Lessons on Empathy and Independence
n the past decade, I have been working closely in the worlds of disability, accessibility and inclusive design. One of the podcasts that I was recently introduced to is the AT Banter accessible technology podcast by a group of awesome folks up in Canada. Today while listening to one of the podcasts I stumbled on a new series that dealt with life skills for the visually disabled.
Backing up slightly — one of my favorite books of all time is Follow my Leader. It was written back in the 70's by James B. Garfield. Ironically the main characters name is Jimmy Carter. It follows the story of a young almost teenage boy as he becomes blind in a firecracker accident and learns to go from helpless too hopeful and eventually heroic through the relationship of his dog, Leader.
I love this book so much I have purchased it several times since childhood. It is currently out of print but I can often find it used. The story is simple yet powerful — I’ll never forget the way it made me feel. The way it was written made me feel as if I was going through the process of being blind, like Jimmy. Now I know what I was feeling was empathy, learning through his experience. As an adult I wanted to share it with a broader group so a few years ago I read it out loud to my daughter's 4th grade classroom. The students hung on every word.
In high school, I suffered a double corneal abrasion in both eyes. I remember sitting frozen at my house as my vision slowly started to fade. Every blink of the eye or attempt to look to the right or left was met with searing pain, like a fiery hot needle being poked into my eyeball. So I kept my eyes tightly shut and tried not to panic, sitting on the rowing machine for almost four hours while I patiently waited for my parents to come home. At that time there were no cell phones. After a trip to the hospital where my dad awkwardly led me into a telephone pole and a wall, a doctor numbed my eyes, put drops in them, and then told me I would need to rest for at least a week while waiting for my eyes to heal. I was to keep my eyes tightly bandaged the entire time.
The next week was challenging. Inspired by Jimmy in the book, I was determined to try and do the things I would normally do, but in a different way. I used a selectric typewriter to touch type letters and stories. I baked chocolate chip cookies from memory. I rode on a scooter with my friend while she exclaimed, "Feel the wind in your hair!" I listened to and recorded journal entries on cassette tapes on our Panasonic recorder. At some point a group of friends came over to watch Godspell in the basement which was a semi pity party but also a pretty fun time. It was awkward. My friends did not know if I would see again and to be honest I did not either. When my vision did eventually return, I was almost disappointed as I was experiencing life in such a different way.
Since that time, I’ve been fascinated by the world of the visually impaired. In the last several years, I've had the fortune to work closely with an organization called Lighthouse for the Blind developing assistive technology devices using AI and vibration. At one point I met and interviewed a remarkable boy named Colin who lost his vision at age 16. His story was so similar to Jimmy's it was uncanny. Largely due to my exposure to the world of screen readers and the nearly ubiquitous use of a mobile phone as an assistive device, my company continues to focus their efforts on the concepts of universal design applied to assistive and adaptive technologies and products — not just for low vision or blind people but also for all ages and all abilities.
So getting back to today. I put the life skills podcast on and listened to three women talking about their experiences becoming blind and fully blind and also the life skills they needed to learn in order to be independent. These life skills are essential no matter what your situation end from washing laundry to cooking an egg to cleaning. I think that this was not only a great lesson in learning how to be independent—but also a lesson on resilience. Building independent skills are important to have regardless of age or ability.
To read more about #mindfultech, #accessibility and #universaldesign go to kellygoto.com