What Good Writers Still Get Wrong about Blind People

by Kestrell Alicia Verlager

Talk/discussion delivered at Readercon on July 09, 2010


To begin with, I wanted to mention how I came to propose this discussion. I graduated from MIT's Comparative Media Studies master's program a number of years ago, and my thesis was, Decloaking Disability: Images of Disability and Technology in Science Fiction Media.


http://www.blindbookworm.org/decloakingdisabilitycomplete.rtf  .


One of the reasons I love speculative fiction in general and science fiction specifically is it's many characters with non-normative bodies and modes of perception. However, when it comes to fictional blind characters, I often find myself shaking my head and wishing I could talk to writers about what they have gotten wrong in regard to the experience of being a real blind person. So, when I received an invitation to submit ideas for Readercon programming, I thought, Here is the perfect audience! And the Readercon programming committee was kind enough to encourage me.


Because my goal is to discuss specific representations of blindness and blind people, I am going to use concrete examples from specific works. I don't wish for this to be interpreted as personal attacks upon the writers who wrote these works; I specifically mention in the title of this talk that these are all good writers, really, the best writers. The problem, I believe, is that there is so much mythologizing and misinformation about blindness and blind people that it is difficult for even the best authors to always distinguish fact from fiction, reality from stereotype.


My hope in presenting this talk is to supply some ideas and questions which people can employ in order to be more critical as writers, readers, and reviewers, for--I'm going to use a quote here from Samuel Delany's introduction to Uranian Worlds:-

"If we want to change the way we read, we have to change the way we write."


In considering representations of blind people in narrative, one becomes aware of how deeply woven together story and blindness are as represented by the mythic figure of the blind storyteller. Borges, Carolan, Milton, Homer--their blindness seems not merely a matter of biographical detail but something of more significance. My use of the word "significance" is intentional, for I wil repeatedly be returning to the question of what blindness signifies or means within the context of the stories I will be discussing.


The myth of the blind bard was well-established long before Homer for, as in the case of many things, the Greeks borrowed the myth of the blind bard from the Egyptians, who had painted on the inside of their tombs images of blind harpists which included symbols indicating that the bards knowledge was more than mere human knowledge, that his songs possessed some higher truth, that he was in direct contact with the gods.


More recently in history, Gaelic cultures endowed their blind bards with the title "Dall" (pronounced, to the best of my knowledge, like "dial," with a slightly elongated i), which not only meant "blind" but also implied that these blind bards were in possession of superior knowledge and wisdom.


And it isn't just the Egyptian or the Gaelic cultures which have throughout history either discovered or created blind bards in order to add authority to their own stories, to express what often seems most important but most ineffable to that culture.


May I point out that here we all sit, part of a culture which we call science fiction, and we have our own blind bard named Rhysling from Robert A. Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth" (Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 8, 1947).


What does Rhysling signify to science fiction culture?


Many readers would probably suggest that Rhysling's poetry evokes the golden age of space exploration and of science fiction itself. Whatever your answer may be, there is the recognition that it is Rhysling's blindness which seems to add additional authority to his stories.


The authority and omniscience of the blind storyteller is something which we so take for granted that, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993, Toni Morrison used the image of a blind storyteller to pose the idea that it is only by constantly questioning the meaning of stories and the very authority of narrative that we can ensure that stories remain a living, changing thing embodying subversive possibilities.


And yet there is more going on than just the myth (I would even suggest, the archetype) of the blind bard, for this linking between knowing and seeing exists on the linguistic level, for in the Indo-European languages the word "to see" means "to know." This is unlike some other languages such as Asian languages in which the word "to know" is linked with "to hear." [Note: after presenting this talk, someone informed me that this equating of seeing with knowing is also true in Hebrew and Arabic.]


According to the OED, the English language possesses twenty-six separate cases for the word "to see." This is why, when a sighted person is speaking with a blind person, the sighted person will often suddenly have an attack of overwhelming self-consciousness as he or she realizes that it is almost impossible to avoid using some reference to seeing when speaking. Normally harmless phrases such as " " I see your point" and "see you later" seem to shape almost every concept we have about perception, observation, communication, and knowledge.


And blindness can be used to negate or subvert almost every one of these meanings. Consider the word "occult," which in both its common and astronomical meanings means something which is hidden or secret.


Add to these linguistic turnings and twistings the symbolic and metaphorical possibilities, and I am reminded of what Umberto Eco said in explaining the title of his novel The Name of the Rose: he intentionally chose a reference to "rose" because a rose could signify almost anything.


Of course, The Name of the Rose also had a blind character in it.


What I wish to underscore at this point is that, when one asks what is the meaning or significance of blindness in fiction?, the answer is, blindness can be made to signify almost anything.


And sometimes blindness is just a way in to telling a story which the writer wishes to tell. For this example, I will cite John Varley's short story "The Persistence of Vision" (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1978). In this story, a sighted drifter discovers an isolated community of blind people who allow him to live with them for a period of time.


The first time I read this story, I really loved it because it had all these great smart independent blind people in it. The second time I read it I began to realize that wasn't really what this story was about; what it was really about was a sighted male, an aging hippie, who discovers a frontier community of magic blind people with psychic powers which practices nudity and polyamory. In addition, the culture is explained to him by a sighted thirteen-year-old girl with whom the male protagonist has sex. The experience of real blind people actually has very little to do with this story.


As in the case of the myth of the blind storyteller, many of the blind characters I will be discussing explore the connection between blindness and knowledge, so the question of how the cognitive processes of blind people differs from that of people with normal vision seems like a good place to begin the discussion of specific works in speculative fiction.


In "None So Blind" by Joe Haldman, which won the Locus and Hugo awards for best short story in 1995, the narrator begins with the question, why aren't there more blind geniuses? The story proposes that, as blind people do not use their visual cortex, their brains have untapped resources which could be used for more intellectual processes. This idea is ascribed to the protagonist, a socially-awkward geek who falls in love with a blind woman. After he becomes a brain surgeon, and without informing her of the true purpose of the surgery, the geek uses his blind girlfriend as a test subject in order to partition off the visual cortex from the rest of the brain so that the visual cortex can then be used to increase the blind person's intelligence. When the surgery is successful, the protagonist fulfills his original purpose of having this surgery performed upon himself so that he can increase his own intelligence. The story ends with one of the blind woman's former teachers bemoaning the fact that this surgery has become the norm, and that people are now divided into two groups, the rich and powerful blind class and the poor but sighted unmolded folks. 


While some of us might indeed welcome a future in which clueless sighted people are compelled to serve their more intelligent blind overlords, the sad truth is, the human brain does not work this way.


Since the late 1990s, cognitive scientists have been able to demonstrate that blind people not only use their visual cortex, but that that its level of activity, both at rest and during auditory or tactile tasks, is higher in blind subjects than in normal controls, suggesting that it can be appropriated for nonvisual functions.


This use of the visual cortex, however, is not something which can be strategically reserved or allotted for specific tasks such as learning mathematical equations or creating the great novel: it represents the fact that blind people are doing almost everything sighted people are doing with their brains, only blind people are doing these things with their eyes closed. 


However, this cross-modal plasticity is not a "compensation" for blindness - it is built into the brain and everyone already has it. Experiments in which sighted people with normal vision have spent days blindfolded, their brains begin to do precisely what blind people's brains do, which is to begin switching to using audio and touch as primary modes of information.


So, are there actual physical differences between the brains of blind people and those of sighted people? I contacted a cognitive scientist from MIT who had done a study concerning theory of mind with blind and sighted people (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/mind-0626.html), and her response was this:-

"In particular, those brain regions that do vision in sighted people take on new functions like sound perception, language and memory in people who are totally blind.

However, brain regions that do higher cognitive functions in sighted people (functions like social reasoning, language comprehension and memory), do the same thing in people who are blind."


This includes proprioception, which is your inherent sense of your body's position and motion in space. I mention this last ability in particular because among the questions which I am often asked is "How do blind people...?" and a lot of the time it comes down to this cognitive ability which most people possess, the ability to know where our body is and what the various parts of it are doing without having to look at ourselves doing whatever it is we are doing.


I would like to return to the question with which "None So Blind" begins:

Why aren't there more blind geniuses?


In reply, I would like to pose the question: why should it be expected that blind people are any more intelligent--or any less intelligent--than their sighted peers? 


Again, this brings us back to the question of blindness and knowledge: what sorts of knowledge do you think blind people possess?


In my own experience, people have often assured me with the utmost certainty that blind people have better memories than sighted people. Sadly, I can assure you that I have a very poor rote memory, which is why I am sincerely hoping that this talk in its live form bears even a passing resemblance to the way I wrote it. Also, I have no musical talent whatsoever. Really. Truly.


On the other hand, I have been informed with complete certainty by numerous college professors that blind people can't do math, or science, and they aren't very literate either.


The American Mathematical Society has a page listing some of the many blind mathematicians and scientists who have made contributions to our current knowledge (http://www.ams.org/notices/200210/comm-morin.pdf ). I would also like to mention Zoltan Torey, a cognitive scientist (The Cradle of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain, 2009; Out of Darkness: A Memoir, 2003)

Dr. Geerat Vermeij, an evolutionary biologist who teaches at the University of California at Davis and author of A Natural History of Shells (1995) and his autobiography Privileged Hands (1996)

Lawrence Scadden, a scientist and technology advocate (Surpassing Expectations: My Life Without Sight, 2008)

and Dr. Kent Cullers, Director of SETI Research and Development, who appeared in Carl Sagan's book, Contact.


When talking about what kind of knowledges blind people have, we need to say a little bit about what kinds of technologies blind people use.


In The Skylark  by Peter Straub (2009), there is a blind character who is described as speaking aloud and having her computer execute her commands. While some blind people may use this kind of technology, what most blind people use is actually text-to-speech, also known as a screen reader. The other technology is known as speech-to-text, or voice recognition. The way to distinguish these two technologies is to be aware that what screen readers do is take the text on the screen and turn it into synthetic speech, while speech-to-text takes human speech and converts it into either executed commands or digital text. In addition, some programs called screen magnifiers which are used by people with functional vision magnify the text and images on the screen and may also integrate text-to-speech programs.


Screen readers work by using a dictionary, which is an immense list of words broken up into phonemes. This program is not an AI, it cannot read in context. Thus you have the word read r-e-a-d which is typically pronounced red, but if the context suggests the present tense of read, the program will not pronounce it reed.


The two most well-known screen readers are Jaws, developed by Freedom Scientific, and Window Eyes, developed by G. W. Micro. As is the case with most assistive tech, these screen readers are developed to work with Microsoft Windows. There is also the Voiceover screen reader which is used on Macs and other Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad, and there is also a relative newcomer which works through an Internet subscription.


While these screen readers often make use of keyboard commands already created by the OS, they also typically require the user to have memorized a few hundred additional commands and to become adept at using multiple cursors, the default cursor which sighted users use plus an aditional cursor which can move around the screen, and a third cursor used for Internet applications. Between the learning curve and the learning to listen to the synthetic speech, there can be a lengthy time period before a blind person feels competent at using a computer with a screen reader, and some people may never gain that level of competency, especially if there are other conditions such as mental or mobility impairments involved.


Blind people also use cell phones, which may either use built-in voice recognition or may have a third-party text-to-speech program installed on the phone so that users can have better access to the phone functionality. My own cell phone is pretty basic because I don't use my phone for doing many things, but other blind people may have phones which allow them to text messages, read audiobooks or ebooks, listen to MP3s, and do many other things short of actually texting the moon. 


Blind computer users may also make use of PDAs, digital recorders, scanners, OCR programs, and ebook readers.


It is worth mentioning at this point, because it almost never is, the cost of accessibility for blind computer users. A screen reader is typically about $1000, the Kurzweil 1000 scanning and OCR reading program is also approx. $1000. My accessible ebook reader costs about $500, and my cell phone had to be one of those in the high end in order to have the voice recognition capability. Thus, price can be an additional barrier to access.


In addition, while we like to think of technology as allowing for an even playing field, some technologies can create further barriers to access. There are four technologies which currently block access for almost every blind computer user. The first of these is digital rights management (DRM), which often interprets screen readers as an illegal attempt to copy text and so bars screen readers from accessing the content. PDF and flash are two formats which can be created to be accessible, but rarely are, and PDF in particular  is such a constant issue that I will quote Charlie Stross: "PDF--Satanic horror from the abyss or merely evil?"


Captcha is another technology which often prevents access, and makes me think of the Voight-Kampff test in "Blade Runner"--yes we have a test to check whether an entity is human and  I fail it.


As I mention previously, I've heard university professors claim more than once that blind people aren't very literate, and even that blind people don't read at all. A similar statement was made in Shadow Season by Tom Piccirilli (2009) which is a story about a former New York City policeman who has become blind due to an accident and is now teaching literature in a private girls school in upstate New York. He gets upset when a student asks if he has read all the books on his desk, stating that blind people can't read books.


Blind people have multiple ways of reading books. I mentioned the text-to-speech programs previously, and many blind people also have portable mobile devices or ebook readers which can also read ebooks.


There are at least three extensive libraries for the blind: the National Library Service which is part of the Library of Congress www.loc.gov/nls/ ; Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, which uses volunteer readers www.rfbd.org ; and Bookshare.org, which is a database of digital books donated by blind members and educational institutions who have scanned the texts of the paper books.


The formats for these books may be digital audio read by professional narrators (NLS), or volunteer readers (RFBD), or the books may be in digital text or digital braille (Bookshare) which can be downloaded and "printed," using a braille embosser.


The National Braille Press in Boston www.nbp.org publishes books in numerous formats, including children's books which combine braille and print, and books on topics such as cooking, self-improvement, and computers and technology. This is the publisher which published the Harry Potter books in braille at the cover price, a feat which is notable because the cost of braille books can be in the hundreds of dollars.


In addition to these so-called special libraries or publishers, there are distributors such as Fictionwise. There are also digital audiobooks from Audible and many free podcasts of people reading books available free on the Internet.


In addition, some readers may have a scanner and OCR program wich allow them to scan and convert print books to digital formats.


Some forms of fiction seem particularly prone to inscribing meaning upon the physical body; in her nonfiction work Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), Farah Mendlesohn suggested that "fantasy is thus often the last resting place of physiognomy..."


In The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip (Ace, 2008)

The father of the male protagonist is blind and is represented as completely powerless, never even leaving his room despite having lived in the same house his entire life. One doesn't have to be a Freudian to get the link between blindness and impotence, just like the aged Isaac in the Bible. Equating the father with age and powerlessness means that the story can now focus on the male son as being that much more kind, gentle, and responsible for everyone in the household.


However, blindness can also be used to indicate morality. Early in McKillips's novel, we become aware that there is an evil sorcerer lurking about, and when the only character who is described as being physically non-normative turns out to be the villain, it isn't really a big surprise, especially to anyone familiar with medieval iconography. In medieval paintings, Satan was represented as having one eye smaller than the other in order to suggest blindness, as in he was blind to the knowledge of virtue and goodness.


However, if blindness can be used as a sign of moral weakness, it can also be used to indicate moral virtue, as in The Storyteller's Daughter by Cameron Dokey (Pulse, 2002).


Here we have Scheherazade recast as a blind storyteller, but ultimately her virtue proves to be a magic cure for blindness.


The reason blindness works so well to signify both moral weakness and moral virtue is that blindness can be used as a metaphor for almost anything.


In "The Country of the Blind" by H. G. Wells (orig. pub. in The Strand, 1904, revised 1939), a sighted male adventurer discovers an isolated community of blind people. He believes his sight will make him superior and allow him to rule the community, but instead he finds that he is considered stupid and even insane for talking about things which are outside the experience of the blind culture. Wells wrote this story as an allegory of how society is blind to people of genius (like himself?), and persists in not seeing the truth or recognizing new ideas.


And yet as far as metaphorical blind people are concerned, the most outstanding example is Blindness by Jose Saramago, (which won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature)


I need to say that as a blind person I found this book extremely depressing to read and that I had to bribe myself to get through it by promising that for every three chapters I read I could read a chapter of the new Holly Black book. I find it extremely ironic that this book has as its theme how human beings ignore the pain and suffering of others, and the way it develops this theme is by completely pathologizing blind people.


Short synopsis: the blind apocalypse occurs in a Portuguese city which incarcerates the newly-blind victims in a former insane asylum as first the asylum and then the entire city becomes a festering barbaric pit of chaos and despair.


This story more than any other I mention fails to be about blindness.


Instead, it possesses what I think of as the "Miracle Worker" trope - the story is not about the blind people, it is all about the nobility, morality, courage, wonderfulness of the sighted person who helps the poor helpless blind people, and everything which occurs in the story must serve that primary purpose.


The second reason this book is not about blindness is because it is about metaphorical blindness. It throws in just about every negative blindness metaphor (many of these are Biblical): blindness is unclean, blindness is impotence, blindness is insanity, blindness is death. Any statement it makes about real blindness is wrong. Blind people so did not need this novel.


However, this novel does share a characteristic with many other stories which have blind characters: their blindness is never explained. I find this to be one of the most interesting ways in which blind characters in fiction fail: they are blind because it serves the story and that is all one need know about them.


So, I've critiqued a lot of canon literary favorites; I should mention at this point that there are stories which I love for their blind characters.


"The Green Hills of Earth" because Rhysling really is a hero who actively saves a lot of people.


As a horror fan, I'm fascinated by the character of Zampanò, the blind character who supposedly wrote the main manuscript of House of Leaves (2000), particularly as his blindness pushes the entire story toward the uncanny.


I know she's a magical blind person but I don't care: I love the character of the blind swordswoman Shrike in Blind Shrike (2005), later retitled Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey - this is a kickass character (plus having a white cane that transforms into a sword...I want one of those).

[Note: During the talk an audience member asked about the tradition of the blind swordsman in Japanese films and anime, and these characters which include Zatoichi come from a very old tradition in Chinese/Japanese/Korean stories, going back to at least The Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong circa 1300-1400 (try Wikipedia for links to online texts)]


Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword (2006), which has a blind swordsman character, demonstrates that when one loses vision one does not lose all the knowledge and abilities one ever possessed (this character is particularly cool because he is based upon a real blind swordsman).


The Memory of Whiteness (1985) and "The Blind Geometer" (1986) by Kim Stanley Robinson, both contain blind scientists - the ability to perceive the world through its scientific principles fascinates me, and I for one would like to read about more of these blind scientist characters.


"Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" by Ursula K. Le Guin (first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Nov. 1987), which has a young girl who loses an eye meeting Coyote, who has a story or two about the time she lost both of her eyes...


"Captive Girl" by Jennifer Pelland from _Unwanted Bodies_ (2008), in which a blind guardian of Earth must adjust to her changing identity when she decides to attempt to initiate a romantic relationship.


Four Freedoms (2009) by John Crowley features not a blind character but a character with a completely different disability, but the theme of the novel is really about how, as human beings, much of our effort and imagination is focused upon transcending all sorts of limitations. Really an amazing novel which I would recommend to everyone.


It is from John Crowley that I discovered a very useful word: ekfrasis  (http://bostonreview.net/BR32.3/crowley.html), which describes texts which are concerned with visual art. I have a great preference for novels by such authors as John Crowley and Liz Hand, who both have backgrounds in the visual arts and whose works include a lot of visual description.


However, since Readercon is ultimately about literature and the experience of being a reader, I would like to suggest that all literature is a sort of ekfrasis. To use an example, how many of us, while reading The Lord of the Rings were quite certain that we knew exactly what Gandalf looked like? It's a problem when making films that the actors and action in the story must be made to resemble their fictional counterparts, but for readers, all readers whether sighted or blind, it is a gift that we have this thing we call imagination which allows us to see, within our mind's eye, every detail of a character and a story, and if language can become this monster of metaphor which runs amok through a text, it can also be a tool by which writers can give shape to infinite possibilities:

“And, as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name”


For many of us, the ability of language to give form to the infinite shapes of imagination describes not only why we write but why we read in the first place.


[Published on © ECO: On blindness, technology and the arts, all rights reserved.]