Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Bruce Atchison: Being a Visually-Impaired Writer

Interview with Bruce Atchison: Being a Visually-Impaired Writer

Sigrid Macdonald: What kind of special challenges do you face as a visually-impaired writer?

Bruce Atchison: Writing is intensively visual and the procedure of composing a manuscript is oriented toward people with sight. In my case, I can't just pick up a style guide or magazine and read it since I'm almost blind. This also rules out using computers unless they are equipped with screen-reading software that converts the text on the screen to synthetic speech. Totally blind writers are in a worse
bind than I am since I have enough vision to use a magnifier. Imagine how lost you'd be if PCs and Macs had no monitors. Because I can't drive, writerly activities such as doing book signings and readings are out of the question. I personally can't tolerate noise so I moved out to a small hamlet where it's much easier for
me to focus on the synthetic voice from my computer. Because I need isolation to stay sane, I can only promote my writing online or at the local level.

Sigrid Macdonald: That must be very frustrating. Kudos to you for persisting. Are these challenges mainly technical in terms of navigating in Microsoft Word or on the Internet? Or do you also have difficulty describing things if you can't quite see them anymore, or have never seen them clearly?

Bruce Atchison: Though talking computers and the Internet help with writing and research, many programs cause problems with my screen reading software. WordPerfect 12 is one which I can't use because the program clashes with my screen reader. Furthermore, sighted writers can just click on icons but I need to learn keyboard commands, such as Alt F4, to accomplish the same things. Some programs are only accessible with icons so I can't use them. For example, I bought a CD-ROM of a study Bible but I could only access some of its features. Installing printer programs is especially frustrating as my screen reader can't speak the graphic text displayed on the monitor. Fortunately, I have enough sight in my right eye to use a powerful magnifying glass. Even so, it's a real pain to read like that and I really shouldn't be straining what little vision I have lest I lose it. The same happens with graphics-laden sites.

Then there's the problem of homonyms. Words like "berth" and "birth" sound exactly alike. Describing some aspects of scenes is difficult too. Since I've never seen clearly, I don't know what an "oily expression" or similar descriptions look like. I'm tempted to write a short story where the protagonist describes things in terms of blurs and smears instead of the usual visual descriptions. This may give those blessed with good sight an idea of what visually-disabled folks experience. One example of explaining how I see was when I once told a woman that I had trouble walking down her wooden steps because I couldn't tell what was a step and what was a crack. She immediately understood what I meant.

Sigrid Macdonald: I'd love to read a book that described the way you see the world; it would really raise awareness. Tell me about your first book on Jericho. Why did you write it and what would you like the reader to understand about it?

Bruce Atchison: My first book was actually When a Man Loves a Rabbit (Learning and Living With Bunnies),a memoir of my experiences living with house rabbits. I wrote Deliverance From Jericho(Six Years in a Blind School)because the friends who I told about my childhood experiences were astonished that I had to be sent so far from home to attend school. I did go to public school locally first but some government official decided I'd be better off "with my own kind." Though I described the heartbreak of being far from home and all I loved, I also included vignettes of what life was like in that institution. Some of them were outrageous but others were quite hilarious.

I've recently published a blog post at called "The Toilet Paper Caper." It's about the time I learned that soggy toilet paper would stick to the ceiling if it was well-packed and thrown there. I also wrote in Deliverance from Jericho of the effect that the government-run school had on me. Being isolated at that institution made it hard for me to reintegrate into society but I've done rather well. I graduated from public junior high and high school with fairly good marks, though I didn't matriculate.

Sigrid Macdonald: Luckily, we've come a long way since young children like you were sent so far away from home. You must've been so homesick and frightened. What a terrible thing to do to a child, but of course the government thought that they were acting in your best interest. Bruce, is there anything else that you'd like to tell readers?

Bruce Atchison: Though When a Man Loves a Rabbit(Learning and Living With Bunnies) was a reasonably light-hearted and entertaining book, I feel that Deliverance From Jericho (Six Years in a Blind School)has a very important message. Children have a natural longing to be home with their biological parents. Even those who were adopted, like my half sister, feel the pull to be with their real mom and dad. Social engineering schemes such as Jericho Hill School for the Deaf and Blind ignored these factors and kept us apart from society. Had I owned a magnifying glass and monocular (an optical device for reading the blackboard), I could have gone all the way through public school. Institutions also tend to increase the risk of sexual abuse. Jericho was closed in 1998 when 350 deaf students and alumni won a class action suit against the British Columbia government. We blind kids didn't suffer any overt sexual abuse but a gym teacher was fired for playing a lewd game with us.

My hope is that my memoir of those years will encourage parents of disabled children to keep them at home and teach them how to live independently. I was so pathetic when I left Jericho that I didn't even know how to catch a bus or cross a busy street. Nobody there taught us those essential skills that public school students learn early on. If any of your readers are interested in finding out more about me and my books, they can go to the site, e-mail me at, or check out my page. I post updates there on my upcoming How I Was Razed memoir, the story of my involvement with a cult church, and on other writing activities.

Sigrid Macdonald: Yes, those institutions were rife with sexual and emotional abuse. I'm glad that you didn't have to endure that, but it's shocking that you weren't taught any life skills there or that you could have gone to public school with a magnifier! I'm sure that readers will learn quite a bit about life at the blind school, as well as your love for bunnies, in your writing. Bruce, thanks so much for illuminating us on your books and what it's like to be a writer with a visual impairment.

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