Seeing without sight – creative writing by Megan Paul

Light And Sight

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In the beginning, God’s first problem was darkness and so he created light. Light travels faster than sound. This is why you see lightning before you hear the thunder.

‘We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.’ (Ben Okri)

Visual impairments can be caused by a wide range of eye conditions and complications with brain functioning. If we imagine blindness to be represented by the colour black and full sight as white, most visually impaired people are a shade of grey. All my life I have seen shapeless light and colour through one eye.

One morning, I woke to find that the sky was green. The sun was a purple smudge through the window. After a few days, this gulf between what I was seeing and my reasoning gave me a headache. I wore sunglasses for the 3 months I waited for a visit to Dr Atkinson. He found a yellow cataract growing over my eye. Unlike a typical cataract, it can’t be removed because my eye isn’t a typical eye. Now I’ve adapted to green skies, creamy clouds, orange postboxes and lime green computer screens. It’s expected that I will lose my colours until only yellow is left. It’s fortunate because yellow is my favourite colour.

Blind person in context I

Nurse: Before you go into Dr Atkinson, we’d like you to do an eye test. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.Blind person: Do you have my file in front of you?

Nurse: I do.

Blind person: Then you’ll know that it’s pointless to give me an eye test.

Nurse: It’s procedure, I’m afraid.

Blind person: I was born blind. I’ve been blind for the last 20 years. I have here my document from the council which certifies me as blind. Your eye test isn’t going to find anything.

Nurse: We need to make sure your sight hasn’t changed-

Blind person: It hasn’t.

Nurse: If I could just ask you to read the letters from left to right?

Blind person: T? I think that’s a W? An A, and another T?

Nurse: It’s clear that you can’t see these letters.

Blind person: It’s clear that you’re an idiot.

‘The real tragedy in my life has never been my lack of vision. The tragedy has been society’s attitude toward my blindness.’ (Nancy Burns)

megimage4When I was 10, Mum took me to have my shells fitted. These are like thick plastic contact lenses that fit over the front of a deformed eye to make it look more realistic. The specialist created a mould of my eye by inserting a funnel between my eyelids. She had applied anaesthetic drops beforehand but my eyes couldn’t respond to them. Liquid was poured into the funnel and for the ten minutes it took for the mould to solidify, I hyperventilated and tried to keep back the tears that would prevent the mould from setting. It took half an hour for the specialist to make a wax prototype of my shell. She had stuck pegs into the wax to mark where my pupils and iris would be painted. She forced this between my resisting eyelids and I tried not to cry out. 2 weeks later, the plastic shells had been painted. The specialist slid them onto the fronts of my eyes and I started to cry. I couldn’t move my eyes to get rid of the tears or to ease the burning of my eyeballs. Mum was crying too.

“You look like a real little girl,” she said.

Blind person in context, II

Blind person: That woman just said Next are having a sale.Mum: Stop earwigging. It’s rude to listen to people’s conversations.

Blind person: You look at other people. Is that rude?

Mum: I can’t help it.

Blind person: I can’t help listening.

You can see without sight.

‘Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed.

“Nothing in particular,” she replied.

I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little. How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. In spring I touch the branches of trees hopefully in search of a bud, the first sign of awakening nature after her winter’s sleep. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of nature is revealed to me.’
(Helen Keller)

The Dotty Stuff

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In braille, each print letter is a combination of 6 dots; d is dots 1, 4, 5, and f is dots 1, 2, 4, for example.

My friend’s friend has a braille tattoo. She asked the tattoo artist to form an ink replica of the dots. She chose to have ‘the ugly duckling’ written in braille, because it was a childhood favourite of hers. Unfortunately the artist found it difficult to copy the tightly spaced pattern of dots and my friend’s friend has ‘the ugly fuckling’ brailled on her arm.

1 a4 page of text = 3 braille pages.

1 300 page print book = 5 braille volumes.

Blind person in context III

Blind person: I’m doing a project for school and I’d like to borrow a copy of the Oxford Children’s Encyclopedia.Librarian: I’m afraid it’s in 59 volumes. If you tell me what your project’s about, I can have a few volumes sent out to you.

Blind person: It’s about elephants.

Librarian: Ele to elf is in 4 volumes. I’ll get that sent-

Blind person: But Mrs Faulkner says we also have to look at mammoths.

Librarian: The mam section is 7 volumes long so we’ll have to wait for your ele volumes to come back before we can send you the mam section.

In contracted braille, each letter of the alphabet is a word: a, but, can, do, every, from, go, have, i, just, knowledge, like, more, not, o, people, quite, rather, so, that, us, very, will, it, you, as.

I do that so you can have a go.

megimage6And the braille signs for words: and, the, still, child, shall, of, with, for. For is all 6 dots together. This is how to cross out in braille: for for for for for for.

Most books are brailled in prisons. This is because the text can be typed into the computer and printed out using an embosser (a braille printer.) When I came to study Macbeth, I found that curious messages had been inserted into my copy of the play. Underneath the witches’ fateful warnings to Macbeth had been written ‘Let’s chop up Theobald the pope.’

It’s hard to read when your fingers are cold.

Clinton Cards sell brailled cards at triple the price of a print equivalent. Every year, my friends and relatives present me with one of these cards with comments that illustrate their pleasure at having found me a card I could read. I have never felt able to tell them that the Clintons’ birthday range wishes me a ‘nappy hirthday’ whilst their Christmas cards bear the greeting: ‘with good fishes for the festive season.’

Communication

‘I know you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you recognise that what you heard is not necessarily what I meant.’ (Robert Mcclosky)

Blind person in context IV

Blind person: Excuse me, please could you show me the way to the ticket office?Receptionist: Just follow the signs.

Blind person: I can’t see the signs. Would it be possible for you to take my arm and show me?

Receptionist: It’s just over there.

Blind person: Where?

Receptionist: Just there, next to the toilets.

Blind person: I can’t see the toilets. Please could you just take me to where it is?

Receptionist: You’ll have to wait until I can get one of my colleagues to take you.

megimage5Albert Mehradian found that the verbal component of a face-to-face conversation is less than 35% and that over 65% of communication is done non-verbally.

‘The voice is the sight of the person who cannot see.’ (Jose Saramago)

Blind person in context V

Person: It’s such a nice day. I was looking out the window and I… oh my God, I’m so sorry.Blind person: What?

Person: I said looking, didn’t I? I’m so stupid. I meant I was… well… feeling out the window.

Blind person: Saying things like look isn’t going to kill me. (Pause.) See what I mean?

Touch is my eye contact. To clasp your hand is to catch your eye; my first impressions of you as a physical being are gained from the texture of your skin and the shape of your fingers. To hold and be held in return is my way of looking at you as I speak. Through that hug, I feel your mood and your state of mind. Glares and other negative gestures are harder to convey. I stay silent.

Technology

Clocks, thermometers, computers, phones, microwaves… anything can talk if it is given the correct programming. A screenreader is a piece of software which reads aloud the text on screen.

This is how to open a file from the Desktop:
Windows m, Desktop, folder view list view, My Documents, 1 of 27, to move to items use the arrow keys period, enter, My Documents, items view multiselect list box, not selected Stuff 1 of 46, down arrow Test Files, up arrow Stuff, enter Stuff, items view multiselect list box, not selected Test dot txt 30 slash 10 slash 2013 21 colon 34 text document 0 kb 1 of 1, enter Test dot txt dash Notepad edit type in text period.

Our school for the blind was a discord of synthetic voices. We had to compete with this racket to be heard. It was Dan Owen who discovered the glitch with the screenreader Jaws. If you typed in wedhesday or h’ve, the screenreader would crash because it failed to pronounce these nonsense words. It necessitated a complete restart of the computer. We were soon emailing wedhesdays to each other and sending h’ves by msn. The school became a rabble of despairing laptop-pummelling pupils; some wept at their inability to recover lost work and others banged their heads against their desks because they couldn’t understand why their laptops wouldn’t speak to them. The Headmistress responded to this by banning the crashwords from use throughout the school. If anyone was found to have typed wedhesday or h’ve, they were given detention.

The Apex is a braille computer which is about the size and weight of an iPad. In place of a screen, it is fitted with a row of 32 electronic braille cells. It costs £6000.

‘I’m talking until my battery goes flat! This repetition is enough to drive me crazy. How about you? I’m talking until my battery goes flat! This repetition is enough to drive me crazy. How about you? I’m talking until my battery goes flat! This repetition is enough to drive me crazy. How about you? I’m talking until my battery goes flat! This repetition is enough to drive me crazy. How about you?’

I own a talking colour probe, which tells me the colour of anything I put under the sensor. It helps me choose the correct t-shirt from my wardrobe and distinguish the shampoo from the conditioner. It has also informed me that my hair is “olive green.”

And to unlock my phone:
Press unlock to activate keypad, unlock, keypad unlocked, Vodafone UK window, Wed 30 dot 10 dot 2013, key 1 Messaging, key 2 Gallery, select Contacts.

Blind person in context VI

Person: Why does your laptop talk so fast?Blind person: I like it like that.

Person: But you can’t understand it!

Blind person: Can’t I?

Person: It’s speaking so quickly… I can’t tell what it’s saying.

Blind person: Think about it. Do you sit and read all the junk on screen or do you skimread?

Moving Around

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A cane is a white stick which hits objects before the blind person does. A cane user learns a route as a sequence of tactile landmarks.

Come out of the door, go straight until you hit the kerb, follow the kerb until you feel a small gap. Cross over. Step up onto the pavement and pick up the wall. Follow it until you find the gate. Cross. Go straight until you find the doorway to the shop.

In my first year of secondary school, my friend and I invented a great game which involved my cane.

“We’ll sit here in the corridor,” said Phoebe, “and you put your cane up in front of you, like you normally do. I’ll nudge you when someone’s coming past and you accidentally on purpose drop your cane.”

“And then they trip over?” I giggled.

For weeks we sat in the Science corridor, waiting for someone to walk past. Then Phoebe would elbow me, I would let my cane fall, and the person’s gasp of surprise and flustered apologies never lost their appeal for us. If there were pupils who were sick of being tripped up 3 times in the lunch hour, they never said anything. On our last day of the game, Phoebe and I had taken up position in the corridor. I heard the entrance doors swing shut and a person coming up the stairs. They were almost level with us. Phoebe had forgotten to nudge me but that didn’t matter. I dropped my cane. There was a splintery crash as the cane collided with a trolley, a juddering clatter, and the smash as dozens of test tubes shattered on the floor.

‘I’m always seeing blind people around with their canes and strange looking faces.’ (David Foster Wallace)

At blind school, we had a craze for cane wars. We would square up to each other, whirling our canes in the air until they collided with a satisfying clash of plastic on metal. As girls, our objective was to hit the boys between the legs. Their canes were always wielded at our chest height. Chamandeep Grover developed a knack for aiming at the knee caps and for weeks we went around with bruised legs and blistered fingers. One snowy day, I managed to beat Chamandeep by using my stick to shovel a heap of melting snow down his trousers. I enjoyed the prestigious title of ‘cane wars champion’ for 3 days before he challenged me to another fight. It was a brutal battle in which my trusty bashing stick got snapped in half and I was caneless for the rest of the term.

‘If you’re lost, you’re not lost forever.’ (Andrea Salt)

A guide dog takes their owner in a straight line unless directed to do otherwise, stopping at the kerb until their owner judges it to be safe to cross the road. They follow such commands as ‘over’ (move left), ‘keep in’ (move right) and ‘find the way’ to get their owner past obstacles and to help them reach their destination.

‘We then came to the most complex part of our route: an area where there are a lot of cars parked on the pavement. Tate and I were walking along, and he stopped. My GDMI (Guide Dogs Mobility Instructor) told me that this was because there was an obstacle blocking the way; in this case, it was a car.

“Tate can make the decision to take you between the building and the car,” she explained, “or he’ll guide you off the kerb and into the road until you can go back up onto the pavement again. Ask him to go forward and see what he does.”

Tate walked me to the kerb and waited for the command to take me onto the road and around the car. After a few steps, he guided me back onto the pavement again. We hadn’t continued for long when Tate slowed down; I could make out the shape of a line of parked cars in the sun. Although they were on the pavement, Tate obviously felt that the gap was big enough to get me through, because he slowly guided me between the cars and the building. My GDMI warned me that I might get a brush from the wing mirrors but when the brush came, it was so slight that I hardly felt anything…

The enormity of what he was doing began to register with me. This dog was thinking about the safest ways to guide me around all the things that have stood in my way for years. He was using the skills he’s been taught to keep me safe… Being guided by a dog is so different from the cane, but my white stick never had the initiative and intelligence that Tate showed today. I wish he could understand how much that meant to me.’ (http://mylifewithtate.wordpress.com)

Things

‘Now I have to say that I am on very bad terms with the inanimate world. Even when making a cup of coffee or changing a lightbulb…, I think – what is it with objects? Why are they so aggressive?’ (Martin Amis)

Bruises, cuts and scratches are to be expected. It’s easy to forget that the door was left half open or that crossing the living room too fast might result in hitting your knee on the coffee table. As human beings, we need to make mistakes in order to learn. Blind people are not exempt from this.

I remember making a collage with my helper. I was cutting the fabric and she was guiding my hand as I cut. She said “snip” each time she was ready for me to close the scissors. With her other hand she manipulated the material. It was thick so I put force behind my cutting. “Snip.” I remember the feel of the scissors around her finger. It was as if I’d cut into a piece of foam. “Put down the scissors,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” Our teacher found her in the staff toilets where she was leaning over a sinkful of her blood. I had cut off the end of her finger. She tells me she still has the scar.

Blind person in context VII

Blind person: Hi. Could we have 2 margheritas and a Hawaiian please?Shopkeeper: Sorry mate, this is PC World.

If you want to exclude a blind person, get out the photo albums.

I went to stay with a friend, who also happens to be blind. In the evening I brushed my teeth; we behave like normal people in many respects. Borrowing my friend’s toothpaste, I applied some to my brush and lifted it to my mouth. I couldn’t smell mint. My friend must use a different flavoured toothpaste, I reasoned. I ran the brush over my back teeth and my tongue began to burn as an acidic soapy taste swamped my mouth. I had tried to brush my teeth with hair remover.

My favourite sound is shshshshshshshshshshshsh.

There are lots of things that look scary. Airraid sirens, thunder, owls and Big Ben are things that sound scary.

Love

I haven’t been on a blind date; neither have I been in a relationship with someone who could see me. It is too much to expect others to look at me when I have no concept of what it means to look at others.

‘If love is blind, then maybe a blind person that loves has a greater understanding of it.’ (Chriss Jami)

My blind friend is seeing a station guard. He was guiding her off the London train and escorting her onto the Cross Country to Nottingham. It was delayed by half an hour and he waited with her. They talked.

“Will you take my number?” he asked my friend. “You’re a great girl and I want to keep in touch.”

She texted him on the way to Nottingham. He texted her back. They texted for days, then they spoke. Then he asked her out on a date. He saw her beauty not her blindness. This story gives me hope.

Life

My grandparents like to tell me this story. When I was born, it was soon apparent that there was something wrong with my face and I was taken away to have tests. By the time I was returned to my parents a few hours later, my grandparents had driven up from Wales to be with them. The Ophthalmologist gave me back to my parents.

“She’s blind,” he said. “She’ll never be able to see.”

He walked away. No one knew what to do or say. My Dad was holding me.

“We don’t know what sort of future she’s going to have,” he said, “but the first thing I’m going to do is teach her to laugh.”

50 % of blind people are born with other disabilities. 66 % of the blind population is unemployed. Only 7 % of all printed materials are made available in accessible formats. I feel angry every time I come across a book that I can’t read. It epitomises everything I can’t do.

Blind person in context VIII

Blind person: Mrs Wilkinson really annoys me.Person: Mmm.

Blind person: That lesson was so pointless, it’s all the stuff we did last week. She’s such a crap teacher. And her French accent’s awful!

Person: She’s right behind you.

My teacher told me an anecdote about when Sir David Blunkett dined with the Queen. Like most blind people, Mr Blunkett struggles to use a knife and fork. Rather than make a mess with his food, he asked the Queen if she would be so kind as to cut up his meal for him.

“Certainly,” she said, “I cut up food for my corgis all the time.”

Blind person in context IX

Teacher: I’m afraid you won’t be able to come to your Maths lesson today.Blind person: Why not?

Teacher: We’re interviewing for a new Maths teacher and we’d like to observe them teaching your class. We feel that your presence in the classroom would unfairly disadvantage the candidates, particularly as we haven’t had time to prepare them for…

Blind person: That’s unacceptable. That’s discrimination.

Teacher: Well… blind people do get ignored in society and they do get discriminated against.

‘Just because… I have my own brain on my shoulders, they choose to ignore and belittle me. Fuck ’em. Fuck ’em all. No need to: they’re already fucked.’ (Stephen Fry)

I have never understood why the general perception of blind people is that we gain a great deal from feeling people’s faces. I think there is nothing more humiliating and degrading than to have a stranger insist that you feel their features and for them to take your resisting hand and rub it over their prickly chin or greasy cheeks. Before you can withdraw your arm, they have plunged your delicate fingers into their stringy hair. To explore someone’s face in this way is just as intimate as if I were to run my hands over the pores and wrinkles of your body. My picture of you is based on your voice, therefore your physical appearance is irrelevant.

Blind person in context X

Person: But there must be so many things you can’t do.Blind person: I can read in the car without getting travel sick. I don’t judge people by their looks. I can smell aeroplanes in the sky.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of throughscarlettseyes.com or VICTA Children. All content is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced in any form without express written consent of the author.

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4 thoughts on “Seeing without sight – creative writing by Megan Paul

  1. Dearest Megan, some wonderful writing – a pleasant break from my day, enjoying the words, the humour, the insights and ideas, the new and unfamiliar concepts, and some truly wonderful anecdotes.

    I have been intending to fulfil my word and pay a visit since you graced us here at Inlingua with a visit of your own, but I always find myself far busier than I imagine, and also far more distracted by more inconsequential things. Nevertheless, I am pleased to have made the time today.

    I have been thinking a lot about blindness and education since your visit, and wonder if I have any skills that may be put to better use elsewhere. Perhaps, you may be the best person to advise me on this.

    Thank you for sharing your words in the meantime.

      • Hi Charlotte,

        Sorry to contact you via the comments, but I’d really like to get in touch with Megan, if possible. I’ve just built a website and app called MacGuffin that I hope could be a useful resource for blind and vision impaired creative writers, and I wanted to invite Megan to try it. Part of the aim of the project is to address the issue Megan raises: ‘I feel angry every time I come across a book that I can’t read.’ All stories, essays and poetry on MacGuffin are in text *and* audio form – authors upload a reading to go with the text. The website’s at http://www.macguffin.io. It’s totally free to use, but you do have to create an account. There are app versions for iPhone and Android too.

        Anyway, I’d be incredibly grateful if you could pass this on to Megan and I’d love to know what she makes of it.

        Many thanks!

        Jim

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