I have a good friend that I talk with regularly, but whom I haven’t spoken with in many years. Her name is Lacy. Her (now) husband Scott and I played Soccer together at Portland State, and I got to know her when we would both walk down from Goose Hollow to our respective jobs in Pioneer Place Mall (hers answering phones and providing customer service at
Saks Fifth AvenueNordstrom, mine working as a stock manager at Victoria’s Secret).
Lacy didn’t need me to walk her the ten city blocks, which she made expressly clear the first time I accompanied her, but I was welcome as long as I stayed out of her way. This might sound a bit harsh, but there’s another detail, Lacy was born without functioning optical nerves. She is utterly and completely blind.
A few years after we all left college, Lacy was fortunate enough to be selected for partnership with a seeing-eye-dog named Justice, but at the time she was making her way confidently down Salmon Ave to the rhythmic tapping of her cane, counting off the streets, and listening for the crossing signal at every intersection. It was a point of pride that she didn’t NEED anyone to get where she was going.
[Author’s Note: Justice passed away last summer at the ripe old age of 13. Not bad for a German Shepard, and he will be dearly missed. As a dog lover I just want to take this moment to remember a really great dog that I only met once, but who touched a lot of lives just by doing what he loved to do, which was be there for Lacy.]
And Lacy DIDN’T need anyone. Sure, there were a few mishaps: the occasional rogue messenger bike, herds of teenagers without the collective intelligence not to blunder into a woman walking with a white cane, cars blaring their horns constantly at a stoplight rendering the walk-sound inaudible, and so fourth…but she never needed me to get her where she was going. If something disrupted her progress she would stand up straight, square her shoulders, extend her cane and begin again. It was an amazingly regal gesture in someone who had never seen regal in her whole life.
I was never anything less than astounded by the way she strode confidently through chaos and arrived where she meant to go, without error, time after time.
Lacy was majoring in Communications, which is probably not much of a surprise for someone who focused on the intricacies of communicating day-in and day-out all her life. Take away visual clues and facial expressions, and the true utility of something as a communication object becomes quite clear.
Which reminds me of a funny story from her days working customer support, which I will relate here to her gentle embarrassment (she has no reason to be embarrassed, but she will be anyway).
At the wise and experienced age of 19, Lacy worked the customer service desk at the downtown
Saks 5th AveNordstrom. Which is to say she worked the phones. Nordstrom had made some accommodations for her impairment, and by and large she was quite happy with the work. She had a knack for handling upset or confused people on the phone, and it showed. What was not so good, were the occasional moments when she would be the only CS rep behind the counter. Most customers were understanding and waited patiently for someone to return and handle their issue…but one time…not so much.
He was obviously in a hurry. The urgency of his voice, the tinge of panic as he called for assistance, she couldn’t just sit there with her back turned when a customer needed assistance.
“One moment sir, someone will be available to help you shortly.”
“I really can’t wait, I must get to an appointment at OHSU” he said, just as urgent as he had been when he called out over the empty counter.
“Well sir, I might not be able to resolve the issue, but perhaps I can help get the process started. What can I help you with?” She got up from her chair at the phone desk and crossed over to the counter, approximating where he was by the direction of his voice.
“Yesterday my wife bought several shirts and ties for me, but she didn’t get the sale price. She paid full price and the markdown should have been thirty percent! I sent her here specifically for my shirts because of the sale. How stupid do you have to be? Full price for shirts and ties?”
She wasn’t sure who was supposed to be “stupid” but he was shifting from urgent to angry. “Well sir, obviously I don’t know what items she bought specifically…but the sale on Menswear ended last week. I’m afraid any purchase yesterday wouldn’t have been eligible for the-”
“That’s what the last two sales girls said! I don’t want to hear that! Obviously these were supposed to be on sale! Who would buy all this at regular price!?”
“I’m sorry sir, I can’t give a sale price for merchandise bought after-”
At this point her cut her off again, and the sequence started over. This went on for about five minutes before he tried a new tactic. “You know I’m right! You won’t even look at me, and if you weren’t lying about what you could do, you’d look me in the eye!”
At this point her brow furrowed in perfect proof that facial expressions are inherent and not learned by observation. “Actually sir,-”
“Look at this receipt, who would buy all this at regular price? Even a blind person could see that I should get the sale price for these shirts and ties!” His voice was aggressive and his breath was hot in her face, leaning in to drive home his point.
“Sir!” she said sharply, wresting control of the conversation back to her side of the counter. “As a blind person, I assure you that the only thing I see is that you are being unreasonable and refusing to listen when I try to discuss this with you. We are here to help you, not to be yelled at because you missed a sale. I would gladly refer you to a manager, or assist you in processing a return of the shirts and ties you are unsatisfied with, but what I don’t SEE is a reason for you to demand the sale price for merchandise bought almost a week after the sale ended.”
At this moment the Store Manager who had paused while concealed to listen to the last few moments of the exchange now came around the corner from the back office to the customer service desk. “Good afternoon sir,” she said with a professional smile. “I understand Lacy has been diligently trying to resolve your concern with your purchase yesterday. I’ve also spoken with two associates on the floor that also had this discussion with you. As the Manager of the store, I would like to resolve this once and for all. I understand that Lacy has given you the store’s position on sales. We would be glad to refund you for a return of the merchandise, but we will not be able to extend sale prices for merchandise bought after the sale ended. Lacy, was there anything else that you saw?” Her emphasis squarely placed on the man’s own foolish word.
There was a long pause. Deciding that honesty was more important than a smiley face on her review, Lacy answered “Yes. I plainly SEE that you sir, are an ass.” and then she turned and walked away.
These days, Lacy works as a communication consultant for a media agency in Portland that focuses on reaching niche markets. She also sidelights as a Book-on-CD performer and records radio commercials for several area radio stations.
Scott (her husband) and I are probably “closer” in the male-bonding sense of the word. I used to see him once or twice a month for lunch, we are Facebook friends, and we’ll IM every so often when something makes one of us reach out to the other. I only hear from Lacy via email. One of the things that I’ve realized is that the Social Media revolution is not convenient for the visually impaired. Facebook is a highly visual design; and Twitter, with it’s #hashtags and overuse of acronyms and abbreviations seems designed intentionally to foil screen-readers and text-to-braille interfaces.
Lacy has only recently started to follow blogs regularly. She used to be a Podcast addict, but she’s discovered that by using the text-to-speech facility on her Mac, blogs are becoming meaningful to her. Her favorite “computer voice” is Alex, which comes built-in with the OS X operating system.
It was that detail that led her to email a link to this TED talk by Roger Ebert along with some thoughts about how the internet begins to replace our senses, and what that means for different people with different sensory impairments.
I love everything he says in his talk, she writes, and I love the way he chose to say it. What I wish people understood is that the internet is wonderful for people who have no sense of sound, either due to deafness or muteness, because it creates a level playing field of visual communication. But for people who have no visual communication, these tools could be just as wonderful, but right now are much harder to use.
Our senses create the way we experience beauty. For Scott, beauty is in both the way something looks and the way it sounds. Beauty can exist independently of either sense for him. I don’t have that luxury. I only know the sound of beauty, its taste and feel, the way it smells. Yet we can both find the same things beautiful. The sense of beauty isn’t limited by a missing sense, only changed into another kind of beauty.
The visually impaired desire beauty just as much as the deaf or the mute. But, just as in the “real world” the visual bias is turning something that could be a strong community tool into another means of isolation. The internet could be a powerful way to supplement a missing sense, a means to have descriptions and instant communication with thousands of other people, thousands of other perspectives at our fingertips. But as the interfaces become more visual, the tools become harder and harder for the blind to use.
What I struggle with every day is how the internet seems to be moving more and more towards the sense of sight at the expense of the other ways to experience beauty. I love that Alex can read blogs to me, I hate how difficult it is for me to navigate through blogs. What I really wish is that the people who write blogs could understand how badly some of us would like to hear them READ their blogs. I long for a personal experience with bloggers on the same level that their readers can have. And that’s something that a computer voice simply can’t give me.
The internet is slowly helping the deaf feel less alone in a silent world. Disappointingly, it seems as though the same advances are making the blind feel more alone in a darkened one.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit in the last couple of years actually. Lacy once asked me if I ever thought about podcasting because that was her primary interface into the blog-o-sphere. I know Lacy reads My Bad Pants with some regularity via screenreader, or had Scott read it to her when they have the chance to surf the internet together. And while I love the thought of two of my friends reading my writing together, experiencing it in a cooperative way that only a couple like them, that have overcome challenges like they have, can really understand; I also want to respect that sentiment.
“Why can’t this be an audible resource as well?” I ask myself.
I worked for six years “on air” for several radio stations. I have a “radio voice” and enough elocution and diction and enunciation training to choke a horse. There’s a microphone built-in to the laptop I use to write these posts, not to mention the software and apps out there for recording on my iPhone or iPad or iWhatever that are cheap and easy to use. Why can’t I record what I write? Why can’t it be personal?
So, I’ve decided that I’ll do my best. I’m going to start by working out any tags and css elements necessary to make this site friendly for VI Browsing, and I’m going to go back and start to record the posts as mp3’s. I know how to embed those, and I’ve got plenty of storage with my hosting provider. It will take some time, but hopefully I can get all of my posts recorded and uploaded in the next few weeks.
So soon, at the bottom of every post, there will be well-tagged audio player that will spool out my dulcet tones and shimmering verbalizations. Barring that, it will just play a recording of me, reading my own words in my own voice, so that readers can experience my words the way I meant them, and not the way a computer parses them together. I don’t know that it will be a “better” experience, but it will certainly be more personal.
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