By Jonathan Craig
The issue you’re about to read covers the concerns of high school students, young people, and employees in a variety of settings. You’ll also read a touching tribute to June Ashmore, another of the advocates who helped shape our present, and whose influence we shouldn’t forget. I feel lucky constantly to be a part of a community spanning generations of inspirers and innovators, and unusually capable of telling our stories, to one another and to the wider world.
Much as I hate to make generalisations about any group of people, I think the number of us who make money out of writing in some form is statistically anomalous. This is partly for practical reasons. Much as we like to romanticise it, writing is a skill you can learn like any other, and many of us move, or are directed, toward it, because it presents few accessibility challenges compared to other careers.
But though I believe being good at writing mostly comes from writing a lot, I’d also say there are some life experiences that can give you an edge. One of the main ideas anyone with a disability has to grapple with is the constant reality of not quite experiencing life the way others do. Because, as my mother often told me, we live in a sighted world, empathy is a necessary skill for navigating everyday life.
We are constantly explaining ourselves, fine-tuning our scripts for interactions with strangers who’ve never met “one of us” before. When you ask for help in a shop, or visit a new Doctor, you have a very practical goal which you can only achieve collaboratively. If you can’t explain what you need and how the person in front of you can help, you may leave empty-handed. This skill is the information delivery aspect of writing.
We are also constantly explaining how we feel, trying to help people understand why, for example, posting undescribed photos on social media makes us feel excluded, without upsetting our friends. People born with impaired vision, from a young age, often choose to do extra work just to build friendships in the classroom and on the playground. In order to speed up the process, they’ll often learn a variety of approaches to making their peers feel more comfortable with their difference. That’s the second aspect or purpose of writing, persuasion, helping someone else walk in your shoes.
The thing about that cliché though is that if you want to walk together, while they’ve got your shoes, you’ll be wearing theirs. In order to get their message across, a writer must imagine a reader, and ask themselves questions like “what do they need and want to know”, or “how can I show them how I feel”? You can have all the knowledge in the world on a given topic, and you can put that knowledge onto the page, but the key to being a great writer, in my view, is thinking about your audience. And I believe living with blindness and vision impairment gives us a competitive advantage.
This has been a long and hopefully interesting way to explain why you should write for Blind Citizens News. I’m not sorry. Writing can be a good gig, either as your main source of income or for some extra on the side. It’s also easy to do remotely or from home. I’m not just talking about the traditional notion of writing, or the kind of journalism and personal essays we publish. I, for example, write policy documents for a living. There are a thousand ways to deploy good communication skills.
But only a few of the many people who claim to be writers can offer any proof. Publication in a venue like this, where there is plenty of competition, will draw more attention from time-poor editors, or even potential employers.
To be very clear, I’m describing the world as it is, not as I think it should be. I don’t believe we should be obliged to explain ourselves, to be teachable moments, to nurse people through the process of providing us with basic services, and even human rights. I don’t think we should have to constantly worry that people won’t understand us, won’t employ us, won’t want to hang out with us, if we don’t do a bit of extra work. That’s why I write, and why I took this role – to play a small part in making the world better.
But in the world we live in right now, many of us do choose, at least sometimes, to do that work, to answer the unwelcome questions from the stranger on the bus, to politely request small changes in behaviour that will make a big difference, for the hundredth or thousandth time. I’m not saying that’s the right way to go about things. I don’t think there is a right way. But to get through the day and/or sleep at night, many of us choose to become advocates for ourselves.
When you make that choice, there are benefits. One of those is an instinct for the kind of thought processes that are fundamental to good writing. Whether you’re trying to inform or persuade, you‘ve probably done it a lot more than you realise. Take those skills, and let them guide your words, and who knows where that instinct could lead you.