Two People and a Baby
By Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter
My fingers manipulate keys, navigating Facebook. Arrowing down, the cursor lands on a picture, and I hear, “Two people and a Baby.” Great, I think, no context. I continue to arrow down, finding another picture. This time, the electronic buzz of my computer’s voice says, “Man in sunglasses.” Again, zero context for me.
Fifteen years ago, I became visually impaired. I transferred my visual understanding of the world into a non-visual medium. To use a computer, I now use a program called JAWS, which is a text-to-speech screenreader. It reads whatever the cursor highlights, allowing me to still do email, Google-search, write and, of course, shop! However, if pictures and graphics are not properly captioned, I have no clue what they are.
Recently, a writer friend spoke about the aesthetic appeal of a literary journal she stumbled upon. It occurred to me that, while I can still envision in my head what visual information looks like, I rarely consider aesthetics. Instead, I look at how accessible an online magazine is; is it compatible with my screenreader? Are pictures and graphics labeled well enough for me to understand their point? The kaleidoscope of a world we are surrounded by has narrowed down to sound and touch for me. When looking at publications, I only consider those that have online access as hard-copy print is not readily accessible for blind people. With online magazines, I care little for how they look visually, wanting easy navigation for my screenreader, affording me the same opportunity to read pieces and study submission guidelines.
Our world is extremely visual. Despite it being the least intimate sense, we place so much importance on sight. Since becoming blind, my life does not feel less than, as if I’m missing out on something. I do have to navigate the world non-visually though, and sometimes it’s made more difficult when accessibility is not a factor. Pictures and graphics in particular can be pesky, uninteresting, not-useful pieces of information if not given captions. Whether social media, Amazon or online publications, undescribed photos hold no appeal for me. Some platforms have created generic captions that interact with screenreaders, but they provide bare-bones details, like if a picture is of a group taken outside, my screenreader will likely say, “Several people in nature.” I have no clue who is in the picture, or what kind of nature scene it is. I don’t need a dissertation on the pic, but, some context and brief detail is good. If posting a photo of you and your baby, JAWS might tell me, “Woman and baby.” I want some extra detail to paint a visual in my head.
I have the ability to discover fonts and formatting in a Word document on my laptop, but JAWS is not able to discern this information online. I appreciate innovative structures and playing with format, but at the end of the day, I don’t think much about this unless I’m aware of it. I can only be made aware if it’s noted somewhere. I have several blind friends who are literary, and like me, they read a broad selection. It’s primarily based upon how accessible and easy to navigate a publication is. Some of us use a screenreader, some use both a screenreader and refreshable Braille, which is a device that connects to a computer, and as the cursor jumps from line-to-line, Braille pops up on the device, allowing you to read in Braille. Placing a caption under pictures and graphics and if necessary, providing a brief description of content if the formatting is experimental is a simple solution. This allows people with visual impairments to have equal access.
As a nonfiction writer, I write about the world, using my experiences to address discrimination, isolation, acceptance, breaking stereotypes, usually in context to disability. As a writer, I participate in classes, retreats, conferences and workshops, and often, we are given very visual exercises. Recently, I was asked to create a visual memory map. Having been sighted for twenty-two years, I can recall visual memories in my mind, but creating them on a piece of paper is difficult. I ended up writing a timeline with descriptions of place instead of drawing a map. This emphasis on the visual is so prevalent in the writing community. While I’m actually still a visual person, constantly creating visuals in my head, and while I think visual references can be great and beneficial for sighted writers, I’m also now in this other world where non-visual means of accessing the world make more sense and are much more helpful. Thinking of non-visual means to achieve writing goals not only includes potential blind writers, but is a good sensory exercise for all writers.
Inclusion and equality for all is a big topic these days. However, disability is usually missing from the discussion. It’s not always intentional, we just need more education about accessibility. As the artistic community moves forward, as the world moves forward, we need to consider accessibility, making disabled people an active part of the conversation. Often, it doesn’t take much to make information accessible, but it has to be considered, then implemented. I want to work with the writing community to bring attention to this issue and help create resolutions. The world is a better place when inclusion involves all of our voices.
Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is currently working on a graduate certificate in nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in 13th Floor, Breath and Shadow, The Omaha World Herald, Misbehaving Nebraskans and Emerging Nebraska Writers. She was a finalist for the McKenna fellowship. She lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons who provide endless material for her writing, when they give her the time. She tells us that she “recently joined a Crossfit cult. I mean class!”