Guest Post: Challenge Accepted!

As promised, I’ve got a special post for you lovely people, a guest post!

A friend of mine recently suggested we do a blog swap, where we post on each other’s blogs. You can check my article on how trust can improve productivity here. And here on the dark side I’d like to introduce to you Austen Jeans, creator of Focus Weekly. This is where Austen shares productivity and self-improvement tips and tricks.

I challenged Austen to pick a familiar task and do it while blindfolded, then write about his experiences. My one stipulation was that it had to be something he could do SAFELY, and he chose a great one. Read all about his experiment below.

Intro:

Being fully sighted, I am unfamiliar with articles on the subject of visual impairment. However, your usual host has kindly lent me this space and challenged me to discuss my brief experience without sight. For this challenge, I decided to try a task I was familiar with, playing the guitar. I’ve been playing the guitar for some years now, some might even say I’ve become fairly good at it. However, to make this interesting I tried playing fully blindfolded. And although a blindfold doesn’t even come close to the reality of living without the full use of sight, here’s my experience and what I learned about the perspective of those who are visually impaired:

Relying on Muscle Memory:

I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but during this challenge, I discovered how big of a role muscle memory plays in our ability to navigate our daily lives.

I’m pretty sure everyone knows what muscle memory is but just in case, here’s a quick definition: When searched on Google, the official meaning of muscle memory is: 

“The ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.”

Many attribute the ability to retain the knowledge of certain movements to the muscles themselves. However, a study conducted by Malene Lindholm of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm proved that our muscle tissue does not retain the “memory” of our previous repetitive actions. In fact, according to biopsies taken during this study both the “trained” and “untrained” muscles appeared to have the same physiology. Instead, the information we retain about activities we do is stored in our brain, not our muscles.

Naturally, over many years we build up a large number of neural pathways that help us take “mental shortcuts”. So then, how does muscle memory affect our day to day lives? When I took away my sight I found myself trying to find notes on the fretboard using the feel of my guitar’s neck. I relied on determining where my fingers were based on my familiarity with the guitar. You can find examples of muscle memory everywhere. It’s the reason we can walk without thinking about it and is a huge factor for navigating the world.

The Importance of Sound:

The other sense I heavily relied on was sound. Using my Echoic memory (the sensory memory bank that registers specifics to auditory information/sounds), I found that I could relate my position on the fretboard based on the pitch of the notes I played. For example, if I was aiming for the middle of the fretboard and played a note with a higher pitch I would know where I was and in the same way, where I had to go.

This got me thinking, not only could sound be related to place but also time and character. For example, when we hear crickets chirping we know that it’s starting to get late. And when we listen to the tone of someone’s voice we can immediately judge their character. If someone was talking to you in a normal and calming way you probably wouldn’t think anything of it. But when someone yells at you in an angry and thunderous fashion, you immediately acknowledge that they are mad and potentially start to feel that way yourself.

My Reflections on How the World Changed For Me Without Sight:

Although I could never hope to talk about what it’s really like to live without the full use of sight, I am hoping to convey what I thought about how it feels. Certainly, a lack of sight would make a lot of common tasks seem impossible which is why I commend each and every person who lives without it. The main thing I picked up on during this challenge was how important the use of other senses become. I found myself relying on muscle memory, touch, and sound far more than usual. 

Thanks to this experience I now realise how much I take mindfulness of my senses for granted. Anyone who lives with a disability of any kind is 100 times stronger than anyone else. I hope I can encourage each and every one of you to go after your dreams no matter where you come from, how old you are, and how wild your dreams may seem now. Just know you can achieve absolutely anything you set your mind to.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I hope you enjoyed it.

I also hope you enjoyed reading about Austen’s trip to the dark side. What I loved most about his post is how he focused on what he could still do, and do very well, rather than on how worrying, frightening, or restricting it was to temporarily lose his sight. He really highlighted competence, rather than isolating awe or amazed pity.

I’d like to issue the same challenge to each one of you. Find something you enjoy doing, feel pretty confident about, and can do SAFELY with a blindfold on. Write about your experience and send it to me and you can try your hand at being a blindfluencer, too!

Weapon of Choice

For those of you who saw my sneak-peak on Twitter and Facebook, let me just state for the record that my new hobby is NOT axe-murder.

It is, however, axe-throwing. Like, throwing an axe at a target. A plywood target, not a human target.

No humans were harmed in the making of this post.

I’m no stranger to recreational violence. I write great fight-scenes in my novels (first one to be published this December!), I’m a martial artist, and I’ve even dabbled a bit with different kinds of swordsmanship. I shot BB guns and compound bows at summer camps, and I wasn’t half bad at either.



On the left stands a hispanic-looking man in a green 1700s style naval uniform, with blue magic glowing in his upraised hand. Beside him stands a blonde woman wearing a blue chinese-style shirt and holding two short swords. They stand on a rocky shore with a ship visible in the twilight behind them. The cover is bordered with knotted rope and green geometric waves. The title and authors' names are written in bright blue block letters that match the glow of the magic.

But axe-throwing never really held much appeal for me. I avoided it as a weapon option in D&D most of the time because it just seemed like an inelegant, oafish kind of weapon. And, let’s be real here; it seems fairly obvious that I have a disadvantage when it comes to ranged weapons. I’m much better in melee.

Or am I?

Anneliese, wearing a grey v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses, stands holding her cane next to a 2x2 layered plywood target mounted on a concrete wall. An axe sticks out from the central ring painted on the target.

Full disclosure: this great shot was actually thrown by a friend of mine. I had a couple that were almost as good, but it didn’t occur to us to take this photo until near the end of our hour-long session, so she graciously lent me her victory for the sake of dramatic photography. Thanks!

But despite my inability to distinguish the target from the wall it was mounted on from 12 feet away, I am actually not a bad shot with an axe. Let’s talk about low vision, blindness, and the ability to aim.

Anneliese, in the same outfit as above, sans shades and cane, stands with an axe gripped in both hands and cocked over her head as she prepares to throw it at a target not visible in the photo.

Here you see me winding up for a throw. This is far, far more important than being able to see the target. See, your vision might help you align with the target, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual physics of throwing things. So, if you get yourself pointed in the right direction, or can hear the target, then absolutely no vision is required for good aim.

That fact, btw, is why my cousins and friends stopped playing hide-and-seek and Marco Polo with me by age 10.

I started studying various martial arts when I was about 15. I couldn’t see the instructor modeling moves, nor could I see the wall-length mirrors other students used to make micro-adjustments to their postures. But because I started practicing at a community college I discovered I could request an employee of the Disabled Student Services department to come to class and help me out.

A beautiful-souled French exchange student who did work-study through the DSS office met me at the classroom in the college gym twice a week and practiced alongside me. It turns out her brother was a champion martial artist and she herself had a background in the arts, so she was a perfect match for this class. She would describe the instructor’s movements and postures, and even gently manipulate my limbs into the right position if she couldn’t’ describe it well enough. And, once I’d felt it correctly, I could usually reproduce it pretty accurately, so I could practice at home without learning too many mistakes in the process.

Like most things, martial arts has its own language. There’s some variation between types of arts – I know probably five different versions of a double knife-hand block – but overall, once I’d learned the basics of the postures and the vocabulary, it became easy to jump into any class and start learning, with or without an assistant. Learning how to advocate for myself in a class full of strangers helped, too.

This same concept applies to axe-throwing. I did some reading in advance to learn the language, so once my friends and I showed up to the venue it was a lot easier for me to follow the combined visual-verbal instructions.

I did not use my cane or dog when I entered the facility. I linked arms with a friend and just let her guide me.

Places like Civil Axe Throwing that advertise  cool adventures and experiences come in two varieties when dealing with disabled patrons:

The Cool Type:

“Oh, you’re blind? Cool. Ok, so if we do it this other way then you should be able to jump right in and do things. This is so cool, can we get a picture for our website? Man, you’re amazing!”

They can get a little gushy and patronizing sometimes, but usually what comes through is enthusiasm for finding creative ways to make their passion- accessible to everyone. I’ve encountered a lot of companies like this.

The Un-Cool Kind

“oh, uh, let me get my manager…cause there’s liability and we’d want you to be safe…yeah, id don’t know if we can…I mean, it’s not really designed for…”

This kind of reaction is usually born out of a well-meant but hyper-vigilant concern for my safety, and trying to cover their own butts. They’re probably fearful in other parts of their lives, too. Fear doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unfortunately. But while I have a lot of sympathy for the underlying anxiety these people deal with, it’s both illogical when applied to disabled patrons and very inconvenient – and insulting.

One can argue that the host of the activity knows the activity inside and out, and is very familiar with the risks and weak-points in their infrastructure. But as familiar as they are with their job, I am far more intimately familiar with my disability. It’s something I live day in and day out, something I both make use of, enjoy, and overcome every hour of every day.

My knowledge of my disability is more often than not more thorough than someone’s knowledge of their job that they work 20-40 hours a week, and have only been working a few years. So when I say “I think we can figure this out” I’m not just being confident, or naïve. I’m not just brushing aside others’ concerns. I have 3 decades of experience figuring things out.

Making accommodations, or determining if accommodations are even possible, should be a collaborative effort. Like most humans I have a sense of self-preservation and I don’t want to get hurt. So, like everyone else, I’m very willing to accept my limitations when I reach them. 

Is there some stereotype out there that depicts disabled people so fanatically opposed to acknowledging their own limits that they’re willing to put themselves at risk just to prove they can do things? I mean, I’ve known a couple people with disabilities like that, but I’ve known far more able-bodied people like that so why pick on us?

Could it be because the able-bodied idiots are harder to identify, and also harder to control?

Denying a person with a disability the opportunity to explore their limitations the same way other people explore them means refusing to acknowledge our autonomy as individual human beings. It violates our sovereignty over our own bodies. It is patronizing, de-personalizing, and wrong, and your good intentions do not make up for that.

So, I went to Civil Axe Throwing pretending to be sighted because on that day I just didn’t feel like having this fight. I’d like to make it clear I had no reason to believe Civil axe Throwing employees would be either the Cool Kind or the Un-Cool Kind. I just didn’t want to roll the dice that day.

We lined up, got our instructions, and started taking turns throwing sharpened axes at 2×2 foot plywood targets. And let me tell you, when you hear that thunk of the axe-head burying itself in the target it is VERY satisfying. We had a great time watching and coaching each other, experimenting with angles and speed, one- and two-handed throwing techniques, and taking pictures.

Turns out that I throw with enough power I don’t need the acceleration step most throwers use. I also had a better feel for two-handed throwing than one-handed, but I’m willing to bet that with practice I could be pretty good at both.

Anneliese stands next to another axe protruding from the target. This one is not quite so near the bull’s eye as in the previous photo.

Through the martial arts I’d learned how to notice tension and slack in different muscle groups throughout my body. I learned how to sense and correct alignment issues by feeling which muscles worked harder than others, the heat of my own skin near different parts of my body, how a raised arm at different angles changes the feeling of air pressure in my ear. This is how I landed a couple good hits.

I think every blind and visually impaired person should spend a year studying a martial art, yoga, or other physical activity or sport. There are a lot that can be made accessible, and some that are even designed for the blind. But investing in learning how to sense your body and its different parts, their relationship to each other, and gaining control over them is an invaluable skillset.

If you can’t see good posture, you can feel it. If you can’t see bruises, redness or swelling, you should know what feels out-of-place in your body. Cultivating a mind-body connection will improve your self-awareness, self-confidence, knowledge of your own strengths and limitations, and generally improve your life.

Personally, I think you get the best internal education from martial arts or yoga, but swimming, dance, ice skating, biking, hiking, and other sports are great options. There’s something out there that’ll feed your interest and improve your mind-body connection, too.

We had a blast, and I’m already planning to take a couple more friends next time I go. And there will be a next time because, not only have I found new confidence in my ranged attack skills and a greater appreciation for axes in general, it turns out that the guy manning the front desk that day was one of the Cool Kind.

Anneliese stands with 3 other women all holding axes. They are positioned between two targets, and smiling at the camera. One of the women, wearing a low-effort viking costume, is her co-author, Galadriel Coffeen.

After we took the cane-and-shades photo it was time to leave. I kept my “blind person” getup on because I did want to know if I was going to have problems at this place in the future. But this way, at least I got my fun in before having to argue over my participation.

We lined up to pay, me with my cane out and everything, and the guy didn’t react at all. It was as if seeing someone with a cane in his workplace was the most natural thing in the world. Curious, I asked him about it and he said they’d had another low-vision participant, and even a one-handed thrower, and someone with no hands! The phone rang at that moment so I didn’t get a chance to ask about that last one, but at least I know now that I will probably never have to fight for common decency at Civil Axe Throwing of Huntsville.

Now, some bleeding heart is going to read this and think “wow, that was really manipulative of you, not giving him a chance to prove he was a. decent person! Shouldn’t you give everyone the benefit of the doubt?”

No. No I shouldn’t, and neither should you.

If we gave EVERYONE the benefit of the doubt we’d have to ignore our past experiences and other common-sense warnings that tell us some people are harmful. Taking this example to the extreme, it’d be ridiculous to give the benefit of the doubt to that shadowy figure who just darted behind your car in the dark parking lot. Get a store security guard to walk you out, just in case.

Having had enough bad experiences with businesses like this one I’m entitled to view them with some suspicion. It’s reasonable for me to expect to have to defend my personhood to them since I’ve had to do it repeatedly before. I can do so in a way that gives people the opportunity to prove their innocence, of course, and that’s exactly what I did.

Some days I have the energy to fight that battle up front. I walk in proudly with my cane or dog displayed and challenge peoples’ fearful responses head-on. But I’ve also learned I don’t need to tilt at every windmill. Some days I’m just tired. Some days I know I’m short-fused and wont’ be gracious as I’d like. And some days I just want to have fun!

That’s what happened this past weekend. I just wanted to have fun, so I passed on the proffered battle until I’d worked up some endorphins hurling sharp objects at a relentlessly forgiving target.

And in doing so I not only discovered a positive attitude toward people with disabilities as patrons of this business, but a total acceptance of us. No patronization, no condescension, no drooling over a PR moment. Just business as usual. This is possibly the best response I could have hoped for, and one I truly never imagined I’d receive.

I honestly can’t think of many times I’ve received this response in any context.

To be treated as totally normal, neither as a fantastic opportunity, a curiosity, or a liability, is a novel experience to me. And this, in itself, should say a lot about what life is like with a visible disability like mine.