I AM A CHRISTIAN — UNASHAMED, UNAPOLOGETIC AND OUT LOUD

I am a Christian–a follower of Jesus Christ, and I am not ashamed.

Many people see the word Christian and presume many things about me. Christians as a whole are stereotyped, categorized and presumed to be many things that they are not–a few of the more common presumptions being judgmental and close-minded. These are often based on a person’s encounter with a few individual Christians, and that creates their overall perception of the entire group. And as a Christian, I’ve been subjected to my fair share.

I was scrolling through Twitter a few months ago and came upon a tweet that claimed they would not follow anyone who called themselves a Christian in their bio because that meant they were Trump supporters and bigots. In a burst of uncommon boldness, I replied to this tweet, saying that not all Christians should be labelled this way, and simply because certain Christians may be, support, or condone those things, I will not be ashamed to use the word Christian.

Because that is what I am, despite what attributes the world attaches to it.

I am a Christian and I choose to use that word unashamedly because it is not a label indicative of political leanings or any other standard by which we measure ourselves. It means simply that I follow Jesus Christ and try [and fail because of my flawed and sinful humanity] to live according to biblical standards. To some who don’t share the faith, that makes me naive, unloving and a hater, and I have been treated as such and suffer for it.

But that is what living a Christian life is.

Jesus suffered insurmountable hate, pain and rejection while He walked this earth. He said, “and whoever does not take their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” [Matthew 10:38]. The Apostle Peter writes also that “for this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. / For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. / For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” [I Peter 2:19-21].

Suffering is not comfortable. It hurts. It hurts when I’m accused of being homophobic. It hurts when I’m called a hater because I disagree with what the world deems acceptable. It hurts when non-Christians use selective Bible verses–without understanding how they fit into the meaning and message of the entire Bible– to dictate how I should treat them, though they themselves do not live by the Bible’s standards. And it hurts when as a Christian, I am held to a pedestal of perfection that can only be met by the God I serve, not me.

This world hurts. And Jesus said it would. And in the moments I’ve already walked through and the many more I know will come, I hold to the truth and the assurance that I have in being a Christian, and that I am following the words of Timothy: “fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” [I Timothy 6:12] And I take the most comfort and assurance in the knowledge that I will live forever with Jesus in Heaven where there is no more suffering.

But while I am on this earth, I will do my best to live by the words that are written in the Bible. And while I know the world will be offended by it, I will follow the God of my faith first and be as like Him as I possibly can. I am called to show love to others. I am called to be kind and compassionate. I am commanded to forgive those that wrong me, just as God forgave me.

But I am not called to follow the ways of the world because those ways go against God. So, no, I am not a supporter of lifestyles that contradict God’s Word. I am not “pro-choice” because I believe God chooses life, both for the born and unborn. I am not going to compromise on my values just to make someone comfortable. I am not going to back down or stay quiet. My God and standing up for the truth comes first before anything else. But I will always care and be kind to others who don’t share my beliefs as much as I am able because I am commanded to be Christlike, to bear His image and character in the world.

I will try for my whole life to live out those things. And at times, I will fail. But I am a Christian and I do not live according to a secular worldview. My faith directs and shapes everything I do–my writing, my advocacy work for the disabled community, how I try and treat those I come into contact with. It does not mean that I am perfect, but that I am trying to emulate God’s character in my life. And that includes the parts of the Christian faith that are uncomfortable, that go against the world’s beliefs, and even against other Christians who have differing views. I choose to be a Christian and to be unashamed of the title and be proud of what I stand for. Because these are not self-made standards–they come from the mouth of God, the creator of life and the world, and I am proud to be His.

WHY I’M THANKFUL FOR MY DISABILITY

Growing up around the Thanksgiving dinner table, when asked what I was thankful for this year, my disability was never on the list. I said things like a loving family, friends that support me, Jesus, opportunities at school and church, all of which were true and deserving of a place on the list, but I was missing one big blessing.

My blindness.

The story of how I came to not only accept but embrace my blindness is a long one, and is still ongoing. It changes as I change, it ebbs and flows as I grow and learn more about myself, God, and the world around me. It’s a story that I used to look at through a lens of disgust; I was ashamed of what I was and how I couldn’t let go of my anger and feel freedom and pride in who I was. My adolescent years were spent in a fog, unwilling to change but not knowing how to change at the same time.

I only knew how to feel inferior. My blindness relegated me to a lesser place in the world, and I watched from below as my friends and family lived their lives with an ease and equality that I craved. The life I wanted for myself was a dream I couldn’t reach. So I settled into my place and passed the days and years in an embittered haze.

Being disabled is not easy. At times, it’s awful. The ableism and discrimination disabled people face is staggering, and so often, it takes everything in us to keep going. Sometimes, it feels like it’s us against the world, and the world is winning. It’s a very real part of living in a disabled body, and it can be a trial to find one thing to be thankful for. This is certainly the mindset I adopted as I grew up; surviving was hard enough. What was there to be thankful for?

As it turns out… lots!

My blindness taught me the value of every human life, no matter what abilities a body does or does not have.

It taught me that with God’s strength, I can overcome the challenges I face in a world that wasn’t designed for me.

I learned how to use my determination, stubbornness and voice to advocate for my needs and the needs of others.

I learned that you don’t truly appreciate what you have until you’ve fought for it.

And I’ve learned about love. I’ve learned how to love others, how to love myself, and most importantly, how God loves each one of His children, able or disabled. He made us in His image, and He never gives up on us even when we give up on ourselves.

This is why I’m thankful for my disability. Because it taught me that underneath what we see on the surface, when we look deeper than skin-level, it’s about people, and it’s the people we are inside that count. My blindness shapes who I am and who I will become. It’s a part of me I will never again be ashamed of. It’s a part of me that has made me into the person I am and the person I know I was meant to become. This is why I’m thankful for my disability.

And I’m thankful to be in the middle of this life. With all its challenges and struggles, and all the light and love that comes with it, I am thankful to be who I am because God created me this way. I will love my disabled body because He loves it and will use me and my story to make a difference for Him. And I can’t wait.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Tell me in the comments. And if you’re American, join in anyway! We should be thankful all year round.

WE LOST MORE THAN A QUEEN TODAY

A woman died today.

She was not a perfect woman. The country she ruled was not a perfect country. Both she and the country made mistakes. She was only human, after all, and her country was only one piece of an imperfect world.

But that should be enough to give her the respect and dignity she deserves, in life and in death.


It’s only been hours since the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and yet, my social media is filled with commentary about England’s colonization efforts, their victimization of other cultures, their theft of artifacts, and the assertion that, because of this, Queen Elizabeth does not deserve to be mourned. “We have no obligation to mourn the oppressors,” read one post, and there were others, and there will be more.

My heart is breaking. Yes, for Queen Elizabeth, dear, dear Queen Elizabeth. I grieve for her family, who have lost a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother first, and a monarch second. I grieve for those who knew her as a person and not as a crown. For those friends that knew her in a way that only friends can. I grieve for a country who has lost its leader, and a Commonwealth, its figurehead and symbol of togetherness.

But I grieve for the people who are mocked and ridiculed and looked down on for mourning her, too.

My heart is breaking, seeing people’s anger and bitterness come out only after she has passed.; do they think they are brave for speaking up now that she is dead? I cannot understand how people can blame one woman for the mistakes of one country which she did not commit herself but were passed down to her from generations before. Why are people unable to give others the space to mourn a beloved woman and leader, simply because they disagree with her views or beliefs?

Is there no reverence for the dead anymore?


I am not asking you to agree with Queen Elizabeth, England, with each event of her 70-year reign or with those that came before her.

But I am asking you, imploring you, to give others—friends, family, governments, countries—the space and the time and the respect to mourn their loss, heal their hearts the best they can, and figure out a new way forward.

We are only human after all.

Queen Elizabeth has touched my life in a way I can’t articulate yet. And I should not have to justify or defend my broken heart, my sadness and my deep sense of loss, at what has happened today. No one should.

A woman died today.

And more than a country, a monarchy and political entanglements, Queen Elizabeth was a woman, a human and a person of infinite value. If nothing else, let us mourn for that, and give her the least that one human ought to do for another.

Long live the monarchy!

LESSONS I LEARNED FROM MY LEFT HAND

If you were to ask me if I’m right or left-handed, I’ll tell you that I’m both. Not that I’m ambidextrous and have the equal use of both hands, but simply because both of my hands equally share the work.

  • I deal cards with my left hand,
  • and I open doors with my right.
  • I hold Saint’s harness handle with my left hand,
  • but I use my white cane in my right.
  • I read Braille with my left hand,
  • yet I write print with my right hand.

But that being said, I’ve always had a special affection for my left hand. It has many jobs, very important jobs; it holds Saint’s harness handle, it reads books, it bears half my ability to write, it wears my engagement ring, and it explores the world around me.

But as with anything that we hold near and dear, it’s far too easy to take it for granted. So please allow me a moment to issue a public apology to my left hand.

To my left hand:

I’m sorry that I’ve taken you for granted. You do so much for me, and I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you properly. I’ll do better, I promise.

You can only do better once you know better. That doesn’t make it easy to do, but it does mean that it’s doable. Two weeks ago, I was confronted with this lesson, and even now, as things are returning to normal, I’m working to keep this lesson front and center.

Let me tell you the story:

Two weeks ago, life was running along smoothly—eating, sleeping, pooping, biting hangnails—all was well. But when I awoke the next morning with the fourth finger on my left hand puffy and swollen and virtually useless, all was not well.

I went to work, attempting to sub in my pinkie finger for my ring finger’s responsibilities, but it was slow-going. And by the end of the second day, it was getting worse, and I was worried. I’d had thousands of hangnails, but none had lasted this long nor been this painful.

I felt a little silly walking into the emergency room because of a hangnail during a global pandemic, particularly with the girl behind me in tears. But I didn’t want to take any chances; if left untreated, it can become a serious condition.

So there I sat, with my swollen finger in the ER waiting room. And then in a chair with the numbing cream on my finger. And then in another chair when the doctor stabbed a scalpel into the abscess. And then I sat some more, trying to hold back tears, waiting for the infection to drain. [Apologies to my visually-oriented readers].

And for the next three days, my finger was wrapped up in what I called “finger pantyhose.” I was sent home with antibiotics, a bottle of saline, extra bandages, and two more pairs of pantyhose. My finger was incapable of performing its fingerly duties. I couldn’t type. I had to talk my fiancé through washing my hair in the sink because I couldn’t wet my hand in the shower. Anytime I went to use my left hand as normal, I was sharply reminded that I couldn’t.

It amazed me that something as small as a hangnail could cause a disruption of this magnitude. One little nail, one little nibble, and my finger was out of commission for days. And as I’ve watched my finger heal and return to a semblance of normal, I’ve had a pit of guilt sitting heavy at the bottom of my stomach.

It’s easy to take things like physical and mental health for granted; if you don’t know what it’s like to lose an ability, you can’t fully appreciate how it feels to have it in the first place.

Being sighted until I was six, I know what I’m missing out on as a blind woman. Sunsets, the sea, snow-capped mountains, the faces of my loved ones, and as content as I am with my life, I know there are beautiful things I cannot experience with the same fullness.

And I wonder if people with sight ever think about this, when they’re driving to work, glance out the window and catch a glimpse of the sun glistening off the mountain peak. Do they even notice it when they see it day in and day out?

But aren’t I doing the same thing?

Aren’t I, even after temporarily losing the use of my left ring finger, already returning to “normal” and forgetting how it felt to be without it? Am I forgetting how lost I felt, unable to write and use my left hand as I’d always done without a second thought?

I don’t expect anyone to feel the same way about their left hand as I do about mine. Even other blind and visually impaired people may not hold this deep of affection for this appendage. But there’s the rub: it’s more than a hand to me.

It’s my freedom.

My left hand is a symbol of my independence and freedom. In a world that is speedily losing its freedoms, even in countries which pride themselves on promoting it, my left hand has been my flag. It reads braille and allows me to learn, grow and explore; it holds the harness handle of a dog who helps me feel safe and independent; it wears the ring given to me by my beloved because he saw me for me—disability and all—and said “I love her.”

It’s a reminder, every time I reach for a door, open my Bible or go for a walk with Saint to be thankful. Because even something seemingly small can have a big impact, and I don’t want to live my life taking the small stuff for granted.

Because what my left hand has done for me isn’t small. It’s everything. It’s who I am, who I’m actively becoming, and a part of who God created me to be. And I don’t want to take a gift that God has given me for granted.

Tell me, what experiences have you had that have taught you this lesson? Let me know in the comments.

WHY I’M NOT WEARING A WHITE WEDDING DRESS

Having grown up in a traditional, conservative Christian household and adopting many of the traditions for myself, planning a wedding seemed straightforward. It would be a church wedding with the lead pastor officiating, every member of my and my fiance’s families attending and me, walking down the aisle in a beautiful, white dress.

I still hold to these Christian values, beliefs and traditions. They are the core of who I am and who I want to become.

So then, how do you explain the emerald green wedding dress hanging in my closet?

I find it amazing and a bit quirky, that sometimes, I don’t even realize I need the answer to a question until someone else asks me. This was the case when my Auntie—who, by the way, is the officiant for my wedding and neither my fiancé or I attend her church—asked me plainly: “Rhianna, why do you want to wear a coloured wedding dress?”

I was silent, but when I did speak, it was a mess of half-sentences and I don’t knows. I knew somewhere deep down, but until that moment, I hadn’t needed to find it words. My Auntie had asked a genuine question out of curiosity and I wanted to give a genuine answer.

It’s taken me weeks to process my thoughts and feelings into an intelligible form. So here we go, my three reasons for choosing a coloured wedding dress.

Green Is My Colour

Let’s begin with the simple answers.

Green is my favourite colour. It’s warm, cozy, inviting and also adventurous. Whenever I paint my nails, I love doing dark green with gold accents. My guide dog wears turquoise boots in non paw-friendly conditions, and any chance I get to buy green items, even down to mugs and socks, I take it.

And might I mention too, that emerald is my birthstone.

White Equals Vulnerable

Vulnerability is a necessary part to any healthy relationship. But learning to be vulnerable is not an easy process, and it becomes harder when you’ve been hurt. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to trust people because my trust has been broken by others. It’s hard to let go of the fear that my perspective won’t be heard or appreciated because in the past, it’s been thoughtlessly dismissed. I often look for ways to protect myself from further hurt, and one mechanism I’ve come to realize that I rely on is my clothing.

For as far back as I can remember, my wardrobe has consisted of jeans and sweaters, most of them in dark greys or blacks. And I was only in my early twenties when a friend broached the idea that my need to wear dark clothes might be connected to my blindness.

My blindness makes me more noticeable to the world, and for a teen who wanted nothing more than to fit in and not be noticed, I resorted to clothes as a protection mechanism. I was at a disadvantage—everyone could see me, but I couldn’t see them. And the less of me they could see, maybe the less susceptible I’d be to judgment or criticism.

As I get older, while I still prefer to be clothed in layers from top to bottom, my colour scheme is expanding. Nothing too bright or outlandish, but I’m more comfortable being seen in oranges, yellows, greens and other shades.

There is a caveat though—it needs to be a solid colour. This way, even in coloured clothing, I’m protected because no one can see through it to the me underneath. Yes, I am aware that lighter colours, like white, aren’t necessarily see-through, and I’m not just referring to the physical implications. But the deeper one, the one where I’m afraid to be seen because if I’m seen, I might be known for who I really am.

And that’s scary.

But before anyone jumps to conclusions, my fears of being known and judged do not apply to my future husband; I’ve known only unconditional love, understanding and complete safety in our relationship. But that doesn’t stop my mind from asking, “What about everyone else?”

White does not equal vulnerable, and colour does not equal protected. But due to my past experiences and my deep desire to be protected, a coloured wedding dress makes me feel safer.

I Want to Express My Individuality

I became blind at the age of six, and since then, my blindness has been a defining aspect of my life. I learned to read braille and use assistive technology. I participated in sporting events for the blind and attended programs specifically for blind and visually impaired children and youth, like summer camp and competitions. I used a white cane and after university, received my first guide dog.

Blindness was all over me. And while I gained valuable skills, made long-lasting friendships and had unique experiences that have shaped my perspective, I can’t deny the impact that my disability had on my self-image. I was still a blind girl, and for years, I viewed this as a negative. No matter how intensely I fought it, my disability was the first thing that people noticed. Whether it was the white cane sweeping the path ahead of me, the four paws guiding me around obstacles, or the fact that I couldn’t make eye contact and was usually looking up, it was there. The blind girl.

And when it came to getting engaged and planning my wedding, I began to notice a deep-seeded need to prove my individuality.

For so long, I’ve been different, but not for the things I wanted. I was praised for being a fast braille reader, winning a braille competition and maintaining a positive attitude despite my disability. Now, I was afraid that this thread would be woven into my wedding.

I didn’t want to be a blind bride, or a blind wife. I was afraid that the emphasis would be placed on the fact that my fiance is marrying a blind woman, or that the dress or decorations don’t matter because I can’t see them. I needed to be different for something I wanted people to notice.


Being deeply rooted in Christianity, I know that some may be surprised and curious at my choice to not wear a white dress. I don’t blame them; a few years ago, I may have questioned the exact same decision. But when I think about what it truly means, and what I wanted in a wedding dress, there’s one thing I come back to.

Before I bought my dress, I showed my Uncle a picture of it and explained my apprehension at what others might think of the non-traditional colour. His response was unshakable, and made me smile:

“It’s your wedding, kid. Wear what makes you happy.”

And you know what? This emerald green dress, with its silky skirts that do the best twirls I’ve ever done, makes me happy.

But what makes me more happy is that while wearing this dress, I get to marry the love of my life. It isn’t indicative of any deviation from my Christian faith or tradition, but simply an embracing of my individuality and something that makes me feel confident and beautiful. And that’s how I want to feel on my wedding day.

What did your wedding dress look like? Let me know in the comments.

SIX THINGS I LOVE ABOUT BEING A BLIND GIRL

Sometimes, it’s hard to be positive about having a disability. I’ve always called myself a pessimist and more often than not, I focus on the challenges and struggles that come with it. But, even I need a dose of disability positivity every now and then.

So here you go, a list of six things I love about being a blind girl.

I. Being A Braille Reader

A system of six raised dots arranged in various configurations to represent the letters of the alphabet, braille is a code developed to make reading accessible for the blind. It came out of the personal experiences of Louis Braille, born in France in 1809. After an accident in his father’s workshop at age three, little Louis was left totally blind and at the time, incapable of reading books independently. But determined to make a change, 15-year-old Louis Braille invented the system that is now universally accepted and loved.

And you’d be right to count me as part of braille’s fan club! My braille reading lessons started in earnest when I was in second grade and according to family, I soaked it up like a sponge. It’s true; I learned to read and write in braille with much enthusiasm and that enthusiasm has only grown with me as I’ve gotten older. I’m a sucker for braille apparel and accessories; I’ve had braille earrings, a braille necklace and the decorative quilt hanging on my wall has “love” and “friendship” knitted in braille on it. And from elevator buttons to washroom signs, to braille notetaking devices like this one that I use to a good, old-fashioned book read by the fire, I can’t imagine my life without it. It isn’t merely the way in which I read—it’s a way of life, a way that I learn and connect with my world. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully express my love for braille and what it has done in my life, but I’ll never stop trying.

II. Getting a Guide Dog

Although not every blind or visually impaired individual chooses to work with a guide dog as their primary mobility tool, I don’t think anyone, blind or sighted, could deny the perk.

From a young age, I knew I wanted to work with a guide dog. And while attending university, it was the end goal that propelled me to practice my independent living skills such as using public transit. By 22, I received my first sweet boy, Cricket. And now, I have Saint, who, by the way, 99% of the time, does live up to his name!

A guide dog has given me freedom and confidence beyond what I ever expected. Now, even though I do have to plan my routes in advance, I feel more equipped to walk out the door with the harness in hand and face whatever may come. Having a floppy-eared partner to journey with me and keep me safe along the way is a blessing I can’t imagine living without and I’m so thankful for.

III. Painting with Many Brushes

Let’s get this out in the open once and for all: Blind people do not have a heightened sense of hearing. We simply rely on our senses more and are more in tune with them as our primary means of gathering information—sight–is no longer available. After all, it’s estimated that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.”

But what is a reliance on sight when you have hearing, smell, taste and touch to paint a beautiful picture of the world. Think about it for a moment: If you could only look at a tree, you would miss out on the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the earthy aroma of the bark, running your hands over the rough knots of the wood, and… well I’ve never tasted a tree but you get my point.

Sure, sometimes I miss being able to see. But I’m just grateful I have other ways to enjoy this life and I’m completely content with that.

IV. Being the Innovator

By being disabled in a world that doesn’t always know how to accommodate it, it’s inevitable that a certain amount of creativity and innovation is required. Adapting to a disability can be challenging enough, but add to it the pace at which the world is evolving and it’s exhausting trying to keep up. Whether it’s a technical work-around or a tactile adaptation for an art project, simply looking about will give you enough fodder to be creative and find innovative solutions to a multitude of challenges.

At times, it’s been a negative, but I’m working on turning this into a positive. It stretches my imagination and expands my problem-solving skills which will help me in more ways than just my disability.

V. The Community

As a Christian, I often wonder who I’ll meet in Heaven. I dream about being reunited with my Grandma and Grandpa, and getting to have coffee with King David. Who knows if that will ever be part of a life in Heaven with Jesus, but why not dream, right?

But even here on earth, it’s quite amazing to think of the people, past and present, that are part of the blind and visually impaired community. History is chalk full of blind and visually impaired people who have left a mark on the world, like Louis Braille, [inventor of braille, 1809-1852], Helen Keller [disability advocate, 1880-1968], and Fanny Crosby [Christian hymn writer, 1820-1915]. Of course, there are contemporary figures including Christian speaker and author Jennifer Rothschild, Youtuber Molly Burke, among many others.

And I’d be remiss not to mention the blind and visually impaired friends in my personal life that helped me grow, heal and become a fuller version of myself—the one that accepts who I am as a unique, God-designed creation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it feels pretty amazing to be in the same community as these amazing men and women who, in one form or another, have touched my life in immeasurable ways.

VI. The Little Victories

And I can’t end this list without having some fun. All right, it might be a bit at the sighted folks’ expense, but give us just this one.

  • We get to be the heroes in power outages when you don’t know where to go, but we do.
  • We can read books in the dark [and sneak past Mom and Dad’s bedtime rules].
  • We have access to programs, technology and resources that are unique to the blind and visually impaired community.
  • No one can peer over our shoulders at our text messages since we can operate our cell phones with the screens turned off.
  • We can watch movies from a different room, and without worry about the video quality.

There you have it, my friends! Another list, and definitely not the last! For any of my blind readers, what’s on your list? Let me know in the comments.

WHAT I SEE AS A FULLY BLIND WOMAN

“So Rhianna, what can you see?”
“Actually, I’m totally blind.”
“Oh. But, you can see something… right?”

Aside from the question of how I became blind, this is the question I am asked most often, by friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers. There are a few facets to my answer, and this is, as always, my own personal experience. Molly Burke, a Youtuber whose channel centers around disability awareness and education, posted this video answering that very question, and her experience living with Charles Bonnet Syndrome. No two blind people have the exact same experience; it’s different for everyone.

Let’s start with the simple answer. Do I have any sight?
No.
As both of my eyes have been enucleated, I have no visual perception–no light or shadow perception which many visually impaired still retain. It’s estimated that 85% of visually impaired individuals have some remaining vision, whereas only 15% are totally blind.
I do not however, see blackness, as is often presumed. If I don’t see light, I must see darkness. I’m unclear as to how you could see darkness, but anyway…

As I grow older and my life with vision becomes a smaller and smaller piece of the puzzle, my visual memories are growing fainter. The colours I see aren’t as bright, and the detail with which I saw giraffes, flowers and my family’s faces have lost much of their definition. Even so, I am grateful that I have these memories at all: The average age for a retinoblastoma diagnosis is two years old or younger, leaving the individual with very little visual memory, if any. I was diagnosed at four and a half, and thus, my memories of sight were well-established. Those early years laid a solid foundation for how I would visualize my ever-changing world as I matured and moved into environments of which I had no visual recollection.

In these circumstances, it’s up to me to paint the picture.
Here are my paintbrushes:

  • Visual description by a sighted person
  • Tactile exploration

Visual Description

Having an object or environment verbally described to me is often my first go-to for understanding my surroundings. Being as clear and as detailed as you can be gives me the best chance at painting an accurate and vibrant picture. Here’s an example:

At the end of 2020, I was searching Facebook Marketplace for a place to live as I was planning on moving to a new city in the new year. Many postings relied on photos to attract potential tenants, but I was focused on the written description the seller wrote alongside the pictures. I came across a suite which was described as having a “small” bedroom, “floor-to-ceiling” windows and a “large” backyard. I’ve enclosed small, floor-to-ceiling and large in quotations to make a point: These gave me a beginning off of which to build my image of the suite. Since those descriptors fit the type of home I was seeking, I then asked my parents [who I was living with at the time] to describe the photos.
The space was clean, cared for, and as it was in my price range, I decided to move ahead and continue a conversation with the landlord. Not being able to visit before moving due to travel impracticalities and Covid-19 restrictions, I requested that she send a video walkthrough of the suite which she happily supplied. While watching the video, my father was able to describe the living space to me, allowing me to add a framework to my thus far, blank canvas.

“Okay, Rhianna,” he said, watching the video over a few times to make sure he described it correctly, “when you walk through the front door, the kitchen is immediately on the right. It’s like a little hallway. On the right side is the fridge and freezer–fridge on top and freezer on bottom–and then there’s a bit of counter space before the stove. Keep going along the right and there’s more counter space. Now, it turns to the left and here’s the double sink. This is straight ahead from the entrance into the kitchen. Coming back along the left side of the kitchen, which is now on your right, you have a long counter–it’s counter space all the way back to the front. The fridge and stove are opposite this counter.”

Can you see it?
Me too.
My parents proceeded to walk me through the rest of the suite, the living area, bathroom, bedroom and the stairs outside leading down to the backyard. My painting was looking great!

But it wasn’t enough. Not quite yet. Oh, it was good enough for me to apply, and be accepted, to rent the suite. But I was excited to move and complete my picture and add the tactile details it needed to bring it to life.

Tactile Exploration

When I arrived at my new home three weeks later, I was chomping at the bit to fill in the details of my picture. Daddy had done a good job of describing it to me, but I was ready to explore it for myself.

As I moved about my new home, I discovered that the cupboard doors didn’t close flat against their neighbouring cupboards, so to avoid a headache, I’d have to ensure I closed them after I was finished. I found out just how big the floor-to-ceiling windows really were, and how to operate the blinds. I learned how to adjust the temperature, the ceiling fan, and where the electrical outlets were. These details gave my painting nuance and a fullness that could only be gained from physical hands-on exploration.

Exploring my environment tactually is my preferred way to learn my surroundings. Not only is it enjoyable, but satisfies my innermost desire to be independent and self-sufficient–a vital feeling for a disabled person to have. But a combination of external, visual description and independent, physical discovery offers me a full and immersive picture of my world, which for me, is the ultimate goal.

It’s A Movie In My Mind

I don’t believe that my “sight” is much different than yours. I am constantly taking in information, adding and subtracting details to create a beautiful image of the world around me. The difference is merely that I’m taking it in through my remaining senses–hearing, smell, touch and taste–rather than primarily through the eyes.

This is how I visualize everything, whether I know the setting or not. I know my own home inside and out, but what if I don’t know the store I’m heading into to grab groceries? As I go, I take in details such as smells, the feel of the flooring, how much space is around me [is it cramped or open], big objects like shelving units, display cases etc… all of these details help me to create an image, and I can recall that image the next time I’m in that location.

It’s a movie that never ends! It constantly shifts from scene to scene, and with each, more detail is added, bringing the world of that movie to life.

So, contrary to the assumption that I must live in blankness or darkness because of my blindness, I live in a vivid, colourful world, just like you. I may have to gather my information by different means, and sometimes it isn’t always spot on and might take a few tries to memorize my surroundings, but is lacking in nothing. My world is full of vibrant imagery, bright colours, and as much joy as ever–after all, joy is found in more than visual ability.

Just take a look around, or simply close your eyes, and you’ll see. Go on, I’ll wait.

MY BLIND GIRL ESSENTIALS LIST

If writing is like my Daddy’s homemade pancakes for Sunday dinner, making lists are the maple syrup I drown them in.

I make lists for everything–to-do lists, grocery lists, clothing inventory lists, even lists to organize my lists. Yes, I am that person. My brain thrives on it to keep me organized, and… it’s fun!

So, I thought it might be fun to share a list with you of the six things that are essential for my life as a blind woman. This is of course, not a comprehensive list and not meant to speak for all blind and visually impaired people, but these are the things that make my life a little [or a lot] easier and I cannot live without. Here we go!

I. My Guide Dog

Arguably the most important thing on an essentials list for any blind or visually impaired individual is a mobility aid. For many, this is a white cane like this one that I own from The Braille Superstore. For others, a guide dog is their aid of choice. Some rely more heavily on the assistance of others through the use of sighted guide, a technique wherein the sighted person offers guidance by having the blind individual hold their elbow. And for others still, their remaining vision is enough to see them safely about—visual impairment is a spectrum and not every person with an impairment needs a mobility aid.

In becoming blind at six, I was taught to use a white cane. I learned various techniques for maneuvering through my environments, both at school, in my neighbourhood and in the broader community. The skills one learns with a white cane are invaluable, and are necessary if, like me, you wanted to transition to working with a guide dog.

Now, I work with a guide dog, and it is only thanks to the dedication of my orientation and mobility [O&M] instructors and my own perseverance that I’m here. For me, a guide dog is undoubtedly the best decision for my mobility needs, but it is not for everyone. However, having a reliable mobility aid is non-negotiable for the safety of a blind individual.

II. My iPhone

My iPhone is an invaluable part of my life, and not merely for entertainment purposes. Sure, I play my fair share of Battleship on Blindfold Sea Battle, but it is a vital tool for my independence, safety and wellbeing.

There are several apps that I use on a daily basis to be more independent and self-sufficient and help my life to run a bit smoother on the whole. These range from apps that offer sighted assistance for varying tasks, to navigation, and apps with AI [artificial intelligence].

Here are three apps that I use daily and would be lost without:

  • Seeing AI — This app has so many features that I love. Being fully blind with no light perception, I make regular use of the Light channel which outputs a tone which increases in pitch when pointed in the direction of more light and decreases when it becomes darker. This is awesome for knowing if I’ve left my lights on by accident! This app is also how I take my own photos, as after I snap a picture, Seeing Ai describes the photo for me–for example, when taking a photo of my dog on his bed, the app has said, “A dog lying on a rug.” Seeing AI has the capability of reading product labels and pages of text, making it handy for distinguishing between food cans, boxes and packages or incoming mail. For all these features and lots more, it is on the homescreen of my phone for quick access.
  • Moovit — This is a navigation app that helps me to feel confident in planning travel on public transit independently. Enter your starting location and a destination, and the app maps out the route, including all stops and arrival/departure times. While on the bus, you can monitor which stops you are passing, making it easy and efficient to get off at the correct stop. It’s fully accessible for blind users and is my main navigation tool when out and about.
  • Microsoft SoundScape — Another navigation app, SoundScape assists me while out on a walk by calling out the names of the streets I pass and the intersections I’m approaching. It can mark locations that you travel to regularly, and will describe your immediate surrounding and any landmarks in the vicinity such as parks, schools or community buildings. This app has saved me on more than one occasion when I’ve been out walking and gotten myself turned around; I use the app’s descriptions of my location to reorient to the correct direction and continue on safely. An absolute must-have!

III. A Perkins Braille Writer

Braille is an essential part of many blind individuals’ lives. However, it may surprise you to know, and saddens me to no end, that “fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States are braille readers.” In my life, I’ve come to adore braille, finding it absolutely essential in becoming independent. It promotes literacy skills and gives me greater access to education.

Having a way to produce braille is a very important part of my life as a blind woman. While in school, I used a Perkins braille writer like this one but only recently received one of my own through CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind]. Nothing makes me quite as happy as the satisfying sound of braille being impressed onto the paper by my own fingers and then being able to instantly read pages of handwritten braille… it gives me chills.

IV. My Braille Bible

Because of my love for braille, a hard-copy, braille Bible definitely has a place on my essentials list. My first Bible was this 37-volume item produced by Lutheran Braille Workers, but after years of wear and tear and flattened dots, I now read this beautiful, hard-cover Bible in New King James translation. It’s big, inconvenient to store and nearly impossible to take along outside the house, but I find it easier and more enjoyable to read in this fashion rather than simply listening on audio–it’s a more immersive experience and something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

V. Tactile Dots

While seemingly small, tactile dots play a significant role in my day to day life. These dots, varying in their size, texture and shape, are used in a multitude of ways. From marking the buttons on my microwave, to the temperature controls on my oven, to the cycles of my washer and dryer, these dots are invaluable. I’ve found them at stores dedicated to adaptive equipment for the blind, or simply at the local dollar store. They needn’t be anything fancy, but without them, I’d be lost and much more dependent than I like to be.

VI. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain which helps to regulate the wake-and-sleep cycle. Because light intake is directly related to melatonin production, totally blind individuals like myself often struggle with keeping a steady circadian rhythm. Struggling with sleep as a preteen, my ophthalmologist recommended I take a melatonin supplement each night to help keep my sleep pattern on track, and I’ve taken it every night since.

As a teenager, I came close to having Non-24-Hour Sleep Wake Disorder, a condition that “causes sleep and wake times to get pushed progressively earlier or later, usually by one or two hours at a time. Over days or weeks, the circadian rhythm becomes desynchronized from regular daylight hours.” It’s a very disruptive sleep disorder and taking melatonin nightly is how I’ve maintained a sleep schedule which keeps me functioning at my best. Though melatonin affects every person differently, I’ve found absolutely essential to my health and wellbeing, and I’m lost without it. I personally recommend Nature’s Harmony, though keep in mind that I speak only from personal experience and have no medical background. This is merely what works best for me.

There you have it, my blind girl essentials list! I hope you had fun reading, because believe me, I had more fun than you’d think writing this list for you!

So, what’s on your essentials list? Let me know in the comments.