Saturday, May 24, 2008

Life as a Non-Driver

Anne Corwin, over at Existence is Wonderful, recently wrote a blog entry about her experiences in trying to learn to drive a car and being a non-driver in an autonomous-transportation-centric society.

I've never driven a real automobile. My driving experience is limited to a few go-karts and bumper cars at amusement parks as a teenager. A few people reading this are probably saying to themselves, "well, duh, you're blind, of course you don't drive." It's not that simple--I didn't become legally blind until I was 19 years old, well after the age when most American teenagers have at least some experience driving, if not a full driver's license. I don't think there's a single overwhelming reason why I've never driven, it's a combination of many factors. I don't think I would necessarily pursue driving if I had normal vision--and I'm not entirely convinced that I've ever had normal vision, due to congenital cataracts and autistic sensory processing differences, so I doubt that I would see normally even if my eyes were fixed. I don't want to get into the ethical and neurological can of worms that is Giving Sight to The Blind, as that's a complex issue that deserves its own entry or even series of entries.

I could get smug about the environmental consequences of personal automobiles, but the reality is that I do still make use of them when I take a taxi or get a ride from someone rather than walking or using public transit. True, I use these far less than someone who owns a vehicle (or who has the monetary resources to use taxis frequently), but I do use them, for utility purposes (groceries, dentist appointments), for mid-range purposes (like visiting relatives or going to political activism groups) and for frivolous/recreation purposes (going to a movie or non-essential shopping trips).

What this does make me do is consider things, and plan for things, more than the average car-owning adult. I try to make shopping lists because if I forget something chances are it'll be a few days (or even a whole week) before I can get to a far-away store again. I combine multiple errands into a single trip, which, while it is probably more fuel and time-efficient, is frequently taxing on my sensory processing and coping abilities. I am fortunate in that I have a close friend who is willing to drag my ass around town on boring errands a couple of times a week, and is also willing to help me navigate the obnoxious environments presented by most American retail establishments. I have been mock-threatening for the past couple of year to write the Grocery Store Hater's Manifesto, and I may yet do so.

Being a non-driver and non-car-owner has economic advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantages are not having to pay (directly, anyway) for fuel, for the vehicle itself, for maintenance/repairs, for insurance, and even for nickel-and-dime stuff like car washes or toll roads (my state, incidentally, does not have toll roads, and I was rather confused when I first encountered them on a marching band trip as a teenager). There are disadvantages, however. As I've said previously, I can't just go to grocery store as soon as I run out of something. There's a precarious balance between buying enough to last between grocery trips and not buying so much that it spoils and goes to waste--not so easy when one is the only human member of one's household. Food that has been processed in such a way as to make it last longer before spoiling is usually not as healthful as fresher, less processed foods. The true costs of various types of foods gets murky when one considers long-term health consequences of low-quality foods, as well as less immediately tangible things like the energy and environmental costs of agriculture, food transport, and food processing (I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, in case you can't tell).

Bus transport, while not as expensive as operating a personal vehicle, is still not as cheap as non-bus-riders think it is. Actually, very little of regular bus travel matches up with the average non-bus-rider's impression of it. Buses operate on fixed routes and fixed schedules, and these routes and schedules often don't match up very well with each other. This results in long, roundabout routes and lots of waiting exposed to the elements (and frequently smokers who ignore the clearly posted rules forbidding smoking in bus shelters). In the metropolitan area in which I live, the local public transit authority issues transfer tickets that are good for 2 1/2 hours. A cursory glance might lead a person to the conclusion that if a particular trip is 30 minutes each way, and a person's errand at the destination lasts about 45 minutes, that would leave plenty of time to only have to pay that one fare for the round trip. If the schedule doesn't work out that way, you're out of luck. Also, on some routes, you pay the fare when you get on the bus, some when you get off, which changes how long a particular trip can last without going over the transfer time limit. Bus fares themselves are much more expensive than one might imagine, and add up quickly, even if one uses a pass or discounted stored value card. If I had to take a bus to work, I'd have to make at least $1 more per hour just to be able to afford to go to work. Relying on public transit (or carpooling) can also limit one's employment options to areas that are reachable in a reasonable amount of time (or at all) and at the times one needs to go to work or come home. And if the bus drivers go on strike (as they did here a couple of years ago) you could lose your job, too. The other details of bus travel probably deserve their own entry as well.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Haven't I read this on the Modern Mechanix blog?

Seriously, when are we going to get over the idea of personal jetpacks and flying cars?

I'd be much happier with plans for a better public transportation infrastructure and services.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Coultonic Convergence

What's better than a JoCo concert?

A JoCo concert on May 1 (note to those who are not familiar with the song: it contains several instances of the word "fuck," if you are offended by this, don't play the video):

This was better than December's show, although it would have been even better if they'd had seating for everyone. I hope they can get a bigger venue next time.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Occam's Scalpel

Gene therapy 'aids youth's sight'

I want to start off by saying that I am not against medical interventions. I believe in free choice and control over what happens to a person's body. I am, however, against ignoring simpler solutions and denying people rehabilitation training! If you're going to use medical interventions to eliminate blindness, do it for the right reasons. Vision is great, it's useful, but it is not the only way to do things, and we should not be creating false dichotomies of cure vs. helplessness.

Do blind children and teenagers in Britain not get O&M training?

As a result he can now confidently walk alone in darkened rooms and streets for the first time.
Um...ok, well, he could have done that if he had a cane and basic O&M skills.

Before the procedure, he could hardly see at all at night and in time he would have lost his sight completely.
Traumatic, yes, but not tragic, given proper rehabilitation training and assistive technology.

But Stephen did not notice these changes until he confidently strode through a dimly-lit maze designed to test his vision.

Until then he had kept walking into walls - and it would take him nearly a minute to walk a few feet.

Again, this problem could easily have been solved with a cane and O&M training.

For the first time he could see the cracks on the pavement, the edge of the curb and markings on the street.

He recently began walking home late at night from the railway station.

This is done by thousands of blind people every day, using their canes instead of their eyes.

Stephen also says that it has really helped his confidence.
Nice to know that a person's self-esteem should be based on how well his eyes work.

He is now able to socialise more late at night with his friends. And, as an aspiring musician, he says he can see the frets on his guitar better - and can move around more on a darkened stage.
I know blind guitarists, and blind people who socialize with their friends at night. This does not require vision.

There's more to the article but I am too angry to write responses to it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Not always like you think

A quickie before I go to bed, I may or may not write more on this topic later.

As a society, we try to make children safer by educating them about the dangers they may face. Two major problems with this are that even adults don't understand the problems or the dangers. Children are more likely to be molested by people they know and trust, but the emphasis is placed on "stranger danger." In our attempts to simplify things so that children understand them, we leave out important details that might help them generalize concepts to a variety of situations. Children with developmental disabilities in particular often have trouble generalizing concepts--if it doesn't fit exactly with the examples they know, they may not recognize the same type of situation if some details are changed.

Parents might fear that their children will be abused at day care--but by the staff. What if the real danger is other children?

I was 23 years old and had been living away from my parents for two years before I realized that my father was an alcoholic. There were countless examples of alcoholism that I was shown as a child and a teenager--at school, girl scouts, and cultural examples on television and in books. My father wasn't like the examples that I saw, but he still abused alcohol, and it affected him, his marriage, his family, and his other relationships.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

If it works, why not?

Yesterday I attended the monthly meeting of my local chapter of a by-and-for-blind-people organization. I don't go every month because I'm often too exhausted and need all the weekend time I can get to recuperate and steel myself for the next work week, and sometimes the weather is too crappy to be outside waiting for the bus--and, to be honest, a lot of the attitudes of the individual people in the organization, and the official positions of the organization itself irk me. The organization does a lot of good in advancing the public image and understanding of blindness, but they do a crappy job of accommodating other differences, whether that be additional disabilities, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

The theme for the current Disability Blog Carnival is "Abuse." I don't feel equipped to do justice to the more mainstream interpretations of this (physical and emotional abuse), although I have personal experience with both. I look forward to reading what others have to say. However, as a person with multiple oddities/variations from the perceived norm, I'd like to discuss a lesser-thought-of family of abuses: willful ignorance and dismissal of minority/marginalized groups by other minority/marginalized groups.

In social theory, one speaks of privilege and power: class privilege, white privilege, male privilege, ability privilege, etc. These privileges exist not because of personal merit or effort, but because of a self-sustaining system that unequally distributes resources and power within groups. The more categories of privilege one falls under, the more likely one is to have resources and opportunities, and the more likely one is to take these privileges and opportunities for granted, to the point of being unable to recognize that they even exist. It's this ignorance that leads to further marginalization of the groups without privilege: "If I can do it, so can you, what's your problem?" or "Those people just don't measure up, it's just the way things are." When the people with the power have things set up in the way that's most ideal to them, they feel threatened by any attempt to change the way things are set up. Whether one actively or passively (through ignorance) resists change, the result is still the same. This shows up especially well when one is dealing with attitudes towards disability and accommodation.

Getting back to the meeting yesterday, I observed several examples of people with disabilities failing to recognize the rights and needs of other people with disabilities, even though the need for accommodation and respect should be more obvious to a person with a (albeit different) disability than to a person without any disabilities, and to recognize that a person with a similar disability may have different, fewer, or additional needs for accommodation. Being figuratively crapped on by another disabled person stings a lot more than experiencing the same prejudice from a person who isn't immersed in the disability culture and concept of accommodation.

I heard an elderly man criticized for using a white cane that's sturdy enough to use occasionally as a walking stick, as opposed to the flimsier type of cane the organization favors. I use both types of cane, and they have advantages and drawbacks. Yes, the long, one-piece fiberglass cane is more sensitive and better for walking quickly, but if one can't walk very quickly anyway, what's the harm in using a shorter, sturdier cane that one can lean on when one needs to?

A woman who is an English teacher has temporarily lost her voice. Someone suggested that she use her braille notetaker (which has text-to-speech output as well as a braille display) as an augmentative communication device, but she rejected this idea. If it works, why not? What's wrong with using a computer to speak for you when using your own voice is painful and inefficient for communication? Is she afraid of being perceived in the same negative ways as other people who can't use their own voices for communication?

One positive experience was the segment of the meeting in which the chapter's secretary reported on a recent volunteer experience with the local Arc chapter's thrift store. She was pleasantly surprised at being treated with dignity and respect by sighted volunteers.

I challenge every person reading this entry to go and try to understand some of the needs and alternative techniques of people with a disability you don't have.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Language immersion school to save the Ojibwe language

This is a piece from Minnesota Public Radio about a kindergarten through third grade school on the Leech Lake Reservation here in Minnesota that's trying to preserve the Ojibwe language. There is a partial transcript on the web page, some photographs of the school and its students, and a stream of the audio piece.

As a person who has some ancestors whose language is linguistically related to Ojibwe (Algonquin), I think this is wonderful. There is a part of me that wants *some* working knowledge of all of my ancestral languages, but this is problematic because at the moment I can only speak English and German, so I'd have to learn Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Welsh, and Algonquin, Algonquin being the most problematic because it faces the same risk of linguistic extinction as its cousin Ojibwe, and because I as a mostly-white person am aware of the many implications of an outsider being perceived as intruding upon an already marginalized cultural group. I wouldn't know where to begin looking or how to approach the subject without being awkward or rude.