EXCERPTS FROM THE CONVERSATION
A conversation between Megan Anderson, star of Wait Until Dark, Johanna Gruenhut, Everyman Artistic Associate, and Lindsay Yazzolino, Secretary National Federation of the Blind Massachusetts. As part of Megan’s preparation for playing the role of Susan, we reached out to Lindsay Yazzolino for help and guidance. Below is an excerpt of one of our conversations. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JG: I'm wondering what, if any government support is available for the blind? If someone is not born blind, but becomes blind, is there government support?
LY: Currently, each state government provides vocational rehabilitation services for blind people. Such services include instruction in orientation and mobility (learning to navigate independently using a white cane), cooking/cleaning/other household tasks, Braille reading, technology, and possibly other stuff that isn't coming to mind…Such state blindness rehabilitation agencies (each state has its own with a unique name) also provide blind people seeking employment with financial support for college tuition as well as assistive technology.
MA: The play is set in New York City, 1944. What was government support like then?
JG: I’m not sure exactly how states allotted the money, but each state was awarded a sum to help citizens with disabilities under the Social Security Act of 1935.
LY: I honestly have no idea of what this looked like in the 1940s, though, since laws have changed significantly since then.
JG: Do you have any tips about 'trailing' one's way around the home? How does a newly blind person learn how to navigate their surroundings?
"I've learned to navigate my (and other people's) homes primarily through memory of the space, and use my spatial awareness as well as sound as orientation cues."
LY: So I've been totally blind since birth, and therefore have not had the experience of adjusting to blindness. I've learned to navigate my (and other people's) homes primarily through memory of the space, and use my spatial awareness as well as sound as orientation cues. For instance, my living room sounds more open and spacious than my hallway. I can hear the general locations of walls and ceilings, so for instance, if I'm in the hallway, I can hear that the walls are closer to me than if, say, I were in a spacious room.
I rarely have to actually trail walls with my hand, except, say, if I'm in a relatively unfamiliar home and am feeling for a specific doorway. Normally in public I'd use my cane rather than my hand if I need to trail walls; I'm less likely to use my cane (but still sometimes do) if I'm in other people's homes, and never use it in houses which are totally familiar to me. I know, though, that for someone who has gone blind later in life there is often a period of adjustment related to learning to use their nonvisual senses for navigation and orientation. This is where orientation and mobility training (which I mentioned earlier) in which the blind individual works with an instructor who teaches them to use a cane and pay attention to nonvisual orientation cues comes in.
I find that paying attention to the nonvisual sensory subtleties in my environment feels like second nature (well, actually first nature), whereas I've also found that the majority of people I know who've gone blind later in life are more likely to miss some of this information. I definitely do not mean this to say that late-blind individuals cannot master nonvisual skills; just that doing so can present a greater challenge and may generally not come quite as fluently as to someone who's been blind from early in life.
JG: For someone who is recently blinded, can you work from memory -- "I remember the couch is next to the corner" -- or does it feel like you start from the beginning?
LY: Again, I cannot relate to being sighted and then newly blinded, but I do recall several late-blind people I know refer to using their visual memory of space to help them visualize that very same space after they lost vision--at least in the beginning of the process. I'm not totally sure of how this reliance on prior visual memory may change over time when it comes to learning new spaces, which one has never experienced visually. I'm guessing this may vary by individual. Personally I use a combination of mental mapping and nonvisual cues to remember the layout of a space. I think one of the most common misconceptions about blindness I've encountered is that "visual" and "spatial" are synonymous, whereas I've found that if I get enough information about a space I can easily build a mental map (and some of the neuroscience studies in which I've been involved support the ability of blind people to build robust mental maps).
MA: Does a blind person count steps, for example, to get around the neighborhood?
LY: Nope, blind people don't count steps, but navigate their neighborhoods (and other public areas) using their canes (or guide dogs, if they've mastered their cane skills and wish to have one) along with some of the other orientation/navigating skills, which I've mentioned above.
JG: Is there a hang-up about asking for help?
"I will politely ask for help when I feel I could use it, and conversely, I've on many, many occasions encountered people who insist on helping without asking when I'm actually all set."
LY: Oh boy, asking for/accepting help--a topic which blind people discuss among themselves ad infinitum! Hmm...I'd say the short answer to this is that this really depends on the individual. I'm very outgoing and don't usually have a problem asking for assistance if I could use it, though I imagine for someone who, say, is more shy (or who may be feeling a sense of lost independence/pride), doing so could be more difficult. Like most blind people I know, I will politely ask for help when I feel I could use it, and conversely, I've on many, many occasions encountered people who insist on helping without asking when I'm actually all set. In these situations the help can feel more like interference, and learning to politely and graciously decline forced "help" is a skill which can take time.
JG: In terms of finding a community -- is there a differentiation between a blind person from birth and someone who becomes blind?
LY: Do you mean a community of other blind people? I know that for people who lose sight later in life, coming to terms with one's identity (particularly identifying as a blind person) can often be difficult. Again, this depends on the individual. (Also going blind from a traumatic event such as a car accident could come with its own layer of psychological challenges.) However, some of the blindness advocacy organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind contain a mix of people who are blind from both early and later in life. Many blind people choose to become part of a community of other blind people, while many others choose to have nothing to do with one (and everywhere in between these extremes). This goes for both early- and late-blind people, though I'm sure there exist certain factors unique to people who become blind.
JG: What is the biggest misconception about being blind? Assuming you've experienced it, how do you handle people's prejudice? Do you think people's perceptions of the blind have changed since 1944?
LY: Oh...goodness, misconceptions abound! I'd say that the biggest general misconception in my opinion is the need to set the bar super low for blind people--and along with this, the idea that blind people are sooooo amazing for accomplishing the most mundane tasks. (Oh, and that blind people feel people's faces! Um, ick? This one's definitely been around waaaaay too long!)
Generally I handle these by just being myself and letting people learn what I'm capable of by getting to know me, and also speaking up when necessary. I have a whole list of misconceptions that I'd be happy to tell you more about if you're interested! :)
MA: I have a specific question about tactile information, specifically about canes…
JG: Right, at one point in the script the criminals say they can hear Susan tapping her cane. And Megan was saying she feels like, based on what you were saying and other blind people she’s talked to, that when you’re in a place that’s familiar to you a, don’t use your cane and b, use more of a sweeping motion and not a tapping motion. And I’m wondering if you can differentiate the two actions for me, the sweeping and tapping?
LY: So, for example, if I were in my own house, I mean I don’t ever use my cane in my own house. Or a friend’s house, I wouldn’t use my cane there. And I bet that’s true for most blind people you’d speak to.
JG: But what about in a hallway, or in the vestibule of her building?
LY: Oh, okay, does she live in an apartment?
MA: Yea, she does, she lives in an apartment.
LY: Ok, ok, so I would say, going into the building, coming in from the outside, it would totally make sense for her to use her cane. But once she was in her own apartment, that’s when a blind person would put their cane away, or store it in a corner. But in the vestibule it would totally make sense that she’d use her cane because she’s coming from outside and it is common space…
JG: …and there are other people, potentially, coming and going.
MA: And is there a difference between the tapping action and sweeping action?
LY: Good question. People use the cane a little bit differently. Like, I can recognize my blind friends by their cane taps. It’s like footsteps, you can sometimes tell who is who. But with cane taps sometimes it comes to environments. Sometimes I’ll tap a little more or slide a little more. Typically I’ll slide or sweep a little more in an environment where I feel a little more comfortable. It’s a subtle distinction and you may get different answers depending on whom you speak to. But I tap my cane more if I’m really trying to get extra audio cues from around me. If I want to try to get a sense of how big a space is, or if there’s an open space around me. Tapping, it’s about information for me. It also helps give other people forewarning that I’m coming, that I’m there. It also takes less space. I don’t think it’s a cut and dry kind of thing…
JG: Can you talk more about how things sound different to you? And how you can spatially and directionally figure out where sound is sourced?
LY: I can definitely hear how cramped a space is or how open a space is. And I can tell about my orientation within a space – like if I’m facing a wall, for example. With people in a room, sometimes people try to be sneaky and tiptoe around, but I can usually hear their feet. I just thought of this as we’re talking, one thing I can notice that I don’t think an average sighted person might pick up on is being able to hear people, sounds behind you. I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m walking with friends who can see, they don’t always pick up on the sounds going on behind us because they’re not looking in that direction. With audio it’s really 360 degrees. You’re not limited to what’s in front of you; you can be really clued in to everything, to little details. You can surprise people with that...
JG: What about when someone is talking? Can you identify where the voice is coming from and then do you lean into the sound? Do you point your ear in that direction, turn your face to respond?
LY: Yea, definitely directionally I’m very good at figuring out where a sound is coming from. And if I hear a sound and I’m trying to tune into it, my ear will point in the direction of the sound and I do sort of cock my head in the direction I think it’s coming from. When I was little I was accused of being an eavesdropper (and I totally was!) but that’s also just how I got information. But there’s a balance though between that and just socially what’s acceptable norms. I had to learn that everyone else who can see typically when they’re talking to a person they face them, and I had to learn to do that. It’s common for blind kids to be taught these social cues. So it sort of depends, if I’m having a conversation with someone I try to face them. But if I’m trying to absorb or attend to the sounds around me – if someone is hiding, like in the play – I would turn my ear to the sounds.
JG: I have a feeling you’re too young for this, but I’ll ask it anyway.
LY: Yea, you totally should!
JG: Ha! Have you ever used a rotary phone?
LY: Oh my goodness! I’ve seen one. I know I have, like a long time ago. I have never used it enough so it would be second nature to me, like it would be for Susan. I imagine it’s one of those things that through experience you gain muscle memory for where each wholes is. I imagine if you’re new to it, and new to blindness and new to doing things tactilely, like for me, doing things tactilely comes naturally, because that’s how I’ve always interacted with my environment, but I could totally see how it could take time if you’re new to blindness to become fluent in this area.
But actually with push button phones, it’s funny, and I imagine this was also the case with rotary phones too, that sometimes blind people can be way faster dialing telephones than sighted people can because when people can see they are often times actually looking at the numbers and then pressing, and you can hear from the rhythm of the sound of the beeps that they’re looking because it will sound like: beep….beep……..beep….beep….beep, whereas with a push button phone, blind people know where the buttons are, they don’t have to look for anything, so when the rhythm will sound more like: beep.beep.beep.beep.beep. It’s fast because it’s tactile!
MA: What about a hand clock, an analog clock, to tell time?
LY: I don’t know what they had in the 1940’s. I’m not sure if they had tactile clocks for blind people yet. I have a braille watch, or like a tactile watch. It has hands, and the way it works is there’s a cover on the top and you can flick the lid open on the watch to feel the hands, and the little markings around are in braille. I’m not sure what they had then, I mean now, there’s so much. I have talking clocks and electronic clocks. I wonder how they modified clocks back then…
JG: I imagine this doesn’t have a generalized answer. But can you see shadows? Can you tell when certain lights are on? Or sunshine? Can you get a sense?
LY: I do have light perception. I can tell if a light is on or off. I can’t see shapes. I can’t see movement. But yes, I can see if a light is on or off. But like you said, there are so many levels of blindness, some people can some people can’t, it’s all across the board. What is Susan’s level?
MA: It seems like she can’t see anything.
JG: Right, there’s a whole scene in the play where she needs someone’s help with the fuse-box to help determine what lights are on and what lights are off. And, without giving too much away, she seems to sense things through sound.
LY: That’s logical. I also think there’s a fine line between using your other senses really well and being super-human. A lot of time people think blind people are super human and can hear a pin drop a mile away, and I would say that some blind people are better at using their non-visual sensors and some aren’t. That can depend on a lot of things.
JG: You mentioned that there are so many misconceptions about blind people, and I’m wondering if you want to elaborate at all.
LY: I just think people set the bar really low for blind people. There’s this idea that blind people can’t be independent.
JG: Well, can I be totally honest. When we first communicated, it was through email, (Parts 2 & 3 of our conversation were over the telephone) and I was totally mystified. I didn’t understand how that works.
LY: Yea, most people don’t. Most people have never seen it. I’d be curious too. So, basically my computer has software that will actually speak whatever is on the screen. It also makes it so that I don’t have to use a mouse, I can just use a keyboard. I also have a device that attaches to my iphone -- It’s a refreshable braille display that can attach via Bluetooth.
JG: Thank you for all of your time and information. You’re so fun to talk to.
MA: And we leaned a lot!
LY: Break a leg!