Book Review: The Untold Story of the Talking Book


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I remember taking a road trip nearly 20 years ago and wondering what in the world I would do during the 9 hours I’d spend in transit each way. I visited my father not long before I left, and he handed me three plastic cases from the local public library, each of which contained two or three cassettes. This was my introduction to talking books. Sure, as a child, I had books with songs or sound effects, but so did the neighborhood kids. Braille books were always available, but they were big and bulky and cumbersome to transport – if I finished the volume(s) I brought with me, I could find myself without reading material at all, and bringing more than one or two volumes would take up just as much room as a small suitcase. At eleven or twelve years old, those three plastic cases with their two or three cassette tapes were my entree into the world of a more portable reading solution.
Over the past twenty years, the world of audio books has changed drastically. From those first books – abridged, in my opinion, to their detriment – to the unabridged audio books on tape or CD that became popular (if costly) at the turn of the century, to the repositories of digital downloads for rent or purchase… no one can deny that audio books are here to stay.
When I first discovered Matthew Rubery’s “The Untold Story of the Talking Book” I waited for months to read it. Of course, I listened to it in audio format; it just seemed most appropriate.


About the Book


Histories of the book often move straight from the codex to the digital screen. Left out of that familiar account is nearly 150 years of audio recordings. Recounting the fascinating history of audio-recorded literature, Matthew Rubery traces the path of innovation from Edison’s recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for his tinfoil phonograph in 1877 to the first novel-length talking books made for blinded World War I veterans to today’s billion-dollar audiobook industry.
The Untold Story of the Talking Book focuses on the social impact of audiobooks, not just the technological history, in telling a story of surprising and impassioned conflicts: from controversies over which books the Library of Congress selected to become talking books – yes to Kipling, no to Flaubert – to debates about what defines a reader. Delving into the vexed relationship between spoken and printed texts, Rubery argues that storytelling can be just as engaging with the ears as with the eyes and that audiobooks deserve to be taken seriously. They are not mere derivatives of printed books but their own form of entertainment.
We have come a long way from the era of sound recorded on wax cylinders, when people imagined one day hearing entire novels on mini phonographs tucked inside their hats. Rubery tells the untold story of this incredible evolution and, in doing so, breaks from convention by treating audiobooks as a distinctively modern art form that has profoundly influenced the way we read.


A Note about Audio


Many of my readers access reading material through audio book libraries, whether through their state or federal library for the blind, through their local public library, or through online resources featuring books on CD or digital downloads for rent or purchase. The narrator of Rubery’s book, Jim Dennison, reads the book straight through, with neither dramatic flare nor flat intonation. It was mildly disconcerting listening to such a narrator reading a passage about “How to Read a Talking Book.” But Dennison is a good narrator choice for this book, letting the text stand on its own… and stand, it does.


Blindness is Prominent


Unlike many authors that include a few token quotes from blind people, Rubery shies away from making them out to be incompetent or demanding or whiny. He describes blind people as having particular needs (inclusion, literacy) and vastly different opinions of what that would look like. Some were portrayed as grateful for any literature at all, while others are more particular about the types of books available. Some wanted to read about those who went through the journey of blindness, while others preferred escapism. This provides a look into blind people as individuals, with different personalities, preferences and expectations. He also describes the challenges of learning braille later in life, or transporting braille volumes for those who read braille, or the limited number of books made available. In addition, he provides compelling scientific evidence (written in an accessible style) that reading with the fingers or the ears uses the same brain activity as reading with the eyes, putting the visually impaired only at a disadvantage to their sighted friends or family due to the lack of access to reading material.


Not a Dry (Audio) Book


Rubery not only discusses the history of talking books – from their inception to the present – but does so logically and with nuance. From the early days where the hope for talking books was surpassed by the technology available at the time to the present day where almost everyone has some form of talking book somewhere (on their phone, in their car), he takes us on a wild ride. I found myself most interested in the inception of talking book libraries in the 1930s. How were books chosen? Was there censorship involved? Were the blind needing protection from unpleasant topics? Did narration matter? With a finite supply of funds, what would appeal to the widest variety of people? When audio books became more popular, what made some publishers more successful than others? From “public” playing of talking books in one’s living room (a BIG no no!) to the idea that any form of “hearing” books being viewed by society as “lazy”, I found myself wrestling with some of those questions, even as I read an audio book while making dinner or going for a run.

And talking books are constantly changing, even today. Now, books on CD are still available for purchase by consumers and libraries, even as digital repositories are gaining popularity. Some audio books for adults have included (as they did for children all those years ago) sound effects and music to enhance the experience. Rubery provides a compelling case that there is room in the marketplace for audio books as they are, and as they will become in the years ahead.




A seasoned audio book consumer, I learned a lot from this book. From the little things (like why some libraries for the blind include warnings about violence or strong language in their book descriptions) to the big things (wondering how the printed word became so “sacred” after cultures used oral storytelling for centuries), there is much to take away from this book. Whether you read it with your eyes or your ears, it provides much food for thought and interesting discussion.

4/5 stars.

The Easy Life


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One thing I’ve noticed over the years, particularly as it comes to interpersonal dynamics, is the idea that my life with a disability is so hard. I frequently encounter perceptions of strangers that I am unable to cook a meal, hold down a job, or raise a family, all because of my disability. Then there’s the confusion about what disability I actually DO live with every day. I, a blind woman, am perpetually told that I MUST need the elevator, rather than the flight of stairs to which I was asking directions. My friends who are deaf or hard of hearing have frequently told me of their experience of being spoken to in very. slow. and. measured. words – complete with sweeping arm and hand gestures – or having written conversations in what amounts to broken English because of the perception that they do not understand complete sentences. I’ve witnessed a friend in a wheelchair being spoken to like a small child, rather than the competent adult she is, simply because she is seated and therefore shorter than most adults.
Do you know what all this has in common? It’s someone else’s discomfort around disability… and not the challenge of disability itself. Most of us with disabilities have reached a place where the tools of disability are second-nature to us – how to navigate the world, prepare food for ourselves, take care of our bodies. We realize that many people haven’t gone through Disability 101 (a seemingly mandatory course in the school of Disability Acceptance that sometimes takes months, sometimes years to master), and we’re generally understanding of mistakes along the way. What doesn’t seem to make sense to us is the idea that a non-disabled person’s job is to make our life “easier” or “better.” Not only that, but the perception is that it’s up to the non-disabled person to decide what we require – a seat on the bus, a spot closer to the front of the lineup, an elevator instead of stairs – frequently putting us in situations where we have to firmly make our needs known because we were never asked in the first place. This then causes the “well-meaning” non-disabled person to call us ungrateful, rude, abrupt, or pushy for simply asserting our autonomy… because, after all, they “meant well.” We often are forced to have nerves of steel, to bottle up feelings of frustration and anger, not because our disability is so hard, but because it’s so exhausting being used as a “teachable moment“, or having to assert our desires and rights to work and play and access the same facilities that are so often taken for granted.

But you know what/ I’ve discovered? I can have nerves of steel, I can advocate perfectly for myself, I can say all the right things with a perfect tone… and I STILL am misunderstood. I hate that I have to write this, because admitting it means I need something from you. It actually IS your job to help make my life easier, and that of other disabled people in your sphere of influence. But you don’t get to pick and choose what would make our lives easier. In a beautifully eloquent post, my new friend Chris so eloquently wrote about the things that are easy – opening doors, giving us your place in line, offering your seat on the bus. In reference to the big things, the important things, the things that include us in society (work, education, opportunity) “… you’d gladly give me a seat on the bus, but how would you feel giving me a seat on the Board?”

What we want from you takes work on your part… and yet, it, too, is easy. It’s letting go of your perceptions and allowing us to be human beings, with the same hopes and dreams and desires and weaknesses that you have. Would you like to be the only person sitting in the living room during Christmas dinner preparations, twiddling your thumbs, offering to help and being told no, just sit there and look pretty? It happens to disabled family members all the time, and when we attempt to insert ourselves, it becomes an argument that ultimately makes everyone lose. Would you like to be told that you can’t get married to the love of your life? It happens to disabled couples all the time – either due to meddling family members or frustrating bureaucracy. Would you like to be told that your work experience is perfect but then get told that the company hired someone else, but that you’re so “inspirational” for showing up? I have lived this and witnessed this unprofessional attitude over and over again. How about stating a preference for certain activities and being told that it’s “so stereotypical” or too outlandish… for YOU, not for anyone else. Yep… lived that, too.

This is the big stuff, the stuff that makes life textured and complex. It’s frustrating that my own autonomy is so dependent on a non-disabled public listening and learning and letting go of their preconceptions. It’s frustrating that being treated with dignity and autonomy and respect, being provided with helpful information the first time we ask, being listened to when we politely self-advocate is the very rare exception to the rule. I’ve been offered more bus seats than I believe I’ve been thoughtfully considered for jobs for which I am qualified. I’ve been grabbed to direct me more often than I’ve been told that my husband and I are a cute couple just because we love each other, even as the ring on my finger is immediately obvious. I’ve been offered assistance and guidance for which I am extremely grateful, but I’ve also had it foisted on me. The little things do make our lives easier, and they do matter, and they matter a lot. But the big things – employment, education, love, autonomy, respect, consent – matter more, and those things truly do make our lives easier.

You’d gladly give me a seat on the bus, but how would you feel giving me a spot in your kitchen, an important position in your office, an evening babysitting your children, an opportunity where my skills and experience can stand on their own, a day at the altar… or a seat on the board?

Book Review: The Reluctant Midwife


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There are three topics that will almost always make me want to pick up a book: the Great Depression, midwifery, and Appalachia. Put them together, and I HAD to read Patricia Harman’s Hope River novels: The Midwife of Hope River (TMOHR) and The Reluctant Midwife (TRM). While TMOHR, in this reader’s opinion, has much more charm and depth, I am reviewing TRM due to its themes of disability that run through much of the novel.


About the Book

The Great Depression has hit West Virginia hard. Men are out of work; women struggle to feed hungry children. Luckily, Nurse Becky Myers has returned to care for them. While she can handle most situations, Becky is still uneasy helping women deliver their babies. For these mothers-to-be, she relies on an experienced midwife, her dear friend Patience Murphy.
Though she is happy to be back in Hope River, time and experience have tempered Becky’s cheerfulness-as tragedy has destroyed the vibrant spirit of her former employer Dr Isaac Blum, who has accompanied her. Patience too has changed. Married and expecting a baby herself, she is relying on Becky to keep the mothers of Hope River safe.
But becoming a midwife and ushering precious new life into the world is not Becky’s only challenge. Her skills and courage will be tested when a calamitous forest fire blazes through a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. And she must find a way to bring Isaac back to life and rediscover the hope they both need to go on.


A note about Audio

As many readers of this blog read via audiobook, I will say that the narrator, Heather Henderson, is competent but not stellar. There are portions that would have been conveyed more clearly with a second narrator; they are written in first-person point of view, like the majority of the book in Becky’s POV, but Henderson’s voice does not change enough to make this distinct shift. It’s not a bad audiobook, but these are quibbles to keep in mind.


Disability: Center Stage

TRM visits many characters first introduced in TMOHR. It is probably best that TMOHR is read first, but Harman deftly describes what the reader may have missed. In theory, four years have passed since the end of TMOHR, but so much has stayed the same, even as a couple of characters have married or moved on. There are several physically disabled characters in this book (TRM), many of them mothers or women who wish to become mothers, who had brief side roles in TMOHR. This is a terrific departure from most fiction, which seems to portray disabled characters as having no sexuality. What’s also refreshing is that no one seems to bat an eye at Lily, a blind woman (who possesses angelic qualities and finely-tuned senses of hearing and smell – with which I have my own quibbles), raising a child with her husband. Ideally, Harman could have further explored this avenue of Lily’s life – as it’s not uncommon for parents with disabilities to have to prove their fitness as parents – particularly since Lily interacts frequently with Becky Myers, the nurse/midwife. Another character, paralyzed due to polio, uses a wheelchair to navigate her home, and consults Becky when she believes she is pregnant. Again, no one seems to think twice about her carrying a child due to her disability (though there are concerns due to the polio itself and a painful loss of a child years ago). Spouses and employers seem to want to make accommodations as needed for loved ones or employees to maintain their dignity and independence – wider doorways in the home, lower countertops and workbenches, setting up work projects for a blind spouse on bed rest. Again, this is a refreshing dip of the toes in the water of disability, dignity, sexuality, and parenthood, which could have made this book thoroughly enjoyable, but…


Some Big problems

Maybe it was a reflection of the times. Maybe it was the author’s point of view. Maybe it was an ending that was too neat and tidy. But Becky Myers herself was truly unlikable and seemed to lack the compassion of those in the helping professions. She worries about everything and is truly inexperienced as a midwife, something I found bizarre for a woman who ran a women’s health clinic for years. When the doctor she’s been assisting for years develops disabilities of his own, she totes him around like a pet, speaks to him like a dog, resents his presence, presumes him incompetent… Becky may have nursing training, but either has no compassion for some of those in her care or hasn’t developed the skills to avoid burnout. Words like “cripple”, “wheelchair bound”, and “sightless” are used to describe the townspeople with disabilities.

Dr. Blum begins the book unable to care at all for himself, but slowly gains independence once others presume his competence. He poignantly describes having words to say but being frequently unable to express them verbally. But he himself is manipulative, knowing he can perform personal care tasks for himself but allowing Becky to do them for him, reads Becky’s journal without her permission or consent. Even so, he performs complex surgery when pressed into service and recovers too neatly and tidily, feeding the idea that illness needs to be cured completely in order to be happy…



TRM lacks the depth, humour and charm of TMOHR. Even so, it takes some important steps in the right direction, making physical disability intersect sexuality and parenthood. But it missteps in some painful, ableist ways as well. It’s worth a read particularly if you like TMOHR (which is warm and poignant a la “Call the Midwife”), but it’s worth noting some concerns about mental illness or other disabilities whose cause and symptoms are unknown or unpredictable. One can argue, maybe even successfully, that the language and attitudes were products of that particular time and place, but that can only take one so far. Some of the words, attitudes and ideas still persist today – even if beneath the surface – and it’s important to acknowledge that.

3/5 stars.

So… very… Tired…


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My wonderful readers, you have been so patient with me. The past month and a half has been exhausting, exhillerating, frustrating, encouraging, and probably the most conflicted six weeks of my life. You have, without knowing it, given me the space I needed in order to get back in the saddle again… so here I am. I thank you in advance for your continued patience, because I am just… so… tired.

I’m tired of having to convince the general public that I deserve bodily autonomy.

I’m tired of having to convince potential employers that workplace accommodations are in my hands, they have to do NOTHING but respect me and train me the way they would a sighted employee.

I’m tired of being talked down to like I’m a child.

I’m tired of seeing organizations (albeit well-meaning ones) publish books about “how to talk” to me.

I’m tired of feeling like I am fighting all the time, but I feel like NOT fighting is giving up on myself.

And, most of all…

I am tired of blaming myself for being human, for being imperfect, for being angry and frustrated and exhausted.

I am just… so… very… tired.

Women On The Move: BlindBeader

A few months ago I profiled Steph, owner/operator/inspiration of Abigail Style. She asked me to contribute a post on her blog, so here it is! Thanks, Steph, for the opportunity to share a day in the life with you… thankfully, it was a good one!

Bold Blind Beauty

Perfection Doesn’t Make a Day Perfect

Intro: It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Women on the Move article and it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to a fabulous young woman, who among other things is a wife, animal lover, athlete, bookworm, jewelry designer, musician, and writer. Today, BlindBeader—as she likes to be called—gives us a glimpse into ‘a day in the life’ of one blind woman. Enjoy!

Blind Beader and her guide dog, Jenny at a pier in New York BlindBeader and Jenny in New York City

I’m curled up under blankets, snuggling with my guide dog and one of my cats. The two of them are besties, but it is uncommon for them to simply rest in shared space, so I’m thoroughly enjoying the moment.

It’s been a long day, but a good one, and I’m just resting in the knowledge that Perfect days do exist. It’s not that my day went without a hitch – in fact…

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Book Review: Not Fade Away


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Years ago, I read “Not Fade Away” by Rebecca Alexander, who most recently has (among many other things) been part of the Foundation Fighting Blindness’ controversial “How Eye See It” campaign. I found her book compulsively readable, in a chatty, conversational style, even as I grew frustrated with her desire or need to hide her deafness or blindness or, alternatively, push herself SO hard. Without taking away from her own lived experiences (of which she is incredibly self-aware), I wish (and maybe she does in hindsight) that she’d made life easier on herself by reaching a place of acceptance earlier.

Last year, I introduced you to Tracy in my post written by deaf-blind women. She shares my overall impressions of the book, as well as some of Rebecca’s own lived experiences. She graciously allowed me to share her own review of “Not Fade Away.” Take it away, Tracy!


Tracy’s Review

“Not Fade Away” – about a woman slowly losing her hearing and vision – may read as inspirational to most people, but for me as a deafblind woman it just irritated me.
We have shared experiences in deafblindness (in her later years after she finally accepted it). We both have trouble hearing and seeing in dark, noisy places; we were reluctant to start using a white cane; we both have a cochlear implant; and we both have similar reactions from the public such as asking if we need a wheelchair. We both are uncomfortable about being called someone’s “inspiration” just for dealing with our everyday lives. I also connected with the author in her coping skills as a child. We both believed we weren’t good enough for our parents, escaped a lot into imaginary worlds in our heads, and made up stories to try and get other kids to like us.
The book is described as “a memoir of senses lost and found”, yet it reads like a diary in mixed chronological order of memories of her parents’ divorce, her brother’s mental illness, her eating disorder, her fight with self-image and such. Much of the reference to her Usher’s Syndrome was dedicated to how much she hated and all the attempts to deny it even when it was obvious to those around her.
I get that she doesn’t want her deafblindness to be at the forefront of everything, but denying that she has it is like denying she has a nose on her face – almost everyone can see that she does. She could save a lot of frustration by being upfront about it.
Maybe it’s my background of already been born deafblind and not having to go through the transitional period of losing senses that made for my jaded view of this book. Maybe it’s my nonchalant attitude on life. I’m not afraid of letting people know about my deafblindness and what I need for accommodations. This is who I am, it’s a part of me and if you don’t like it, fine, go about your own life, your loss not mine.
Even though the author never displayed a “victim mentality” that some people develop after a disability diagnosis, she went the opposite way of being an over-achiever so that when people find out she’s losing her hearing and sight that they’ll like her anyway.
I just wanted to shake her and scream “there’s nothing wrong with being deafblind! You are still going to be you and you can still do everything and you have done a lot more than most able-bodied people! So just ACCEPT it! Who gives a crap what others think or how they view you!”
She states in a chapter in the middle of the book “I have a true understanding of what it means to take each day as it comes, with its joys and sorrows and complications, and to make the most of it.” This irritated me because I felt that she never truly did learn this, as later chapters still show her denying and excusing her losing vision and hearing. She also said in a chapter near the end, “I was only going to make life harder on myself by not accepting help.” It would have made her life a lot easier if she’d accepted this 50 chapters ago.
We all know getting a “terminal” diagnosis is dreadful and life-changing. Everyone would go through the different stages of grief of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I just felt that the author spent about 3/4th of the book in denial.
This book just did nothing but aggravate me and left me confused – why couldn’t she just get around to accepting it?


Tracy and I both give this book a 3/5-star rating.

An Open Letter to Potential Employers: I have a Disability, and I Expect YOUR Professionalism


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It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. We’re in a unique situation where we can both benefit each other. You are offering something I need – a job that will, hopefully enable me to serve your company/school/agency well while financially providing for myself and my family – and I have the qualifications that you are seeking. I also happen to be disabled (or have a disability, depending on my choice in language).

Why am I writing to you today?

Last week I discovered an anonymous rant from one of your contemporaries, bemoaning the lack of quality applicants to a job posting. Resumes that had been slapped together, unprofessional interview attire, or (my personal favourite) an applicant’s Mommy walking into the interview with them would leave anyone frustrated and lamenting the quality of prospective employees. Support was fast and furious from other frustrated people – those looking for work in an overcrowded job market, and those charged with making hiring decisions. I understand that you want qualified, professional, competent people working for your company/school/nonprofit, and you receive dozens – if not hundreds – of resumes. But I have one question before I continue: will you read this letter all the way to the end, or will you dismiss me (as many employers have before you and will again) because I don’t fit the perception of your dream candidate?

October is national Disability Employment Awareness Month. Did you know that almost 90% of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed? How about more than 60% of those who are blind or visually impaired? Those are simply two groups of people with disabilities, and there are many more (even those who would never disclose them to you). It’s not because we’re not able or willing to work… it’s because perception (not disability itself) stands in our way.

Did you know that people with disabilities have markedly higher job retention rates, better attendance, and stronger safety practices than their non-disabled coworkers? Did you know that workplace accommodations are generally affordable (if not at minimal cost), and state and provincial governments may cover the costs of those that are more costly? Large corporations (Apple, Tim Hortons) have already started to include people with disabilities as part of their hiring process, both because we are qualified applicants and because we represent the communities in which they do business.

Back to the professionalism bit. I send in my nicely written and formatted resume with the education and/or work experience and/or skills that you are looking for. I pass the phone/email screening stage and get invited for an interview. I’m dressed up neatly and professionally, arrive on time, shake your hand firmly, answer all of your questions. Maybe I walk in with a cane, or roll in using a wheelchair. Maybe a service dog sits by my side, maybe I hear best with a hearing aid. Perhaps I stim, or struggle with multiple sensory input. Maybe none of these things mark me as being disabled. But that’s all you notice and fixate on. It’s like my resume – with all of that education or experience – doesn’t exist. All you can see is the eyes or legs or ears or brain that don’t work “normally.” Little matter that my resume includes years of relevant qualifications, I get asked how (if I’m lucky) or am told I can’t (if I’m not) use a computer, serve customers, carry things, sort items, dial a telephone, navigate the workplace independently. Someone I know even had a prospective employer ask her how she got dressed for the interview.

And you have a professionalism problem?

But it’s never too late to implement changes to hiring practices, to change the conversation regarding disability in the workplace. We can all benefit each other – you get a qualified employee who represents the community you serve, I have the opportunity to use my education and/or professional skills to economically benefit both your company and myself. You deserve the best, the most qualified applicants. Sometimes, that person is me. You want a professional job applicant? I’m right here! Maybe with a wheelchair, cane, or service dog, maybe without. I’d like to meet a professional interviewer and employer, who will see my documented skills and my hard-won experience for the positive traits that they are. Such employers are out there; you can be one of them. Some disabilities are obvious, others are hidden, but we all want the same things: professionalism, respect, and a fair shot. Are you up to that challenge?



Disabled Job Applicants Everywhere

The Empowered Series: BlindAlive

It’s no secret that health and fitness are important to me (in case you don’t know, I present my history of playing goalball and running). One of the challenges of working out and being visually impaired is that it’s often a challenge to find someone to effectively describe techniques so that exercises can be performed safely. I’ve been fortunate in many ways, but not everyone receives helpful instruction in posture or physical education, and many blind people aren’t given the tools to exercise effectively and safely.

Enter Mel Scott of BlindAlive!


About Mel

Mel, 50-something, lives in Pennsylvania. She spent 30 years as a massage therapist and believes in the importance of fitness. She was diagnosed as a child with Retinitis Pigmentosa, and currently still has some vision (though she prefers to navigate the world with Jingles, her guide dog). Using that vision to read or watch videos, however, is no longer an option. Mel grew increasingly frustrated by many workout videos that show exercises but don’t describe them, leaving her to guess at her form. One day, while riding her exercise bike, she just thought “Stop whining and create it yourself!”


About BlindAlive

BlindAlive is “proud to have created a user-friendly, completely accessible solution to exercise and fitness” that can be done in the home. All of their exercise products have been tested by blind and low vision individuals to ensure that they are completely accessible.

Currently, there are twelve workouts available in audio (no video required!) in a variety of formats. Yoga, Pilates, bootcamp and other workouts can be digitally downloaded or shipped via CD, thumb drive or SD card.

But it’s more than just workouts. BlindAlive also boasts a blog, podcast and strong social media presence. Mel describes it as creating “more choices for more people.”


What’s next?

Mel hopes to continue to build on her basic workout library, to increase the intensity alongside the fitness of those who take advantage of the basic workouts. Her “basic” workouts can be made more challenging by increasing weights or intensity, so there’s plenty to keep the body challenged. In the immediate future, another yoga workout is in the works, and a whole-body stretch and a balance workout are coming soon. Mel says there are other surprises, but shhhhhh, she can’t tell!



We all have excuses for not working out. It’s too early, too cold, we’re too busy… but “because I’m blind” should not be one of them. Mel and her BlindAlive team have created a library of descriptive workouts that can be enjoyed by those with or without sight. So no more excuses! Hit the gym!

Book Review: WWW – Wake (guest review by Meagan Houle)


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From the first blog post I wrote about books with blind characters, I’ve been regularly encouraged to read and review Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW series, about a blind teenager who becomes friends with the World Wide Web. In my defense… I tried to read the first book, Wake. I tried more than once. But science fiction really isn’t my thing, and I found I couldn’t give the book an objective review because of it.

Thankfully, my dear friend Meagan stepped up and offered to read and review the book, and graciously allowed me to edit it and publish it here on my blog. Thanks, Meagan, for taking time out of your hectic schedule to help a friend!


About the Book

Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math – and blind. Still, she can surf the net with the best of them, following its complex paths clearly in her mind.
But Caitlin’s brain long ago co-opted her primary visual cortex to help her navigate online. So when she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality, the landscape of the World Wide Web explodes into her consciousness, spreading out all around her in a riot of colors and shapes.
While exploring this amazing realm, she discovers something – some other – lurking in the background. And it’s getting more and more intelligent with each passing day.


General Observations

this book is like so many sci-fi books I’ve read: the premise is absolutely fascinating, and the research is impressive. Here, our author spares us no details, and it’s clear that he’s given this book an enormous amount of careful
thought. I like his imagination, his intelligence, and his clear
commitment to fleshing out a complicated idea in a way that’s accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, character development, stilted writing and narrative flow are sacrificed in the name of a good plot. The science, while being fascinating and necessary, often crowds the story itself, dismissing the characters to a shadowy corner while the author embarks upon complex trains of thought.


Emotional Complexity

Even with a unique protagonist, it seemed that Sawyer attempted to insert excess emotional depth while leaving some characters stilted and wooden.

This isn’t to say that the author did not sometimes strike gold. There
were moments of startling brilliance in this book, where I actually
found myself tearing up. Caitlin’s interactions with Webmind, for example, while awkwardly written, are fun and engaging and wonderfully quaint. It made me
wonder what it would really be like to converse with a whole new kind of consciousness–something I’d often pondered briefly but never been moved to really sink my teeth into.


How do the Blind… do… Anything? TMI!

I began this book being quite dismayed, and mostly stayed that way throughout the book. The author, in typical scifi writer fashion, gave us far too much information about how Caitlin does every little thing. He goes so far as to explain the precise keystrokes she uses to operate her screen reader, which interrupts the flow of the text and was really distracting to me. We do not need to know that she has just hit a command to shift her computer’s focus or make her screen reader read an entire email aloud. I understand that the author is trying to help us understand blind people, but the execution is downright painful. Sadly, this pattern continued, broken only occasionally by relevant information (for instance, describing cane travel). Right through to the end, though, we’re bombarded with essentially useless trivia about how Caitlin navigates her world, even at times when it really disrupts everything else.


Nuggets of Gold

Now, the author did get a couple of things exactly right–so right it was almost uncomfortable. He pegged the social isolation, the transition from a dedicated school for the blind to a mainstream school, and the general anxiety a teenage girl  will feel when she’s getting to know a new boy. When the boy in question mistreats her because of her blindness, the devastation and humiliation she experiences are achingly familiar. I sucked in my breath and skimmed for a while, not wanting to linger in that place longer than I needed to. I imagine this will have an impact on sighted readers, who understand intellectually why this behaviour would be wrong but may not be able to tell exactly how it might feel until they are forced to imagine it directly.
The other thing I liked about this character was her frustration with the world at large. She’s fiercely independent, gifted and capable, but she still has to deal with people’s perceptions of her. Her struggle to preserve bodily autonomy and personal agency are, once again, very familiar to me. While she’s still getting used to her new school, her tray is physically taken from her hands, even after she has said she does not want to have it carried for her. Her own wishes are considered irrelevant, which so often happens to us when we don’t want help and are given it nonetheless. I can identify with her annoyance and sense of futility.

The author also portrayed well the assumptions and mistakes made by parents, even when they have parented a blind child for such a long time. Caitlin still has to remind her parents that she does not use a mouse, or that she can’t perceive this or that. The moments of awkwardness stand out sharply because her family is so used to her the rest of the time. I have experienced this with my own family: 22 years later and they still slip up sometimes. I see it as an encouraging sign: it means they’re not constantly thinking of me as “other.”


Regaining Sight: the Miracle Cure

Now, to address the part of the story I have little knowledge of: the process of gaining sight when you’ve never had any. I’ve been severely visually impaired my whole life, but I do have enough sight to understand concepts like colour and light. Caitlin didn’t have any of this, so when she was given it almost all at once, I expected her to be more than excited. I expected her to be overwhelmed, anxious, even scared. I thought that all the new stimuli going to her brain would, at the very least, throw her off for a bit. While she is definitely dazzled by her new vision, and it takes her a while to learn how to use it, the transition seems far too easy to be realistic. The author portrays the blindness cure as something that will somehow turn Caitlin’s life right around and fix her. She is so gloriously happy and comfortable with her new sense almost right away, which rings false to me. Again, I can’t say what it would be like, but judging by deaf people’s reactions when they hear for the first time, it would be far more impactful than this author is making it look. Again, we have a case of the plot moving relentlessly onward, giving Caitlin hardly any time to adjust.


General Conclusions

The author had the right idea, and was working with some very interesting plot points. He captured moments of raw emotional power, and tackled controversial issues with grace. That said, the prose was often stilted, the characters poorly-developed, and the blind character awkwardly-written. I would not recommend the book to a blind person, and would hesitate to recommend it at all, as a general reader. I have little patience with clumsy writing, so while I really did want to like this book, I could hardly even finish it.

2.5/5 stars.

Performing in Blindface

“I can hope for the future and live in the present.”
If you are unfamiliar with the #HowEyeSeeIt campaign by Foundation Fighting Blindness, this blog post is a good way to get yourself familiar both with the campaign itself and the emotional backlash that followed. I have very mixed feelings regarding the campaign, but do believe that it’s bad PR for an organization to block, ignore, or otherwise censor respectfully provided negative or neutral feedback.
That being said, this blog post not only laments the blindfold simulation itself, but offers an alternative solution.
Thanks for providing some much-needed clarity to what has proven to be an emotional topic for many over the past several weeks.

Adventures in Low Vision

 Photo shows a pink fuzzy I'm ask on a white background A fundraising drive related to the blind community went viral. The organization finances great medical research, yet the campaign premise doesn’t sit well with me. I’m split, so I’m reflecting on #HowEyeSeeIt from the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB). Yep, I’m diving into the deep end.

FFB’s digital awareness campaign encourages people with vision loss to ask others to wear a blindfold and do a task together. They record it for social media and label it #HowEyeSeeIt. Amateur, professional, and nationally broadcasted stories were created. Some people pushed back and expressed opposition and rejection of the blindfold usage. The National Federation of the Blind released a letter written by President Riccobono admonishing it. People in the blind community reported censored comments or blocks on FFB’s social media accounts. FFB, a private organization, has the right to delete/block communications on their accounts, but has publicly stated it is not blocking or banning…

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