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The yearly tradition of welcoming my friend and fellow disability blogger, Anneliese is now here, and I’m happy to be hosting her thoughts once again. She’s made the decision to be a full-time screenreader user, something I have never had to contemplate seeing as I have always been fully blind and thus, screenreaders were my only option. I hope you will find her perspective as thought-provoking and insightful as I do.
A symbol-using and -misusing animal
Separated from his natural environment by tools of his own making,
Goaded by a spirit of hierarchy,
Inventor of the negative,
And rotten with perfection.
I had one of those undergraduate philosopher-crushes on American communication theorist Kenneth Burke. The above five criteria are how he chose to define humanity. With terms like “misusing,” “goaded,” and “rotten” you might initially be surprised to learn that Burke was a humanist, a thinker full of optimism about his race.
My favorite of the five criteria is the second. In today’s zeitgeist, “separated from the natural environment” sounds like a prison sentence, but separation is often what lends perspective to immeasurably complex interwoven ecosystems that comprise the environment we inhabit. Tools like microscopes and telescopes, LIDAR and thermometers, cameras and search engines allow us to observe, learn, and choose.
I made the recent choice to give up using a computer monitor and mouse, to solely rely on a screen reader to access my computer, tablet, and phone. I’m privileged enough to be able to make that choice on something resembling my own timeframe. When you have a degenerative condition, you know the transition is coming eventually. But I didn’t lose my remaining usable vision too rapidly, or from a sudden eye an injury. I can still see an enlarged pointer or cursor on a screen, recognize various icons and landmarks, and when I zoom in and press my nose against the screen I can even read text at 24 point font.
But using these remaining visual skills took longer and longer. I found myself putting off tasks best done on my desktop for weeks or months, and when I realized why, I began to think of the time when I was about thirteen or fourteen and a blind man demonstrated a screen reader to me by spinning his chair away from his computer desk, plopping his wireless keyboard on his lap, and navigating through Word documents and websites using only keyboard commands and the words coming out of his speakers.
I’ve written before about my ongoing optimism and disappointment cycle with technology, and I think that memory of that incredible man wielding a computer in a way I could only dream of is partially responsible for that cycle. I was shown a tool that could bridge the gap between myself and the world I wanted to change. I was a little vague on how I wanted to change the world back then, I just knew it was the only worthwhile pursuit.
Technology has separated me from myself, my natural tendency to get mired in my own thoughts and emotions. I journal, communicate with my therapist, listen to meditations, and express myself through creative writing. . I type my clinical notes, access continuing education material, and network and consult with colleagues via the internet. Paradoxically, this kind of internal separation has also led to external connection. This tool that highlights both my existential solitude and capacity for relationship feels almost as necessary to me as air and water. I’ve known about my near-dependent relationship with technology for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned how to cope with the fragility and precarious availability of this, and other vital resources.
I cannot control the power grid, internet stability, the cost of computers or random accidents that crack phone screens. I’m not tech-savvy enough to completely protect myself from computer viruses, identity theft, or creepy data mining. These are things that I cannot change. What I can change is my belief about uncertainty, the meaning I assign to risk, and how I respond to these conditions.
Pastor James Forscythe defined contentment as being convinced that you have what you need to survive. That’s not a very high bar, so why did I struggle so much with panic whenever I ran into inaccessible websites or sudden computer glitches? I had become convinced that my ability to prove my worth as a person, my value as a student and employee and friend and citizen and daughter and sister and wife was wrapped up in this tool that enabled me to compensate in so many ways for the inaccessible environment others had constructed around me that I had to live in. Technology separated me from my natural fear of rejection and abandonment, and on a cellular level I knew that I, like all humans, could not survive without community.
Tools of our own making can also separate us from unnatural environments, and from other tools. As I have connected with other blindfluencers over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to understand how ableism has influenced my life as a core assumption in the minds of those who design our civilization. Ablism is more an assumption of absence, when you think about it. It’s the assumption that people with disabilities will not be present in, using, need or want whatever is being built, made, invented, or created. The more assistive technology I use, the less this thought-hole directly impacts me.
My blindness to the results of systemic ablism hasn’t always been a bad thing. Not knowing people didn’t expect my presence, I didn’t feel unwelcome. Unaware of others’ doubts about my potential as a student or employee, I felt more secure in my accomplishments and never hesitated to try my hand at what interested me. These days I recognize the unwelcome signs of ablism in architecture, community communication channels, and inadequate technology. I make career and social moves with anti-discrimination strategy in mind. Technology facilitated both my blissful ignorance and my deeper understanding.
As mindfulness meditation helped me separate my emotions, my beliefs, and my behavior from the technology I used, I put that tool into perspective. Addressing my abandonment and rejection issues and sense of self-worth took more than just awareness, though. These are the kinds of near-universal concerns that require real investment of time, energy, and resources to transform into the kind of power a person needs to change the world.
Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to think about what tool separates you from your natural environment and how it helps you to see yourself, and your community more clearly.