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by B. T. Kimbrough
Sometimes, I feel that books about life as a blind person are a little like pizzas. Generically speaking, they're easy enough to find, but if you're particular, it is unusual to locate one that leaves a lasting impression. So it is noteworthy to report the publication of two fresh and compelling books about the "blindness experience"--one of them written by someone who is fully sighted.
Rosemary Mahoney, a veteran writer with books to her credit on several non-fiction subjects, has produced an unusual and provocative documentary based on her experiences as a sighted volunteer teacher of blind students at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in southern India.
The book is titled FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO SEE. It's the story of a keenly observant writer who became interested in the experience of blindness during a routine interview assignment, and later decided to accept a volunteer job which would throw her into daily contact with a group of English-speaking blind students from several different countries.
By her own admission, Mahoney is someone who views her eyesight as just about the most precious commodity anyone could have. The job gave her an opportunity to focus her formidable attention on figuring out how the blind students she met took in the world without eyesight, and how so many of them seemed fulfilled, and even happy, without the thing Mahoney considers life's dearest possession.
In contrast, Sue W. Martin's book OUT OF THE WHIRLPOOL is the compelling story of a once-sighted woman who crashed headlong into blindness while attempting suicide. Among other things, Martin's candid account gives us a rare look at the rehabilitation experience through the awareness of someone who later joined the profession. Martin's fascinating journey also provides more than a little insight into those provocative questions that are also the focus of Rosemary Mahoney's book: How do people who can't see truly take in the world and make fully informed judgments about it using just their remaining senses? Is it possible that life could be truly fulfilling without the possibility of sight?
Of course, those of us who have little or no sight already have our own answers to these questions, so we will not experience the suspense and conflicting emotions that are in store for sighted readers of these books. And yet--it is fascinating to view this reality of blindness through the prism of other people's experience, especially if their accounts are painfully honest and their stories skillfully told. Authors Martin and Mahoney are certainly equal to the challenge. Both writers have put enough of themselves into their stories to make the reader feel a sense of contact with a genuine, and often vulnerable, narrator.
Mahoney had no idea that a full-length book would grow from a magazine assignment that took her to Tibet to interview Braille Without Borders co-founder Sabriye Tenberken. When she started the 16,000-mile round trip, Mahoney also had no special interest in the subject of blindness and admits in the book that she felt a small sense of discomfort at the prospect.
As she describes her visit to Braille Without Borders in the second chapter, it is clear that her encounters with the blind children and with Tenberken kindled a lasting spark of writer's curiosity. Being a person who values eyesight above her other senses, Mahoney was fascinated to see that the residents of Braille Without Borders were not utterly absorbed with feelings of loss and depression. She perceived the zest for life and sense of competence flowing from Tenberken and wondered from whence they came.
Four years later, when she was given a chance to be a volunteer English teacher at a new agency Tenberken and her partner had established in southern India, Mahoney jumped at the chance. FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO SEE is her effort to share the sense of respect and admiration she acquired from spending time with blind people "to get to know them; to find out how they think; to see how they live in the world ..."
Mahoney's book is available as a commercial audio production from Hachette Book Group and as a Talking Book download on the NLS BARD website featuring the author's extremely engaging narration. But do not expect a comfortable or tranquil reading experience. With her keenly honed powers of observation, Mahoney never lets us miss an off-putting mannerism or a pair of strange-looking eyes. At least she exposes herself as well--fully describing her own many awkward or otherwise humbling moments, which she might easily have omitted.
Considering that it never leaves the subject of eyesight and its absence, the book offers a surprisingly varied landscape. Intermingled with thoroughly researched chapters on the historical evolution of attitudes about blindness, and interesting theories about why people who regain sight late in life have trouble learning to interpret shapes and facial expressions, Mahoney shows us many incidents and conversations in order to allow the reader to develop some of her sense of familiarity with her blind companions. In effect, she seems to see herself as a witness--testifying to the understanding she came to have about how we take in the world, relate to each other, and generally approach life in nonvisual ways.
I can see how an intelligent sighted reader might well share the author's curiosity about the finer points of getting on with little or no sight. But what about a blind reader? I think the blind or low vision reader may well be curious about the observer. Personally, it was fascinating to me what details jumped out at her about her subjects and what conclusions she reached about those details. I often disagreed with her, but it was interesting to learn what she thought. I've often wondered what a keen sighted observer was thinking during a meal or a conversation, and Mahoney's observations are among the few direct clues available.
However, I wouldn't necessarily commend this book to the attention of a newly-blind reader or one who is highly concerned about the judgments of sighted companions. For them, Mahoney's opinions might well lead to an unfortunate increase of self-consciousness in some social situations.
It is clear that Mahoney believes she is sharing something extremely positive about the general outlook, coping strategies, and courage-under-adversity she observed during her time in Tibet and India. Still, I was frequently annoyed, and sometimes angered, by her tendency to judge appearances, people and situations, as if the power of sight made it appropriate for her to do so. And yet, to be fair, I must admit that, especially during my youth, the possession of keen listening skills often led me to make similar judgments about people based on what I heard them say and how they said it.
If there is a disturbing thought associated with publication of this book, it relates to the fact that many sighted readers might be unduly influenced by Mahoney's judgments, feeling that sight gives her added credibility. It is hard to imagine a blind writer receiving similar attention for writing a similar book, no matter how compelling and authentic it might be.
If not for its entertainment value (and it is certainly spellbinding at times), consider reading Mahoney's book as an act of community awareness: This is what a potentially influential writer is telling the world about us. Valid or not, this is what many may accept as an enlightened view about living with blindness. As the old adage has it, "Forewarned is forearmed."
FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO SEE: DISPATCHES FROM THE WORLD OF THE BLIND is available from the NLS BARD website as DB 77851.
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Sue Martin's book would be easy to dismiss with a polite nod if it were a work of fiction. As a memoir, it is both a spine-chilling read, and a potentially significant contribution to our professional literature.
The author pulls no punches as her story takes us from her growing sense of emptiness and depression--"As I contemplated what I had made of my life to this point, it felt like what I imagined a whirlpool to be ... ," to the solitary lake house where a single gunshot seemed to lead to respite and silence--"I held my breath; I squeezed my eyes shut; I clenched my teeth; I pulled the trigger."
But life goes on, with a shocking difference--total blindness. And this is where Sue Martin's courageous story takes a turn that must be surprising to those who believe blindness is the worst thing that can happen. "The desire for life became a fierce burning flame in my being."
Of course, there are many difficult moments in the days that follow, and her blindness brings intense feelings of loss and grief. But there are no fresh thoughts of ending her life, only concerns for what to do next.
Suddenly, Sue Martin is a client of vision rehabilitation services, forced to relearn hundreds of tasks she once took for granted. As she later told a podcaster, "Somehow, the necessity to learn how to do almost everything in a new way is what pulled me out of the depression." And this is only the beginning of a compelling story that takes us through many a struggle to towering triumphs and humbling failures.
I believe that Martin's courageous life story holds special value for future practitioners in the rehabilitation field. Without spoiling too much of the plot, I'll say that Sue goes on to become a rehabilitation counselor. The awareness which goes along with that career informs her account of being a client. This client reports her thoughts and feelings as she tells about her encounters with the system. I would think this perspective would be extremely valuable to professionals who usually have no way of knowing what their clients think or feel.
OUT OF THE WHIRLPOOL is available both as an audio download and a conventional print volume from the author's website www.outofthewhirlpool.com. A significant advantage of the audio version is that it is narrated by the author, who told a podcaster that she handled all of the audio production herself using the sounds of a screen reader heard quietly through an earphone as an audio prompt. The audio download costs $17.95. The $22.90 price of a print copy includes the cost of shipping.
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Five things I learned while working on this issue of DIALOGUE:
1) Under an agreement between GW Micro and Microsoft, users who have a licensed copy of Microsoft Office dating from 2010 or later can obtain a free version of the screen reader Window-Eyes. (Read more in WHAT'S NEW AND WHERE TO GET IT.)
2) According to a new study, blindness and significant visual impairment have become much less common in 50 countries over the last 20 years.
3) Dave Power has been designated as the new President and Chief Executive Officer of Perkins in Watertown, Massachusetts. (Read more about items two and three in DID YOU KNOW?)
4) The word "hospice" dates back centuries. Usually associated with monasteries, it was a guest house of sorts, offering medical attention, food and shelter to travelers, often pilgrims on their way to a holy shrine. (Read more in our cover story, SHOULD I CALL HOSPICE?)
5) The wisdom of employing blind workers to provide customer service over the phone has been confirmed hundreds of times in Federal agencies. Lately, a regional nonprofit in New York State has been contracting with the federal government to bring these kinds of opportunities to some workers who don't live anywhere near the US capitol. (Read more in WORK MATTERS.)
Do you have an idea for an article for DIALOGUE? Is there a topic you would like to write about but aren't sure how to get started? Please let us know. I hope you enjoy this issue, and until next time, thank you for joining us in DIALOGUE.
B. T. Kimbrough, Editor
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