I HAVEN’T WRITTEN IN TEN WEEKS, AND THIS IS WHY

For better or worse—and mark my words, it’s most often for worse—I am an all-or-nothing, idealistic pessimist. Just ask my therapist: I’m either a success or an utter failure. I either eat healthy, or one cookie deems me a lost cause. I either write consistently, or I am not worthy of the title.

When I started this blog, I had dreams of writing posts twice a week, growing a community of readers and allies, and bringing awareness to the realities of life with a disability. I still have those dreams. But sometimes, life wakes you up with a freaking loud alarm, and those dreams are put on pause.

So many times in the last ten weeks, I have sat down to write a post and nothing has come. I stare at a blank page, then wait for the tears. I slam the laptop shut, debate throwing it out the window, decide against it, and go take a burning hot shower and wonder why I thought I could do this. How could I call myself a blogger if I let my darling sit untouched for ten weeks? It deserves better, and so do those that honour me by reading it.

But in the past two and a half months, words have eluded me. I’ve cried, and when there are no more tears, I’ve just sat in the silence, wondering what I’m supposed to do now. It reminds me of the book of Job, when, after he lost his children, livestock, his home and his health, his friends “sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw how intense his suffering was. Sure, I haven’t endured loss on that scale and I’m thankful for that. But I also want to acknowledge the grief that I am experiencing.

The Goodbye

On May 17, my guide dog, Cricket officially retired from his life as my working Leader Dog. In reality, he had not guided me for weeks and in my heart, I knew it was over. But now it was official and I couldn’t deny it any longer.

I put myself full throttle into “get it done” mode so that I wouldn’t stay in “cry all the time” mode. I applied to CNIB Guide Dogs, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and re-applied to Leader Dogs for the Blind for a successor guide.

And knowing that I didn’t have the physical space or the financial capability to care for Cricket in retirement as well as a new, working guide dog, I had to make the decision of where Cricket would live. I decided, together with Cricket’s puppy raiser, that giving him back to her was the best thing for him. God had affirmed that in both our hearts, but this decision brought its own challenges, namely how to get Cricket back home to Michigan.

Due to Covid-19 and the travel restrictions that both the United States and Canada set in place, getting Cricket to his new home proved much more challenging than expected:

• His puppy raiser could travel to Canada to pick him up as she was fully vaccinated, but she could not take him back on the plane as she was not his handler.
• I could not travel to Michigan as I was not fully vaccinated and could not go through a two-week quarantine upon return.
• We didn’t feel comfortable putting Cricket in cargo, as he needs to be medicated on flights to mitigate anxiety, so sending him alone was not an option.
• We applied with Puppies in Flight, a program through American Airlines to transport service dogs with an employee, but nothing came of it.
• We tried to get permission for his raiser to become his temporary handler for the duration of the flights, but that was not possible.
• We asked if a LDB trainer could transport Cricket, but again, due to restrictions, that was not feasible.

Once I knew that I would be fully vaccinated and able to travel without the need to quarantine by August 8, the plan was for me and Cricket to fly to Michigan, get him acclimated to his new home and come home… alone.

It was frustrating practically, but it was even harder emotionally. I had come to terms with Cricket retiring as my guide, but I was not able to grieve the loss of his companionship until he was gone, and not knowing when that would happen became almost unbearable. By July, I was having trouble sleeping. The feelings of guilt over leaving him home for hours at a time since I couldn’t legally bring him into shops, restaurants or on public transit made me feel like a failure as a handler. I wasn’t giving him the life that he deserved.

I returned home from Michigan on August 13. Cricket is now in his new home and I am able to grieve. But dear Lord… it breaks my heart.

The Other Goodbyes

Out of respect for the privacy of those that I am referring to, I will not go into detail here. But as I’m sure others have experienced throughout the last year and a half, differing views on the Covid-19 pandemic have caused significant conflict in relationships. The decision to get vaccinated or not, to wear masks and physically distance, among others, have divided families, friends, partners and communities.

And now, it’s happening to me in some of my close friendships. I still love and care for these people, but when our opposing views propel our lives in different directions, it is hard to know how to maintain a respectful, mutual, loving relationship. When the conflict is something as significant as the pandemic, how do you go forward when those closest to you do not agree?

I don’t have the answers. All I know is how it feels to be in the middle of it. I’m questioning how easily I trust others, if I have even been a friend if I can consider ending it, what it looks like to love like Jesus, and whether it is “christian” to let these differences influence the relationship. I cry myself to sleep because I feel, once again, that I can’t do friendships the right way.

The pandemic has caused so much grief in countless ways in our world. Is it a test from God? Am I loving those around me with His love? Am I doing enough?

Am I failing the test?

I’ve Had Enough of Saying Goodbye

We were walking to the lake yesterday afternoon when I stopped, threw my arms around my boyfriend and with tears in my eyes, said, “it’s starting again.”

“It” is my depression. As I’ve struggled with my mental health for years now, I’m very aware of my personal indicators of a depressive episode—I’m not enjoying activities that I love in the same capacity that I was even a few weeks ago, I’m not initiating get-togethers with friends, I’m sleeping late.

I’ve had enough of saying goodbye. To Cricket, to close friends.. what’s next? I’m exhausted. My brain is exhausted.

Is it starting again? Can I work to stave it off, even just a little bit? Maybe my medication will help this time, seeing as I wasn’t taking it the last time an episode came. I will have to work hard to eat. I will have to drag myself out of bed in the mornings and tell myself out loud that yes, there is a reason to get up today even though I don’t have to take Cricket out to pee or go for a walk.

And I will also have to give myself grace. And that will be harder than any of the others. But with the love of my family, my partner, Jesus and my medication, I will make it through.

But I am scared.

So, What Now?

Things feel very fragile right now. I feel like I’m about to break, and it must be by God’s grace, that I’m holding on. He’s here, and He’s blessed me with a support system and people who love me and hold me up when I can’t do it by myself. But as I’ve been learning to do in therapy, I’ve been trying to hold all of my opposite emotions. I imagine that in my left hand, I’m holding the love, the support and the faith that gets me through the tough times. And in my right hand are the tears, the grief, the pain and the sadness.

I want to write, and I’m hoping that this post will help break through the wall that’s built up over the past ten weeks. This blog, and you, my readers, are too important to me to let you go again. But there’s no telling if life’s alarm clock will sound again. But be assured that even if I am silent, I’m still here, and I’m doing my best.

That’s all anyone can do.

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.

HOW AN ACCESSIBLE WORLD FEELS AND WHY I’LL NEVER STOP ADVOCATING FOR ONE

In this post, I discussed why accessibility is an absolute necessity for people living with disabilities.

Today, as National Accessibility Week draws to a close, I want to highlight the personal impact accessibility has had on my life. In reading this, I hope you will take away a sense of what a lack of accessibility feels like, and resolve to join hands with your disabled friends and family to help change it.

In January of 2019, I attended class at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, to receive my first guide dog, Cricket. Classes at LDB are three and a half weeks of intensive, on-campus training. And as I was a first-time handler, never having even owned or cared for a pet dog let alone the completely new territory of one being my guide, I knew these weeks would be crucial.

Our days were spent rising at 6:30 for park time (the term LDB uses for relieving the dogs), feeding and watering our guides, and ending with the last park at 8:00. In between, were sessions both indoors and outdoors, practicing a variety of techniques on different routes in Rochester Hills and on school property. I learned how to direct Cricket safely across a busy intersection, how to navigate stores and malls, what commands Cricket was taught and how to correct him when he disobeyed. I had been sent guidework training material ahead of time which helped me prepare me for the experience, but nothing compared to the thrill and the stress of walking, hand on harness, with my guide dog independently.

It was a fast-paced time, and I got to know my three teammates Very. Well. More than once, they offered me tight hugs because I burst into frustrated tears in the middle of the mall, wondering if I would ever get the hang of guidework.

Training was exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating and empowering. I needed all the energy I could muster to make it through the experience and retain the information I learned. And I remember how it struck me upon arrival and continually throughout my stay at the school, how I was able to concentrate solely on my relationship with Cricket because of one thing.

Accessibility.

It should follow logically that, in being a school that trains both guide dogs and the handlers who receive them to be independent, Leader Dogs would be fully accessible to those with visual impairments. Yet, I still found myself awed by just how much independence they offered me.
And I realized just how much weight I’d been carrying on my own.

The example I most love to describe to my friends and family at home is the coffee machine. It sat on a table near the entrance to the RA’s office at the intersection of the Rochester and Avon hallways. And it was a popular spot. The coffee, I mean!

Beside each button was a brailled label with the name of the corresponding drink. I’m not a coffee person per se, but I made regular use of the cappuccino button! The rows of buttons and drink options seemed endless, and I wondered how long it would take me to memorize the order. But I didn’t have to.
Nor did I have to memorize where the cups, lids, sugar packets, creamers or tea bags were. Each basket that held these items were also labelled in braille and stayed in their place to the left of the coffee machine, easy to find whenever the craving struck.

I’m a coffee person, but my body doesn’t appreciate it as much. But while I was there, I visited the coffee station frequently, not only because I loved indulging in a drink that I didn’t buy often at home, but simply because I could.
I could grab a coffee whenever I wanted. Other than in my own kitchen, I’ve never experienced that anywhere. If I’m out, a sighted person is often assisting me with selecting a drink from a menu that isn’t accessible, or making it for me since I don’t know where they keep their mugs and coffee pot. Relying on others has become a norm for certain things in my life, something that I’ve resigned myself to accept.
But until I tasted this freedom, I hadn’t realized just how inaccessible, and unwilling to change, the world around me truly was. But here, I was valued, I was treated equal and meeting my needs wasn’t a nice thing to do–it was the right thing to do.

Accessibility was all over Leader Dogs for the Blind and it vibrated throughout the building and the program just how highly they prioritized it.
At the intersection between the Rochester and Avon hallways, tactile markers were set out on the floor so that I could distinguish by the texture when I was approaching the triangle. Along the hallways were handrails, and at varying intervals, my fingers would find a knob protruding from the underside of the rail. That knob was an indicator to lift my hand straight up to just above the rail where I’d find a sign with the name of the room directly across the hall from where I stood, in braille. And next to each door, there again was a sign with the room name to ensure that it was clear where you were.

In our rooms, a brailled schedule was fastened to the backside of the door, with the daily times for parking, feeding, watering and mealtimes listed for clients to check what was coming up next. Each room, and many of the common areas, were equipped with an Amazon Alexa, which made checking weather conditions, setting alarms for wake up, parking and feeding times as easy as ever. The dining room was set with several tables, with about eight or ten chairs around each for the teams and their instructors to enjoy meals together. to the back of each chair was adhered a braille number so that we could easily identify our assigned seat. I was #7.

It was completely accessible. And the freedom of it almost brought me to tears.

For a few weeks, I didn’t have to compensate for my lack of vision. I didn’t have to make justifications for the lack of accessibility all around me; “It’s too complicated, too expensive, too time-consuming, to make X-Y-Z accessible. It’s okay.” [For the record, it is not okay!] I didn’t have to ask for help nearly as often as I did at home or out in my community where things were constantly changing and making it difficult to be independent.

I was given a break. I could just be me, and I could rest. I didn’t have to work so hard just to exist. The world was finally catering to my needs rather than the other way around.

Three and a half weeks later, when I returned to Canada from training with my new, handsome, Cricket guiding me, I mourned the loss of that independence. I felt as though a part of me had been stripped and left at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I was back to the “real world,” the one in which I had to compensate for my blindness and never expect the world to meet me halfway. I was exhausted before I got off the plane.

Friends, this is why accessibility is so important. It isn’t a luxury. It isn’t disabled people being entitled or selfish or asking too much.

It’s realizing that disabled people are equal and valuable, and although our needs are unique, meeting them isn’t optional. It’s necessary to better the world and make it more inclusive for all of its people.

ON ACCESSIBILITY — IT’S JUST THE RIGHT THING TO DO

Accessibility is near and dear to the hearts of many a person with a disability.

Why?

Because for me, it’s how the world tells me, “Hey Rhianna, we value you. You are important. We value your contributions to society as a person, and we want you to know that you matter.”

But unfortunately, this isn’t always the message that I receive.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this:

After moving to a new city in early 2021, I was in search of a family doctor. I happened upon one practice in my neighbourhood and they had an application for prospective patients to complete. When I called the clinic to enquire if they had an electronic version that they could send to me, the receptionist rudely informed me that the application is only available in hard copy print and in no way could they provide an alternative format. My only option was to have a sighted friend fill it out for me. Having no other choice, I did just that.
My landlady picked up the form, and before leaving the office, asked that same receptionist about their policy of no electronic documents.
“We cannot provide electronic forms due to the possibility that someone may copy it for their own purposes,” came the clipped reply.
“Like they can’t do that with a photocopier,” my landlady said as she walked out with the printed application.
Needless to say, I never returned the form to that practice, resolving to find one that prioritized their patients’ needs above their convenience.

Yes—I said convenience. Because the truth is that it is often more a matter of convenience rather than an inability to accommodate.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example. When it became unsafe to attend medical appointments in person, and appointments went to virtual platforms, I breathed a tentative sigh of relief. On one hand, previously inconvenient obligations were now made easier and more accessible as I didn’t have to arrange rides to and from the clinics, spend money for the time and transportation, and I was able to handle my affairs independently. But on the other hand, a question was niggling at me, and the friends in whom I confided in, were also wrestling with this question.

Why did the change that disabled people had been lobbying for only come about when it became an inconvenience for the able-bodied? How come, when the world was thrown into unprecedented chaos, could we so quickly adapt to alternative means of living, yet, it was too inconvenient or “not available at this time” when a disable person asked for it before?

Was the voice of the non-disabled truly that much more valued than that of the disabled?

Let me tell you another story, thankfully one with a happier ending. I do not want this post to be all doom-and-gloom because there are people and businesses out there that do prioritize accessibility and the people who live with disabilities. It’s just sadly, the rarity.

It was November 2020, and I was sitting on the guest bed at a friend’s house, dialing the number for the walk-in clinic to ask for a prescription for antidepressant medication. When the receptionist answered, I launched into my explanation, undoubtedly a defensive tone to my voice: “I’m calling because I’m fully blind and use a screenreader on my laptop, but I wasn’t able to do the booking online as you requested. But I really need this medication for my depression and I was wondering if I could book a doctor’s appointment through you, please?” I waited, a bundle of nerves in the bottom of my belly.
“Of course. I’m sorry that the website was not accessible for you. Let me connect you with one of our nurses who will help you complete the mental health questionnaire for the doctor.”
I was astounded. Did they just accommodate my blindness without so much as a blink? I wasn’t reprimanded for going against their written request to book online only. I never once felt like a waste of time, or an inconvenience. I was heard, accepted, and treated like a valued individual.

How different are those two experiences? Where one wasn’t willing to think outside the box and offer their best service to a potential patient, the other was willing to recognize where their system was lacking and remedy that the best they could in the interest of getting me the help I needed. Where I felt excluded and devalued by the first practice, the second overwhelmed me; they cared about me, and I don’t know if any able-bodied person can truly understand how amazing this feeling is.

The problem is that it shouldn’t feel amazing. It should feel normal.

That’s what it comes down to. Accessibility is more than a laundry list of physical adaptations to be made in order to appease the disabled person. It’s making the world accessible for every person that lives in it, ensuring we know that you see us as valuable and equal.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few suggestions for those physical accommodations I mentioned, as, making a space, digital or physical, a welcoming and inclusive one for all, is a vital part in the wellbeing of
Let’s consider a few scenarios and how you can work to improve:

• Your website isn’t accessible for screenreader users? Hire an accessibility tester to offer feedback on ways you can improve.

• Are your virtual presentations audio-only? Provide closed captions for those that may be hard-of-hearing.

• Do you post lots of photos on your social media? Write an alt text [alternate text] description of the photo so that your visually impaired followers know what the photo is.

• Do your clients need to complete forms or paperwork for your services? Offer them the option to fill it out online or in an electronic document so that their personal information (like medical records, and identification) can be disclosed privately without a third-party.

There are countless ways to be more inclusive and accessible to someone with a disability, and so often, it’s simple and easy to incorporate into your business plan or process.
But the simplest, and best, thing to do for accessibility?

Ask.

If you want to know if your business is accessible, reach out to the disability community for input. Trust me: we won’t berate you for not already being accessible; we’re just grateful that you value us enough as people and as consumers to make your business accessible for us.

This article, “7 Reasons Accessibility is Good for Business” sums it up well in their 7th point: “The previous 6 reasons all amount to one main one: building sites and apps that are accessible is just the right thing to do! Just like you would hold open the door for your elderly neighbor who has trouble walking, you’d want to extend that same courtesy to everyone who wishes to enter your digital environment.
And this doesn’t even have to be for ethical/moral reasons – even if business outcomes are your number one priority, you’d naturally want as many users and/or customers as possible. Preventing people from purchasing your products or using your services would be the near equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.”

I am a person who, day in and day out, lives on the cusp of accessibility; every time I visit a website, download an app, or walk through the door of a brick-and-mortar store, I don’t know if I’ll be facing a welcoming and accommodating space, or one where I have to fight for what the able-bodied take for granted. When I visit a doctor’s office, will I be able to independently fill out my medical information or be subjected to share it with a third-party because they only have a printed form? Will the cashier at Walmart address me as my own person, or direct all conversation to the able-bodied friend that I’m shopping with because they don’t realize that I’m 25 and don’t need someone to speak for me?

Accessibility isn’t an inconvenience. It’s a necessity. Don’t do it just because I’m asking you to. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it to show that you love and value your disabled friends and neighbours.

Do it to make this world a better one for all of us.

WHY I WAS AFRAID TO WRITE BLIND CHARACTERS AND WHY I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE

On April 6, 2020, beloved Canadian children’s author, Jean Little, passed away at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of love and best sellers, including Mine for Keeps, Hand in Hand, Dancing Through the Snow, and From Anna.

But having been wrapped up in earning my English degree, training with my first guide dog, moving cities and of course, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’d lost touch with many of my beloved childhood authors and their books—like Jean Little. For two years after graduating university, I couldn’t pick up a book; my brain was so spent from four years of literary analyses and creative writing portfolios that I couldn’t enjoy the act of reading.
But with the announcement of Little’s passing and all the fond memories that flooded back with it, I resolved to re-acquaint myself with her books.

My favourite as a kid was From Anna. My TVI (Teacher of the Visually Impaired) had embossed a braille copy for me, and I kept the volumes next to my bed within easy reach for late-night reading sprees. The dots wore down, and the pages adopted a permanent curve from leaning against the wall on an angle, but that just speaks to how much I loved this book.
And I wasn’t the only one. This tribute to Jean counts From Anna among her most cherished works.

It was a few weeks ago now that I read Forward, Shakespeare!, a story that follows a young dog called Shakespeare as he trains at The Seeing Eye to become a guide dog, and is matched with a teenaged boy named Tim who wants nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare or his blindness. I was captivated by this book, reading it front to back in one night; it’s masterfully written, engaging and is an accurate representation of the lifestyle of working with a guide dog. Jean herself received her guide dogs from this same school.

But as I laid awake, long after I’d turned the final page, I was struck by such an overwhelming feeling that it took me many nights to process what it truly was.

It was that near indescribable feeling of being known. Of being understood and validated and accepted for who you are and where you are in your story.

I was just like Tim.
As a teenager, and even in my early twenties, I felt the same things as Tim—I was angry, guarded, bitter and unwilling to accept the circumstances of my blindness as they were. I had closed myself off and wouldn’t let anyone help me. But somehow, in the pages of one children’s book, I found a friend. I met someone who understood me and my story, someone who wasn’t ashamed to feel what they felt, even though others might wish that he would just let it go and move on. Through Tim, Jean Little said, “I understand you, Rhianna, and it’s okay.”

But as wonderful as it felt to be understood and “gotten” by this one character, it is the very thing I resolved never to do in my own books.

Follow this blog for any length of time and you’ll become very familiar with my fear of being known only by my blindness. With God’s help, I’m overcoming this fear—this blog itself is a testament to that—yet, it still lingers in the corners of my mind with each post that I publish. And when plotting and outlining for future books, I kept to this one, non-negotiable rule:

No. Blind. Characters.

If I wrote a character with a visual impairment, I was driving the final nail into the identity coffin—there would be no chance of shaking the dreaded “blind writer” label after that. After all, other disabled authors are only known by their disability.

Right?

Wrong.

While Jean Little was blind, worked with guide dogs and wrote books about children with varying disabilities, she isn’t remembered because of her blindness.

She’s remembered for who she was and how her books changed lives. Though her characters were primarily children with disabilities, that isn’t what endears her books to our hearts. It’s the humanity that those characters bring. It’s “her ability to see the truth within her characters, and her willingness to follow wherever they [choose] to take her and her readers.” It’s in the heart of characters like Tim which give readers like me a way to feel known and loved.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I realized that the outline for my current novel contains a blind character, guide dog and all! I hadn’t even realized what I’d done.
I, a blind writer, would write a book with a blind character. Or shall I be more precise and say, I will write a book with a blind character.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great!

Besides, who better to write a blind character than an author who “gets” it? I think that’s why Tim meant so much to me, because I knew that through him, Jean Little got me, too.

And so, I’ve resolved to change my resolve.

If Jean Little could do it, I can do it. If she could fearlessly write characters with visual impairments and be confident in herself as a writer and as a blind woman, then maybe I can, too.

And if Tim, a blind character in a children’s story could be someone that I saw myself in and in so doing, see a way out of the darkness we both experienced, I think it’s time I become a rule breaker.

It’s time to embrace who I am, both as a blind woman and as a writer.

Thank you Jean Little… you are dearly missed, but your books will live on and continue to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Like they have in mine.

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.

I’M STILL BLIND WHEN THE LIGHTS ARE ON

According to medical professionals, I’m blind. My optic nerve has been removed, my hazel eyes have been hand painted and my faithful sidekick is a cuddly, golden lab guide dog. I would say I qualify as a blind girl.

I also struggle with depression and anxiety. Now, I have not been given any medical diagnoses for these. At times, this has been frustrating because there are those people who require a diagnosis before they believe it’s real. At times, it is liberating because it gives me hope that I don’t have to live within the label that so many ascribe to those who have official diagnoses.

And there is one more thing I should mention before we go any further. I am a devoted believer in Jesus Christ, and my faith has made all the difference.
But when you take my faith, blindness, depression and anxiety into one and try to reconcile them with each other, that’s where many people run into roadblocks. Especially those people in the church.

The church has been my home for my entire life and I have found much love, encouragement and compassion there. However, I know there are sadly, those within it that do not embody the deep love, encouragement and compassion that I was shown. And they, among others, are who I hope will read this.

No one would deny that I’m blind. We’ve covered this. My prostheses are enough evidence of that. But because I cannot offer physical evidence of my depression and anxiety, some would see this as evidence itself of its invalidity. And to those who doubt, I will say only one thing:
I’m still blind when the lights are on.

Within the church, I’ve encountered varying views on mental health struggles, and unfortunately, many are negative. Here are some:
— “You must not pray hard enough.”
— “God is a god of joy. Depression is the opposite of joy. Are you truly following God?”
— “He can take away your anxiety. Just ask Him.”
— “The Bible says not to worry. Having anxiety is a sin.”
To those who hold these views, I offer you this scenario:

I walk into a room and am searching for a chair I’ve been told is there. I know to look on the left side of the room, but I don’t know where along the length of the wall it will be. A stranger comes into the room behind me and seeing me slowly searching the space, exclaims: “Oh dear! You’re blind! Here, I’ll turn on the light. There, that’s better. Now you can see where the chair is.”
How silly! Turning on the light wouldn’t change a thing. My optic nerve still doesn’t connect my brain to my eye. Turning on the light doesn’t change my blindness.

But people seem to think it should change my mental health.

If one could just turn on God’s light, then their depression would disappear. If they would just pray, they wouldn’t have panic attacks.
But that is not the case. Of course there is power in prayer and it’s not wrong to pray for healing or help to cope. But prayer isn’t a machine that vomits the right answer if you pray the right prayer. It’s a way to draw closer to God and listen to what He wants to tell you.

So, maybe He won’t take away my anxiety or depression. Maybe He won’t miraculously transform my acrylic eyes into real ones. But somehow, this doesn’t come across very clear to some people in the church. Because these illnesses are of the mind, their legitimacy is often questioned. And because they can be questioned, it’s easy to point fingers and accuse those dealing with them of weak faith.

“If you could just pray more, you wouldn’t be depressed.”
“If you would just trust more, you wouldn’t have anxiety.”

But if you turn on the lights, a blind girl is still blind.
If you have faith, you can still struggle with mental health.

Even if we believe in God’s power to transform our hearts and perform miracles in our lives, it doesn’t equate to a life without hardship. I believe in Him and I’m still blind. I believe in Him and I still struggle with anxiety. Our faith in Jesus shouldn’t change because of our circumstances. But what I pray does change is the view that our circumstances should.
Though to be quite honest, I don’t care if people’s circumstances change or not. As long as their hearts do.

DISABLED PEOPLE AREN’T MADE OF SUGAR — WE WON’T MELT IN YOUR PRAISE

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told, “You’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt” and sent out into the pouring rain.
I have… looking at you, Mama! But you know what? Cover your ears Mom… but she was right. We won’t melt. I have never once melted from excessive moisture or soaked-sock syndrome.

The same goes for people with disabilities and the praise we often receive for just… living.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, able-bodied reader of mine, but compliments regarding a disabled person’s ability to carry out simple daily living tasks are not flattering; they’re belittling.

In my eighteen years of blindness, I’ve been praised for almost everything. Some of the more notable examples are being praised for my ability to walk up a set of stairs, knowing the names of the streets in my neighbourhood and being capable of using a microwave without assistance, and all of these as a twenty-something woman. So yes, I am referring to praise for the simple acts of living a normal life—cooking, taking transit, getting dressed, putting on make up, using the Internet, etc. Think of something normal that able-bodied people wouldn’t think twice about and I can bet you that we’ve been praised for it.

Let me make this clear:
These are not compliments.

This is empty praise. It’s meant to bolster our confidence and flatter, to encourage and give us a pat on the back. We’re supposed to be honoured, to feel grateful and flattered that you noticed our achievements. So often, I hear that the able-bodied person is just being nice and that they have the best intentions with these comments, which may be true; I’m not the judge of someone else’s motive.

But when one of these “compliments” comes my way, I feel a lot of things… and flattered is at the bottom of the list.
You need to know the truth.

I feel small.

I feel patronized.

I fear that everything I do will always be viewed through the lens of my disability and what able-bodied society deems to be praise-worthy and what isn’t.

And a question always arises that I’ve never found an answer for: Do people truly believe that my life is so bad that I need the simplest things to be celebrated to make it worthwhile?

But let’s take a step back for a minute and get comfy. It’s story time!

THE ONE WHO WAS AMAZED

I met Mac in the summer of 2020 when I plucked up my extrovert courage and walked into yet another young adults group at a local church. My friend and I had been searching for a community like this for a few months and I was getting utterly exhausted. The emotional strain of putting myself out there, enduring not only the standard small talk of a new social circle but the inevitable questions about my blindness and my guide dog that I knew would come was wearing me out.

The first meeting went very well without incident, and the second was encouraging. I got the questions about how much vision I had and how long I’d had my pup, but those were to be expected. I was starting to hope that I was becoming more part of the group and less of the blind girl.
Until the third week when Mac walked up to introduce himself. And it wasn’t long until it started… and wouldn’t stop.

Mac: So, you can use a microwave?
Rhi: Oh for sure! I put tactile dots on the buttons so I can tell what’s what, and from there, it’s easy. I do the same thing for my oven and my other kitchen appliances.
Mac: So, wait. You can cook?
Rhi: Totally, I love cooking. You just have to make some adaptations and then blind people can totally do it, just like everyone else.
Mac: Wow… just, wow. That’s so amazing!

No matter how I tried to redirect our conversation to something other than my disability, Mac steered us right back. My best friend, who witnessed the exchange, described his expression to me later as “a faraway, dazed expression of pure awe and amazement.” Needless to say, when we got home that night, I needed to vent a little steam.

I was the blind girl again.
Maybe that’s all I was.

I was more than my blindness, wasn’t I? That’s what my family said. That’s what my therapist said. That’s what God said… right? I was a daughter, a friend, writer, and lover of espresso milkshakes. That counted for something, didn’t it?

But when none of the rest of who I was mattered to Mac, I couldn’t help but question what I’d been taught about myself.

What Mac didn’t know was that just a few hours earlier that afternoon, I had sat on my couch, writing out a list of posts for my new blog. “I’m going to do it,” I told my guide dog, Cricket. “I don’t care if they only know me as the blind girl. I’m going to start a blog and do what I love.” The peace that I felt was indescribable—it was like coming home.

I would write, no matter what.

But when I met Mac, my resolve was completely undone. If I was only ever going to be seen as the blind girl, then why write when everything I say would be filtered through my blindness? Would anything I say concerning anything outside of my disability even be heard?

My peace was stolen from me. And I watched it go.

Trade in Your Praise for Puddles

What I should have done is tell Mac what I’m about to tell you:

Stop! And just listen.

My blindness has shaped me in more ways than I even realize today. It’s a big part of my story and a part that I will never deny or diminish. Jennifer Rothschild said: “My blindness doesn’t define me. It refines me.” [My apologies, I couldn’t find the source of this quote as I don’t have access to all her books in accessible formats. Remind me to rant about that later].
My blindness doesn’t define me, but it refines me. I just love that. Don’t you?

But when I, as a disabled person, receive compliments for doing the things I need to do to live, it becomes the thing that defines me. My disability becomes the central force around which my existence revolves.

That’s not how I want to live.
But you’ll have to help me.

Stop paying me compliments for living in spite of my blindness. I do not cope with my blindness. I do not suffer from my blindness.
I am not my blindness.

Will you help me?

Will you help us?

I know that you mean well. But it isn’t enough. Stop and look. See us. See us for who we are and not what our bodies can and can’t do. Stop praising us for things that you wouldn’t compliment your fellow able-bodied comrade for, and look deeper. We’re human beings with stories of our own to share and voices to tell them.

So rather than expecting us to melt beneath the warmth of your praise, just take our hands and jump in the puddles with us instead.

Come on, I can’t be the only 24-year-old who still does that, right?