Andrew Leland is a writer whose work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and The San Francisco Chronicle. He is an editor at The Believer and has worked as an audio producer for various podcasts, such as 99% Invisible and Radiolab, as well as hosted and produced KCRW’s Organist podcast about arts and culture. He has taught courses in nonfiction writing, digital storytelling, and radio at Smith College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the University of Missouri.
Below, Andrew shares five key insights from his new book, The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight. Listen to the audio version—read by Andrew himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Constraint drives innovation.
Every creative person has had the experience of a constraint leading to innovation. Limitations force us to get creative and solve problems with flexibility and imagination. No one is more familiar with this dynamic than disabled people. One blind visual artist told me, “When I think about blindness, I think about problem-solving.” Or as another thinker observed: “Disabled people are the original life-hackers.”
In my travels around the country of the blind, I found that blindness drove innovation that led to the invention of tools that benefitted countless sighted people. The first typewriter patents, for instance, were filed for blind writing machines. If you want to know where the next major technological breakthrough will come from, one of the smartest places to look is in assistive technology and the disabled people quietly driving innovation there.
Blindness is even behind the birth of the internet and modern AI. When Ray Kurzweil sat next to a blind man on a plane in the 1960s, he learned that access to printed material was one of the biggest problems of blindness. This conversation gave Kurzweil a real-world application for his work on optical character recognition, or OCR, which allowed a computer to scan a page of print and convert it to digital text. This technology was an important ancestor to the AI machine vision that today allows computers to scan barcodes and drive cars. Before long, Kurzweil’s reading machine for the blind was being used by Xerox and Lexis-Nexis to digitize entire archives, leading to the networked databases that laid the groundwork for the modern internet.
Steve Jobs once said that Apple Computers wouldn’t have existed if it hadn’t been for his work on little blue boxes, the DIY devices that he and Steve Wozniak built and sold from their garage. These devices allowed users to explore the back end of the national phone system. Without the group of brilliant blind hackers who inspired Jobs and Wozniak—blind kids who grew up obsessively playing with their phone lines and sharing their secrets with an underground network of “phone phreaks”—Jobs and Wozniak might never have discovered those little blue boxes.
Whenever you experience a setback, remember that it also holds the seed of a breakthrough.
2. Marginalization ≠ Tragedy
Just as constraint drives innovation, there’s a profound power in the parts of our identity that sometimes diverge from the way we want to see ourselves. Making friends with these unwelcome aspects of our identity is one of the most empowering—and liberating—decisions one can make. Whenever I tell people that I’m losing my vision, they offer me condolences, as though I’ve told them that I have a terminal disease. While it would be disingenuous to argue that losing my sight after a lifetime of vision was easy, or that I didn’t have to wrestle with difficult emotions, the reality is that becoming blind has given me access to a community and a perspective that has been more enriching and fascinating than anything else I’ve experienced. Blindness made me into a writer and gave my life a sense of purpose.
“There’s a profound power in the parts of our identity that sometimes diverge from the way we want to see ourselves.”
If you see a blind or disabled person, it’s tempting to assume that his life is somehow flawed or broken and that he’s obsessively pining for a cure. But disabled people aren’t broken. You’ll be surprised by the normalcy and joy found in disabled life. Remember that the parts of yourself that feel like diminishments, that may push you painfully far from the mainstream experience, are very likely to contain the keys to a world that is richer and far more interesting than what lies on the beaten path.
3. The user is the expert.
Josh Miele is a blind technologist and MacArthur Genius Fellow who now works for Amazon making their devices accessible for people with disabilities. Josh told me about a job he had, early in his career, in which he learned how to build electrical circuits by tinkering and engineering with his blind mentor. This mentor would get calls about once a week from sighted inventors who had ideas for pointless devices to help the blind—phones that called 911 when you knocked them over, high-tech sippy cups, and laser canes. These calls infuriated Josh—he was soldering circuit boards, and they thought he couldn’t figure out how to dial 911 on his own?
This is an old story in disability: non-disabled inventors who paternalistically suggest ideas without consulting the communities they want to serve. Generations of teachers for the blind tried inventing tactile reading systems that all failed—it took a blind tinkerer named Louis Braille to design a system that actually worked for blind readers.
Whomever you think you’re serving, there’s a good chance you’re causing more harm than good if you’re not including them in the process—and not just as qualitative data points, but as active collaborators.
4. If you listened to the audiobook, you really did read the book.
If you’ve ever listened to an audiobook, you’ve probably had this experience: someone recommends a book, and you say, “Oh yes, I read that”—but then you catch yourself, and sheepishly add: “Well, I didn’t really read it—I listened to it, as an audiobook.” I did this myself until my vision became weak enough that reading print became too difficult. Now I read audiobooks and use a screen reader, which renders any text I want in a synthetic voice called Text-to-Speech, or TTS. It sounds strange at first, but I promise you, your ear gets used to it. Plenty of readers with perfectly good vision also use TTS because once you get used to it, its power and convenience are hard to resist.
“Cognitive scientists have found that the reading center in the brain, including the visual cortices, light up when we listen to text.”
Now I’m an audio evangelist: I won’t argue that it’s the identical experience to reading visually, but if I listen to a book, I know I’ve read it. Cognitive scientists have found that the reading center in the brain, including the visual cortices, light up when we listen to text. Whether you’re reading with your eyes, ears, or fingers (as I also do, in braille), it’s all still reading.
Stop apologizing for listening to audiobooks. Reading happens in the brain, and the ears are just as good a pathway to get there as the eyes. Plus, just think of all the extra laundry you’ll fold, and dishes you’ll wash, as you plow through your reading list.
5. Identity is both central and incidental.
We all experience identity as an essential marker. There are times when the fact that I’m a man, or an American, or a father, feels like the most salient detail about me. But it’s never that way every minute of the day—there are plenty of times when those identities melt away entirely, and I’m just a writer, an athlete, or a home chef.
This reality is trickier to navigate when the identity in question is politically charged. There are many people who, after seeing my white cane, can only think of me as blind, and lose sight of all the other things I might be—writer, father, athlete. We tend to do this with marginalized characteristics, including race, gender, and sexuality. The challenge is to recognize someone’s identity without letting it crowd out the rest of the person.
We all want to be able to define ourselves. It’s empowering to say who we are, and crushing when other people define us instead. Remember this the next time you want to bring up someone’s identity when it might not be relevant. You have the luxury of just being a pedestrian, full stop; can you extend the same courtesy to the blind pedestrian, allowing them to define themselves? We too often let our uninformed ideas about other people guide our interactions with them. What would happen if we ignored these assumptions about their identities, their needs, and abilities, to see them as just as ordinary and human as we are?
To listen to the audio version read by author Andrew Leland, download the Next Big Idea App today: