Elsa S. Henry: So, You Wanna Write A Blind Character?
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a bonafide bad-ass, and she doesn’t need Daredevil’s skills to do it. Elsa writes a lot on the subject of disability and diversity, and here, she’s going to teach us sighted oundaolks a thing or two about what blindness is and how you might tackle the subject in your stories. Note, you can ask her followup questions in the comments, but please don’t ask her to critique your manuscript or characters. (Unless you’re willing to pay her for the job, in which case: ask away.)
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So you want to write a blind character? But you’re not blind? You’re wondering how on earth you’re going to do that?
Maybe you went and researched things at the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), or you called up your local lighthouse chapter, or you stopped a random blind person in the street, or you found me on Twitter.
Anyway, you tried to do your research but it’s not quite clicking. Well, I get a lot of questions on Twitter.
I don’t have time to answer Every Single Question that comes along my Twitter timeline, so instead of doing that, I’ve polled some of my writer buddies (and ganked some of my favorite questions from Twitter) to give you an overview! Because I’m nice or something. Who knows.
Hey, if you’re blind, how are you using twitter? Or this blog?
Okay let’s talk about me as a small case study. I’m blind in one eye, I can see out of my left eye…. Ehhhh, okay. Not great, but it’s good enough for government work fiction-writing work. I wear reading glasses and use the internet like everybody else.
Some of my blinder friends use screen readers or text to speech software to post their Tweets and blogposts. Because the world has adapted to us in a really neat way.
I do have a dragon though. Well, I have Dragon anyway, it’s a text-to-speech software program that is trainable!
So blind people just see darkness right?
NOPE. Here’s a fun factoid for you! Two percent (2%) of the TOTAL blind population is completely blind. The rest of us see on a scale of blindness. For example, you’ve got people like me who are legally blind because of one eye being blind and the other is low vision. I’ve met people who are blind in one eye who lead their lives like fully sighted people. They sometimes have things like Coloboma. (They can drive cars, y’all, I can’t do that. It’s not fair. More on that later.) ANYWAY, it’s possible to be blind and still SEE STUFF. Sometimes it’s blurry, sometimes blind people can’t see color, sometimes it’s all dialed down to seeing things within the radius of a toilet paper tube.
You get the idea. Being blind or visually impaired is on a spectrum of not seeing, rather than being a static condition.
So you were blinded by a tragic accident involving either fireworks or spilled chemicals?
For the last damn time, I am not Daredevil, okay. I’m blind because rubella in utero sucks and that caused me to end up blind (congenital cataracts), deaf and with a congenital heart defect. I’m not sure what the exact statistics are, but I know a lot more people who were born blind or went blind in childhood than who went through a tragic accident involving, I don’t know, 0464.
Okay, I don’t know anyone who was blinded because of 0464. I’m not even sure that’s a real chemical compound.
Point is, diseases like retinitis pigmentosa, or rubella, conditions such as albinism, or cataracts are likely responsible for the majority of blind folks out there.
I have met a couple people who were blinded by a tragic accident, but it’s not really heroic or anything, frankly it’s just horrifying. I mean YOU imagine having a piece of a coke bottle driven into your eyeball on impact with the ground.
Yes, that last sentence was to see if you can stomach reading about eyeball trauma. If you can’t maybe stick to nontragic narratives around disability. Frankly, more blindness narratives that aren’t about how HORRIBLE being blind is would be super awesome.
So you wear sunglasses right?
Me personally? Oh god no. My ability to see in the dark is so terrible that wearing sunglasses impairs my ability to use nifty tricks I have like looking for shadows to see stairs (because I don’t have depth perception.)
But some people do! Mostly if they have severe light sensitivity as a result of their condition which causes blindness! Some folks are also embarrassed by the way their eyes look – not because they should be, but because society tends to tell people that cataracts or other “different” eyes are scary. More on that in a minute. Sunglasses definitely aren’t an indicator that someone is absolutely 100% blind.
So do you have a guide dog?
Adaptive devices are really personal, and I think when you’re writing a blind character, it’s important to consider how they would want to engage with the world.
I don’t have a guide dog because I don’t qualify for one. I’m too sighted. Instead, I carry a white cane which gives me all kinds of feedback on the world at my feet. I’ve also taken Orientation and Mobility classes to learn how to navigate with my limited sight. Most blind people have taken Orientation and Mobility not matter what adaptive device they use. A guide dog is a highly specialized dog whose only job is to keep you safe, it’s a big responsibility for both the handler, and the dog. Not everyone wants that.
So you don’t have a guide dog, you’re not REALLY blind, do you use braille at least?
Well, I am really blind. Like I said earlier, blindness is on a spectrum. But no, I don’t use braille either. I mean, I guess I use it a little because I learned the numbers so I can tell what floor I’m going to in elevators (most elevators are really dark!) and that’s it. Braille is very expensive to print as it requires heavy paper, and I don’t know many people who use it these days for much more than navigating public signage. This is part of why I didn’t like the most recent Daredevil series – Matt Murdoch doesn’t have that kind of money for either the number of canes he needs, or for the amount of braille he’s printing.
Is that thing real? That “let me see you” and then the touching someone’s face thing??
In a romantic context, sure! But I don’t know of any blind folks who do that on a regular basis, and we certainly don’t go around pawing people’s faces for context. In a corollary to this, yes. Blind people date, have sex, get married, all that kind of stuff. Assuming that your blind protag isn’t a sexual creature is a HUGE mistake. Also, insinuating that a blind character can’t get married or have a partner because they’re blind reinforces that stereotype, which is super frustrating for those of us who are blind, and happily married. Our partners aren’t saints for being with us.
What are some social cues blind people might struggle with? Like looking someone in the eye?
Okay here’s another socialized thing. I have a hard time looking people straight in the eye because as a kid my peers had a hard time doing so. My eye creeped people out. Some people. Enough of them that it started to matter. Also, when you turn your head to not look someone in the eye, I can hear that and the sound is different.
Be polite and treat blind folks the way you would anyone else. That goes for in your writing too.
So you can’t echolocate?
Well, I personally can’t because I’m deaf-blind. But there are people who can! Like Daniel Kish. If you want to write about blind people who can echolocate, I suggest listening to this Invisibilia (Link: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/544/batman) podcast, though I’d say remember that while Kish might think all blind folks can echolocate, I totally disagree with that assessment from where I sit.
Man, sighted people come off sounding like dicks when you talk about this.
Here’s some stuff you can NOT do in your stories in order to make blind people look less like helpless creatures in the eyes (sorry) of your readers. Try not to have blind people getting help all the time, it makes us look like we can’t take care of ourselves. You know what would be really great? In your futuristic settings, give blind characters’ self-driving cars! (DO THIS FOR REAL, PLEASE. I WANT ONE.) Give your blind characters (and really any disabled characters you write) personal autonomy. Not all of us have it, even I have to ask for help frequently, but let your characters ask, not be given it without request.
So what are some tropes I shouldn’t write about blind people?
I’m so glad you asked this! For selfish purposes, I suggest you read my piece in the upcoming anthology Upside Down from Apex Publishing. My story is about the Blind People Are Magic trope! But really. Blind psychics, blind people who “aren’t really blind” (see Daredevil) or blind people who see ghosts are all pretty played out at this point. Also, blindness, especially the way that blind eyes like mine look, are used as a shorthand for evil or untrustworthy characters. Cataracts don’t need to be shorthand for creepy!
Really, what I want you to know is that blind people are people. Blindness isn’t a shortcut for personality. A blind person won’t be any nicer or meaner than a sighted people, they won’t be more or less likely to join up with the Dark Side of the Force.
Write blind people who are frustrated fourteen-year-old girls who want to fight the system, write blind people who are high ranking CEO’s ready to take down the world for their own profit, write blind people who are smart or who aren’t. Write blind folks who can ride wyverns, or who can ascend mountains with their trusty guide direwolves.
Write blind people who are whole and real and, well…..
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Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian writer who haunts New Jersey. She’s worked on tabetop RPG books, been in fiction anthologies (check out Ghost in the Cogs from Broken Eye Books), and has written a number of nonfiction articles about disability. You can find those floating around on the internet. She can be found on twitter @snarkbat and at feministsonar.com. When she’s not frantically scribbling, she can be found singing Hamilton lyrics to her hound dog.