October 27, 2006



My library school class visited the Perkins School for the Blind Tuesday night to learn about accessible information technologies for blind patrons.

Things started on an entertaining note. When we first walked in a little blind girl walked up to one of my classmates, introduced herself, then poked my classmate in the belly and asked “Are you having a baby?”

My classmate just kind of choked and giggled. I, on the other hand, am paranoid and always prepared for just that situation, having stored up a number of harsh retorts just in case someone asks me if I’m pregnant (I’m not). But on second thought it probably would have been mean to use them on a nine-year-old blind kid.

In the less amusing but quite fascinating portion of the visit, we learned a number of interesting things: Particularly startling was that the unemployment rate among the blind is close to 70%. And a very large portion of the vision-impaired population isn’t born blind but becomes blind due to age-related conditions. This presents additional challenges in terms of information access because these older people are much less likely to learn Braille or to be comfortable with sophisticated technology such as JAWS (software that reads the contents of your computer screen aloud) or MP3 players for talking books.

On a more personal level, this was the first time I’d ever really been around blind people. The first goofy thing I realized is how much of audience participation is non-verbal. I usually show I’m paying attention by smiling and nodding. That didn’t work with this group – affirmative sounds were necessary. Similarly, asking a question necessitated saying “Do you mind if I ask a question” vs. raising a hand. And really, imagine trying to have a conversation with someone and never, ever being able to see their body language. All the little cues you take for granted are totally missing.

The other thing I thought was how the hell do blind people go grocery shopping? How do they tell what’s in a can or a box of cereal? I assume many of them have a sighted helper of some kind, but with unemployment rates of upwards of 70%, I can’t imagine that most blind people are able to pay for personal assistance of that kind?

It’s really amazing to think about the challenges inherent in doing even the simplest things: using money, for example. Or picking out clothes to wear. Or weighing yourself or microwaving something. There is adaptive technology such as talking scales and microwaves that help with a lot of this, but it tends to be hugely expensive, not to mention clunky.

If I learn nothing else from this class, I have an ever-growing respect for the challenges disabled people face and an awareness of how important it is to try to ease some of those challenges whenever possible.


As if to reinforce my (none-too-deep) insights into the world of blindness, next came the lameness. Within two minutes of walking into my apartment post-field trip, I coughed. Not a big cough or anything, just a cough. And my entire lower back felt like it exploded. The nice doctors tell me the pain and the inability to walk any faster than a slow hobble are temporary. They’ve even given me pills that should help alleviate the immediate symptoms. Side note: muscle relaxers are amazingly strong stuff. I get happy and loopy for about ten minutes then fall immediately to sleep, during which I don’t move at all but do manage to snore heavily (or so I’m told).

In the meantime, I’m supposed to “go about my daily life.” This is great advice as long as your “daily life” doesn’t include putting on your own socks, picking up anything below waist level, jaywalking, commuting on a crowded train, carrying a heavy laptop bag or knitting. Or staying awake through an entire evening TV show for that matter.

My fantasies of getting a lot of knitting done while bedridden have been dashed, in large part due to not being bedridden and not being able to sit comfortably for any length of time. Part of me actually thinks this is somehow the second sock’s fault – like it’s conspiring not to be finished in time for Socktoberfest.

Then I have to remind myself that it’s an inanimate object and, as much as it may seem to have free will and a cruel sense of humor, it is in fact just a half-finished sock.

And while I do realize that my current infirmity is in no way comparable to a life-long disability, it certainly has been humbling. Even this temporary problem has given me an all-new respect for the challenge of navigating in the world with a disability.

First of all, people stare at you. Gaggles of fifteen-year-old girls may go so far as to laugh and point. Should that happen and you are a librarian-in-training, you will use all your self-control not to yell at them because you realize they’re fifteen and absolutely do not care what you think.

Second, things move really, really quickly: cars whiz through crosswalks and the doors and turnstiles on the T move too fast and revolving doors whack you in the butt and the elevator makes angry noises because the doors have been standing open for too long. I have all new sympathy for how long it takes frail, elderly people to get places. I will do my level best not to find them infuriating from now on.

Third, it’s incredibly frustrating to suddenly face a drastic reduction in your abilities. I’m not typically a weepy type, but I’ve come to tears a good half-dozen times in the past few days out of sheer frustration and fury at not being able to accomplish basic things on my own. I can’t imagine the patience and strength of will it takes to acclimate to a permanent disability.

So I’m trying to view this as a learning experience. And not in a macho “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” kind of way.

If nothing else, I hope this newfound (and rather alien) sensitivity to the needs and difficulties of others stays with me after I’ve recovered. I hope I remember to be grateful for a basically functioning body that allows me to easily accomplish simple things. I hope it motivates me to start doing yoga again. I hope I remember how incredibly nice my friends and coworkers have been in helping me over the past few days. And I hope I can figure out an appropriate way to thank the boyfriend for all his heroic fetching and carrying and bringing of food.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

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