Saturday, February 25, 2017

Common and Uncommon Questions About Blindness by Varina Martindale

As a child, Varina Martindale fell in love with stories about pioneers, runaway slaves, and other people living in past times, so when she began writing romances, they were bound to have historical settings. While still seeking fiction publication, she keeps busy writing, reading, and crocheting. 
 I was born with sight in only my left eye--enough sight to read large print if I held the book so near my face that fully sighted children teased me for smelling it, to watch TV or movies if I sat close to the screen, and to enjoy drawing. When I was ten, my retina detached due to a genetic syndrome my family didn’t know we had. Within three months, I went from large print and magnifiers to Braille and recorded books, as well as from writing and illustrating picture books to simply writing.
            Over the following decades, people have asked some questions repeatedly.
            Do I talk to my computer?
            I type, and thanks to text-to-speech software called JAWS, my computer speaks what I’ve written, as well as the text I move the cursor over. Sometimes I scold the computer for not following commands promptly.
            How do I crochet and knit without seeing the work?
            By touch. I remember a small thrill, at sixteen, when I realized I could feel the difference between a row of knit stitches and a row of purls based on which side of the work the bumps were on.
            How long did I take to learn Braille?
            About six months. First, I learned letters and punctuation. Then I learned “contractions,” characters that stand for letter combinations or whole words. Fortunately, I began learning weeks before my retina started detaching, to have an extra reading option.
            A question only one person has asked me took me aback. Three years ago, a waiter asked how I could find my mouth when eating. Nineteenth-century, blind hymn writer FannyCrosby so tired of this question on school choral tours that she finally answered that she and her classmates tied strings between their mouths and the table. I can be snide, too, but that night, I laughed a flustered laugh and said, “I don’t know. I just do.”
            I’ve never had trouble finding my mouth. Finding the silverware or my drink or a pill or that last bite of food, yes, but never my mouth. It’s right under my nose, where it was when I could see. Presumably, my hand remembered the path from long habit.
            In Stephen White’s gripping mystery, Privileged Information, the hero’s girlfriend suffers temporary blindness, and he feeds her soup. I like that he cooks for her; food cans often feel alike. However, this scene grows from her fear of losing control of her normally controlled life, rather than directly from her blindness.
            I can recommend two books which get details about blindness right. When the Snow Flies, a historical romance by Laurie Alice Eakes, portrays a doctor still adjusting to blindness caused by a shooting. In another historical romance, Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster’s Lady, Annique’s pov in early chapters contained details that I so took for granted that I didn’t immediately register that she couldn’t see.

            Writing blind characters requires research, like writing characters who are artists or math teachers. Blindness is one facet of multi-faceted human beings, who vary as widely as sighted people do. I may laugh my flustered laugh, if questions deal with things I do automatically, but don’t be afraid to ask. ~Varina Marindale

You can reach Varina at


Sarah Raplee said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences and for being open to all kinds of questions, Varina. I've written a blind heroine in my first novel, Blindsight. I will definitely read the books you recommended for examples of writing a blind character well. Thank you!

Maeve Greyson said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us and it's a pleasure to meet you.

I admire your ability to knit and crochet by touch only. I've never been able to master either of them with sight.

I'm stunned by the audacity of the waiter asking how you found your mouth. You should've told him that your mouth was a lot easier to find than his tip was going to be! How rude!

Thank you again for such a frank and open post!

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Varina, what a fascinating blog! You've got experience most of us have never known, and it's always a treat hearing an expert in some unfamiliar field talk about the everyday bits we wouldn't normally think of.

It's lovely to offer your expertise for any writer who needs it -- if I ever do a blind character (or for that matter, one who crochets) I'm going to know RIGHT where to go for help. :)

Barbara Strickland said...

I love your attitude.

Kris Tualla said...

Thanks for sharing your perspective, Varina.

Varina M said...

you for having me and for leaving comments. Maeve, I agree with you, although at the time I think I was just so puzzled by the question I didn't think consciously of rudeness. To give him a tiny bit of credit,, he did at least ask me, instead of asking my brother, "How can she find her mouth?" It's not unheard of for people to speak to a sighted person I'm with, instead of directly to me.

Marcia King-Gamble said...

Enjoyed this post and your openness. The server certainly inserted a foot in the mouth he can see. Silly man!

Judith Ashley said...

Varina, thank you for joining us at Romancing The Genres. I appreciate your willingness to answer questions. Do you think your having been born with some sight has given you the stick-to-itiveness to learn and master writing, crocheting, etc.? I ask because I know not everyone who becomes blind strives to be independent or to learn new things.

Diana McCollum said...

I really enjoyed your post and learning about the things you face as a blind person and author. Thanks for sharing, you are an inspiration!

Maggie Lynch said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. In graduate school, I wrote a paper about web design and accessibility. One of my partners in the paper was someone who had been blind since birth. She was kind enough to show me how JAWS worked on web pages and why things like alt tags (descriptions of images or tables) was so important.

I have to admit, even with JAWS I was still amazed at how much she had to keep in her head to orient to tables and data presentations. Since that experience I've never forgotten an alt tag on my own websites.

As to rude questions, I'm glad you can laugh about it. I imagine the waiter didn't intend to be rude. He'd probably never met a blind person before and was truly curious. It's really hard for those of us with sight to imagine how we would do basic things like walk without bumping into things, eat or drink without spilling.

In your own novels, have you chosen to write a blind heroine?

Varina M said...

Hi, Judith. While having once seen has given me certain advantages--like being able to visualize certain things--I think that other factors shaped my sticktoativeness. I come from a family of stubborn people and watched my mother knit baby blankets and crochet afghans, and all of my family were avid readers. I did a lot of reading on tape and still devour talking books, but they leave my hands free to fidget. Without knitting and crocheting--mostly crocheting, these days--I finger-doodle or feel the buttons of the talking book player or the stones on my ring; with a hook and yarn in my hands going through repetitive motions, I listen better. Having gone to school through fourth grade in separate classes for blind and visually impaired kids helped me, too, because I saw totally blind classmates doing many of the same things I did. As for independence, my first college roommate, Nancy, was born totally blind and was more independent and adventurous and extraverted than I am.

Varina M said...

Hi, Maggie. Your point about alt text is very important. Without clear alt text labels, I tab down the page from one link to the next and, at best, hear my computer say, “Link,” or, “Button,” or, “Click here.” Sometimes it speaks the URL OF THE LINK OR THE WORD, “Graphic,” followed by a number. Sometimes the computer says nothing at all. Informative alt text makes the difference between my navigating a site myself and asking someone else to come look at the page and advise me. Another thing that can make internet browsing difficult is music on sites, which muffles the voice of JAWS. A few years ago, an RWA chapters sent out a link to learn more about a contest they were holding, and I clicked on it. All I heard was a song. They’d posted a video, which I presume showed images of the information about the rules. It was a cute idea, but if you couldn’t see the screen, it conveyed nothing. Now, if only we could get alt text for some TV commercials, where they never say aloud what the ad is for or forget to mention sale qualifications which they flash on the screen. That reminds me that some TV channels--mainly PBS, these days--carry audio descriptions of some programs, and at movie theaters (Harkins in my area and some other chains across the country), you can get devices at the ticket window that let you listen to descriptions of the movie you’re watching, so that whoever you attend with doesn’t have to whisper constantly what’s going on. They fit the bits of description between lines of dialogue. You can probably find instructions online for how to switch on the description on your TV, if you want to see what it’s like. I’ll see if I can find some and post a link here.

Varina M said...

I haven’t yet written a heroine who is blind. I did decide that my current hero’s grandmother was blind and taught him to knit by feel. It’s very incidental to the main story, though.

Varina M said...

This page seems to have a lot of information and links about audio description, as well as, if I understand correctly, talking menus for television, which would be helpful. It always seemed ironic to me that one needed sight to activate descriptive audio tracks.

Connie Flynn said...

Hi Varina,
I'm always behind on the Desert Rose loop and am sorry to be so late checking in on your guest blog. Every time I read something from you I learn something about human nature. Thanks for sharing and I hope you know how many people you touch each time you do.