Bidding Farewell to the Zone BBS

Until my mid teens, exposure to the internet–and, thus, to fellow blind people–was fairly limited. The few blind and visually impaired friends I did have were strewn across Canada, and most of us only met up at sponsored summer camps and workshops. Sporadic phone calls and MSN conversations were sometimes enough to curb the worst of my isolation, but “social networking by the blind, for the blind” was still a foreign concept to me.
When I was sixteen, a blind acquaintance pointed me to “The Zone,” a highly-accessible social networking site designed by blind people, for blind people. By then, the site had already existed for several years, and had amassed a lively community. I was resistant to join in at first, reasoning that talking about nothing but disability with thousands of strangers would quickly become tiresome, but I soon discovered the community discussed everything from cooking, to sports, to gun legislation, and everything I could possibly imagine in between.
For a number of years afterward, I spent considerable time on the Zone. I found many interesting acquaintances, a few cherished friends, and even romance. The site had its share of toxicity and drama, as any lightly-moderated community will, and I’d be heavy-handed with the nostalgia if I claimed all my interactions on the Zone were pleasant. I was asked about my cup size by total strangers; harassed by persistent men I was forced to block; mocked for agreeing or disagreeing with the wrong members; viciously attacked on discussion boards about the most innocuous topics. Sometimes I had little understanding of what I’d done to deserve or encourage these behaviours. The Zone had a few members so notorious that members of all genders presented me with lists of names when I first joined, to spare me considerable grief. As is typical of most teenagers, I did not always heed these kind warnings.
Irritating and frustrating as the Zone could often be, I also found comfort and solidarity there. Most members were helpful and friendly, always happy to help with an accessibility issue or provide company to pass the loneliest evenings. Through the Zone, I discovered that my preconceptions of blindness were not only inaccurate, but hopelessly limiting. There were myriad ways to be blind in this world–at least one for every member on the Zone–and within this vibrant community, I realized my personal potential was much greater than my small-town life had shown me. Blind people could be teachers, medical professionals, cooks, counsellors, designers, stay-at-home parents, and nearly every other type of professional I could picture. I could, within surprisingly few limits, be whatever my talents and skills would allow. Further, there wasn’t just one correct, standardized way to live a life with disability. I could be a meek mouse, fiery advocate, or something in the middle, and all of these choices had equal validity. The introduction of one simple website had opened up my world, and my mind, leaving a legacy I’m still exploring. In so many ways, the Zone’s complicated, dramatic, and gloriously diverse community made it possible for me to find out who I was, and where my place ought to be in a world that is equally complicated and diverse. Without this head start, I might have found young adult life infinitely more challenging, and I’d have had far fewer friends with whom to share the journey.
When I found out the Zone was finally closing down, I won’t pretend I felt much regret. I had not visited the site in quite some time, and did not miss the bickering, rage-fuel, and general nastiness that had begun to consume the atmosphere as the community shrunk. These days, I have forged my own community through mainstream sites, and find it to be a friendlier, safer place to spend my time. But, as I’m sure many former Zoners are doing this weekend, I paused to think of all the people I’ve met, the perspective I’ve gained, and the personal transformations I’ve undergone since I became a member. Nothing that has played such a large role in so many people’s lives can disappear without a moment’s bittersweet reflection.
All in all, I think the blind community has essentially outgrown the Zone. We are now sufficiently-entrenched in other online spaces, so that we no longer need an isolated little hub of our own. Our contentious opinions and colourful discussions have found other homes. Yet, this is the end of a significant era, and I could not let it pass without a few words about the people I met there, and the joy they gave me.
Good-bye, Zone BBS. It’s been … well … real.