A Blind Woman’s Reading of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark


[image: the sun streaming through the blinds with its shadow cast on the carpet and dark wooden piece of furniture. With the quoted text “I have to remind myself to listen more to the content than the idiosyncrasy of who’s speaking.”]

By Ellen Bartlett

I have been totally blind for more than three quarters of my life. Over these twenty-plus years, I have learned how to travel with a white cane, read Braille, and use adaptive technology such as screen readers and other applications to access the Internet, read books, and even play games on my iPhone. I have also developed or adopted skills to manage and simplify my everyday life, from folding denominations of money in different configurations, to sewing Braille labels into my clothes to assist with laundry sorting, to memorizing friends’ voices.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark, there is a chapter called “The Eyes of the Blind.” As I read this chapter, I was surprised—blindsided, one might say—by the visceral reaction I had to her words.

She writes, “By most estimates, 70 percent of our sense receptors are located in our eyes. When they are working, they can take over most of the duties of all other senses. On a night with no moon, it is not only possible to see the distant glow of the nearest town on the horizon; if you lived on a prairie with no trees, you could also see a single candle in a window ten miles away.”

This paragraph illustrates concepts I wish I understood: visibility and light levels. “That vast book opened over our heads which they call heaven, and where God writes in azure with letters of diamonds,” as Alexandre Dumas so eloquently wrote in The Count of Monte Cristo.

I wish I could encounter the image of the distant town or the even more distant candle, or that of a sunset, a forested hillside in autumn, or even just my cat’s calico fur. I would love to understand shades of color: how skin tones range from ghastly pale to golden tan to coffee brown; how in a certain light the color of one’s eyes may shift from green to brown to hazel; to say nothing of clothes or hair styles. If I am walking with a person, I can take their arm and estimate their height and body type, but descriptions of people in a TV series, for instance, very rarely stay in my mind for more than ten seconds. My main way of telling people apart is by voice, but even that takes time to learn, particularly in a large group.

What most discomfited me about this chapter on first reading was Taylor’s visit to an exhibition called Dialogue in the Dark, which was “the brainchild of a German social entrepreneur named Andreas Heinecke.” Taylor writes that, “When Heinecke agreed to design a rehabilitation program for a newly blind colleague, he not only gained new understanding of the practical difficulties faced every day by those who are blind; he also noticed how sighted people treated them—with everything from pity and fear to subtle contempt … Heinecke decided to create a physical experience of darkness that would allow sighted and blind people to change places. Dialogue in the Dark was the result—a kind of reality show in which sighted people are given red-tipped white canes before entering a completely dark exhibition hall where they are introduced to their blind guides.”

My stomach squirmed while I read Taylor’s description of her experience. Throughout this first reading, I tried to remind myself that this installation was designed to educate, and that by participating in it, Taylor was making a good-faith attempt at understanding the experience of blindness. Though I appreciate and agree with the quote from Martin Buber that guided Heinicke—“The only way to learn is through encounter”—it was still a struggle not to feel angry and hurt.

Half an hour in an intentionally designed sensory labyrinth, however educational and thought-provoking it may be, cannot duplicate the experience of blindness 24/7. Fumbling around in the dark, even if it makes one laugh at oneself, is not the same as years of learning problem-solving skills through personal experience. The inclusion of actual blind people as guides through the exhibit implies that there are those willing to adopt such educational roles, but it personally makes me uncomfortable.

Over the years, I have met several blind people who have adopted this awareness work as their livelihood, but to me, such roles only flatten blind people’s personalities and perpetuate the myth that blind people are only useful to society as teachers about their experiences. This, in turn, feeds into the notion of “inspiration porn,” so eloquently and humorously explained by Stella Young in her TED Talk, “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.”

There’s also the notion that blind people can’t have “normal” jobs. I am currently finishing my Master of Library Science degree from Syracuse University, and until very recently, I was afraid that nobody would want to take a chance on hiring me. Now some options are opening up for me, but still, unemployment among blind people is frequently cited as 70 percent or more in the United States. This is frequently due to the underestimation of blind candidates by employers, of course, but how are we to prove them wrong if no one gives us a chance?

Taylor describes her preparation for entering the exhibit—leaving her valuables and glasses in a storage locker—as follows: “This felt so much like getting ready for a medical procedure that my heart went wobbly inside my chest … the receptionist pointed to an umbrella stand near the door that was full of white canes. ‘Choose one that’s the right height,’ she said. The jokes stopped after that. Most of us had seen people making their way down sidewalks with such sticks. ‘We’ were about to become ‘them.’”

I recognize that Taylor probably did not mean it this way, but the perennial “us versus them” dichotomy feels a bit jarring, as if blind people are unrelatable freaks or monsters. And yet I have to admit I face the same feelings about the majority of my fellow blind folks. Many seem one-dimensional to me, only interested in talking about which assistive technology they use or what accessible games they like to play. I struggle to find—or perhaps simply don’t know where to look for—intellectual peers who can discuss the intricacies of current events and other heavier topics that hold my interest.

Taylor writes, “I was aware of how blindness had split the distance between me and all these other people. Touching was inevitable; apologies were redundant. We were not embarrassed to be dependent on each other. Since none of us could be sure who was black or white, young or old, our exchanges were free of any ideas we had about those identity markers. Maybe someone should start an Opaque Church, where we could learn to give up one kind of vision in hope of another. Instead of wearing name tags, we would touch each other’s faces. Instead of looking around to see who’s there, we could learn to listen for each other’s voices.”

This idealistic notion that not being able to see each other makes people less prejudiced ties into the idea that blind people are somehow gifted or “better” humans because we literally cannot see color. However, I have to be honest and admit to struggling with prejudice around certain vocal qualities, accents, speech patterns and the like. A person speaking slowly or monotonously can get on my nerves at first, and when I encounter this feature in those around me, I have to remind myself to listen more to the content than the idiosyncrasy of who’s speaking. Eventually, I will get used to it. How is this any different than a sighted white person discrediting what a person of color says simply because of how the latter appears?

At a couple weeks’ distance from reading this chapter, I can step back and appreciate Taylor’s insights around her experience at the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition. She admits that “I still do not know what darkness means to someone who is blind, but I am beginning to understand that ‘light’ has as many meanings as ‘dark.’” This, indeed, is something I think we all could learn, through whatever means tickles your fancy.


About Ellen:

Ellen Bartlett is a Master’s student in Library and Information Studies at Syracuse University. She loves language, music, books, sunshine, and her cat Hope; and she is always looking to expand her knowledge of the world around her.