5992 Eyes

On my recent trip to the One World Trade Center in New York City, my fingers were wedged into the grooves of a bronze plate etched with the name, Robert King. It was mounted on a great stone podium alongside the raised letters spelling out “Battalion 7.” These were two of the thousands of memorialized engravings honoring those who perished on 911, including Robert, a firefighter who rushed to aid the innocent victims in the twin towers.

All the names are mounted there and all the memories they inspire.

It was a hot day, the bronze plates were warm, and Sweat like tears slowly rolled down my chest as my fingers brailled the grooves of some of the other names of the 2996 people who perished. It suddenly struck me: “5992 eyes, suddenly blinded.”

Less than 5 years after the collapse of the twin towers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began construction on the One World Trade Center (1 WTC) and by 2013 the 104-floor office space and observation deck was completed, becoming the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. It now stands as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and quite a climb for King Kong.

The building, including its spire, reaches a total height of 1,776 feet, a deliberate reference to the year when the United States Declaration of Independence was signed – a profound “gotcha” to the terrorists.

I recall when I could still see back in the late 1970s, stepping off the elevator onto the floor of the Windows on the World, the WTC’s original restaurant and observatory. I was amazed at how small the Statue of Liberty appeared.

I’m told that on a clear day you can see the curvature of the earth from the observation deck’s vista. Standing there, you are certainly high enough and far away enough to hold Lady Liberty between your thumb and index finger, proof positive that the earth is round and that freedom reigns supreme.

Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude

Photo by Aida Zuniga

Photo by Aida Zuniga

I’ve Got My Eyes in My Pocket

Specialty smartphone apps have flowed downstream to the blind community for some time. Apps that can read the value of your paper money or tell you the color of your t-shirt have been around for a while.

"Be My Eyes" app screenshot.

"Be My Eyes" app screenshot.

And now blind folks are using the camera on their device, not as a parlor trick to snap photos of their pals, but as remote eyeballs.

For the past year or so I have been facetiming (Apple’s real time 2-way video calling feature) with my daughter to help me distinguish between my meds, neckties and the hardboiled egg that dropped and rolled across my kitchen floor. But she’s not always available. And what happens at 3 o’clock in the morning when I need some sighted assistance? So, downloading the Be My Eyes app was a no-brainer for me.

Be My Eyes is an app that claims that it “brings sight to the blind and visually impaired.”

The app engages the video capabilities of smartphones to turn them into virtual eyes. It allows blind folks to make video calls to volunteers who are ready to help them see stuff.

The good folks behind Be My Eyes explain that the sighted helpers are “friendly citizens who are willing to lend their sight as they go about their daily lives.”

The nifty network boasts that there are over half a million sighted helpers and over 35 thousand blind and visually impaired users in the Be My Eyes community. The volunteers are ready and willing to assist blind folks in every time zone and in over 90 languages. This makes it available to the user – that’s me – 24/7.

It’s an around the clock deal. Whenever you call, it keeps buzzing around the globe until it finds an available volunteer who speaks your language and who’s living in a zone where it’s daytime. If it’s the middle of the night in the U.S., for example, you might be connecting with someone in Europe or Australia.

Just yesterday at around 2:30 a.m., I reached into my freezer and pulled out a half melted (half frozen if you’re an optimist) strawberry fruit bar. So I activated the Be My Eyes app and connected with a student in Turkey. She helped me figure out that I had accidentally bumped the temperature setting on my digital fridge panel and she helped me to reset it. We then had a lively conversation about who had the more “colorful” president.

Last week I went to clean my dining room table and just before spraying the lemon furniture polish on it, I called BME to be certain I had the right stuff. I found out just in time that it was roach killer I was about to spray all over my beautiful oak-wood table. A few days later, my roboeyes helped me find the avocado I dropped on the kitchen floor. (I drop a lot of stuff on the kitchen floor.) Then the BME volunteer helped me read a message on my computer screen when my screen reader was misbehaving and stopped speaking.

"avocado, down!"

"avocado, down!"

Turns out the program is good for the volunteers as well as blind folks.

Sighted helpers have reported: “…feelings of usefulness when answering a call and successfully helping a blind person,” how “awesome it felt to be able to be someone’s eyes in a time of need” and “being eager for the next call.”

And out of the mouths of users: “I do not know what I would do without this app. It has been a lifesaver for me.” … “Volunteers have looked through catalogs with me and have also helped me sort out my CD collection.” … “I had a man tell me the kind of tea and another woman tell me it was a can of tomatoes. It sounds like a small thing but I can tell you it is not! Remember it is the small things in a person’s life that make a big difference.”

The Be My Eyes team reminds us that it’s summertime. You might be going on vacation and into unfamiliar surroundings and that now “…you can feel secure and even more independent knowing that you are never really alone as you tackle new activities and places… You’ve got Volunteers in your pocket, waiting to assist you whenever and wherever you need them… Once you try it, you will never leave home, the state, or the country without it.”

I recall once being at a hotel and washing my hair with body lotion since the bottles containing shampoo, conditioner and lotion were all identical in size and all smelled like the same flower. Thermostats are always a guessing game as to which button is cool and which is heat and if the up down temp buttons move in half or whole degree steps. And the TV remote controls? Yikes! I’ll be calling BME from now on when I’m obsessing over the small stuff in my hotel room.

I was reading about Gayle Yarnall, the blind former director of adaptive technology at Perkins Products, who also experienced some anxiety when she traveled.

“I normally always read about a place before going there,” Gayle mused. “There are many cultural differences to be aware of. Like in Japan, you will find that a toilet has 8 buttons. So it’s just a matter of trial and error before hitting the right one.” Now she knows what button to push. Of course, it’s more than just bathroom management for Gayle. “A whole new world has opened for me, and I will bring the app everywhere.”

The folks at Be My Eyes stress that “with over half a million volunteers you can, and should, feel free to make calls as frequently as you wish without ever disturbing anyone.” In fact, they have many volunteers who are still waiting to receive their first help request. You can use Be My Eyes as much as you possibly want – and the service is free, no matter how much you use it.

So, until tech comes up with bionic orbs they can plug into my eye sockets, I’ll carry my eyes around in my pocket.

For info on Be My Eyes, check out Info@bemyeyes.com.

Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude

Seeing Things Differently

by Steve Gladstone, Insight Blogger

To see, or not to see--that is not the question. With my apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, if given the option to see or not to see, I would certainly choose the former. It surely isn’t nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous blindness if you don’t have to.

Notwithstanding this obvious truth, “seeing” has many meanings. In ancient times, a seer could see into the future. (Ironically, Tiresias, the famed clairvoyant from Greek mythology, was also blind.) To try and see things “my way” is to ask somebody to take your point of view, or Saying “I see your point” let’s somebody know that you understand what they are saying (even if you disagree).

“Seeing things differently” is to have differing opinions or perceptions of the same thing.
Ask five sightlings to describe the same Picasso painting and you will get five different versions of that painting. We all know that if you ask eight people their opinion on a political issue, you will get eight differing viewpoints, some even detached from reality.

So, in a grander and nuanced sort of way, “seeing” is much more than physical sight.

Arguably, sight is the primary pathway of our senses. We take in our world first by what we see and then by what we hear, touch, taste and smell. But when you are blind, you do “see” things differently.

Several years ago, my friend Kimberly, a singer of Broadway and opera, worked a summer season at Wolf Trap, the performing arts venue in Virginia. Her hosts' 11 year-old daughter was blind. On a trip to the zoo one day, they came to an area where children could hold and feel some of the animals. Kimberly never forgot the young lady’s description of a beaver's tummy: "Have you ever seen a beaver," she asked. "Only in pictures," Kimberly replied. “Well," the young lady continued, "their tummy is soft like velvet. The softest fur you'll ever touch. They are really beautiful." Kimberly recalled how the little girl’s “…description was perfect. Lots of different ways to see things.”

How we comprehend our world is dynamic, and those lacking one or more of their five senses, reroute things toward their other abilities that are in play, employing their wit and ingenuity to interpret the world accordingly.

Tiresias obtain his info in various ways in order to serve up his “second sight.” Sometimes, like the oracles, he would receive visions; other times the songs of birds would inform him; sometimes he would ask for a description of pictures appearing within the smoke of burnt offerings.

Tiresias was considered “a complexly liminal figure, mediating between humankind and the gods, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, this world and the Underworld.” In other words, he was one exceptional blind fellow.

Disability isn’t a tragedy – it’s just another way of living. And for some, having a disability gives them leverage — seeing things others don’t see.

To see--perchance to dream!

I echo Kimberly’s words: “Happy New Year, friend. Let's hope 2017 will be a wonderful year for all of us, the planet … and the beavers.”

Steve Gladstone
The Blind Dude

Blind Folks Get ‘Dirty’

by Steve Gladstone, Insight Blogger

If you attend a play and close your eyes for 2 hours (absurd, I know, but stay with me on this) and just listen to the dialogue, you’re gonna’ miss some important stuff. You may follow the fate of the principal characters, but you won’t know much about the costumes, lighting, details of the set (or when the set changes locales) and what is happening on stage when nobody is speaking.

Of course most people who attend the theater can see the facial expressions of the characters, the scenes changing and the exploits that are happening when the players aren’t speaking. Blind folks don’t have that option and consequently miss much of the action and information dynamic to the story. The Arsht Center set out to remedy that significant issue back in 2010 with their “audio description” program for their sightless patrons, describing the many elements essential for a blind person to get a complete picture of what’s happening on stage during the Broadway Series, Florida Grand Opera and Miami City Ballet productions.

Now blind and visually impaired peeps get a better picture knowing that Baby wore a “bright pink halter top dress for the exhibition dance at the Sheldrake Hotel and a pink dress with low back, thin shoulder straps and very full skirts in the last dance of the season at Kellerman’s.”

The recent Arsht production of the musical, “Dirty Dancing,” based on the 1987 hit film, was loaded with 1963 period costumes, flashing lights and projected backgrounds ranging from mountains to a golf course, log cabins, a lake, woods & camp fire. At the top of show, two panels on each side of the stage projected outdoor scenery of “green trees & blue sky with fluffy white clouds.” All those colorful images would be lost to blind folks without the crackerjack volunteer readers sitting in a booth inside the Arsht Ziff Ballet Opera House, describing the sets, lighting and costumes to their blind guests.

Over a dozen years ago, the original Broadway production of “Wicked” was experimenting with pre-recorded narration tied to the musical score. It had inherent technical problems and was often out of sync as every show was, of course, a little different from performance to performance. The Arsht team fixed that challenge by describing the shows in “real time,” the describer calling each scene as it unfolded. The blind patron wears a pair of headphones attached to a receiver while the narration is transmitted via an infrared signal to the assistive listening device, which can be enjoyed from any seat in the house.

Blind theatre-goers found out that Baby was “slender, medium-height with short curly hair, wearing denim Bermuda shorts and a casual white blouse, and Johnny was medium tall with a slender but well-muscled build and neck length light brown hair with gold streaks, wearing snug black pants with a black sleeveless tank shirt.”

“Penny, the girl who gets pregnant, tall and slender with a lovely figure and bleached blonde below the shoulder hair; Mr. Schumacher, an elderly resort guest who steals wallets, balding and rotund; the young men on the entertainment staff wearing a t-shirt with the resort name, Kellerman’s…” – all described so you get the bigger picture.

If your blind as the curtain goes up, all you hear is the song, “This Magic Moment” but, with those dimension-adding headphones, you find out that a couple is dancing, the woman arching her back as the man lifts her up, while Baby, in her bedroom with an open suitcase packed with clothing, writes some notes in a book she is reading, the scene quickly changing to Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskills. There’s a whole lot more going on than just a rockin’ tune!

Many scenes were underscored by music without any dialogue. Without the vivid audio description, blind folks would not know who was entering and exiting, when someone was shimmying, when a skirt bellowed, when strobe lights washed over the audience, when a sunset boasted pinks, blues and purples, when Johnny changed into his tux, when evening came and chandeliers descended from above, when Penny wrapped her legs around Johnny’s hips and the male dancers flipped and spun during the afterhours dance at staff headquarters.

How else would sightless folks know that Baby was awkward when first learning the mambo routine with Johnny? Or the point at which they were swinging their hips perfectly together? Or Johnny teaching her how to improve her balance by practicing on a log? Learning the famous lift in a lake? Or that she stopped short of making her final leap into Johnny’s arms during the show at the Sheldrake?

Baby’s memorable line, “Most of all I’m afraid of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you,” was certainly enhanced by knowing that her eyes were locked with Johnny’s as he pulled her closer, slowly carrying her to his mattress, as the first act ended.

The theme song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” ‘saw’ Baby and Johnny in sync, Baby springing toward Johnny, her arms outstretched, making that final, famous leap where previously she had hesitated.

In this summer of 1963, before The Beatles arrived, before the death of John Kennedy, while the civil rights movement was heating up, this coming of age love story unfolded, seemingly less profound than the current events of the day, yet touching a significant romantic nerve – and now creating a more 3-dimensional picture for blind folks.

Blind peeps were certainly not put “in a corner!”

To further the experience, visiting companies are asked to do a “touch tour” of props and costumes prior to the audio described performance. Blind guests can go cheek to cheek with the Mouse King, sample a thigh high kinky boot or grip the old school mic used at Kellerman’s Resort.

Over 60 performances at the Arsht have been audio described to date, including The Lion King, Wicked, Jersey Boys, Madama Butterfly, The Magic Flute, Carmen and The Nutcracker.

In 2014, the Arsht Center was honored with the Dolly Gamble Award from the Florida Council of the Blind for its leadership in audio description and received the national award from the American Council of the Blind for excellence in audio description in the performing arts category.

Audio description may be provided for any performance as the Arsht team has the equipment to make it happen in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Knight Concert Hall and Carnival Studio Theater.

Interested in upcoming audio described programs? Information is on the Arsht Center website at www.arshtcenter.org, write Alice at afifelski@arshtcenter.org, or call the office at 786.468.2294, cell 305.785.3899

The Blind Job Application

- All Men Are Created Equal

- All Men Are Created Equal

So this black transgender female over 40 in a wheelchair rolls into a mosque…you get the picture. Turn on NPR or your tribal TV news outlet or boot up your smartphone at any time and you’ll catch a story on the “ism” du jour: sexism, racism, ageism, identityism or ableism.

It seems that every day there is some news item or a story about “diversity” – a word that has become a semantic tsunami that washes over us daily and, at least in this country, represents anyone and everyone who isn’t a non-disabled straight white man.

I recently caught a story about the people who did the important math calculations for NASA during the early days of the space program, from the late 50s through the Apollo missions to the moon. This was at a time when “computers” were people, not machines. They used slide rules, solved differential equations and did the calculus that sent Alan Shepard up and down and John Glenn orbiting the earth and enabled Neil Armstrong to step onto the lunar surface.

- Neil Armstrong

- Neil Armstrong

These computers were black women. You saw newsreel images of white men with crewcuts and chunky glasses in NASA control rooms while these women were hidden in segregated buildings with segregated bathrooms and drinking from separate water fountains. These women were crunching the numbers for the trajectories, orbits and splashdowns that made our space program possible while steeped in a Jim Crow system that told them they were free but not equal.

Why are we so surprised to find out that these complicated calculations were being made by black women? After all, it’s ability that counts, right?

Any contrary language, belief or action that targets a “group” is the product of small-minded people (hello, Donald, are you listening?) and shines a powerful spotlight on the disturbing ambiguity of the human mind. And there appears to be no shortage of those minds sloshing and squishing around in the heads of many these days.

If our inherent nature wasn’t to discriminate against others there would have been no need for civil rights legislation and the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act and heck, even the need to write down “…all men are created equal…”, the Founding Fathers ironically displaying their prejudice against women! Proof positive of who we are.

As once a sighted person and now totally blind, I can report that blindness has kept some of my prejudicial tendencies at bay. I stopped making those snap judgements that skin color or cultural clothing or body shape prompted in my behavior. All I get are the words coming out of a person’s mouth.

Yes. I do discriminate on the essence of a person – what they can bring to my table or what I might bring to their plate – and accept or dismiss them accordingly. We do need to judge what and who is good or bad for us, but we are all served well to make those decisions based on essence and keep all the isms in check. There is hardly an advantage in dismissing the better candidate.

Hiring and promoting based on ability and performance. What a concept!

Imagine a blind job application. If any and every person applying for a position could apply with their gender, ethnicity, age, identity and disability somehow hidden, what would our workplaces look like? And more importantly, what would be the level of productivity?

Of course, employers should not be asked to hire a person before meeting them. But imagine a completely objective metric being assigned to an application for employment before the boss meets the job-seeker face to face. And if that metric included not only work experience but a measure of intuition by some means as well, it would offer employers a competitive edge by hiring someone who intuits with the best of ‘em.

If we could strip away all the superficial stuff that taints the decision making process, who would we hire? Who would we promote? Alas! Who would we love?

There’s a short overweight Latin woman cleaning houses who would make an excellent CEO if we could just find her…or if she could find us.

And equal pay for equal work? Besides being a no-brainer, another stunning example of how deep discrimination runs like rich red blood through our veins. Certainly as ridiculous as drinking from separate water fountains.

Indeed. All people are created equal. Now if we could just get that woven into the fabric of humanity somehow.

Steve Gladstone

The Blind Dude

Blind Lives Matter

The disproportionate discrimination heaped onto the Afro-American community has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, campaigning against violence toward black people, and to the broader issues of racial discrimination. Certainly the color of skin prompting bias before you have even said “hello” or exchanged a minute of conversation is absurd, disturbing and diminishes who we are as a species. Yet there it is: if you’re a person of color in a white society, the judging kicks in with amazing speed.

Whether discrimination is learned or baked into our DNA, it seems clear that religious, ethnic, age and gender prejudice is thriving around the planet with no signs of easing up anytime soon. Discrimination, and the fear, rage and violence that broils up from it, continues to be a pox on all our houses.

Prejudgment also applies to the largest minority in our country. Over 64 million, or 1 out of every 5 Americans, live with a disability. However, the prejudice against disabled folks generally takes the form of assumption, dismissal and pity rather than rage.

The most mysterious thing about prejudice is that when it kicks in, it seems to assign a complete set of negative traits to the targeted person. Knee-jerk reactions take hold, and individual personality doesn’t stand a chance. Unless a brief conversation with the prejudger and the prejudged occurs, the whole prejudged person is marginalized and dismissed as unproductive or nefarious.

I felt it myself when I met Danny, a fellow, who at the age of 19, severed his spinal cord when he dove off the mast of a sailing ship into a coral reef. When we first met, I stuck out my hand to shake his. It was limp and without any strength. He was quadriplegic and I immediately figured he was pooched with no ability. Then he invited me out on his sailboat which was rigged so that he could manage the boat himself. Good thing – I’m useless when it comes to trimming sails. He moved to L.A. to pursue a career in acting, appeared in several films, and started up an enterprise helping businesses to become ADA compliant. Danny and I would sometimes step out together – I’d grab the handles of his wheelchair and he would tell me “left and right and stop.” We were a motley crew and remained lifelong friends.

People who casually meet me for the first time generally resort to some blind man stereotype or worse, pity. They will quickly grab my bag of groceries as if my hands are broken or tell me how sorry they are for me. People who do get to know me are at first surprised that I’m a professional actor, president of my local actor’s union, have been a VP of Sales and Human Resources, a playwright, a poet, a songwriter, have two kids and do my own grocery shopping. To them it’s “amazing.” To me, it’s just what I do.

It’s important to make a distinction between having a disability and being disabled. Having a disability means having only one broken something; being disabled suggests you are entirely broken. As I often say, “I’m not disabled, I’m just blind.” I get stuff done by other means.

Like most of the disabled folks I know, their particular disability tends to “disappear” to people who spend time with them, and their abilities emerge, dominate and defy the preconceptions.

Disability isn’t a tragedy. It’s just another way of living. And it matters.

Certainly a world without prejudgment is desired by most people, but people who experience discrimination of any kind don’t live in that sort of kumbaya bubble. I figure it will take several more turns of evolution before our species enlightens to a more inclusive mentality, where tendencies toward stereotype and bias are eliminated from the gene pool.

Until then, we must strive mightily to embrace the notion that there are better ways to deal with the ire that boils up from dated assumptions that marginalize the groups of people who breathe and dream outside our tribes.

For now, we might just try saying “hello” when we first meet someone who appears ‘different.’ And we may find out just how similarly we all dream.

Steve Gladstone

The Blind Dude

Gettin’ it done by other means.

Learning New Stuff

IMG_0726 I’ve never been a ‘read the owner’s manual’ kinda guy. I’ve always found them confusing, tedious and lengthy.

I used to have a pal who would read every owner’s manual from cover to cover. But I had, as my mother used to say, more of a “creative” mind.

Even when I could see, I didn’t read manuals. I was always a “visual learner” when trying to figure out how to operate stuff. So when I went totally blind, I was pooched.

As a blind guy, I still avoided screen reading online manuals. I preferred to have somebody ‘talk me through’ each button and crank. Sure, it was a struggle, but I was determined to master every bell and whistle on the device.

The struggle got worse as I grew older. Even my $10 toaster, between the frozen, regular and bagel settings and the light, medium and dark knob, became a chore. I figured that being blind exacerbated the learning process.

Then I started noticing my sighted friends calling out to their teenage children: “Hey Sam, show me how to use this remote,” or “Yo Jennie, help me figure out my new electric toothbrush.” It was an Aha moment! The problem wasn’t being blind, it was being over 40.

Not that I ever needed a reason why I didn’t read manuals, but now I finally had a good one.

Besides, why was I trying to learn all 128 buttons on the gismo when I only ever use 5 of them in the first place?

I was suddenly at the gateway to the next level: tranquility, self-actualization and spiritual enlightenment…with a little more time on my hands.

The desire to learn new things dramatically decreases for most people after they turn 40. Many folks believe this is due to the natural diminishing capacity of the human brain, but I’d like to think it may actually be the result of enlightenment. In other words, once you reach that age when you realize that you’re no longer receiving blue ribbons for effort, you trade in your sense of accomplishment for a little efficiency. You suddenly grasp the notion that all the time you spent agonizing over how to work the damn thing might have been better spent dreaming about the little vegetable garden you’ve been meaning to plant in your backyard.

Now I have a go-to-under-40 person to set up my new appliance and show me how to use the latest whizzbang technology with the fewest steps possible.

Keeping it simple is king. I no longer type my destination into my GPS. Instead, with my guide dog in tow, I just mash a button and speak into my phone where I want to go and voila!, the nice droid-lady answers me with step by step directions on how to get from point A to point B. (I can also assist some of my drivers who have difficulty using GPS. Yup, most of them are over 40.)

You may find it more satisfying to ask a stranger under 40 for help with a new gadget, rather than your go-to-under-40 family member. Strangers tend to be nicer and more patient. Family members are prone to be a little quippie during the education process, sometimes rolling their eyes or tossing you zingers like, “You don’t know how to do that?” or “I’ve shown you this a million times!” Of course, if you are a secure person with few self-esteem issues, quippie’s wisecracks don’t bother you. You just say, “Yeh, I’m a blockhead. Fix it.” That’s about all you need to do to get the quipster focused on the task.

If you have the impulse to explain to quippie why you aren’t ‘getting it,’ save your breath. They don’t care if you get it or not. And at your advanced age, you need to lower your stress level. Plus, by not explaining yourself, you have extra time to do something useful, like top-up your soft soap kitchen dispenser which has been empty since last month.

So, with your Millennial or Gen Z of choice and your own good self-image, you’ll have that new “Power-Your-Spaceship-To-Mars-With-Solar” app downloaded and up and running in just a few short minutes.

But before you blast off to worlds unknown, you might consider tending your garden first.

Steve Gladstone

The Blind Dude

Eating Ants

The other day my daughter came over for a visit. I was in my den when I heard her calling out to me from the kitchen: “Hey dad, there are ants all over your chocolate candy.”

Yikes! I had a flash memory from the night before, eating a couple of pieces from my box of Valentine chocolates which I had been rationing and now was almost empty…except for the ants.

I quickly got to thinking about any weird science I might have swallowed in the past and recalled how I thought the sliced ham I had for lunch earlier tasted a little tangy. When you’re a blind dude, bad strawberries and sour milk are simple to detect, but ant-covered chocolates, not so easy.

I started wondering why I was still alive.

I suppose at their most basic level, ants are protein.

Then I remembered Steve McQueen’s character in the film Papillon, mashing up and eating insects while detained in a French Guiana prison. It didn’t kill him but rather helped sustain him for two years while being held in solitary confinement. I was starting to feel better.

Certainly in some parts of the world, local cuisine includes beetles, grasshoppers and other insects which are dried, fried and covered with seasonings. Desserts include tasty tidbits like Chocolate Covered Scorpion and Chile-Lime Crickets.

According to one source: “…80% of the world views insects as normal food; it's only nations in Europe, Canada and the USA who balk at the idea.”

Was I ahead of the curve?

A quick surf on Google will bring you to organizations that promote the eating of those creepy little critters. One such association boasts: “Eat Bugs, Save the Planet.” There are ‘Bug Festivals’ dedicated to educating us about the nutritional benefits of edible insects.

Notwithstanding the challenges of world hunger, the rising demand for meat, overfishing, current farming practices damaging the environment, polluting the water and air and contributing to the rise in infectious diseases, it may be time to change the way we view food.

Back to what we eat.

I thought about a nice steak – cooked cow, really? Who’d want to eat such an odd looking animal? And sushi…? Hmm, raw fish. Then it hit me: maybe as long as what we eat is dead, it works. Or at least is more appetizing.

We don’t eat living stuff. But lots of other creatures do. Snakes eat live rats, lions eat zebra, lizards eat flies, cats eat lizards, and blind dudes eat ants. No big whoop, eh?

Good thing those big bug movies like “Them!” (a nest of gigantic irradiated ants storming L.A.) and “The Fly” (a scientist mutating into a human fly) are just Sci-Fi. Otherwise, we might also be on the menu.

Dead or alive, food is necessary for survival. And eating responsibly is a worthwhile consideration.

Perhaps someday we’ll hear public service announcements like: “Promote healthy eating and sustainable farming with tasty & edible insects. Eat a bug!”

Until then, I won’t be dusting my chocolates with little ants anytime soon, but won’t freak out if I munch a few along the way.

Steve Gladstone The Blind Dude

Blind Man Goes to the Ballet

a-wooden-nutcracker-e1451547613587.jpeg

Photos by Aida Zuniga

Perhaps the last form of theatrical entertainment to attract a blind person would be the ballet: no speaking, no singing, just dancing.

However, thanks to technology, I can now understand the fascination with sugar plum fairies dancing in your head.

Like so many Baby Boomers, I was first introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a truncated orchestral version of his Nutcracker ballet music, while watching Disney’s Fantasia. Of course, Tchaikovsky crafted the Suite as a purely symphonic piece where the ballet is a feast for both the eyes and ears.

inside a toy box
inside a toy box

The first characters most Boomers actually tied to The Nutcracker were the animated fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves from Fantasia (1940). The Nutcracker ballet didn’t really become a popular annual tradition in this country until the 1960s, the result of George Balanchine's staging, adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”

The animated images from Fantasia probably remained with me longer than most people, since I actually saw the film but was totally blind by the time I first attended the ballet.

Those fluid, colorful and quirky animated characters from the movie morphed back to their original forms in the ballet: the dancing mushrooms in the “Chinese Dance” routine (credit the Three Stooges as the model for the animation) became a nimble Chinese danseur leaping out of a box 3 feet into the air; the mesmerizing goldfish who used her flowing tail as a veil became one beautiful barefoot Arabian babe in a gossamer skirt and cascading veil, using her sensuous and controlled movements – arching her back, turning around on one foot and moving in serpentine  patterns – to touch her head with one foot and stretch out like a cat; a plant with its stem body and leaves for arms and legs became an acrobatic Cossack who jumped through a red, white and green striped hula hoop.

So how does a blind man know all these details? Elementary, my dear Watson: audio description.

With a FM receiver around my neck and an earpiece in my ear, a live narrator at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami described the action on stage, transmitting it to me in real time as the music played and the dancers danced.

It was also helpful to have a “touch tour” before the show, giving size and shape to many of the stage props and costumes. I did enjoy communing with the Mouse King’s head and body armor.

holding the Mouse King's tail off suit of armor
holding the Mouse King's tail off suit of armor

I never knew it was snowing at the top of the ballet and that several guests arrived with their children at Dr. Stahlbaum’s home. I didn’t know that a father picked up his little daughter to admire the Christmas tree lights or that the grandfather clock lit up when it struck eight.

I learned that the mysterious Drosselmeyer was dressed in a black cape and top hat, and brought with him several large toy boxes; his first gift being two wind-up dolls, Harlequin and Columbine, who soon performed a sprightly arabesque, which enlightened me as to why the audience was applauding.

I had a serious ‘duh’ moment when I found out that Drosselmeyer was cracking nuts with a wooden nutcracker and passing out the nuts to everyone. My inner voice clarified it for me: “It’s The Nutcracker ballet after all, you knucklehead!”

Marie’s brother Fritz grabbing and stomping on the nutcracker was another important piece of otherwise missing info. Drosselmeyer sneaking in as Marie slept, repairing the nutcracker with a magic tool which he “twisted this way and that,” placing it back gently in Marie’s arms, continued to add layers of dimension to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music.

Subtle descriptions like “the guests hand their coats and wraps to the maid” and “Frau Stahlbaum kisses Marie on the forehead and takes her candle” and “the Prince places the Mouse King’s crown on Marie’s head” added nuance I would otherwise have missed.

Steve arghs with full face Mouse King
Steve arghs with full face Mouse King

Of course, as the music swelled and a large group of mice surrounded Marie “while the lights flashed wildly on the Christmas tree as it started to grow and grow towards the ceiling,” I got the distinct impression the plot was thickening.

Yup, the Calvary came over the hill – the now full-sized Nutcracker rallied the troops of toy soldiers against the rat pack. Kudos to Marie for throwing her slipper at the Mouse King to distract him long enough for the Nutcracker to run him through…and it’s a good thing I found out that the Nutcracker turned into a Prince after the battle.

The only thing better than a snowflake dancing en pointe is sixteen snowflakes dancing en pointe “leaping, swirling and twirling across the stage, forming various patterns on the floor, then taking delicate steps with graceful arm movements and pirouetting into a V-shape.”

How else would I know that The Sugar Plum Fairy found out about the “terrible fight with the mice and their King and the Prince’s transformation from Nutcracker to Prince” if he didn’t “act it out to Sugar Plum with gestures?”

Certainly the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" was a delight, “her movements exquisitely timed to the mysterious fairy music, imbued with a celesta, twirling upstage” before summoning all the sweets and friends to dance in celebration for Marie and the Prince. The festivities included ten foot tall Mother Ginger, in her enormous purple, green and scarlet costume, with her seven children, the Polichinelles, emerging from under her hoop skirt to dance for our heroine.

A highlight was the "Waltz of the Flowers" where, along with the corps de ballet, Dewdrop danced the extravagant waltz and, according to my narrator, “The large flowing movements and leaps were graceful, even though the music was robust.”

The Grand Pas de Deux between Sugar Plum and her Cavalier, Prince Coqueluche, with its divinely romantic underscore, apparently galvanized the audience. I now know that the Prince helped his “beautiful companion” spin en pointe and then she “leaped and he spun her around and sat her on his shoulder, lifted and held her by the waist straight into the air, and then held her straight on an angle with her feet barely touching the floor.”

After the grand finale, full of abundant color and activity, Marie and the Prince “appear in a sleigh, heading off to the land where the sun meets the moon.”

And I too was over the moon after knowing what the heck was going on.

If you would like to learn more about the audio descriptive service at the Arsht, go to: http://www.arshtcenter.org/

full-sized Nutcracker head
full-sized Nutcracker head

Insight for the Blind was thrilled to produce recorded audio description for the first time in 2015!  In collaboration with the Miami City Ballet, Lighthouse of Broward, and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Insight recorded and produced audio description which was made available each night that live audio description was not possible.  Through the partnership of these agencies, 100% of these Nutcracker performances were made accessible, through audio description, to the blind and visually impaired.  We look forward to many more such collaborations in 2016, and beyond!   -Matt Corey

Kinky Boots

Photo credit:  Aida Zuniga I’ve groused aplenty about how the world doesn’t have blind folks at the top of its A-List, so now it’s time to give credit where credits due.

More and more devices and services are coming online that enrich the lives and experiences of blind folks and those with low vision. Technology is moving well beyond computer screen readers and talking thermometers, especially in the world of entertainment.

Several years ago, the first round of “video described” movies made it possible for blind folks to know what was going on between the dialogue. The original Star Trek films and Pretty Woman were among the first few titles where narration, carefully synchronized with the actors' words and motions, was added to the soundtrack after the film was shot. This made blind movie fans aware of the nonverbal action on the screen. I recall a specific narrative in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere is first driving with Julia Roberts in his rented Lotus: “She reaches over and feels his crotch.”

There are now thousands of films and TV “described” shows available as MP3 downloads. (All you really need is an MP3 player and the sweetened audio track of the film unless, of course, you are watching the video with your sighted girlfriend.)

Methinks in a real sort of way, the added narration is a show unto itself. One can only imagine the colorful narrative to the Game of Thrones. Yup, it’s all there.

Even my local movie theater complex offers video description for those first run films that are released with the pre-recorded narration, though the technology can be a bit finicky and doesn’t always work.

Comcast now has its X1 Entertainment Operating System which speaks aloud the channel, current program, and reads the TV guide and controls for programming your DVR. For those TV shows offering video description, many from PBS, blind and low vision users get increased access to the action on present-day TV.

And now, like Santa, Broadway with audio description has come to town.

On any given Sunday matinee, Florida Grand Opera, the Miami City Ballet and many of the musical roadshows presented at the Arsht Center in Miami are audio described with a live narrator. Unlike recorded films and TV, describing live shows has some synchronization challenges since the pace of the action may vary from performance to performance. It requires the narration to be matched to the action in real time by a breathing person via a FM transmitter to a receiver headset worn by the patron.

I just attended the national tour of Kinky Boots, a Broadway musical based on the film of the same name, The inspiration for which came from a true story about a young man (Charlie Price) who inherits his family’s shoe factory and, in order to save the business from bankruptcy, converts it from making fine men’s footwear to producing red thigh high boots for drag queens and fashionistas.

So, how did I know the boots were red? Read on, Macduff.

First off, a pre-show backstage ‘touch tour’ of some of the props and set pieces offered up the first sense of dimension for the blind experience. Grabbing hold of a pair of kinky boots was, well, kinky.

Steve smiling with kinky boot
Steve smiling with kinky boot

When there’s dialogue, you have the sense of what’s happening, but when there is silence between the actors, or the actors are singing or dancing, the action is totally lost on blind folks.

As a pumped up Charlie sang about the steps he needed to take to make the prototype boot to serve his underserved niche market, he pulled a piece of leather out of a bucket and began to fashion the first boot; there was a sewing station and a production area on stage around him. I knew all this because of the narration I heard through my earpiece as he sang. The driving tune suddenly became three-dimensional with the descriptive imagery planted squarely in my mind.

After a few false starts and some helpful design tips from the lead gender bender, Lola, singing “The Sex is in the Heel,” the factory workers later raised the roof as the first pair of "kinky boots" was finally completed. The sexy lyrics were even sexier knowing that one of Lola’s backup drag dancers, one of the “angels,” did a full split in heels and another did a backflip; the excitement was more exciting knowing that dancers shimmied and swiveled in “halter tops, short shorts and work boots” as the first completed boot was revealed. Everybody (me included) shouted “yeah, yeah!”

The spoken cues indicated more depth of character when factory worker Lauren “moved in close to Charlie’s face and was reluctant to remove her hand from his thigh” as she sang of her history of choosing the wrong guys, even while falling in love with Charlie. Descriptions of the subtle gestures and facial expressions between Charlie and Lola added an emotional dynamic as they discovered their similarly complex feelings toward their fathers. Knowing that Lola exited the nursing home “straight and proud” in her white dress, after singing to her estranged wheelchair-bound dying father to hold her in his heart, added the otherwise missing element of both love and defiance.

The graphic description of Lola’s provocative moves while proving that she was closer to a woman's ideal man than was Don, the foreman and her heavy-set macho antagonist, enhanced her song and dance with some tasty spice. After challenging her to a boxing match, the ‘slow-mo’ blows that Lola landed on Don in the boxing ring was the only way I knew who was winning the fight. Without the verbal cues before Lola and the angels arrived to save the day, I would never have known that Charlie stumbled more than a few times on the runway while modeling his boots during the Milan industry show.

While attending a play or musical, it’s often a big mystery to me when scenes change. When the scene shifted from the shoe factory to London to a pub to a boxing ring to the runway in Milan, I was knocked out with a greater sense on what the heck was happening on stage!

Steve with astonished kinky dancer with boot in the air
Steve with astonished kinky dancer with boot in the air

Without the narration, how else would I have known that the hefty Don, now Lola’s ally, showed up on the runway in Milan wearing a feminine blue outfit and boots?

Oh yeah, also while in Milan, one of the angels who saves the day was “dressed in a British flag, wearing 2 and ½ feet thigh high red kinky boots.”

That’s how I knew they were red.

Timing is Everything!

Photos by Aida Zuniga So I was in Nicaragua on Wednesday soundseeing and heard a faint but distinctive grumbling coming from the belly of this volcano.

Steve sans smoke

I checked it out and smoke started to rise behind me and I figured it was time to get out of Dodge and rustle up some barbeque. Good thing I did or it might have been me on the menu.

Steve at the crater mit smoke

Steve Gladstone

The ‘alive and well’ Blind Dude

Why Does a Blind Man Visit the Grand Canyon?

Why does a blind man visit the Grand Canyon? Steve makes a point

To hear the sights of course.

I recently signed up for a tour from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon and to my delight it included non-stop narration over the 6 hour trek to the big abyss. Picked up some useful information and some pretty good food along the way (though I did not try the cactus fries).

Becoming the 48th state in 1912, most of Arizona’s land remains unspoiled; you pass through the desert dotted with cactus and head north through forests of pine, fir, and spruce trees. Large swaths of undeveloped land belong to many Native American tribes including the Navajo Nation. I was impressed to find that so much of Arizona’s reservation land remains casino free – unlike so many reservation hosted casinos around the country that give new meaning to “pay back.”

On our way to the canyon, we stopped in Sedona – a funky little town with metaphysical shops, talismans, vortexes, and celebrity vacation homes – a sort of Key West of the desert.

I’ll attempt to shrink the Grand Canyon’s long history into a short sentence: The Colorado River is a chisel that carved out the Grand Canyon over the past 6 million years, steadily cutting layer after layer of sediment into a channel that is 277 miles long, ranging in width from 4 to 18 miles with a vertical depth of more than 1 mile.

kneeling praying

The outcome is a splendid example of erosion. The immense gorge is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is visible from outer space, and boasts 5 million visitors annually. It is a wilderness of rock, light and shadow.

Bottom line: I didn’t see much.

I didn't see much.

I couldn’t see the massive wingspan of the condor, nor glimpse deer, elk, mountain lion, raven or antelope, nor any of the 2,000 varieties of plants that populate the canyon. And, of course, I missed seeing the depths below.

However, though the sights were vast, so were the sounds. I cottoned to the many languages I continuously heard floating in the air within 5 feet around me – a mashup of accents from foreign countries like Japan, Germany, France, Australia, Russia and Kansas.

I visited the eastern and southern parts of the South Rim of the canyon. The soft cool wind kept surrounding me like a garment as I moved from point to point, wearing the breeze like a linen jacket at the Desert View Watchtower and then like a spooky cape at Yaki Point. I intoned a sublime meditation at Yaki as the environs took over my body and brain.

[video width="320" height="240" mp4="http://www.insightfortheblind.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Yaki-Point.mp4"][/video]

I loved the blustering gusts at Mather Point even though I missed the sunset doing its slow dance with the vast cavern. I missed the sunrise too because I was asleep back in my hotel room.

Many visitors asked me if I felt anything awesome. I know they wanted the blind man to sense something grand. I did not want to disappoint them, so I channeled some down home Native American ideals I had just learned and waxed on about an “expansive spiritual space governed by Mother Earth and Father Sky and how we must work not ‘off’ the earth but ‘with’ the earth and how we must govern our behavior in a deep sort of way by asking how what we do to the land today will impact seven generations from now.” Some folks were mystified with my answer. So was I.

Yikes! the canyon

I felt a little bit like Kokopelli, the mythical formidable story teller and prankster who wanders around the Southwestern states playing his flute. (In full disclosure, while visiting a Navajo reservation I did buy a flute made of handcrafted birch wood, which sounds pretty nice.)

A friend looking at some of the pictures my girlfriend posted on Facebook said, “Holy c--p! Don’t look down.” I did look down but didn’t see anything. I’ll try again tomorrow.

And that’s just it – many nights after I crawl into bed, I wonder if I’ll wake up in the morning being able to see. And if that should happen, I plan on racing back to the Grand Canyon, though I might just shut my eyes when I get there.

Steve Gladstone The Blind Dude

All photos and video by Aida Zuniga

Where is There?

Today there are only about 39 million people in the world who are completely blind, which is about ½ of 1% of the world’s total population. We are not talking about visually impaired people who use corrective lenses or cock their heads this way or that to pull something into view; we are talking gold standard blind – people unable to see zip… nada, nothing.

Since 99.5% of the world’s population can see, most people never come face-to-face with a completely blind individual and consequently get no practice interacting with totally blind folks.

I used to be amazed at how inept or awkward people were around me after I lost all my sight. It’s like I had an exotic skin disease when people went to guide me. Typically they’d grab my hand or wrist and proceed to drag me along as if I was a large stuffed animal.

When I ask where the pitcher of lemonade is or where I should sit while waiting for the doctor, I’m frequently told, “Over there.” Where is there, exactly? The similar phrase, “Sit over here,” isn’t much help either. “Go that way” also isn’t a useful direction for a sightless person.

The key problem for blind people (besides not being able to see) is that most of the world isn’t blind.

The disadvantages of being sightless in a sighted world are many, most likely due to the fact that people who invent things are not blind and don’t think about building products and providing services with the blind in mind.

Even buttons to press or knobs to turn that can be helpful to sightless users are disappearing from appliances and credit card swipers. My local supermarket just replaced their keypad pay stations with touchscreens, making it impossible for me to complete the checkout process myself. Ovens, microwaves, thermostats, countless other appliances, even vending machine operational buttons and knobs have slowly been replaced with digital displays, making most of them inaccessible for sightless people. (Gotta give a shout out to Apple Inc., the exception here, for designing their goods for blind users with lots of accessibility built into their products.)

This refrigerator has a lot of options...for a sighted person.
This refrigerator has a lot of options...for a sighted person.

When I’m listening to the TV and hear, “Just call the number at the bottom of your screen for your 30 day supply and we’ll pay the shipping,” or the message says, “Just call 1-800-GOFEDEX,” you know these knuckleheads aren’t thinking of their blind customers.

Ironically, some banks do provide Braille instructions on their ATMs, but in the drive-through? Really? So, they want the operator of the vehicle to throw it into reverse and back up into the drive-through lane so that their blind passenger can reach out and touch the nicely brailed panel of instructions? Or maybe the bank execs intend this accommodation for the blind folks who are out and about on their roller blades with their guide dogs.

Braille in the drive-thru? Hmm.
Braille in the drive-thru? Hmm.

Since most people don’t have a family member or a friend who is a real-deal blind person, they get no practice with what sightless individuals consider to be the no-brainer rules of engagement: don’t grab and drag, don’t say “over there,” announce all the digits of the phone number, etc.

The other day I went to the podiatrist with a pain in my big left toe. When the receptionist (who learned I was blind when I signed in) called my name, my friend led me to the door leading to the examination rooms. I was standing there quietly in the doorway when the receptionist told me to go down the hall and enter the second door on the left. I smugly replied, “Which way?” She said, “Over there.” (cricket…cricket…) I grinned wryly and she said, “Oh, walk down that way about 20 feet (Ha! I’ll bet she was pointing too!) and take a left into the second door.” My friend realized what was happening (or not happening), offered me his elbow and led me to the examining room.

I later realized my own prejudice – I assumed medical professionals would know better. Then again, most, maybe all, of their patients aren’t blind. No practice dealing with blind folks, like the rest of the world.

I made my follow-up appointment and the receptionist announced to my friend that I needed to return in 2 weeks. Did she think I wasn’t going to tell him? Really? This is similar to the server in a restaurant who will ask my girlfriend if I would prefer the broccoli or string beans with my chicken and rice. She points to me and says, “Ask him. He’ll know.”

Curiously, when I’m speaking on the phone with somebody I’ve never met and my blindness comes up during the natural course of the conversation, they often say, “You don’t sound blind.”

I’m still not sure what sounding blind is supposed to sound like.

Steve Gladstone

The Blind Dude

Blind Is the New Sight

When you were a child, did you ever close your eyes and imagine flying like a bird, or picture what was at the end of a rainbow, or shut your eyes to make a wish while you were blowing out your birthday candles? rainbow

As adults, we take a workshop with Tony the empowerment guru who has us close our eyes and visualize where-we-want-to-be-in-five-years, or we complete our yoga class with our eyes closed as the yogi leads us on a guided meditation.

Why with our eyes closed? Can’t we get there with them open? Does sight somehow prevent us from fulfilling our wishes or reaching the higher plane of our inner-universe?

While we’re asleep our eyes are closed and those vivid dreams appear, sending meaningful messages to ourselves. Sight is turned off even with our eyes wide open via a daydream, where we are transported to the outback thousands of miles away from the boardroom.

When we listen to a book on tape or read a novel, sight isn’t a factor. Instead, the spoken and written words spark our imagination, our mind’s eye surveying the colorful images and landscapes in our head. Our imaginings can sometimes be so potent that they leave us disappointed in the movie made from the book. Perhaps what we see is trumped by what we think.

audiobook-listener

You also get more out of your other senses when you’re sightless. We may hear more of what someone says because we don’t get distracted by something we see going on around them; you tune into the tone, tempo and rhythm of what they’re saying and pick up the meaning between their words. Touch becomes more satisfying as you check out the shape, weight and texture of items (and people too if you get lucky!). Your sense of smell is heightened into a fragrant blossom when you’re not distracted by the beauty of the flower.

Certainly we all want to see, but sight does come with its limitations. It shapes our immediate thinking and can create a barrier to our deeper self. If we don’t see the fancy car they drive, or the short skirt, or the missing teeth, we may indeed become a little less timid or shy or snobbish and a little more relaxed and real with the people we meet.

If pictures were eliminated from online dating websites, what would be the outcome? Pandemonium that leads to better results?

Going on a ‘blind date’ implies risky business. Sight unseen may lead to disappointment. However, let’s face it, when you’re on that first date, you’re looking your best and on your best behavior; sight may actually be misleading if we don’t begin to get beyond that scrubbed and shining first impression. Half of all marriages wind up in divorce, usually for reasons that don’t meet the eye. When you’re blind, you focus on the voice which can be a better lens to the soul. For the record, all my dates are blind ones.

Sight can certainly promote discrimination, triggering those biases we carry in our heads when the people around us look and move differently than we do. When you’re blind, you don’t prejudge the abilities of the guy you just met in the wheelchair.

If most of the world was blind, things might be more peaceful. There’d be less discrimination since color of skin wouldn’t trigger aggressive actions. War would be reduced and possibly eliminated since we wouldn’t be able to see the enemy, or at least take accurate aim.

Perhaps the world would be a little less hostile if we all were a little more blind.

When you do without sight, there are plenty of advantages. Everybody speaking on the phone is virtually blind: how convenient it is for those who have home-based businesses to strike deals while sitting in their Jockey shorts.

You save a lot of money when you’re blind. You tend to buy only what you need. You’re not tempted to grab the stuff around the checkout counter of the grocery store, or the items down the aisles of the drugstore as you head back to the pharmacy, or the attractive sweater you don’t need but have to pass by in order to get the pants which you do need.

So we dutifully and happily shut our eyes and let out a long sigh as we hunker down into our yoga mats, improving our mood, muscles and digestive systems.

The Seven Steps

Blind folks and old folks have something in common: they prefer their own bathrooms. One exception is the airplane lavatory. It’s very efficient for a blind person. Everything you need is nailed down – soap pump to the left of the sink, paper towels to the right, trash shoot below the paper towels. And all within reach.

Going out and about in public is something we all need to do from time to time, say, to take in a movie, travel to Boise or hit the pool hall. Generally, unfamiliar bathrooms can be tricky for blind folks.

First off, if you’re a blind guy out with your girlfriend or wife, which bathroom do you choose? Today, many large theaters and buildings have a family restroom. No-brainer here. In you go. But, in loo (mandatory pun!) of the family bathroom, you usually have a choice of either the men’s room or women’s room.

I have found that most men don’t care if a woman is in their restroom. However, if your female companion is wary of entering the men’s john, she’ll plant you inside the door where you promptly announce: “I’m a blind dude. Can someone guide me to the urinal?” Guys are usually happy to do so, then lead you to the sink, Johnny-on-the-spot with the paper towels, and then offer a helping hand to the exit.

I actually prefer entering the women’s bathroom with my girlfriend – it’s easier to navigate when you’re with somebody familiar. Of course, there are times when a lady inside the restroom protests my presence there. To stem the ‘outrage,’ I usually ask her where she studied Criminology and then congratulate her on recognizing me as a nefarious rascal.

Public-Bathroom

If you wind up alone in an unfamiliar restroom, say in a restaurant or office, there are seven steps to follow before you get down to business: you must first locate 1) the toilet, 2) the flusher, 3) the toilet paper, 4) the sink, 5) the soap, 6) the paper towels and 7) the trashcan. (Oops – the eighth step is remembering your way out.) If you’re in a hotel room, add the bath towels, the floor mat, the shampoo and then work your way to the bed, the thermostat, outlets for your adaptors, the room phone, the TV remote on/off and volume/channel buttons, the do-not-disturb sign and where to unplug the clock radio which was set to go off at 4:30 a.m. by the previous guest.

Flushers keep it interesting. In the airplane lav, the 4-inch square flush panel is a relatively easy target to tap with the toe of your sneaker while you’re washing up. The joystick or handle flushers on your standard commodes are a matter of which side their situated on. The newer toilets with the push buttons are a little trickier – especially when there’s two buttons.

Automatic flushers can be problematic. While standing in relief mode, you search for the flush handle with your other hand. Finding none, you back away hoping to hear that familiar ‘click-whoosh’ sound. Similarly, the auto sink and soap dispenser can be a bit frustrating, especially when one doesn’t work or you can’t find the sweet spot for engaging the auto-response mechanism. (I am told this often isn’t easy even for sighted folks.) You cup your hands under the water spigot. Nothing. So you search for the water handles or push on the soap nozzle, and nothing. You unwittingly repeat this process several times – similar to the way you retrace the same steps 18 times at home when you can’t find your wallet or keys. Finally, it dawns on you to work your way to the next sink where you repeat the dance and hopefully wash up. You also figure out it’s an automatic towel dispenser as a little paper towel finally comes buzzing out after frisking the entire metal box for its nonexistent lever.

urinals

Of course, none of these strategies are perfect. Once, I was in a high school bathroom and (as I always do) first measured the target urinal to center myself for optimum aim. Starting with my palms together about waist high, I slowly widen them until the backs of my hands touch the outer edges of the porcelain. This helps to measure the width of the urinal for proper centering. As I was emptying my bladder, I slightly moved my feet and heard the faint splashing of a shallow puddle of water beneath my sneakers. Yep. I had positioned myself in front of the wall between two urinals.

Steve Gladstone, The Blind Dude

I am Orange

Here’s how a certain color, orange in particular, manifests itself in the brain of the blind dude…as a poem. I Am Orange

I am orange. Not an orange, though I like the way it tastes.

I am the blossom of clouds on the horizon at sunset and the first beam of sunlight blessing the morning.

I am the sun passing from portal to portal, dividing the sky and defining time.

I pull the best from the colors that flank me: the romance out of red and the risk out of yellow.

I am the complexion of fire, warming as much as possible, burning when I need to burn.

I am the thoughts of a newborn child who has yet to know language, with little to mediate his surroundings, longing to know his world.

Halloween runs through my veins and keeps me in a nice dark place where I can get a thrill, a chill and a shrill, reminding me that dark isn't deadly.

On those rare days when all’s well – the weather is a breezy 72 degrees, everyone is helpful and friendly, two old problems are solved and the bills are paid – orange is what I am.

Missing Color

There are certain things you miss after seeing perfectly well and then becoming totally blind. It goes without saying that your children’s faces are at the top of the list. Certainly watching football and looking at a beautiful woman make the grade. Reading labels on cans and washing instructions on clothing are also included on this unusual roster. But color is a very special and peculiar line item on that daunting list of things you miss.

I remember being in my late 20s and catching a shot of vivid blue in the bottom corner of my right eye. It was both shocking and wonderful – shocking because it had jolted me into realizing that I had not been seeing color for quite some time, and wonderful to see some color again. Though I hadn’t been seeing color for years, it strangely never entered my conscious mind that I had lost it.

Losing color is something entirely different from losing vision. Curiously, colors continue to paint the walls of your memory long after they have disappeared from your sight. I remember vibrant reds, crisp greens and brilliant blues. I still recall the pastels of pinks, oranges and yellows evaporating into the horizon of the setting Key West sun.

As a child, I lived in Coral Gables, down the street from a fellow named Anthony Abraham. Mr. Abraham owned a huge Chevrolet dealership and had one of the biggest houses in the neighborhood, complete with a sprawling manicured garden. Every Christmas season, his house and garden was adorned with soft blue bulbs, a life-size animated Santa, flying reindeer, a singing choir and, most vividly, a huge tree strung with brilliantly multi-colored blinking lights.

Between every Thanksgiving and January 1st, This twinkling display (and also another large, beautifully lit house across the way, no doubt keeping the Abrahams on their holiday lighting toes), turned my otherwise sleepy little neighborhood street into a bustling highway with cars rumbling toward and away from the magnificent glittering tree that people from several counties away would drive to see. I recall lying in bed, wearing my Dr. Denton pajamas and watching the jalousie glass of my bedroom window flair up with bursts of white light as the headlamps of cars moved down and up my street.

As the evening wore on toward midnight and the traffic subsided, I would take just a few steps down the walkway from my front door, cross the swale into the street, and my eyes would fill up with the sparkling colors of this fairy-bush. Pure magic.

Happy Holidays!

Steve Gladstone

 

Sight Becomes Imagination

laurel-and-hardy.jpg

Sighted people who read a novel are essentially blind. They don’t see the actual characters they’re reading about. They are also blind when they listen to the radio. However, the words they read or hear may trigger vivid pictures in their head.

As they read, sighted folks will unconsciously cast the good guy, the bad guy and the girl with specific features and expressions (especially from those sexy passages) based on previous images stored in their memory banks.

People, color, places and things come alive in our minds; we mentally assemble a person or animal or bus or autumn tree or white picket fence as our unconscious pulls from our stockpiled memories.

Of course, the imagined characters in your head don’t match the real ones. You go to see the movie adapted from the novel and say, “Yikes! I didn’t picture Portnoy looking like that!” Or you hear the jazz musician’s deep raspy voice on the radio and conjure up a large, big-cheeked bald headed dude and then see him on some late night talk show a month later and he’s a little man with brown curly hair and narrow eyes.

At times, imagination can be more satisfying than the real thing.

Perhaps you’ve been speaking to a business associate for months on the phone and when you finally meet for the first time, the nice smile you imagined is loaded with bad teeth or the long skinny fingers you pictured suddenly become fat clammy hands.

Having now lived the first half of my life sighted and the second half as a blind man, I often reflect on the transition from being sighted to being blind – what I saw and didn’t see during those transition years. When you gradually go blind, there is that grey period when you wonder if you saw things or if it was, as the song says, “just my imagination running away with me.”

Since imagination and the real world are two different places, in which world was I living? And which had the better view?

That five year period of time when I was losing the remainder of my sight started around the release of the first Star Wars movie. I still wonder if it was in my eyes or my imagination where I first saw C-3PO and R2-D2. In my recollection is a tall metallic guy next to an industrial looking vacuum cleaner, the sci-fi equivalent of Laurel and Hardy.

R2D2andC3PO

courtesy of redlist.com

So now my day-to-day world is pretty much like a big radio that’s always on – disembodied people becoming three-dimensional in my head. I speak with somebody and their voice takes physical shape – my imagined image often quite a bit more colorful than the actuality. I recall working with Donna many years ago. She had a rough voice and smelled of cigarettes and drove our service truck. Yep, now you’ve got the picture. So when she gave me her smooth and petite hand to shake one day, I was flummoxed – she instantly transformed from someone with half a Y chromosome into a princess in distress.

Even though the reality doesn’t match the imagination, I often find people expecting me to be spot on when describing some person I just met, as if they are in the presence of a sorcerer. I must admit, I have resorted to artifice at times, asking a friend to secretly describe the new person to me first so when I’m later asked to give their description, I nail it and amaze the chumps gathered around to hear me wax on like some wizard.

Heck, even in college when I couldn’t see so well, I’d ask a pal for the specifications of the coed I was chatting up so that at the opportune time, I could tell her what she looked like, Impress her with my paranormal powers, and maybe get lucky.

So while you sighted folks read your novels, we blind guys listen to our talking books and converge on our imaginations, where sight has no advantage for either of us.

 

This Ability

You read it right: this ability. What I can’t do is see.

What I can do is act, write, sing, dance, tell jokes (my best virtue), run a business, listen, observe human behavior, give guidance to my adult children, love, shop for groceries, and water my plants. I can also clean my house (but avoid doing that as much as possible).

I’ve found that most of the world sees my disability first – blindness trumps all my other abilities until people get familiar with me. And then something curious happens – they forget I’m blind.

Often a pal will walk away from me when we’re out and about. We stop to put our plastic bags in the recycling bin in front of the supermarket and my pal takes off without me. Funny stuff. I simply call out, “Hey, did you forget something?”

I’ve always found it curious that folks in our society create an instant opinion of others based on skin color, gender, disability…hey, even clothing, before the first words are uttered between the two parties.

Years ago, when I was selling consumer electronics, an unshaven customer walked into my shop wearing cut-off jeans, flip-flops and a torn sweatshirt. All my salespeople ignored him until he asked for some help. I immediately gave him my full attention. An hour later he was out the door with a $4500 stereo system. Turns out he was an attorney, satisfying his inner slacker on his day off. My sales guys were miffed.

I suppose it’s our nature to judge folks before we get to know them. Must be in our DNA. Where disability is concerned, the ruling seems to be if one part of you is broken, the rest of you must be broken too.

It has occurred to me that Franklin D. Roosevelt might not ever have been elected President if TV sets were abundant in the 1930s. People seeing a man in a wheelchair might have had serious doubts that he could lead this country out of the Great Depression or be a strong Commander-in-Chief as we entered World War II.

Imagine seeing a woman in a wheelchair and instantly becoming interested in her skills rather than her method of ambulating. And then maybe also finding out that she plays basketball and is a med student too. It’s about what we can do, not what we can’t do. It’s about this ability.

By the way, I now only give guidance to my grown children when they ask for it. Unsolicited advice from anyone is unwanted, especially from blind fathers with this ability.

Inclusion

Cast Photographs by Mitchell Zachs Photo of Geordi La Forge courtesy of www.stagefisher.com

I think about the crew of the starship Enterprise – Asian, African, Russian, Scottish, Vulcan, American – and the perhaps elegantly unintentional message it sent: Diversity can run one of the most powerful starships in the universe.

Then I recalled a Star Trek episode with the paralyzed Captain Pike – dependent on a brainwave-operated wheelchair. And in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there’s blind Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, with a super-bad visor that allows him to see.

Geordi La Forge

The series got it right. Ability is what counts, not race, nationality, gender, age or disability.

That was the 23rd century. Fast backward to the 13th century.

The year is 1236 AD and the place is Cordoba, Spain. Christians, Muslims and Jews have been living in this town for hundreds of years, coexisting peacefully, tolerant, respectful and appreciative of their differences.

Water cast

This medieval world is illuminated in a new play, Everybody Drinks the Same Water, having its premier at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores. It is historical fiction centered in Cordoba, “The Ornament of the World.” There are aqueducts (built by the Romans) bringing clean water into public baths, fountains and homes. Serious advancement is occurring in philosophy, medicine, architecture, science and law by the multi-racial and multi-cultural inhabitants of this progressive medieval city.

Qadi and Fatima close up

The terribly handsome guy in the turban is yours truly, playing the Qadi, a Muslim judge. The Qadi is also blind. Kudos to artistic director Stephanie Ansin for creating such diverse characters and casting diverse actors to play these roles.

As a performer with a disability, I’m abundantly aware of the lack of characters with disabilities on our stages and big and small screens. For example, there is a massive gap between the 13% of Americans with an obvious disability, and the less than 1% of prime time disabled series regulars on broadcast TV.

The crazy next-door neighbor, the DNA expert, the girlfriend, the eccentric grandpa, the guy eating beef stew, the lawyer, and the hundreds of other roles that are being cast every day around this country, don’t specify a disability. But they could be played as a character with a disability since there are many disabled folks who are these people in the real world.

A major problem is that the mindset of most story-makers is that if a character with a disability is featured, the story must somehow be about their impairment. Not! The most interesting stuff happens when there is no attention paid to the disability and the dialogue remains focused on the character. Once the focus is taken off the disability, the character is no longer a super hero or victim, but a fully realized being, with an extra dimension.

What is cool in our play is that there is no reference to my character being blind. He is a central Muslim figure in a city of 500,000 people, going toe to toe with the new Christian ruler, Queen Berenguela.

I perambulate around a movable rectangular platform that sits atop the stage. It is also positioned on a 30 degree angle. Many directors would be leery about having a blind actor on this surface. Not Stephanie. She is focused entirely on the total character. She gets it right.

Inclusion, diversity and tolerance – that’s the way of the world. And our theaters, films, television and other media serve us well when the people on the stage and screen look and sound like the people who are watching the show.