Monday, March 24, 2008

(Re)Learning to Read

When I started school, in the late-mid 1980s (I now have music from Hedwig and the Angry Inch stuck in my head, *sigh*), the prevailing notion was that a child's ability to read would be irreparably damaged if parents tried to teach their children literacy skills outside the classroom, except as explicitly instructed by the teacher. If this hadn't been the case, I might have been the stereotypical Little Professor who learned to read at age 3 or 4, but, as it was, I didn't have any difficulty (other than trying to remember how to draw a letter S) with the way I was taught to read in school, so things turned out ok for me. This isn't to say I didn't have school trauma in my early education. I clearly remember freaking out when my kindergarten teacher changed our seating arrangement, and also being upset because the name of the current month seemed to change just as soon as I was able to remember and recite it. My mother remembers me coming home from my first day of first grade in tears because they hadn't started teaching us to read on that day. I breezed through the lessons, maxed out the extra credit options, tested at the highest possible percentile on all the standardized tests. My teachers weren't quite sure what to do with me (and a handful of other "gifted" kids) so I got pulled out of class a few times a week to write my own stories in the library. I even got to put one of my little story booklets on a featured shelf in the library (I wrote a story about my pet budgie, Polly). I was terribly proud. From that early age, I identified myself as a Reader, and my family, friends, and teachers did too. I befriended and pestered a series of elementary school librarians (I had the odd distinction of attending three different elementary schools because of a local Baby Boom Echo in the late 70s and early 80s that resulted in the contruction of several new schools and a shuffle of students while the district was reorganized) and collected masses of printouts from the electronic card catalog on various topics. I started reading a few "grown up" level books in third grade, but my teacher didn't believe me. Cliche that it is, I think most of my friends were books when I was a kid. I wasn't totally socially isolated, I had friends, but I've always been a nerd.

Fast forward to the last couple years of high school, when I started losing my sight. I was in denial for a couple of years (my parents still are) but as I slowly came to the realization that I couldn't read for more than a few minutes at a time, I was frightened and angry. How could I be me if I couldn't read? I got access to books on tape from the local library and later from NLS, and I've grown quite fond of reading-by-listening (despite auditory processing difficulties), but it just isn't the same. I can (for the most part) read large print books, but the books that get large type reprints aren't always the kinds of books I want to read.

The obvious first thing that most people think of when they think of a blind person wanting to read is braille. However, learning to read an entirely new alphabet, in a touch-based medium rather than a visual medium, as an adult, is significantly more difficult than starting out with braille (or both print AND braille) as a child. Braille, as you may not be aware, consists of more than simple substitutions of dots for letters and numbers. Because it takes up so much more space than even large print, because of the size of the characters and the thickness of the dots, literary braille by necessity must use over a hundred contractions. These contractions consist of abbreviations, special symbols, and combinations of letters and symbols. It's also optimized for transcribing the Christian Bible and other Christian materials, which makes it somewhat clunky for other materials. The special symbols and contractions are typically taught in chunks of a few contractions followed by practice material using those contractions, so the practice stories are of necessity fairly contrived, syntactically awkward, and BORING. I remember the basal readers in elementary school being similarly weird and boring, but I wish I could recall the enthusiasm that got me through them then.

I hope I can finish the dratted class by the end of the year. Or by June if I'm really motivated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lashing Out

It's happened to just about everyone who has been in a store or restaurant--an employee does something foolish or nonsensical, and the customer gets angry and lashes out at the employee. Maybe you've been the customer, maybe you've been the employee, or maybe you've just been a bystander, observing this happen. It's not a good situation for anyone involved.

It can get particularly ugly when the parties involved see each other as being One of Those People, and blame their behavior on that category of Other.

A simple perception of being in a different socioeconomic class can be enough to tip the scales, or a difference in gender, race, age group, etc.

Take this example--it may have happened over a year and a half ago, but it still sticks in my mind. I am "over it" emotionally--I mostly just laugh at it, but it remains in my memory as an example of this behavior:

I work at a gas station convenience store and manage the foodservice department (things like coffee, fountain drinks, hot dogs, sandwiches, etc.). Part of my job is making sure that machines have product in them to dispense to customers. Unfortunately, judging how much is left in a particular machine can be difficult. Some machines monitor how much has been dispensed, others have clear (or at least translucent) hoppers that allow one to see how much is left in the machine, but many have multi-layered containers for products to insulate them or protect them from light, evaporation, and pests, so the only way to tell when they're empty is to try dispensing the product. If I test something and it's ok, that doesn't necessarily mean that the next press of the button will also dispense the product.

I have difficulty recognizing all of the regular customers at the store, partly due to visual impairment, partly due to prosopagnosia, and partly due to the sheer volume of customers (I work at one of the busiest stores in the company). However, there are a few people whom I recognize because they're there at nearly the same time of day every day of the week, have a particular consistent quirk or physical characteristic, etc. One of these people is an unpleasant fellow I call "Spider Guy" in my head. He frequently wears a sparkly golden spider pin on the lapel of his suit, has distinctively bushy, scraggly long hair, and impossibly skinny legs (he sometimes wears tights/leggings rather than suit trousers). Sometime I have advance warning of when he's approaching the store, because he curses at the gas pump-authorizing cashiers over the intercom.

On this particular day, he wanted a chocolate flavored Steamer. Steamers are a latte-like product we used to sell at the hot drinks counter along with drip coffee and instant cappuccino. First, Spider Guy was angry because he couldn't locate the machine. He yelled at me because it wasn't in the spot where it "has always been," despite the fact that the machine had never been in that imaginary location because it wouldn't fit there and there isn't a water or electrical hookup there, either. I knew better than to point that out to him, and simply showed him where the machine was (and had been for the past year and a half, at least). Unfortunately, the machine was out of the chocolate flavor concentrate. Instead of informing me of this and asking me to replace it (which I could have done in a matter of minutes), he tore into me and called me a "four dollar an hour retard."

Now, really. What is that sort of behavior supposed to accomplish? What does a person gain by starting out with insults? And, more insidiously, why is "retard" an insult? I think that's what upset me most--hearing the word "retard" used as an insult.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Breaking Out and Starting Over

I think I've scrapped my entry for this Blog Carnival at least a dozen times by now. I can't seem to stay on just one topic (or, more accurately a narrow aspect of one topic), but that tends to be how my mind works in general (except in the case of hyperfocal and perseverative states).

So, instead of trying to focus on just one of the meanings that "Breaking Out" can have for me, I'll briefly list as many as I can. I may post entries exploring these topics in more depth in the future.

  • Breaking Out means embracing stereotypes by reinterpreting them.
  • Breaking Out means showing that people can fit into more than one category, and in more than one way.
  • Breaking Out means that people can grow and change over time--and that they have a right to do so.
  • Breaking Out means challenging assumptions.
  • Breaking Out means acknowledging sexual and gender identity, and variations thereof.
  • Breaking Out means discussing the unspoken.
  • Breaking Out means freeing ourselves from barriers created by our own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Placeholder/Intro Post

The purpose of this blog is to explore different aspects of my identity, how they apply to me personally, how the same kinds of identities affect other people, and how one's identity is perceived shapes how people perceive other aspects of that person.

This is a personal Thinking Blog. It's not my aim to present myself as any more intellectual than I actually am, but simply to present the intellectual aspect of my indentity, and the intellectual aspects of other aspects of my identity.

I am a 26-year-old person with a female body, but I identify as "genderqueer" for several reasons, which I shall try to explore and explain in further entries. I do not see myself as exclusively male, female, or neuter, but as bits and pieces of all three, and inconsistently at that. I do not consider myself to be merely a tomboy or butch, although I respect the right of other people to identify themselves as such.

I am also a person who is on the autism spectrum. I am not open to sharing diagnostic particulars, and will not do so on this blog, but I will explore how being autistic affects my identity. I choose to label myself simply "autistic" rather than a specific diagnostic or functioning label because the criteria for those labels are inconsistent and arbitrary. People are not unchanging absolutes, and they should not have to conform to a notion of a particular type of neurological functioning from birth to death simply to satisfy the labeling needs of an outside entity.

I am also a blind person. I have some functional vision but I generally prefer to see myself as a blind person with some sight rather than as a sighted person with impaired vision. I believe in using the most effective tools and techniques for *me* rather than committing myself to completely nonvisual techniques or trying to do everything visually.

I like to create things, either in my mind or in physical space. In the past few years I have not had the resources (time, money, space, energy) to create as much as I would like to, but I am working on changing that.

I like to absorb information and ideas, through reading, listening, and observing, to think about those things, and to express my thoughts about those things. I have not been doing as much expressing as I would like to, and that is part of why I have started this blog, to share how I think about the world with others.