05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Creating Blind or Visually-impaired Characters


Now she has nearly two dozen books in print. The hero of her early work, When the Snow Flies, is an authentic blind character. Laurie Alice Eakes is a best-selling, award-winning blind author. 

Creating Blind or Visually-impaired Characters
This is the merest of outlines, as the topic is endless. I hope it whets your appetite to delve into further research and get more specific. 

If you are attending the Romance Writers of America conference in July, you will have two opportunities for more information in a panel discussion and a two-hour workshop.

Someone recently said to me: “How can you show and not tell if you can’t see?”

It’s a fair question. How can you?

By being so deep into the head of the person who can’t see that you use all the senses they use to function in the world. In short, heighten the use of smell, touch, taste, and sound.

To help you get deep inside the head of the person who can’t see, let me give you some background, terminology, a rundown of technology, social attitudes, and internal attitudes.

I also want to make a note here that someone who has been blind all their life functions differently than someone who is newly blinded. Some conditions are progressive, so the person has time to adjust. Although this isn’t easy, it’s far easier than say a head injury that robs them of sight and waking up unable to see.

Some people get on with their lives, learning to function without sight, and others go into deep depressions. A survey in the 1990s exposed that people fear going blind more than getting cancer. I had a man once say to me he would rather have both arms cut off than go blind. He thought he could function better without his hands than without his eyes.

Let me begin the detail work here with the difference between blindness and visual impairment. These are not medical definitions; these are everyday practical ones.

Blindness is the inability to see. That does not mean the person sees darkness or blackness; the person may see some shadows or light or even flashes of color; however, their ability to have usable sight does not exist.

Visual impairment is where the person’s sight is less than 2200 corrected with lenses. 2200 is legally blind. Uncorrectable places the person in the disability category. They have varying degrees of usable sight from being able to read large print, to the mere ability to make out objects very close up. Correctable is a key word here. If glasses or contacts can give the person better than 2200 vision, then they do not categorize as disabled.

Historically, persons with blindness or visual impairments, especially blindness, have been treated pretty badly, including keeping blind people locked away as though they were mentally ill or a danger to society. I saw a little of this when I worked in the disability field 25 years ago.

So imagine how matters were earlier in history. Wealthy persons, such as Helen Keller, were given an education, and, of course, Mary Engles attended school. They were, however, the exception not the rule. Things were changing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but before then, people were kept at home and taught very little. They rarely had a chance to develop social skills or go into society, marry, and have children and homes of their own.

Although matters have changed over the past 150 years, blind and visually impaired persons still have a long way to go to be accepted as equals in society. Education has improved. We are no longer shunted off to special schools. In fact, many schools for the blind have closed. Blind people attend college and higher education and are doctors, lawyers, social workers, and a host of other professions. One path that is pretty limited is in teaching. Most schools do not want blind teachers due to liability reasons. Blind professors are not uncommon, though.

Yet we have some uncomfortable things to say about society’s acceptance of blind persons. I mostly refer to here in the U.S. My experiences in other countries have been quite different. The French, for example, are much more sanguine about it.

Sadly, a portion of our society still does not accept blind people as being as intelligent or capable as others, as though sight equals intelligence. People still talk loudly to blind people, as though sight equals ability to hear. People will talk to a blind person’s sighted companion rather than the individual. They will also completely ignore them.

35% of employers have admitted that they discriminate against blind applicants. Persons are denied housing, admission to cruise ships and fitness centers, for example, solely based on their blindness. People presume blind people cannot afford more than the cheapest items because they surely cannot work and therefore live off the government. Employment amongst blind persons is shockingly low, and most of those are under-employed. is put out by Cornell University.

In contrast, some people find blind people “amazing” and “inspirational” just for being independent. Needless to say, these attitudes all impact the blind person’s daily life. Sometimes, they have to fight just for the right to have a place to live, or fit into a group, or not be overlooked as needing love.

On the positive side, 
matters improve constantly. Technology has made life considerably easier, making independence easier, which makes fitting into society as a whole easier. First came the cane, which gave some mobility, then guide dogs ("seeing Eye" is a brand name), which made life even easier.

I don’t have time to go into the work of a guide dog, their rights, etc. so check out the school web sites, which have loads of materials. Please do not make assumptions about guide dogs. I see more errors about these in books than anything else.

Braille was invented in the nineteenth century, but it is cumbersome and slow to produce. The 1958 World Book Encyclopedia is 145 volumes, and each volume is 12x12x4 inches. Sadly, most blind people are no longer taught Braille. (To braille , by the way, is the process of producing Braille, not the process of touching it to read. One would not “braille” a table to see what’s on it.)

Many devices have been invented such as the opticon and the Versabrailler, but nothing compares to the speech synthesizer and screen reader software.

When I refer to screen reader software, I do not mean the person dictates. One still has to type. The software simply reads back what is on the screen. The most common program is JAWS produced by Freedom Scientific. 

Every Apple product has Voiceover. Your IPhone has Voiceover. So does your MacBook. God bless Apple. 

Kurzweil makes scanner software that scans and then reads what is scanned. They also have software to help persons with other reading disabilities like dyslexia.

Books are recorded and digitized for download by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and now and other companies have made even more books available, where once finding enough books to read for a book lover was frustrating at best.

Home devices are also pretty awesome. You can spend less than $10.00 for a gizmo that tells you when the liquid you are pouring into a cup has reached just below the rim. Talking thermometers and scales exist. Check out places like Independent Living Aids to see what’s out there. 

Many devices and apps exist for assisting those with visual impairments as well. Zoomtext and Magic enlarge the type on a screen and create a white on black contrast, which is easier to read.

These devices are not perfect. Screen reader software doesn’t work with every app and only partially in many, especially web sites with lots of Web 2.0 and Flash. Still, the advent of such software allowed me to become a writer.

Soon, a Braille display for the computer that is affordable will be released. Now they cost thousands of dollars for only a few Braille cells because it is all hand wired. It’s called refreshable Braille. The dots raise and lower to make up changing letters as the screen scrolls.

Especially in a crowd, a blind person may not realize they are the person being addressed. Using a name, or a light touch on the shoulder to get their attention works, though be careful with the touch. Some people hate their space being invaded. As a blind person, however, touch is all important. Eye contact is usually impossible, but it is no reason to ignore the person because you might be uncomfortable in how to get their attention.

Nowadays, email, texting, and instant phone calls are no different than for anyone else. IPhones are especially good for blind people, but one can also use other phone systems with extra purchased software.

I have used the word blind here quite freely. That has offended people. I have had sighted people tell me I shouldn’t use it. Seriously? Yet people want a euphemism. The problem is, the more one looks for a euphemism for a medical condition, the more that person proves how uncomfortable they are with the condition.

Some PC terms I have encountered: Without sight. Without vision, visually challenged, having visual characteristics. That last one had me confused during a workshop once. I had no idea the lecturer was talking about me. It demonstrates how ridiculous PC terms can get. Without vision rather offends me. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I don’t have vision. I would hope your character will have lots of vision even if he or she can’t see.

If you want more details, please feel free to contact me through the web form on my web site

Add caption

Audrey Sinclair Vanderleyden sets her heart on fulfilling a promise to her deceased husband to continue practicing medicine, despite opposition from their families. But the old physician from whom they bought a practice stands in her way and refuses to honor the contract. Audrey must either give up medicine and return to her family, or marry a near stranger. 

A gunshot wound robs Nathan Maxwell of the ability to continue practicing medicine. He must find another purpose in his life. Marriage isn't an option; only a desperate woman would want a blind man for a husband. Audrey is desperate, but marriage to Nathan isn't the salvation of her medical career she thought it would be. For Nathan, the union challenges loyalties and exposes what he's lost.

"A strong-willed woman used to fighting a society that doesn't accept her career choice goes toe to toe with an equally determined man who would give anything to have a second chance at the job she covets in Eakes' sweet, richly emotional historical romance." --Booklist


Sarah Raplee said...

Thank yo for sharing your first-hand knowledge and experiences about blindness. Your post speaks to the extensive research needed to portray blind characters authentically.

Judith Ashley said...

Thanks for guesting with us, Laurie. One danger new technology imposes on the blind is texting while walking. My son, who uses a cane, gets bumped or narrowly avoided (I was watching) because people are too busy on their phones and not paying attention to their surroundings. Thanks for the list of resources. I'll share them with him.

Diana McCollum said...

I read the Mountain Midwife and loved the story. Interesting blog and thanks for sharing so much information with us.

Lauren James said...

Thank you for your wonderfully informative post. It really highlights the importance of thorough research to truly develop and represent a full, authentic character.