I’d like to introduce this week’s guest blogger, Annika Konrad. Being a Ph.D. student of English Composition and Rhetoric, a teaching assistant and Writing Center Instructor at the UW-Madison, she’s very busy. She also has been gathering the stories of visually impaired individuals from all over Wisconsin. These stories are being posted on the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired’s new blog, The Outlook From Here. This is Annika’s personal story of vision loss. Please accept her invitation to write your story and follow the links she provides to do this.
I recently started a blog called The Outlook From Here, where I publish stories about blindness and visual impairment. I have been writing for as long as I can remember, and I have been studying and teaching college writing for about five years. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I decided to begin writing about my disability and help others do the same. In fact, for most of my life, I didn’t even tell people that I have been losing my vision. I’ve never liked statements like, “I have been losing my vision” or “I have been going blind.” That just sounds scary. I’d be lying if I said I’m never scared, but I generally don’t think of my experiences as scary. My disability is a fact of life, and it’s a fact of life that has allowed me to develop a greater sense of appreciation, connection, and awareness, but that’s hard to convey in a brief conversation.
So, how did I go from hiding my disability to blogging about it? It all began with a visit to a certified low vision therapist named Marshall Flax. The thing is, I had been to rehab specialists before. I already knew that most of their tools don’t appeal to me, so I wasn’t expecting to get much out of this visit. But when Marshall told me that instead of starting the vision exam with the smallest letters, he was going to start with the biggest ones, I knew this was going to be a different experience. He explained that going to the eye doctor can be a traumatic experience for people with vision loss because it’s a series of “getting it wrong.” So, we started with the big letters, and I was winning and loving it.
Marshall said something else I had never heard before—he told me about a low vision support group that meets at the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired in Madison, Wisconsin. As soon as I heard the words “support group,” I thought, “No way.” To be honest, I enjoyed my interactions with Marshall so much that the support group stuck in my mind. I knew Marshall would be there, so I knew it would be a safe space. I finally worked up the courage to go and I loved it. I met people who are happy, funny, and eager to connect and share their experiences. I immediately knew that I had found a community to which I wanted and needed to belong.
I realized that I didn’t want our stories to stay within the realm of the support group. I wanted to find a way to bring these stories to the general public, and it occurred to me that writing stories might be a way for me to tell people about my disability. I knew I had to find a way to use my skills as a writing teacher to help people with vision loss bring their stories to the public. With the support of a grant from the Public Humanities Exchange at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in partnership with the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, I recruited a group of people from across Wisconsin who want to share stories about their experiences of blindness, visual impairment and disability. Beginning in October 2013, we talked over the phone twice a month to discuss how to tell stories about our experiences. You can read more about who we are here and about our beliefs here.
What I’ve learned from this experience is that there is no right way to tell people about disability. I used to feel bad about not being able to talk to people about my visual impairment. By writing about my experiences, however, I’ve realized that communicating about disability is not straightforward. Simply saying, “I am losing my vision” or “I am going blind” is not enough to convey our experiences. Words and phrases like “vision loss” and “blindness” can conjure notions of fear, deficit and sickness. This is why we have decided to take the time and space to fully convey our experiences—so that readers can learn to see that people with disabilities have interesting, unique perspectives that are valuable to all of society. Particular features of our bodies do make our lives different and we need to share those experiences in order to expand our understanding of what it means to be human. I encourage you to share your story with us, whether you are visually impaired yourself or know someone who is, so that we can begin to learn about how you experience the world.