Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Arisia panel: Blindness: More Than Metaphor

I found myself awake at 9 a.m. on Sunday, somewhat to my surprise, so I actually made it a panel not my own!


Blindness has been used as a metaphor in fiction for centuries, a way to talk about knowledge, enlightenment, ignorance and agency. But for some people it is a simple fact of everyday life. We have moved away from using gender and appearance strictly as metaphor in stories (pretty = good, ugly = bad). Are we ready to look at disabilities as part of who people are, and start including them in more kinds of stories and in more diverse roles?

Gann Monroe, Sarah Smith, Rachel Tanenhaus, W. A. (Bill) Thomasson, Tanya Washburn (m)

Note: I began noting whether audience members were sighted or blind, based on their own statements, partway through my note-taking, because I thought it brought important context to the discussion. I was able to extend that to some early comments as I started tidying these notes immediately after, but unfortunately on Monday I've forgotten who said some things, so these designations aren't complete.

Trigger warning: contains an instance, late in the panel, of blatant, aggressive, and unapologetic ableism.


Selkiechick (Tanya) - moderator, sighted, access coordinator for con, does access services at Harvard

Gann - legally blind

Sarah - sighted, heroine of series is legally blind, Europe, early 1900s, wants to be professional musician; day job, accessibility coordinator for large software product (8.1 million users)

Bill - 14 years ago became legally blind, will be heading access at 2015 WorldCon

Rachel - legally blind since birth, "as opposed to those illegal blind people"; works in public health, which is just starting to see disability as a characteristic of a population instead of a negative outcome

(There was a Internet thing going around that asked if you'd rather be dead or blind??!!)

Selkie question: authors/works that have done a _good_ job?

Gann: sorry, no

Sarah: put her character in _Vanished Child_ and subsequent because wasn't seeing it (grandmother was blind)

Bill: does remember one story with blind protagonist by Tanya Huff, missed prior volume so didn't have context to judge how it was treated (I gather this is the Blood Books series?)

Rachel: can't even get blind people to write well about blindness, so often get inspirational book about inspiration; really hard to find stuff that doesn't fall into bad tropes

re: bad tropes, Sarah mentions _Wait Until Dark_, Aubrey Hepburn movie (IMDB), "oh the brave blind person"

Rachel points out that at time, was more of a character than blind people had been allowed to be, though doesn't look good now

Bill remembers it for one of first uses of "villain we thought was dead, jumps out"

More recommendations or tentative recommendations:

audience member: recommends _Touching the Rock_ (Amazon), title was about metaphor of forgetting what faces looked like

Sarah: cites _Country of the Blind_, Steve K__, which I think must be _Planet of the Blind_ by Stephen Kuusisto (Amazon)

sighted audience member: query about YA book called _Vessel_ (presumably by Sarah Beth Durst (Amazon), four teens had to be possessed by gods, one as blind, felt like author did decent job of treating like person, but still learning so not sure

blind audience member: "authors who made a really good-faith effort", but didn't find those efforts satisfying; LMB's Sharing Knife series, main character has a blind grandmother, tried to make a full character, important relationship with main character, but needed to be led around _her own house_

same audience member con't: Lois Lowry, third book in Giver series, _Messenger_, one of main character's fathers been blinded in previous book; everyone in book has name according to role, he's made really sympathetic . . . and then named _Seer_. And not clear that he does much.

me (sighted audience member): continuing theme of mixed success, _Broken Kingdoms_, citing [personal profile] lightreads's review; see also the author's response ("I’m not gonna lie here; this was a fuckup on my part.").

sighted audience member: going back to Bujold, cites Miles Vorkosigan, doesn't consume his life but affects him

Gann, Sarah: don't want characters consumed by, or 100% all about, their disabilities

Bill: hearing in discussion that authors need to do more research--about everything, of course, but particularly this!

Selkie: research is not turning lights off in your house for an hour and walking into things!

Selkie: change of topics: pick a thing authors do wrong and the fix

Gann: albinism (Rachel OMG the evil albino) people don't realize that connected to having a disability, assassin in _Da Vinci Code_ has full-out red-eye (which doesn't happen in humans) yet is dead-eye with a pistol

Rachel: National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation has a big campaign about the evil albino, art and photography projects to counter, pretty good evidence that beliefs are seriously harmful (don't see anything obvious on its website, but does have other useful FAQs etc)

blind audience member: is legally blind, met a few people with albinism, but all were white so didn't realize it (example: thought person was really pale or frosts her hair), but for some reason examples on TV tend to be albino black people so look different (missed specific description), is that not realistic, what would person with albinism who's not white look like

Rachel: tend to have darker skin color relative to white person with albinism, often straw-color hair, but depends on race. Also if you don't know that family has albinism (which often people don't), can be difficult for family when child is born. Actually higher incidence in Africa

Gann: lots of different kinds of albinism, too; look, I have a freckle!

Rachel: what would be good, if had people albinism playing characters with . . . ! UK movement, "Pay Us Don't Play Us" by actors with disabilities

blind audience member: a lot of characters _could_ be a blind person, sight doesn't have to be part of every character, assumption if not described as having disability then does have one

(this is similar to the default assumption of whiteness)

back to bad/fixable tropes

Sarah: magic blind people, certainly one; people who are disabled _all the time_ is another, but the particular thing that is worst is actually factual not fictional: at work, deal with disabled students AND their professors, and the professors are always in a panic and completely ignorant, haven't talked to the students; relates story that kestrell tells, about going to class at MIT after losing sight and being told that she can't take class because "blind people don't read these books"

Bill: trope touched on before, but one particular novella was set on planet with two competing civilizations at late 20th c. level, one of them develops a "blinding bomb," protagonist captured by other army and has eyes removed in retaliation for bomb; until gets eye transplant, treated as completely helpless along with all compatriots (throwaway line by protagonist: I know that some people adapt well to blindness, but none of us did; just not believable) [first couple search attempts coming up empty, anyone?)

Sarah mentions _Day of Triffids_, which I've never read so didn't realize it was about "a plague of blindness which befalls the entire world, allowing the rise of an aggressive species of plant" (Wikipedia)

Rachel: want my magic! Well, I don't get hangovers that doesn't count. (panel: does too!) But really hates "blindness is the worst thing in the whole wide world that will bring down society!!!" Book called _Blindness_, movie made out of it (Wikipedia (oh no, Mark Ruffalo!)), so thoroughly offensive that National Federation of the Blind was protesting it; doesn't get along with them, so went to see it with some blind friends; about plague of blindness, society falls apart, people poop in corners because OMG blindness; totally lost it at line, "I'm so glad we have a leader with VISION!" (Also: contains one guy blind since birth, hoarding all adaptability knowledge for power/money)

Selkie: went to accessibility conference at which people were non-ironically loving this movie!!

audience member: the book's author won a Nobel Prize for Literature . . . (Rachel: book was a little better)

audience member con't: when writing fantasy where magic is part of world, don't want to say blind people can't have magic, so as long as magic not related to blindness, won't be a magical blindness trope

sighted audience member: (1) what about stories where magic causes blindness, like looking at it gradually removes ability to see non-magic world, can think of multiple books

Gann: when 16, mom told her not to masturbate too much because hair on palms, she said, heard also makes you blind! Dad fell over laughing, but she hadn't realized what she said

sighted audience con't: (2) remembers SF book from high school, character was deaf, point where on planet with creature could make a really dangerous noise and then suddenly had advantage, idea good/bad/mixed?

Rachel: sometimes really happens, Gallaudet University had the protests in 1980s, hearing person trying to calm them down, deaf people pulled fire alarm, hearing person said couldn't concentrate with all this noise, deaf people signed back "What noise?"

Sarah: writing book about Titanic now, blind protagonist figures out that lights are going to go out and is sort of giggling because, no problem! But sort of fascinating because how notice different things as sighted person writing blind person, protagonist fun to write because more clued into way people speak, smells, slant of land, and "the natural stupidity of the world," though admits may be fantasizing but fun because most people define themselves in terms of what they see

Bill: when went blind, does definitely identify people more by voices

Selkie asks if audience brought burning questions

sighted audience member asks for tips about writing completely blind person, doesn't want to do it WRONG

Bill: completely different sets of adaptations for people who are partially legally blind and functionally blind, so doesn't really have any tips

Rachel: also difference people who born blind/don't remember sight and became blind later; my question for you is what your motivation is, I think that is important to examine, what are you trying to convey, is there a narrative purpose for the character being blind or is that, "I would like to see more blind people represented in literature"--if latter, hey, I'm with you; also, look at, are you othering your character, if are, for reason, trying to make a statement, or just how you feel (not trying to be accusatory, just seen a lot of that in books)

blind audience member: not all blind people will develop same level of alternative techniques, for example has terrible sense of direction

Selkie: you mean you're telling us you're not Daredevil?!

Rachel: you've met one blind person, you've met one blind person

digression into testing, software, customer service, which I will omit to protect the participants

I asked about Daredevil, didn't know much about character, wasn't sure how well it was handled

blind audience member tells me character basically has sonar so regards it as kind of a cheat (though one person made news in FL because can echolocate with tongue clicks (presumably this person))

Rachel: like Geordie! blind, but can see everything

blind audience member: hates that everything must be function of blindness (neatness of room: if neat, because have to have it that way, if messy, because can't see to pick up)

(story I missed about religion)

Rachel: convinced we're all supposed to be obsessed with Jesus because New Testament only book can reliably get in any format we want!

blind audience member: is tempted by Bible read by James Earl Jones, because, James Earl Jones

Rachel: need to get him to be voice of all screenreaders

Sarah: aren't all those screen readers white?

bunch of actors mentioned as improvements/desired, get a campaign going!

sighted audience member: Geordie ex., as get into future, seems likely that technological advances will continue to advance, as write in future, are there are still blind people or has tech cured them?

panel: people don't like being erased from the future

Rachel: there's cancer and AIDS and stuff, cure them first, don't cure me

follow-up from same audience member: if society where can grow new limbs, don't want to erase people but don't want plot holes either

Bill: agrees with audience member

Rachel: medical model v. social model, medical model = disability is a problem with person, objective to fix; social = disability is a normal part of human existence, many variants on how people are, environment is often also the disabling factor; truth probably somewhere in the middle, but if take medical model view for future tech: cure becomes mandatory, insurance goes away


(ETA: see comments, I may have jumped to the wrong conclusion about whether this person was sighted based on their comments) different, sighted audience member: people trying to understand blindness should understand differences between blindness and deafness, there is prominent though not universal movement that deafness is good, leaking into blindness but there's nothing good about blindness, "you're missing so much richness"

Rachel: no, not missing a thing!

Bill: no similar culture for blind people

Rachel: Deaf culture is a thing, see selves as cultural and linguistic minority, which is true, so have cultural pride in that

Rachel con't: saying all the things I'm missing, that's pity, I don't deal in pity, nothing I can't do with my life

same audience member: art!

Rachel: I love art! Took tactile tour, Selkie did great job.

Selkie: tactile tour of Masquerade tonight too!


blind audience member: don't think anything wrong with saying I would rather not be blind, does wish could go out and ride bike on beautiful spring day, but same time thinks social model is more important to those of us blind, don't think sight is worth any price, and hardest part about being blind is being misunderstood by sighted public


Selkie: one of thing about social model is focusing on things we can do right now, instead of 10-20 years down line

Rachel: feels same way about opportunity to be sighted as being male, would try it for a day then go back to being me; sort of like people saying can't be fat and happy: oh yeah?!

Bill: as only person on panel with experience of being fully sighted and visually limited, yes, would like to be fully sighted, but inconvenience not handicap (less so if web page designers really did what supposed to do)

Sarah: anyone who defines self by what can't do, that's real disability; putting out e-editions of her books, looking for friends to look at and save from self

Gann: I am actually an evil albino

This was a great panel and I particularly applaud Rachel for dealing with the asshole so well.

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Tags: cons: arisia: 2014, disability

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