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.

Flashback Friday: Prologue

Original Post Date:

18 May, 2009

I walk into a store and someone screams, two people “aww” as I go past, a sales person rushes to ask if I need assistance, and I snap “leave it” at the cause of all the trouble—Prada, my German Shepherd, quickly pulls her curious little nose away from the folded fleece jacket on the display table she’d chanced to investigate.

This is a typical shopping trip for me. Yes, I’m one of those people that take their dogs everywhere. No, she’s not a purse pooch. German Shepherds, as most people know, are big enough to cause a stir. The difference between me and the average pet parent is that I’m legally blind and Prada is my Seeing Eye Dog.

I was born about 75% blind, and used a cane throughout most of high school and my first year of college. But after a year of the cane end catching on every sidewalk crack and broken brick of campus, I’d had enough. If the tip jams, the other end sticks straight up into my stomach. By the end of my first semester  I had a permanent bruise and a burning desire for a guide dog.

My fantastic mom did the research while I suffered through fall semester finals, and during Spring Break I toured The Seeing Eye, the oldest civilian service dog school in the world. I talked to graduates and trainers at the school, toured the facilities, and took Juno Walks. Here, a trainer takes on the role of Dog and holds onto the dog end of the harness while I hold the human end. The trainer, taking on the persona of Juno, a generic guide dog, gives the student a safe demonstration of what it feels like, without risk that the student will confuse the dog because of their own lack of training. It was a strange experience, but I could feel my heart lifting.

Then I spent one glorious, ineffable afternoon walking around downtown Morriston, NJ, with a lovely German Shepherd steering me expertly around obstacles and delicately navigating complicated intersections. With a trainer on hand to ensure Prada and I didn’t get into trouble, we cruised around outdoor café furniture, bike racks, and people, and I never once worried I’d step out in front of a moving vehicle.

I can’t describe what it was like, that first walk. Being able to look somewhere other than the sidewalk, feeling like a partner rather than a child hanging onto an adult’s coat-tails…More than 10 years later and my eyes still well up as I relive that experience.

So now you begin to catch up to me. At this point in the story I’m breathlessly awaiting May 23rd, the day I’ll travel to New Jersey and begin a journey of independence I could only dream about.

P.S. Check out this new novella in the Royal Investigative Service series by my co-author Galadriel Coffeen! Magical Mechanics Or How a Fairy Found His Place

Welcome to the Dark Side

“I’m like Daredevil, only prettier.”

Anneliese and Greta work down a neighborhood street without sidewalk.
Anneliese works Greta along a neighborhood street without sidewalk.

I like introducing myself this way because it instantly breaks the awkward ice that forms over conversations when people suddenly realize I’m blind. You’d be surprised how long it takes some people sometimes. Even with a harnessed German shepherd, dark sunglasses, and sometimes my white cane, I have to convince people I’m not just training the dog. I really am blind.

Blind and visually impaired adults make up more than 10% of the United States population. It’s not unthinkable that you’ve never met someone who can’t see. But as the rate of disability diagnosis outstrips the rate of newly pioneered vision-restoring medical procedures, as we continue to find more and more uses for service dogs, I think it very important we stretch our common knowledge to encompass the experience and perspectives of these demographics.

So, I invite you, through this blog, to come take a look on the dark side. See what it’s like to live and work, struggle and play, love and learn with a service dog. Look through my eyes as best you can, and I’ll show your life without sight, but with lots of vision. In this blog I will:

  • Discuss service dog user rights and restrictions
  • Describe daily life experiences with a four-footed companion
  • Share my adventures as a blind American woman tackling the 21st century
  • Drift into mental health topics, because I’m a therapist and can’t help myself
  • Challenge perceptions and perspectives on the concept of “disability.”
  • Obsessively update you on the fantasy novels I’m writing

First, disclaimers.

1.        Yes, I’m a therapist. No, I do not offer consultations. This site IS NOT HIPAA compliant, so please do not send me personal medical or mental health information. Also, if you’re in crisis, please contact 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency room.

2.        This is the 2nd time I’ve attempted to re-launch this blog. There will be annotations and crazy verb tense disagreements. Grammar Nazis, I offer you a chance to practice the fine art of letting go.

Now a little history

I was born about 75% blind, from a rare genetic disorder. I’ve steadily lost about 20% of the vision I started with, and gained a n ever-sharpening perspective on who I am, and who I want to be. I hope the optimism comes through in my writing. I began this blog as a sort of newsletter for family and friends interested in my journey to get a service dog, but today it’s become part of how I enter the world as a disabled woman in America.

I’ve got lots of ideas for new content, interesting questions, and some amazing opportunities to learn that I want to share with you. I’ll be posting new content every Wednesday. On Flashback Fridays you can expect annotated and updated re-posts of the original content from the old blog, From Four Eyes to Four Legs. I don’t know if I can keep up this twice-weekly pace, but I like a challenge now that I no longer fear imperfection.

This re-launch announcement will count as this week’s new content. You can expect a re-posting of my very first blog post this Friday. Annotations will be in bold so you can distinguish the voice of 19-year-old Anneliese from that of 30-year-old Anneliese.

My current service dog, a lovely little German Shepherd named Greta, is having some mental health issues. Our working relationship is a little rocky, and I’ve been discouraged about this for a while. When the idea hit to re-launch this blog and turn it into a full website I went back to look at the original blog to see if there was salvageable content. I found that revisiting my unstained eagerness from that very first post forward extremely uplifting, and empowering. I could physically feel that joy and anticipation The writing wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared, too. This, I feel, is akin to re-reading old journal entries, a method of reliving powerfully positive and inspirational experiences that have a measurable impact on our mental health. It’s one of the many reasons that journaling is the #1 therapist-recommended intervention.

So, take my hand and let the blind guide you through the past and into the hazy future. If you can’t see what’s ahead, than it can hold whatever you imagine. Welcome to the dark side.