“Windy, let’s get some coffee,” I suggested, in need of an iced latte.
My Seeing Eye Dog swerved right, tension through the harness increasing as she skirted a corral of outdoor tables. She knew exactly where she was going, eager for the praise and pats she’d receive when we reached the door.
Knowing to head for my favorite coffee shop just because I suggested it is not part of Windy’s training, and if anyone had heard me, a common misconception would’ve been satisfied. “My daughter is going blind, but she doesn’t need a dog, because she already knows her way around,” an elderly woman told me on the bus earlier that morning.
“The dog doesn’t know the way around,” I politely responded. “I give her directions. It’s her job to get me to my destination safely.”
The woman’s vague “uh-huh” told me she didn’t believe me.
No matter how many people we inform, many still believe blind people are clueless about their directions, their surroundings and anything else requiring sight ― which, to the sighted world, is just about everything. Plenty others also seem to forget that blind people communicate and consume media as would any other hearing person. We use expressions like “see,” “watched” and “looked at” all the time (they’ve taken on the meaning of “absorbed” and “observed”). We have cable TV. We go to movies and subscribe to Netflix and Hulu. We have favorite shows.
And we read books.
Two hundred years ago, when books were rare and expensive, people read to one another in a group and, afterward, all claimed to have “read” the book. An audiobook is no different. Many blind people also read Braille books. Some of us read via our Kindle apps on our iPhones, which have Voiceover to make them accessible if a person can’t see.
Blind people write books, too. I have 27 traditionally published books to my name and more coming out. Many of them are historical novels that I researched via more books ― scanned books, recorded books, digitized books.
Reading and writing books is no more difficult for a blind person than for a person who can see. It’s the publishing part that’s not so easy.
The first agent who offered to represent me stopped sending out my work to editors when she learned I was blind. Other editors wouldn’t work with me, daring to tell my agent it was because of my blindness. One went so far as to think she should rewrite my book for me and I should accept it because of my “visual problems.”
And my favorite incident—the one time I dared write a realistic blind heroine who wasn’t all sunshine and light about her condition or how people treated her ― the editor told my agent a blind woman wouldn’t fear being a parent because she, the editor, had seen otherwise in the media.
“Reading and writing books is no more difficult for a blind person than for a person who can see. It’s the publishing part that’s not so easy.”
Though I have to admit, she had a point. The media depicts blind people as super-spiritual beings. Books ― and their authors ― rarely make their blind characters angry with the world for being ignorant. Nor do they give their blind heroine a drop-dead gorgeous man to romance. On the contrary, she generally falls for the ugly dude whom others shun despite his goodness, which only she sees.
Historically, blind characters are never shunted into dark corners, hidden away in institutions or left uneducated because the world believed blindness meant one wasn’t capable of learning. Blind people are supposed to be like John Milton and Fanny Crosby, writing beautiful poetry and hymns designed to inspire. Readers follow blind characters who are blithely living their lives despite their condition, gaining insights others don’t have, to remind them just how well off they are. I may be worried about making rent, but it’s nothing compared to being blind. What an inspiration this protagonist, and this author, is.
Frankly, I’d rather be told I’m snarky. That, at least, would make me human.
I confess I too once fell into the trap of writing a happy-go-lucky character with a disability. I wanted to write a blind hero who lived in the 1890s because of a tidbit of history I’d read while researching other books. Of course, I made sure the character had a ton of money and was content with his lot. That suited the plot much better than the realism of blind people dependent on the government or others for support.
Because many are. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, an alarming 75 percent of blind or visually disabled people are not part of our country’s labor force. My husband, a blind attorney, and I, a blind author, are incredibly blessed to have jobs and a house of our own in a fantastic location, but we are the exception.
Even when gainfully employed, the industries we work in can make our jobs unnecessarily challenging. I’ve seen some encouraging signs recently that change is coming to the publishing industry (including making trade association websites more accessible to blind users and ensuring physical barriers to conferences and workshops are removed), but general attitudes have remained stagnant. Agents and editors with whom I’ve worked in the past have made me paranoid about “coming out” regarding my blindness or attending writing conferences. Once, the marketing person for one of my publishers introduced herself to everyone at the book signing except for me. She skipped right over me, as though I were invisible. Like I was wearing my own invisibility cloak.
“Agents and editors with whom I’ve worked in the past have made me paranoid about 'coming out' regarding my blindness or attending writing conferences.”
That cloak doesn’t extend to my wonderful Windy; at a recent writers’ conference, more people talked to my dog than to me. Most people know not to touch service dogs, but they don’t realize they shouldn’t talk to them, either. If Windy gets distracted, she gets corrected, and that’s not fair to her (but is necessary to keep her focused on her work). When I asked attendees not to talk to my dog, I was either ignored or treated as though I was in the wrong.
During the Jane Austen era, one could ruin someone’s social career by employing the “cut direct,” in which one acknowledged the person with a look, then turned away, thereby erasing them.
That’s how I feel sometimes ― erased. No one cared that I was wearing a pin that said I’d been a finalist for the highest award in the romance genre, the RITA. No one cared I was wearing my “25 books published” pin (next pin is 35). No one cared I was presenting at a workshop that week or that, just maybe, we had more than just writing and books in common. Instead, they talked to the dog, because apparently a creature with a brain the size of a walnut is more intelligent than a woman with a master’s degree who can’t see.
I currently have both an amazing agent and an incredible editor. They are supportive and understanding that sometimes certain software and social media platforms don’t always work for me. They knew I was blind before taking me on and liked my writing well enough not to care.
The publishing industry needs more agents and editors like them, but true change will require more than just that. As of 2015, only 8 percent of industry professionals had a disability. We need people with disabilities at all stages of the publishing process, including authors, agents, editors, sensitivity readers, marketers and publicists.
I look forward to the day when I attend a writers’ conference and people talk to me instead of my dog. In the meantime, you can find me working on book No. 28.
Laurie Alice Eakes is the bestselling author of more than 25 books, both historical and contemporary romantic suspense. She writes full time from her home in northern Illinois.