Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

Pink Shirt Day, 2018

In recognition of #PinkShirtDay, 2018. Help stop bullying, whether it’s in the office or on the playground. The focus of this year’s campaign is cyberbullying, but this is only one more arena where such behaviour finds an expression.
When I was twelve, I returned to school after having lost my sight in a car accident. I had been away from my regular school for a year, and I was initially welcomed back. That lasted only a couple of months. I spent most of junior high fending off a select group of kids who made it their business to torment me in a routine sort of way. I didn’t know what to do, so I retaliated.
“Flash Point” is a story I published last year that looks at some of those events. The events are fictionalized, but everything in the story occurred. Retaliating certainly wasn’t the answer, although no one, including me, had much awareness of how to address such behaviour in the late 1970s. Pink Shirt Day thankfully speaks to a growing awareness, but everyone still has to do his or her part.

Help Celebrate, #IDPD2017

Today marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To learn more about this United Nations initiative, read on.
In 1992, the UN proclaimed December 3 as a day to recognize persons with disabilities. This year’s theme is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.”
I can only speak for a small fraction of this population, and only those living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. In Canada, living as a person with a disability doesn’t come with the same challenges as it does for people living in, for example, Brazil.
Accessibility, including access to public buildings and services, continues to be one of the major issues facing many people with disabilities. Accessibility, of course, means different things to different people. For me, as a blind person who uses a white cane, having the pebbled strip along the edges of the LRT platforms in Edmonton gives me warning as I come close to that edge. Believe me—it’s helpful. I’ve fallen off the damned platform twice over the years, once breaking two ribs on a snowy evening in January, 2010.
Accessibility, however, isn’t the only issue. Treating people with dignity is equally important. If, for example, you encounter a person who is deaf accompanied by an interpreter, don’t talk to the interpreter; talk to the person. If you see someone whom you think might need some help, ask before helping, and allow that person the dignity of refusing your help.
When I’m out and about, people ask me all kinds of questions—some of them pointedly personal. I wrote a piece about being asked such questions last year, which you can find in Hippocampus Magazine.
I don’t mind the questions people ask, and I try to answer as best I can. If you are ever in any doubt regarding a question you want to ask a person with a disability, ask yourself the same question first. It’s about being aware, but sometimes it’s just about being sensitive.
Help celebrate this day, but take this United Nations initiative into your life and workplace in meaningful ways. And thank you, in advance.