How many books can YOU think of with a disabled character? I’d love for you to drop me a message or a comment listing the characters and books you know of. I think it would be an interesting exercise for us all.
You see, if it’s true that art mirrors reality, then for every eight characters in the books we read, we should find one with a disability. Because that’s what the statistics from the World Health Organisation website tell us– 15% of the global population lives with a disability – https://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/report/en/#content
I understand some of the reason’s writers may not include us.
- They don’t see us out there in the world
- They don’t want to offend us
- They don’t want to misrepresent us.
Sure, I recognise that it doesn’t appear that every eighth person we pass in the street has a disability so writers may not be aware of how many of us there truly are. Also, many disabilities are invisible – psycho-social, cognitive, reading, some hearing impairments, to list but a few – so perhaps it appears we are a smaller group than we are. Then, because unemployment figures for persons with disabilities are so high, people don’t see us in the workplace. And sadly, sometimes when people do see us, they see the disability first and ignore the person as an individual. Finally, if you don’t have contact with a person with a specific disability, it may be hard to know what we can do.
I also understand the other concerns I listed. People have often told me they are nervous about approaching someone with a disability in case they cause offense by saying or doing the wrong thing. That’s due largely to a general lack of awareness of how we accomplish the tasks we do, the technology that enables us to live mostly “normal” lives, and the tools and techniques we have at our disposal. And yes, we are often scathing in our responses when we see a fictional character with a disability who is poorly represented. Or when disability is represented as being an unendurable catastrophe that cannot be overcome.
I want to challenge my fellow authors to be more inclusive when creating characters. Here are a few guidelines:
- Your lead protagonist doesn’t have to be the one with a disability; it could be a supporting character – but let us be included in the world you’re creating.
- Do your research – There is so much information out there about the way we live our lives as persons
with disabilities, so research this as you would other aspects of your book. Or reach out to someone with the specific disability you’re trying to represent.
- Don’t be scared to ask for input – just as you have beta readers to give you feedback on your book, ask someone with a disability to do the same, preferably someone with the disability your character has; most of us are willing to help, I promise.
Books are by no means the only medium where we are under-represented. Movies and TV are much the same. I’m excited to notice an increase in the number of characters with disabilities over the past few years. But we’ve still a long way to go.
We’re by no means the only minority that face this situation – Recently I’ve seen articles from other minority groups and, in some cases, majority groups, who are not well represented in the publishing world and other media. It’s starting to shift, but I believe we need far greater diversity of voices amongst those writing books. Having said that, a note for other authors with a disability – don’t feel obliged to write only about disability issues – you should feel free to create whatever you want.
So, there it is: my challenge to authors writing fiction – help us feel more included and less invisible in the world you’re creating. Help us see the world we inhabit in the books we read. And help us feel that we’re part of society as we experience it in all ways.
Now, who’s going to start the list of books with characters with disabilities? I’d love to see how many I’ve already read and how many I still have to discover…
It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.
This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.
My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.
As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:
Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!
We continue the series about tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace – this time looking at apps that use artificial intelligence (AI) to convert text and images into an audio format.
There are many such apps on the market, ranging in price from free to approximately R1500. The apps usually take a photograph of the text or image to be recognized and transmit it to the cloud for conversion. The process is usually fast and fairly accurate, though this may depend from product to product. The apps I usually use are Seeing AI, developed by Microsoft and available on the Apple app store at no cost, and Voice OCR Document Reader, developed by Shalin Shah, which costs around R80 at the time of writing.
I’ve also recently been looking at an app called Voice Dream Scanner, which I like since it does the conversion on the phone itself and so doesn’t need an internet connection – an asset considering the issue of confidentiality of information. It retails for around R100 on the app store and I’ve heard great reports on how well it works.
Of course, the far more important question is how apps like these could be used in the workplace.
The answer is pretty much anywhere where an employee who is blind wants or needs to access print material or even get help reading a computer screen, if for some reason the screen reader has stopped working.
Though more and more offices are becoming paperless nowadays, apps like these can still mean an employee who is blind would be able to access print documents like meting minutes and agendas, industry magazines and books, printed reports and some handwritten notes. though I fear we’re still a long way from an app that would be able to decipher my illegible scrawl!
I’m going to be stepping away from this series on tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace for a few weeks while I share some information on one of my other passions – travel, with a special focus on travel for persons with disabilities.
But I’m far from done on this topic – there are still a lot more tools I’d like to share with you to help raise awareness of the reality that blindness shouldn’t be a barrier to employment with all the tools that are available to us.
I’m always keen to discover how accessible a destination is, not only for me as The Blind Tourist, but for those with other disabilities.
As I’ve said before, each disability faces different challenges when traveling. As a simple example, a person in a wheelchair may have difficulty getting around a tourist site, if insufficient work has been done to create the correct accommodations like wider door access, ramps with the correct gradients, and accessible restroom facilities.
As a visually impaired tourist, I most often find the challenge is around access to information, which is why I do so much research about places I’m visiting before I even leave home. When it comes down to it, that research can only give me an overview. It doesn’t always help with the details and, as the famous saying goes, the devil is in the details.
So, what were my impressions of the accessibility of Kolkata,
For me, the hardest part of spending time in Kolkata was getting used to the sensory overload that is Kolkata – the vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, including their seemingly incessant hooting,; the amount of people on the sidewalks, especially at tourist sites and events like the IPL Cricket; and my lack of familiarity of the social norms in the country.
I’m sure I could have learned how to navigate around independently given time. But since I was trying to adjust to the dynamic, vibrant, and diverse new place in which I found myself, I didn’t really have the time to start developing techniques to get around on my own. Except within the hotel, which doesn’t really count.
Although I’m no expert when it comes to what may or may not constitute accessibility for someone in a wheelchair, or with other mobility challenges, my impression is that physical accessibility is great in some areas, less so in others. Certainly, I found myself wondering how someone in a wheelchair might navigate the amazing Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour we did while in the city. I’m doubtful the tour would have been accessible in its current form. But I’m sure our host would have been willing and able to adjust the tour to find more accessible options.
Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of my trip to Kolkata – the people. No matter what barrier I encountered, I discovered that people were always willing to help find or implement a solution. And I’m sure a traveler with a mobility impairment would find the same.
Having said that, I believe there is value in communicating with others who have experienced the accessibility of the place you’re planning on traveling to – whether another traveler with a similar reality, or an accessible travel professional. They can give you invaluable advice on your options.
By chance, a few days after returning home I came across an article, written by such a professional, that deals, in part, with accessibility in India. I’ve included the link below as I feel the article is a great resource for anyone considering traveling to India, regardless of whether or not you have a disability.
I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on parts of my journey to Kolkata. India is a country I hope to visit again – either for a return trip to Kolkata or to discover a different city or region.
Do you have any idea how nervous I felt crossing the multi-lane roads in Kolkata? And that was with sighted assistance. Doing so independently would have made me a nervous wreck!
It wasn’t that the roads were busy. Well, it was partially that, because I’ve never experienced such high volumes of traffic, even in the few times I’ve driven in rush-hour traffic in Johannesburg. Rather, what kept me in this heightened sense of anxiety was the constant hooting.
In South Africa hooting is generally used as a warning of imminent danger. So, if I’m walking with my guide dog and a nearby car hoots, I’m going to be on high alert.
in Kolkata, hooting seems to be more of a form of communication. It’s a way of letting the others on the road know you’re about to do something – like overtaking them, turning a corner, or parallel parking. And, with the vast numbers of vehicles on the road, it just seems to work.
To the uninitiated like me it seemed at first that the roads in Kolkata were crazy. The hooting only added to that perception, because I kept expecting danger to leap out from somewhere and devour us. So I was on a razor’s edge of anxiety anytime we were out and about in Kolkata those first few days.
But, it soon became my new normal, and it wasn’t long before I was happily walking across roads without even blinking when a driver hooted to let us know he was passing immediately behind us in the lane we’d just crossed.
In fact, I was unnerved by the almost total silence when we drove home from the airport on our return to Cape Town. I almost felt relieved when I heard a car hoot. It took another day or two for me to adapt back to our South African way of hooting… or not hooting, as the case may be. Which wasn’t a bad thing, since my initial anxiety kept me on high alert on my first walk with my guide dog after I got back. Although, I wonder if I’d just have waved if a driver had hooted. Or checked around me to ensure I wasn’t in danger.
The short video clip is of Craig and I on an auto-rickshaw navigating the streets of Kolkata.
For years I’ve believed that people with a disability have strong problem-solving skills. This was proven yet again when I was visiting India recently.
One of the maintenance staff on our floor of the hotel was hearing impaired and non-verbal. Which wasn’t a challenge until he arrived to service our room and I was on my own. In case you haven’t realized where the challenge lay, he could only communicate in writing or using gestures. Which I couldn’t see. In turn, I could only communicate with gestures, since my usual default – the spoken word – wasn’t going to be of help.
I suppose it must have looked funny to an observer, but our initial interaction was intensely frustrating to us both, standing in the doorway trying to figure out how we could communicate what we needed to say. Eventually, in sheer frustration, he turned and left, returning ten minutes later with his supervisor.
Over the next 24 hours I tried to figure out a better way for us to communicate. And, when he knocked on the door the next day, I was ready. I smiled and waved him inside.
But it looked like I wasn’t the only one who’d been giving the matter some thought. He entered the room, tapped his fingers on the bathroom door, the bed and the counter where the tea and coffee were, and then tapped his equipment trolley.
I nodded and smiled, indicating his communication had been received loud and clear. Then I picked up my white mobility cane and my room keycard, and left him to do his job. And returned 30 minutes later to a spotless room.
As a person who is visually impaired, I tend to rely on the spoken word to express my needs. As a professional speaker that’s my trade. This experience taught me the importance of including different types of communications in my presentations so my message can reach more people in my audience.
It also reinforced my belief that we, as persons who are differently abled, are great at solving problems since we have to do it on an almost daily basis. And that’s a skill that is highly sought after in the business world today.
Here’s my first update on my plan to convert my book, “A Different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an ‘Ordinary’ Life in an Extraordinary Way” into an audio book.
When I first reread the book, I got the feeling that there was quite a bit that I could update. That, of course, would be the deciding factor of whether or not to try and find a way to update the content given in the audio version. It didn’t make sense to me to figure out how to do it before working out if there was enough material to make an update worthwhile.
When I started listening to each chapter and jotting down ideas of what could be added, what had changed and what I can do now that I couldn’t when I wrote Different Way of Seeing I found I actually had a wealth of new information – from looking at how apps have solved some of the challenges in the kitchen, right the way through to sharing a little of the wonderous adventures I’ve had since meeting Fiji.
Yes, some chapters have more updates than others. Ultimately very little’s changed in how I select clothing and make-up, but I have lots of new stories to share with you so, even where little’s changed, there’s still lots to share that I hope will both entertain and inform you as you listen.
I’m still in the phase of figuring out what needs to go into the update. If you’d like to know how I accomplish any specific task… and I really do mean any task… I’d love to hear from you – I may not use your question in the update, and I may already have answered it in Different Way of Seeing, but I’ll still get back to you with a response of some form.
Looking forward to hearing your input…
As some of you know, I’m getting more and more involved in accessible travel, both through my writing and the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast.
I’ve now written seven articles on travel as a blind tourist for the Blind Perspective e-newsletter. These articles are written for a visually impaired audience to inspire them to go out and see the beautiful and diverse world we live in. I also try to answer some of the questions and concerns that blind and visually impaired travelers may have. But, my point is, I’m writing for a visually impaired audience.
A few months ago I spoke to a sighted audience and shared a little about how I use my other senses to experience travel and places I’ve never been before. I was completely amazed at how many people came up and spoke to me afterwards saying how fascinated they were to hear what I had to tell them.
Which makes me wonder if other sighted people might also be interested.
So I’m asking for your help – I’d like to find out the names of magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, podcasts, and any other publications that have articles about travel. Obviously, if you can give me contact details of who at the publication I should approach, that’d be great, but it’s not a necessity – I can do that myself.
Can you help me take accessible travel into the mainstream? I really hope you can!
When is it okay to ask for help if you’re disabled, and when isn’t it? That’s today’s $60 million question.
A few weeks ago I needed to extract information from 50 business cards. Yes, it would have been quicker, and easier, and more effective for me to ask a sighted person to help me. Instead I chose to do it on my own. And I managed, with the help of a clever little app called Braigo, which converted the text into a form I could access. But here’s the thing: that task took me 3 full days; three full days when I had other tasks waiting for me.
Every day I face the same dilemma. Should I ask my husband/a friend/a family member/a random stranger walking down the road to help me do something. Or should I insist on proving to myself and others that I am able to do it despite being blind. Sadly, even though I know it’ll take me a lot longer to do it myself, that’s usually the choice I make.
So, today I’m asking myself why I do it?
Perhaps it’s a question of pride, of not wanting to feel like I’m always asking for help. Perhaps it’s my inherent stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge that my blindness means that some tasks are harder for me, or will take me longer. And yes, there is an immense sense of satisfaction of doing the things I can. But when faced with a mountain of items on my To Do List and a molehill of time in which to do them, even I have to admit that my insistence on doing things for myself isn’t always the most productive use of my time and energy.
Many of the blindness training centres around the world stress the need for independence in all aspects of life. And I understand why they do so –they want us to learn the crucial skill of figuring out how to do things on our own rather than taking the easy way out and asking our support system. Being forced to be independent teaches us that we can do far More than we believed possible. But I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder if the focus on doing things for ourselves might make us feel we’re failing if we reach out for assistance.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stop doing things for myself. Nor am I going to stop learning new skills and techniques to make me more independent. Or constantly testing out new devices and apps to help me do so.
But maybe I should recognize that asking for help isn’t always taboo. That sometimes getting a sighted person to help me with a task will make me more productive and allow me to cross a few more items off my ever-growing To Do List. And that efficiency may be more important than pride and stubbornness.
Because, let’s face it, even sighted people have to ask for help sometimes, don’t they?
The photo show me working at my computer with a pile of business cards. Thanks to Craig Strachan for the photo.
I was chatting to a professional photographer while waiting to soundcheck for my set at the Inclusive Arts Festival at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town last weekend. You can imagine my reaction when he said with utter conviction that he wouldn’t cope if he were disabled since he couldn’t bear being totally dependent on others.
Naturally this engaged the inner coach in me – I started asking questions about the assumptions he was making about disability, independence and dependence and ability. And it turned into a short but fascinating conversation about how many people view disability.
I’ve found that conversation spinning in my brain for the past few days and it’s given rise to several thoughts on the topic.
I suspect it’s going to take me a few articles to think through all the aspects of this question that have been percolating in my mind, so be warned… this is the first of a series that’ll look into what I believe independence means to someone with a disability, the concept of independence as a continuum rather than an absolute, some of the tools that give us greater independence, and why so often a disabled person feels that asking for help constitutes a failure on their part.
Finally, I find myself feeling intensely frustrated… saddened… surprised that someone who had spent a week immersed in the world of performers with disabilities could be so blind to the talent, skill and, above all, the independence they showed. How could he have missed it – it was right in front of his eyes…