I used to think there would be a magical cure for my blindness. I don’t remember this, but my mum assures me it’s true. Having an older sister meant that I just assumed that when I reached her age—at that time the mighty age of seven—I, too, would be able to see. My mum let me down gently. Apparently I was upset, but not upset enough to remember this incident.
If I were a character in a book, though, it’s very likely that magical cure would have popped up exactly when I needed it. The world around me is fixated on finding a cure and I can’t say that I share their enthusiasm. Would I turn down a treatment with a 100% success rate? Possibly not. But you have to consider that, just as people who become disabled have to receive rehabilitation to adjust to their new life, so would I if I became sighted. I’d have to learn to read and write visually, use the computer with a mouse, possibly drive a car. Conveniently, when a blind character is cured, authors tend to gloss over the whole adjustment period. The blind character magically has all the skills someone sighted from birth would have without receiving any training.
The blindness cure is also problematic for a number of other reasons. Firstly, many authors don’t research the disability they are writing about well enough. This year I read a book where the blind main character had to use a keyboard with Braille letters on the keys in class, writing everything a couple of times in case he made a mistake. Then his parents used a “Braille printer” (to anyone who is familiar with the technology, this is called an embosser) to produce the work in Braille. I wanted to laugh, but I was so stunned that an author had done so little research that I couldn’t. Most blind students will use a computer (we generally learn to touch-type) with a piece of software that reads out what’s on the screen. Alternatively, students can use an electronic Braille note taker. Either way, we can access our own notes fine in real-time.
So it’s no surprise that authors jump on the magic cure. They have written a character that has no real hope of surviving with their disability, so the only way to end the story on a happy note is to cure them. They get their love interest, graduate school, and most likely drive off into the sunset, leaving their disgruntled blind readers behind. The author has done virtually no research and is relying on their own prejudices to write the book. Many abled people believe that life with a disability must be terrible. I can’t count the number of times someone has approached me and told me they are sorry I’m blind, but that I do so well regardless. Not only is that extremely offensive as it assumes that a typical blind person doesn’t do the kind of things I do, it’s also incredibly misinformed. When a book is built on those kinds of ideas, I often feel resigned to the fact that being sighted is presented as the only way that blind character could ever reach their full potential.
The problem with this is that a lot of the people who read these books won’t have a disability. They will have no idea that blind people can dress themselves independently … we even go to the store! For them, the character in that book represents a reality, so when I show up to a job interview and they see I’m blind, it’s unlikely they will have very high expectations of me. It’s not the readers’ fault, but what we read does have an effect on our perceptions of people. It concerns me that people may read books with badly written blind characters and then carry those perceptions over into the real world, a real world where plenty of blind people are struggling to find work and be taken seriously as it is.
Secondly, authors aren’t considering whether blind people actually want to be cured. I’m sure some do. In fact, I know a few people who would jump at a chance to receive a cure. I respect their decision, and if a book was written about a blind teen struggling to make that choice, I would applaud an author for handling such a controversial topic. Equally, a lot of us are happy as we are. We’re realistic enough to know that whether we’d take a cure or not it just isn’t relevant at this point. The medical industry is wonderful, but there are things they cannot cure. Also, people with a disability have the right to feel comfortable precisely as they are. I understand that for many people, disabilities are an intimidating thought. However, for many of us it’s just another, often boring aspect of our lives. Please don’t put your assumptions about what life must be like to have a disability upon us. Write about us as we are, not your idea of what it’s like to be us. Being blind is not a tragic, dark place as I’ve so often read.
Finally, dare I say it, but the disability cure is rather boring and lazy. It’s a topic that’s been done to death, and to me, it indicates that the author couldn’t be bothered to research how blind people go about their lives, or how those skills might translate to the kind of adventures characters experience in books, so they just decided to cure the character instead.
Instead, I want to read about blind people who go out and do cool things while being blind. People for whom not being able to see is another aspect of their life, not the whole thing. Children and teenagers deserve to see themselves in books; they know that they are more than a medical condition, but nobody else seems to. Letting them see that others respect them for the individuals they are is so incredibly important. I identify with a lot of characters in books, maybe because we are also female, because we’re from the same country, or perhaps simply because we like the same type of music. But never as a child or teenager did I ever identify with a blind character. All I read about were misconceptions and stereotypes I was tired of seeing off the page, let alone on it.
If you’re going to write about a blind person, remember that being blind is just one aspect of their lives. A cure won’t solve our problems; it is impossible for many of us. We have stories to tell, we fall in love, we struggle through high school, and we fight with our families like most other young people. We all come from different backgrounds and each of us is our own person. Don’t mistake us for our disability. A cure can’t fix me. I don’t need it—and perhaps your character doesn’t either.