Cathy Kudlick and Georgina Kleege recorded an interview together at StoryCorps San Francisco on August 21, 2014.
This is the second of two parts. Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On the power of the Bay Area disability community
Georgina: I was excited to be coming to the University of Berkeley, but I was also excited to be coming to the kind of, you know, the birthplace of disability rights, as it’s often described and this incredible Mecca for disabled people and I remember two events that kind of clinched it for me, in that regard and one was a conversation with, the writer, and the mutual friend of ours, Anne Finger who lives in the Bay Area…I was asking her what it’s like to live in the Bay Area and she said, “Well you know, Georgina, when you walk into the supermarket you’re not the only disabled person they’ve ever seen”…so the sort of freak out factor is minimized… it makes a difference. It makes life pleasurable and just, ya know, eh, kind of easier, effortless. People have more of a sense of humor. There isn’t-
Georgina: That, that kind of awful moment when you walk into a space and you know, you’re a blind person, you can’t see the looks on their faces, but you can hear that sort of [GASP]…
Cathy: [LAUGH] Yeah.
Georgina: “Oh no! What do I do? Who let her in here?”
Cathy: And I’ve often wondered how we capture that for the broader world. This, this greatness of everybody, all these people moving in different ways, talking in different ways, seeing in different ways. And it’s just – – it’s very fun to have that sense of community and I don’t think there’s many other places where you can have that.
Cathy: I mean, on any given night, I could call up four people and say, hey, I wanna go to the movies with my friends that, you know, and laugh at a cripple movie. Or, you know, we joke about words like cripple or whatever, you know, kind of like, you know, gay people use words like queer, or whatever, but you know, we go see a crip movie…and we get to just joke about it and have this shared sort of community, which is so powerful.
Cathy: …there’s a great sense of solidarity being [a] critical mass.
On passing and blind expertise
Georgina: …another thing that I’m sort of promoting is the idea of blind expertise. I mean, you, you and I know a lot about what it means to be blind.
Georgina: We also know a lot about what it means to be sighted because we’re at the margins of sighted world. We know how visual culture has traditionally excluded us.
Cathy: Well, there’s that great line in a section in your first book, Sight Unseen, where you say, “You know, I’m much better at playing a sighted person than any sighted person is at playing a blind person.” I’ve had to pass. I’ve had to, you know…
Georgina: I can do a really good job…I don’t think I can do it as well as I used to, but it’s not that hard and sighted people are not necessarily the most observant in the world. [LAUGH]. So, yeah, the point is that, you know, we have a lot of knowledge about this experience.
Georgina: And we can pass that on to other people and that people don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The wheel’s been invented, it’s been rolling along.
Georgina: And so, and my advice to anybody who’s recently acquired a visual impairment, is to find yourself another blind person and ask them how they do the things you wanna do… and that you don’t necessarily need to rely on the experts if they’re not giving you the answers that you want.
Cathy: … yeah, that’s absolutely true.
On giving advice to a young Georgina and other youth with visual impairments
Cathy: What would you want that little Georgina to know, and by extension all sorts of other people that might be starting to come up through the ranks with their visual impairments of their own?
Georgina: I would say that it’s okay to be blind. You don’t have to be ashamed of it, you don’t have to deny it. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not just so that people will accept you. And I, you know, I would say, go ahead and be demanding about it. Because one of the things that happens when you’re a kid, which I think is, is less likely to happen if you lose vision later in life, though it, it can still happen is that you get lot of advice from people who you’ve called the rehab ladies…
Georgina: … of the world.
Cathy: You might explain.
Georgina: Well it is people who work in the social services for the blind and visually impaired…it includes sort of educators and rehabilitation specialists and I’m not I don’t wanna be nasty about the whole profession, but I had bad experiences. You have bad experiences with people who on the surface seemed very nice but, kind of, get a little mean if you don’t…conform to their ideas of what you should be doing.
But one of the things I learned and I think I started to learn it in high school and it sort of gradually became more and more something that I had to do is that, you know, you have to stand up for yourself and say, “What you’re telling me to do isn’t working.” So for instance, when I was a child, and this was in the late 60’s, the special education orthodoxy was that, visually impaired students who had some residual vision should use it to read enlarged print. Braille instruction was being sort of, withheld, deemed, you know, a technology of the past and it was being replaced now in the modern late twentieth century. And for me you know I, I can read print if it’s really, really large and I have magnification and I have my nose brushing against the page but what I learned much later in life is that’s not reading. Reading is not just a matter of identifying letter by letter… and doing that gave me headaches and vertigo. I can’t tell you how many times I blacked out…so I had to sort of fight to get other ways of doing it, (i.e., oral reading recorded text and now text to speech technology and computers). And so when I argued with my rehabilitation specialist…they doubted me because the textbook said, you know, this person with this kind of visual acuity should do things this way.
Cathy: Mm-hm, yeah.
Georgina: And you know, so it was a real education to say, “No, you know, I’m inside this body and I [LAUGH], I’m here to tell you this isn’t working.” Because if I had succumbed to those pressures, I don’t know that I might have finished high school. I don’t know that I would have finished college.
I don’t think I could have done it. And you know that speaks to the fact of kind of diminished expectations among rehabilitation specialists for you know, a lot of the people that they serve…there’s sort of, like, a ceiling that they expect…people will achieve at this level and that could be really, really dangerous.
Cathy: I also think it’s limited imagination.
On the ADA and web accessibility
Georgina: [The ADA], it’s 25 years old. There are a lot of regulations, guidelines…about how to make your website accessible, how to produce text in electronic formats that are accessible to the technologies that blind people use and yet, you know, you still encounter, things that don’t work, that aren’t accessible…in the past I think it was possible to perceive these things as just sort of an oversight. People didn’t know. It was a kind of benign ignorance of laws and guidelines, but nowadays…I mean, it’s been 25 years. Now I can only think of it as deliberate discrimination.
Georgina: Right? I mean, I don’t know how else to, to perceive it and…that makes me angry. Why do they wanna keep us out? What are they afraid of? You know, what are they afraid that we’re gonna do if we have equal access to information?
Georgina Kleege is a novelist, essayist, and translator. She specializes in creative nonfiction, disability autobiography, and blindness and visual art. She teaches courses in creative writing and disability studies. Dr. Kleege is Assistant Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley, CA.
Video of Georgina Kleege about her writing process for Berkeley Writers at Work series
Books by Georgina Kleege
Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller
Catherine J. Kudlick is the Director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and Professor of History
Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
Disability Remix blog: http://longmoreinstitute.wordpress.com