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.