Cosplay Canes Conquer Anxiety

Did you know cosplaying can be good for your mental health?

Half a dozen people in fantasy-style medieval costumes sit around a wooden table. Anneliese, in a long blue vest and faun antlers, is on the right, facing the camera.

As a fantasy writer I feel I finally have a legitimate excuse to spend time and money on grown-up dress-up. It’s a new hobby I’m just beginning to explore, but one that I’ve appreciated from afar for quite some time. This past summer I had the chance to meet up with a regular group of cosplayers for a themed tea party at my favorite café. It wasn’t just fun to stroll around in a jerkin and horns and make new friends, it unexpectedly provided me an unlooked-for opportunity to tackle some blindness-related insecurities.

Part of my experience as a blind person has been wondering how people perceive my physical shortcomings, like my inability to navigate around furniture without ping-ponging off the edges or my tendency to slam my shoulder into door frames on my way through. I run into people, have a hard time determining what is and isn’t a line waiting at a register, or determining if there’s space to go around a group of people in my way, or if I should just try to slip through them as subtly as anyone with a long white cane can.

I wonder if people’s frantic attempts to clear paths for me, constant apologizing when I’m the one who bumped into them, and inordinate praise for successfully performing daily tasks is compassion or condescension. Do we as a society perceive coordination as courtesy, unless provided with mitigating circumstances? What would these people think if I didn’t proclaim my excuse card by walking into every room with a reflective cane or a harnessed German shepherd?

I wasn’t thinking about any of that, though, when I decided that a leather-wrapped bamboo pole felt more period-appropriate for my costume than the graphite stick wrapped in reflective material I normally carried. I donned my jerkin, horns, leggings, and un-authentic flats (I’m on a budget), grabbed the bamboo, and headed out to the car. And literally ran into two problems right away.

#1        Wearing extra appendages such as horns, tails, or wings can render my finely tuned proprioception irrelevant. The doorframe of the car nearly took my horns off as I slid into the passenger seat.

#2        Bamboo doesn’t fold up as conveniently as my normal cane. The car was bigger than a shoebox, so we were able to fit the pole in the back seat just fine, but I began to realize this might be more complicated than I’d imagined. Would I be able to find somewhere to stow it at the coffee shop where it would be easy to grab but not trip anyone else moving around the table?

The Dragons Forge café is exactly what it sounds like, except when it comes to size. As cozy as the name might sound, it actually occupies a large, airy space in the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment building, a historic factory converted into an arts community. I had no trouble finding somewhere to put my make-shift cane during the event. But before we even made it to the café’s 2nd-floor location I ran into another problem (figuratively his time).

As my co-author and best friend Galadriel (yes, that’s her real name, check out her book here) rode the old freight elevator and walked through the wide, high-ceilinged hallways I found myself growing more and more tense. I was listening harder than normal, trying to perceive quiet conversations around me over the noisy fans trying to keep the Alabama heat at bay..

Were people cursing at me for tripping over their feet? Was that guy offended that I grazed his shoulder turning that corner? Are those ladies wondering why I apparently can’t walk in a straight line without my friend grabbing my arm every few seconds/ I realized I was just holding the bamboo stick loosely in my hand like a staff, not using it like a cane. It didn’t feel like one, so my brain hadn’t automatically put it to use. I made a conscious effort, and had to keep doing that to maintain the rhythm and angle I’d learned so well more than fifteen years ago.

We reached the café, found our group, and settled in for a fun couple of hours. We spent most of the time in character, and I learned I wasn’t the only first-timer there.  I started to relax and have a good time. It was exactly how I’d wanted to spend the day, with people who shared my interests and enjoyed new experiences and new friends. The background music made its inevitable journey from atmospheric fantasy tracks to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and it was about time I got myself a White Dragon.

I retraced the by-now familiar path to the counter, performed my usual trick of asking the air in the cashier’s general direction if there was a line, and discovered there wasn’t. By the time I finished ordering my White Dragon, a vanilla latte with almond milk, and a bowl of tavern stew, though, several people had decided I had the right idea and were loosely clustered behind me, ready to witness and judge the dreaded cash-register Exchange.

This interaction has made me anxious since my mom first physically pushed me toward a counter, sometime in middle school. She’d already tried encouragement and firm words, but recognizing that my body was locked up in fear and not wanting me to let that limit my future, she gently shoved me forward until I stood at the register. I got through handing the cashier my cash with shaking hands and a voice barely above a whisper. Though the purchase of…whatever it was back then…went smoothly, the anxiety didn’t ease for years.

But I had a cane, people could recognize why it might take me longer to fumble my way through this every-day activity. Id’ be fine. So I ordered my stew and latte, pulled out my credit card, and felt along the counter for where I knew the little card reader usually rested. I got the card in the slot, it began its usual mysterious series of beeps, and I gave the cashier a chagrined smile. “Sorry, I’m blind. I’ll need help with the touch screen.”

“oh, yeah, I can’t see anything without my glasses, either,” the cashier said. Nothing happened.

“No, seriously, I’m blind, ‘ I finally realized she hadn’t understood. “I can’t see the screen.” I went to gesture with my cane, the top of which ought to be very visible over the counter – and suddenly realized why the cashier was confused. I didn’t have my cane. I had a leather-wrapped bamboo staff that went great with my medieval Tiefling costume.

The lovely cashier and I had a good laugh over the incident, and the people behind me chuckled a little, too. But you know what? I didn’t remember that detail of the story, our communal amusement, until I sat down to write this post.

I rewrote this post three, maybe four times, trying to appropriately capture the anxiety of not having my excuse for clumsiness recognized. Let’s ignore, for just a moment, how much that need for an excuse says about my inner perfectionism, though. Instead, I’d like to show you another aspect of anxiety, how it can actually change our long-term memories.

Studies have demonstrated for decades that engaging in visualizations and daydreams stimulate the sensory processing function of the brain in the same way that actually walking on a beach or going down an endless flight of stairs would. The brain can’t tell the difference between a good daydream and a real experience. This is one of the reasons that visualizing a positive outcome to a future stressful experience can make you feel more confident. The brain thinks it’s already succeeded, so what’s left to worry about?

But it also works the other way around. If you spend a lot of time meditating on what could go wrong, on your worst fears, your brain will consider that part of reality, process it like a real experience, and attach it to other relevant stored data. So when I combined the awkward credit-card exchange with my lack of cane and my fear of others not understanding why I couldn’t function the way they did, my brain inserted mutters and whispers behind my back that never actually happened!

Something felt off when drafting this post. That’s why I kept writing it. I’ve learned to trust that instinct; it’s what’s going to give you guys a fantastic character-driven nautical fantasy novel in a few weeks. When I feel that “wrongness” I know something in my writing needs work. So I took my hands off my keyboard, went upstairs to make a fresh cup of coffee, and meditated on the experience I was trying to describe.

I found I had two conflicting reflections on my experience. I could remember the tension, the stress, the embarrassment. And I could remember laughing at myself, enjoying a communal joke with people who had their own cosplay mishaps, and being vaguely surprised that things had gone as pleasantly as they had. Knowing that I had a history of assuming the worst I could pretty easily determine that the mutterings were the false memory.

But that meant that the moment of humorous fellowship was reality.

No one had muttered or cursed or shifted impatiently or let out long sighs of frustration while I navigated the mundane obstacle course of the cash register. Not a single condescending “oh bless your heart” came out of anyone’s mouth. Instead there was friendly laughter that I initiated because I had genuinely been amused by my own forgetfulness of the familiar symbol of my cane and how much I thoughtlessly depended on it. I’d learned something interesting about myself, and others, and we’d all appreciated the uniqueness of the experience.

A lot of freshly blind people struggle with the publicity of the cane. It declares your disability for all to see, plasters “I need help” on your front and back. It can feel humiliating, especially if you’ve lived forty years with the illusion of independence that being able-bodied provides. But if you never pick up that cane you’ll never give yourself the chance to disprove all of your dreaded assumptions, all the fears fermenting in the back of your mind and actively changing how you see the world.

I don’t want to imprint false memories of rude, patronizing people into my brain when reality has the potential to be so much more fun and interesting.

I also don’t want to spend my fun cosplay outings apologizing for bumping into people, so for the sheer practicality of recognition I probably won’t try costume canes again. And being able to fold my cane makes traveling with other inconveniences like broadswords and longbows a little less frustrating. But I am grateful for both the experience I had, and the way that writing this blog post allowed me to process it. It changed me, even four months after the fact.

If you enjoyed this post then there are a couple more you should look forward to. Next month I’ll be writing more about my experience as a blind fantasy author, and the month after that I’ll be officially announcing the publication of my book. But I also have a guest post planned about disability representation in tabletop roleplaying games. And sometime in the new year I’m going to tackle the topic of long reflective canes for the blind that come in more colors than just white and red.

But for now I’d like to leave you with one final thought. If you could choose to create pleasant, or unpleasant memories, I assume you’d choose the former. So take five minutes today, pick a low-stress experience you’re not looking forward to, and try to imagine every detail of the most positive outcome possible. Like I explained in last week’s post, you can survive disappointment if the best doesn’t happen. But how it changes your anxiety into anticipation, and your perception of the real event, will be worth the time you take now to prepare.

Until next time, I am your favorite blindfluencer reminding you to always look on the dark side.

The Right to Hope

We sat in chairs arranged in a circle in a room about the size of a high school classroom. A man presided over the ring of high school students, designating the “head” of the group, with other facilitators and staff ranged around the outside of the room. I was jet-lagged, hadn’t yet converted to the way of coffee, and underwhelmed by the hype surrounding this conference. It was about to get worse.

“I’m going to ask you all a question,” said the lead facilitator. “You’ll each get a chance to answer, we’ll go ahead and start on my left and go around the circle. Ready? Ok, here goes.”

“if you could take a pill today to have your sight fully restored, would you do it?”

I was a little surprised at the number of kids who enthusiastically said “no,” they loved their blindness, their lives were pretty awesome the way they were. But I was intrigued. I didn’t hate being disabled, and it was nice to be around people who didn’t see it as unusual or pitiable. But when we got around the circle I was the only one who said “yes, I’d take that pill.”

For the next ten minutes both staff and students alike proceeded to shame me for having a bitter, unaccepting attitude toward my disability. I didn’t recognize what they were doing at the time; I argued back, and was really annoyed and disappointed that all their arguments were based on emotion, not logic. Not one of them actually disproved my points, they just kept telling me I’d be bitter someday if I didn’t change my mind.

It took me years to recognize the bullying and peer pressure that went on in that room, and others like it over the next two years. It wasn’t until this past year that I finally learned the term “toxic positivity,” where parts of reality are suppressed because, instead of empathizing with troubles, people will encourage you to death thinking positivity is the cure for pain.

So is it really any surprise that, though I became a Christian in 1993, attended church my entire life, witnessed to unbelievers, went on mission trips, taught Sunday school, lead prayer and youth ministries, and memorized over 800 separate Scriptures before I graduated high school, it never occurred to me to pray to have my sight restored?

Never once did I ask God to heal my blindness, to open my eyes. Not until 2015. It took another 3 years for me to ask someone else to pray for my sight, too.

I was taught by well-intentioned leaders in the blind community that hope for a cure ruled out the possibility of accepting one’s disability. They were presented as mutually exclusive options. They were also presented as feelings. If one felt hope, one couldn’t feel peace, contentment, acceptance. And hope would inevitably lead to disappointment, and disappointment to despair, and despair bitterness.

No wonder I joined the Dark Side

I didn’t want to be bitter. It’s a passive-aggressive attitude that harms others until they learn to distance themselves. You can’t show God’s love to others like that, and that’s what I wanted to do. So I chose acceptance and buried hope. After all, the eye specialist I saw regularly at the Oregon Health Sciences University had been telling me “we’ll have a cure in 5-20 years” for…about 20 years. There wasn’t anything concrete to set my hopes on, so I didn’t.

But one evening in July of 2015 my husband and I found ourselves having dinner with a couple who were definitely on the more charismatic side of the Catholic spectrum than I’d had any idea existed. My husband and I are Protestant, more or less evangelical in nature, and so this led to a fascinating after-dinner conversation about the nature of the Holy Spirit, faith-healing, and modern miracles.

Then these lovely people told us that they’d received a vision claiming God would begin to heal my sight soon, and they wanted to be part of that process, so would I mind if they prayed over my eyes?

What could it hurt? I thought. I said yes.

They did the whole show, laying hands over my eyes (with my permission), speaking in an unknown language (without translation), for a solid 2 minutes of intensely focused prayer. It was moving to see people so committed, so unrestrained in their hope and absolutely dedicated to wanting me to see clearly, wanting to be part of that experience.

For the record, I am actually slightly more blind now than I was on that date. No miracle happened, my condition progresses normally. I’m vaguely disappointed, but not too much so. It would have been nice, but if they’d actually performed a miracle today you might not have ever learned the term “blindfluencer,” because I made it up to describe myself. So, you’re welcome?

My husband and I talked over the experience on the drive home. At one point we pulled over and I called my parents to ask them if anyone in our family history had ever prayed over my eyes, either like that or less dramatically. They said some people had offered, early on, but that nothing came of it.

When my husband suggested we try it I dismissed the suggestion and changed the subject. It was reflexive, so smooth and instinctive that I didn’t really think about it until the next day. And then the next, and the next. I started asking myself why I’d never prayed for my sight to be restored, and the answer I kept coming to was “if it doesn’t work I’ll just be disappointed.”

So, what was so bad about disappointment? I asked my journal.

Disappointment leads to despair, despair to bitterness.

Hope and Acceptance aren’t feelings. They’re lifestyles.

Acceptance happens when I choose not to let tripping on a coffee table or embarrassing myself playing keep-away with my credit card at a cash register ruin my day or change how I view my disability. Acceptance is acknowledging when my disability is inconvenient, painful or limiting, and then choosing daily, sometimes hourly to put it in its proper place, a fraction of my life that fits into an incredibly beautiful, powerful whole. I can be frustrated with needing friends to pick me up if we’re going to hang out but still not hate my life or see myself as a burden because I’m more than blind, and blindness is more than inconvenience.

And hope? Hope isn’t a feeling either. It can be felt, but the absence of that feeling does not constitute hopelessness. I realize that I have hoped for a cure my whole life, whether I thought about it or not. I go to regular eye screenings at OHSU, I keep abreast of scientific advances that might benefit me. And in 30 years that has included mild disappointment, but not despair, and certainly not bitterness.

The equation is wrong. The path from Disappointment to bitterness isn’t inevitable. It’s just one path of many. I can survive disappointment. I know because I’ve been doing it every day of my life. Disappointment is a normal part of life, and to avoid it diminishes our capacity to accept it when it comes along. So, I learned to pray for a cure.

The first time I did it, I did it silently in my head. My heart pounded, my body coursed with adrenaline. And then I went on with my day. It happened the same way the first time I wrote a prayer for my sight in my journal. Years of fearing what change might happen to me if I gave in, physically absorbed memories of dire warnings and brow-beatings shook through my hands let out in little trickles as I took baby steps toward fully realizing my right to hope.

I have the right to hope for a cure.

I want to see 20/20 someday.

I cried the first time I asked other people to pray that prayer for me. I was wired like I’d had three cups of coffee in one sitting for the rest of that day. Nothing terrible happened that day, or in the four years since then. I live with more joy now than I could have imagined four years ago.

I have daydreams of what my life might be like in a future – or even a present – where I can see. I have an Amazon Wishlist of journals, study Bibles, and telescopes, and I’ve even allowed myself to write down some of these sight-dreams (always to be instantly erased, because eradicating fear of being shamed takes years).

Three things I want to do if – when – my sight is restored.

  • 1. I want to create and organize photo albums that tell the interwoven narratives of my life.
  • 2. I want to take a solo road trip across the US
  • 3. I want to be able to sight-read from a hymnal so playing piano for church doesn’t required hours of practice and memorization.

I’ve got a list longer than that hidden in a complex file tree in Google Drive. I hope you can appreciate how hard it is for me to share this with you, even now. For as many advantages as it’s given me, the peculiar adulation and the unique introductions, getting to bring my dog with me everywhere, I wish I weren’t blind. But that wish doesn’t dominate more than a fraction of a percent of my thoughts in any given moment.

I don’t pray for healing every day, or even every week. I did for a while, partially as a ritual to cleanse myself of the fear of it. But now I only pray for it when it crosses my mind, which isn’t every day. How much of that is just because I have a lot going on, and how much is a lingering avoidance instinct I couldn’t venture to say. But if someone offered to pray over my eyes again I would say yes.

Three Reasons I wish I weren’t Blind

  • 1. I want to be able to set my own work schedule independently of others’ schedule.
  • I’d love to be able to run errands without taking up others’ time.
  • I want to be able to read my own mail, a hymnal, informed consent at a doctor’s office, a menu at a restaurant.

I’ve found work-arounds, solutions, and consolations for each of these, and thousands of other problems. But each work-around takes time, and not just mine. I have the right to wish, to pray, that I could function as independently as anyone else.

I live hope with acceptance.

I pray for a cure with unceasing gratitude.

I acknowledge my pain, because denying it exists would never allow me to heal.

Guest Post: From First Pet to Last Snuggle

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and collaborating with some great bloggers recently, and today I have another guest post to share with you. This brilliant writer is a woman much like myself; she’s blind, works with a service dog, and has stories to tell. I’ve found a lot of my own experiences echoed in her words, which you should definitely check out here.

And if you just really miss my words, you can see what I posted on her blog here. It’s all part of my sneaky plan to lure you into reading more of Rhianna’s articles.

Today Rhianna has a sad story to tell, yet another one that will someday be my story, too. She’s had to retire her service dog. But when she went online in search of others who’d had this experience who could support her through this painful process, she found silence. People with disabilities are often isolated by sheer numbers; there just aren’t that many of us per capita in any given location. And when you narrow down the field to “blind with service dogs,” the available support pool shrinks to scattered raindrops.

But Rhianna’s a blogger, and responded in kind. Since she couldn’t find the support, she chose to create it for others. Here is her story.

P.S. Grab tissues.

Mid morning light was streaming in through the open living room windows and my 70-pound golden lab cross was curled up on my lap. Tears rolled down my cheeks and landed on his silky head. He didn’t seem to mind though.

He knew I needed him. We needed each other. We knew the moment had come.

John Green said: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep—slowly, then all at once.” This is how I fell in love with Cricket. I’d been falling for him for the six months before I met him, waiting for him to finish training and be matched with me—the dream team. And when he sauntered into my room, licked my hand and lay down at my feet, my heart was truly his.

In reflecting on our two-year relationship from first pet to last snuggle, I’ve realized that it’s the same way with grief. If you’ll allow me a moment, I’d like to share with you the story of Cricket’s retirement.

Rhianna McGreggor walks with her golden lab cross guide dog, Cricket, on a snowy path.

It was midsummer 2020, and Cricket and I were out for our usual half-hour walk around the neighbourhood. We were five minutes from home, just headed down the hill when, in the middle of the sidewalk, Cricket stopped.

And wouldn’t move.

“Cricket, forward,” I said, giving the leash an encouraging snap.

But he just stood there like a dog statue. “Cricket, forward,” I urged again. No response.

I ran through my mental checklist, trying to figure out what might be wrong. Is he distracted? What is he looking at? Does he need to relieve himself? Is he in pain? I checked the harness, inspected his paws, and found everything as it should be.

“Cricket, forward,” I said again. But there was still no response. Not wanting to frustrate either of us further, I turned around, picked up the harness handle and without a command, Cricket guided me flawlessly (and speedily) back home.

This was not normal, so I reached out to my trainer for help. His suggestions did helped… sometimes. It was hit and miss for the next nine months, and all the while, the question I was trying to keep down kept pushing itself to the forefront of my mind.

Did Cricket want to retire?

No, he couldn’t, I thought. He’s only three. Guide dogs are supposed to work for six to eight years, not two.

In the spring of 2021, the whispers of Cricket’s retirement were growing louder and louder. Cricket wouldn’t work two days in a row, preferring to take a luxurious nap rather than run errands with me. He avoided me when I brought down the harness from the hook by the door. On our walks, he would stop at the intersections and refuse to cross the street. He stalled at the top of staircases and deliberately took me off sidewalks into driveways and onto lawns. It was very unsafe.

And very obvious. Cricket was telling me every way he knew how:

“Mom, I don’t want to be a guide dog anymore.”

The final straw came on April 23. I got up that morning and said to God: “If Cricket wants to retire, I need you to make it clear to me today. I can’t keep doing this.”

Cricket guided me all 15 minutes to the coffee shop with only a couple hiccups. I was feeling optimistic. I drank my iced latte, picked up the harness handle, but rather than a quick 15 minute trip home, we stopped and started every 30 seconds. We made it home 45 minutes later, and I knew God had given me my answer.

Remember that moment in my living room? When we got home, I held Cricket tight and told him, “You don’t have to work anymore if you don’t want to, baby. I want you to be happy, and if retiring is what’ll make you happy, that’s okay.”

This is how it happened with me and Cricket. But every service dog handler’s story is different. In retirement, some handlers choose to have their dogs remain with them at home. Some choose to rehome them to close friends or family, and still others send their dogs back to their training school and have the staff find them loving homes. I knew that in making Cricket’s retirement official, the next question was where he would live.

He couldn’t live with me. I didn’t have the physical space or the financial means to care for him, particularly as I would be applying for a successor guide. After much deliberation and prayer, it was decided that Cricket would return to his puppy raiser, back in his native Michigan.

It’s been almost two months now since I said goodbye to my baby boy. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful and close relationship with his puppy raiser (now mom), and receive frequent updates. Cricket is living the life out in the country, with his doggy sister, Willow and fields to run in.

But me? I’m still waking up every morning, thinking that he’ll be in the bed next to mine. I still do the hand gestures for “forward,” “right” and “left” as I walk with friends. And when my partner guided me to the curb and stopped, I said “good boy” instead of “thank you.” Thankfully, he and I both laughed.

But the grief is still very raw. It will be for a long time.

The grief of retiring a service dog begins on that very first day. You’re overwhelmed with joy and hope and love for this dog that has already changed your life, but you know deep down that eventually, it will end. And when it does, I need you to know a few things.

I know you’re hurting right now. Your heart is broken and you don’t know how or when it will be put back together. After all, the only thing that could heal it has just been taken from you.

I know you’re angry. Why does it have to end this way? Why does it have to end at all? It’s not fair—to love someone so much and have to let go.

I know you wonder if you did enough to make it work. Countless pieces of advice have come your way, from trainers, fellow handlers and complete strangers, and yet, the only thing you want to hear is that yes, you did enough, and you are good enough.

I know you miss him. You think you hear him snoring in his bed but when you reach down to check, the bed is empty. You add dog food to the grocery list, realize you don’t have to buy it, but you do anyway. You cry yourself to sleep because the blankets still smell like her, and you laugh through your tears, remembering how she took up the whole bed.

I know you wonder if you could ever love another dog the way you loved him.

I know you’re not okay right now.

Neither am I.

And we won’t be for a long time. And that’s okay, too.

Writing this post broke my heart all over again. I cried my way through draft after draft, trying to find a way to express the depth of my grief and the grief for the handlers going through it that would do justice to the bond we share with our dogs. Whether I’ve accomplished that, I’ll leave up to you.

But let me leave you with one final thought: During my therapy sessions during and after Cricket’s retirement, I so often tried to minimize my pain, saying that every handler goes through it, that we all know it’s coming someday, and it’s already been two months since he moved.

But my therapist is helping me to reframe that. Rather than set a timeline for healing my broken heart and invalidating my emotions, just feel it. It’s okay to hurt. It’s good to grieve. It’s okay to not be okay. The loss is as real as any other despite what we may think or be told. And there’s no one-size-fits-all for grief. It’s a journey.

So feel every emotion, hug his favourite toy, curl up in his bed, and remember every day what he did for you. He still loves you, just as you will always love him.

Dear Cricket, thank you for everything. You are forever in my heart.

Love, Mom

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.