June 15, 2006
Coping with Blindness, A to Z
Some of our blind peers claim blindness is a mere nuisance. Others believe blindness is a never-ending tragedy. Both ends of this spectrum could learn a great deal from Katherine Schneider's To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities (Dog Ear Publishing).
It is a book about coping, rather than a full-scale autobiography. Her coping mechanisms are contextualized by personal anecdotes, making them relevant to those of us who have lived through the experience of being blind in a sighted world, or being otherwise disabled and living in a able-bodied world. Reading about Schneider's experiences -- on the job as a psychologist, job hunting struggles, shopping, obtaining readers, and even bowling -- we were constantly murmuring, "Been there, done that!".
Schneider's account of living with blindness is filled with humor and an openness that is refreshing. She shares with us the A to Z of coping with blindness.
Here are some of our favorite nuggets::
anger: I am angry when discrimination occurs. For example, when I go to vote and have to take someone in the booth with me. No secret ballot for me.
confusion: When someone is describing an intersection and says it is shaped like a clover leaf, I wonder what does that look like.
disappointment: I am disappointed when a student who is scheduled to read to me does not show up.
exasperation: exasperation happens when I've explained my needs, like keeping cabinet doors closed, but people still leave them half open.
happiness: I'm happy when a client takes a positive step in therapy and says it's because we talked.
joy: When I make a strike in bowling, joy abounds.
laughter: Laughter erupts when I do something silly, like almost taking a dog's vitamins instead of mine before I drink my first cup of coffee in the morning.
pride: when my dog and I prance off to work in a snow storm and arrive before sighted colleagues. We're a proud team.
self pity: I feel self pity when I receive a hand-written love letter and it will be three days before someone can read it to me.
timidity: I feel timid when dealing with new situations. It takes time to educate people so that they feel comfortable with me.
vulnerability: I feel vulnerable when it is 25 degrees below zero and I know one wrong turn and I'll be lost.
weariness: I become weary of continuously fighting the good fight to end discrimination.
yearning: At times I yearn to see, especially when I meet my new Seeing Eye dog.
Katherine Schneider has led a full life and she shares many parts of it with her readers. Born prematurely to a scientist father and educator mother, her blindness was a result of an excess of oxygen used to keep her alive. Mainstreamed in the educational system at the insistence of her mother, she earned her doctorate in clinical psychology and pursued a rewarding professional career at several academic institutions where she taught, counseled students and administered programs. Much of her success she attributes to her mother's mantra of "You can succeed" combined with a strong work ethic.
After many years of successfully coping with blindness, in middle age Schneider was faced with a second, more debilitating disability. To deal with fibromyalgia, a hidden disability causing extreme fatigue, she had to restructure many of her life activities in order to get through her day. She openly discusses her strategies of dealing with stress reduction and fatigue management.
In several chapters Schneider gives advice to disabled people about travel, relationships and employment, among other topics. Her suggestions to job seekers are wise and instructive. You should not mention your disability in your resume, she advises:
When you get to the interview, they'll know it! If your disability and needs are not mentioned in the interview, bring them up yourself. Be ready to tell potential employers what you need. If you don't, they will rely on their own ideas which are likely to be a lot worse than reality. Answer intrusive questions minimally, but politely and then re-orient the conversation to either your strengths or questions for the employer.
She underscores the notion that you'll never get a job by telling someone their questions are illegal!
Despite Schneider's words of workplace wisdom, she notes that some of her peers and other counselors were as prejudiced as the general population about disability issues.
Several chapters are particularly outstanding. Among these are advice to medical practitioners, adjustment to disability and assessment of where we are in the struggle for equality. A disability rights perspective permeates many chapters of the volume: the right to equal treatment, the right to have a bad day, the right to ask for help, the right not to be intruded on, the right to privacy, the right to self-determination.
Schneider's relationship with her guide dogs is a theme running throughout her life and the book. She describes them in the work place, at home and throughout her social life. The term partnership certainly is appropriate as a description of this relationship.
If there is any point at which the book fails its audience, it is that we never get an in-depth view of who Schneider herself is -- what she feels, who she loves and hates.
It's not clear whom the volume is directed toward, either: Is it other blind people? Other folks with disabilities? Parents of disabled children? Counselors? Or the general public? Different chapters seem geared to different segments of readers. Although this keeps it from having a unified story, it ensures that there is something in it for everyone!
It's a darn good read.
Ed and Toni Eames are Adjunct Professors of Sociology at California State University/Fresno. Read their article The Carrot or the Stick? on Ragged Edge Online.
Posted on June 15, 2006