who wants to live a reasonably independent life. In some senses at least, I wish I’d had more specialized education growing up, and I wish the focus of what I did receive had been more practical. But when complete strangers feel comfortable critiquing not only my methods but also my self-respect, the whole thing starts to feel a tiny bit absurd.

If you seek them out, you’ll find highly-trained professionals who will teach blind people the “proper” way to plug in a kettle or slice a banana. Books have been written about how to help blind people dress and groom themselves. I vividly remember a pamphlet my parents were given that featured a multi-step process for pouring milk. (Yes, it was that specific.) These resources can be handy, and I certainly appreciate experts who give on-the-ground advice, but the degree of dogma surrounding the precise methods people use to perform the most basic tasks is unnerving.

I believe all blind people should have access to skills training, and the freedom to explore alternatives. For people experiencing vision loss, relearning just about everything they already know how to do is a huge challenge, and they deserve to have help along the way. There is nothing wrong with excelling at “blinding,” as I like to call it, and skills gaps in areas like travel and etiquette can take a massive toll on quality of life.

I do, however, believe it may be time for the community to re-examine the way it perpetuates “skillification,” and how it can cause unnecessary shame and stress for people who are beginning to lose their vision, or who have never received much assistance in childhood. Generally speaking, the “official” ways in which blindness skills are taught vary widely, and there’s a lot to be said for finding what works for you and sticking to it. There’s also a lot to be said for being less willing to compare blind people to each other without accounting for the many other factors that influence a person’s adulting skills. I know plenty of sighted people who can barely use a microwave, but no one is sending them to a training centre.

In short, friends, do your thing, and do it in the way that makes the most sense for you. Do it safely, and do it well if it’s something that means a lot to you. Help others improve, if that’s what they want. Consider the skills that will help you attain your goals, and find ways to cultivate them. (Want to be invited to those business lunches? Better polish those table manners.) Before deciding something isn’t worth learning, understand the consequences of going without that skillset.

But if you have no interest in proper technique for serving five-course meals? If your preferred method for cracking eggs differs from the one your blind friend uses? If you never received official independent living skills instruction on how to bake a cake, but your cakes are no less delicious for it?

Well, then, don’t let the squabbling hordes get you down. You’re probably doing just fine.

The Freedom To Read

On February 26, Canadians will begin celebrating Freedom to Read Week, which reminds us of the danger of censorship and the importance of intellectual liberty for everyone. It’s a time to reflect on the harm done by banning books and restricting access to controversial ideas. I’m a big fan of this occasion, because I routinely seek out viewpoints that make me uncomfortable. Forcing myself to ask hard questions can be unpleasant, but frequent soul-searching helps me keep my mind open and my opinions balanced.
As dear as this cause is to my heart, I’ve found that the phrase “freedom to read” means something different to me—something deeply personal and specific to my disability. You see, much of my childhood and young adulthood was made less fulfilling because I did not have total freedom to read. Braille books were difficult to come by, especially rare ones, and audio books used to be prohibitively expensive. Later, when a mix of talking books and access to the internet helped me nourish the hungry bookworm that has always lived inside me, I realized just how difficult it had been to live in a world where I missed out on so much while my peers dealt with no such limitations. Imagine waltzing into a library or bookstore and just…reading, whatever you want, whenever you want! This is a privilege most able people will never have to think twice about; it’s automatic and taken for granted by the majority of people. For me, though, it was a novel concept.
I couldn’t experience the pleasure of binge-reading; my supply of literature was far too inconsistent for that. I often curbed my urge to read everything in sight, knowing that if I didn’t ration my reading material, I’d regret it later. By the time I was in ninth grade, I’d literally read every book the nearest resource centre had to offer, which I found devastating. The CNIB library finally saved me, but until then I felt intense deprivation.
Reading, more than any other activity, gives me indescribable joy. Books are my refuge, sort of like a friend who will never desert me. Reading is how I relax. It’s how I learn. It’s how I entertain myself and expand my horizons. It’s an invaluable educational tool, because I get much less out of videos and am quite introverted. It’s my chief source of comfort and solace. Whenever life gets a little too complicated, I retreat to my books, though I read almost as much when times are good. I feel giddy at the mere thought of finding someone new to talk books with. In short, I cannot imagine a life without reading.
There are other times when my freedom to read is compromised. I can’t usually read signs, billboards, posters and other visual materials. Taking photos of objects using specialized software is one of the only ways to identify labels and read instructions (though instructions are commonly posted online now, which helps an immeasurable amount). If my portable scanner isn’t handy, I sometimes need documents in hard copy to be read aloud to me. I can’t normally read paperwork I’m supposed to fill out, meaning strangers are privy to sensitive information and must spend time they don’t have assisting me. I can’t use most debit machines independently. The list goes on.
In this, as in so many other situations, the internet has contributed to a more positive reading experience. I can binge-read to my heart’s content. I can be very selective about what I choose to read. I have access to almost all reading material in existence, whether it’s rare or common. For the most part, things are next door to perfect.
I want everyone to know how vital it is that people with disabilities be allowed to read as freely as they please. They have the right to be exposed to new ideas and a variety of stories, just like able people. The hardest part about being a very young child was my inability to read. Waiting around for a grownup to take the time was excruciating, and even now, when I have to be read to, I feel like a child. I don’t want future blind people to be treated like children. I never want them to be compelled to read books they don’t enjoy because there are no other options. I am passionate about literacy, and the right of every person around the world to benefit from it. (This is why I become incandescent with rage whenever people suggest that braille has lost its relevance.) Literacy was my ticket to an equal education, and it is the bread and butter of my career. Navigating an educational system that believed I was “lucky to go to school at all” could only be accomplished by proving I was a good student, for which reading was key.
If we can all have the freedom to read, I think the world will be a much better place.