Worlds We Live In features a variety of voices that represent a sliver of the dazzling diversity of our contemporary blind community. We draw upon the extraordinary and complex life of Helen Keller, as glimpsed in her many writings, for inspiration. Whether a blind single mom working for NASA or a blind world-renowned architect, we have all felt the ripple effects of Keller’s impact. In her book The World I Live In, she takes her readers on a journey that explores the joys of her sensations of touch, taste, and smell, and how these sensations work with her intellect to paint a wondrous portrait of the depth and breadth of her experience as a deafblind woman. She also expresses her frustration with critics who “delight to tell us what we cannot do.”
Thanks to political, cultural, and technological advances since her death in 1968, we have come a long way. Yet there is still much work to be done. We believe Helen Keller would agree. Through the stories of people living with visual impairments, this documentary commissioned by AFB for our centennial year explores the ongoing struggles we face living in an ocularcentric world while it celebrates blind joy, blind culture, and a burgeoning blind pride movement.
Transcript of Chancey Fleet Interview
My name's Chancey Fleet.
I am blind, and I am the assistive technology coordinator at the New York Public Library.
I'm a white woman in my late 30s. I'm wearing a purple top and a black bracelet made out of nails, and I have long, dirty blonde hair.
It's very uncommon for a blind person to go from hearing about the existence of an image, to identifying a desire in themselves to create that image, to getting it in a tactile format.
So, I'll hand you the finished model. It actually prints flat in two pieces. It's just a little Eiffel Tower silhouette. It's a good little test 'cause it only takes like an hour to print.
BOJANA: It's very cool.
CHANCEY: It's cute, right?
CHANCEY: I don't think any sighted person would enjoy or tolerate being in a life where everything is verbal and nothing is represented visually. For blind people, we have the same ability to express ourselves and to understand things that are in a spatial context, but the media that we need to consume and produce spatial information is just not as privileged as print media right now. And that's part of what I'm trying to change.
This is a Keith Haring I did with the embosser yesterday. So, this is the man riding a dolphin.
CHANCEY: You can feel the emotion marks in the upper left and upper right. You can feel the man with both his arms raised...So, blindness is a big shift on your frame of reference. Any shift in frame of reference, I guess, brings an ability to problem solve and improvise.
My friend, Liz Jackson, said in a New York Times op-ed that people with disabilities are the original lifehackers. And that's absolutely true. We are, because we are continually moving through a world that privileges visual ways of knowing, and we can't privilege that. So, we constantly have to make our own adaptations, and that makes us very resilient, rapid problem solvers, very creative people, I think. So, this is a prototype.
BOJANA: Oh, my God. Feels like I'm in the future.
CHANCEY: I don't think you can be blind and be in the U.S. without sort of residing under the shadow of Helen Keller's legend.
The first memory I have that touches on Helen Keller is my father teaching me at age like three or four how to tell Helen Keller jokes to kind of jostle sighted adults out of feeling some kind of pity or some kind of unease. I don't know how much of the legend the average person on the street knows about her is what she would have chosen. And in that way, I mean, she's a blind everywoman, because we all struggle with that: our authentic self-representation versus what a person passing us in brief is going to take away about our lives.
Equality means that I don't need to spend a whole lot of time managing my access, other people's expectations. It means I'm recognized and valued for my contributions. It means that I'm held accountable like anyone. That my expertise is trusted. My gaps are met with opportunities to learn. I mean, equality is a big word, but I guess, I guess that's a place to start.
Transcript of Conchita Hernandez Interview
I'm Conchita Hernandez.
I currently work for the Department of Education in Maryland as the blind and low vision specialist. I'm also a disability rights activist. And today I am wearing a black shirt with flowers, and my hair is in a braid, and I'm wearing some earrings.
I feel like there's definitely a hierarchy of sight. If you can see, you're at the top, and if you're totally blind, you're at the bottom. And in school, sometimes kids are seeing print at like 90 instead of just teaching them braille. It's this idea of, we have to do everything to get you to see. And then if we fail, then do braille, then use a cane. And so, what that leads to is a lot of kids, including myself, that's how I grew up, thinking I was like a broken sighted person. It's this idea of like, I wasn't sighted, but I wasn't blind. And so, I was in this limbo.
And so, when I really embraced this idea of like, I am blind, then you become a whole blind person as opposed to a broken sighted person. And so, I can use a cane. I can use all these other accommodations, and it doesn't make me less of a person. It's just part of who I am. The blindness community was very welcoming, but it was sighted people, people who knew me before, people who didn't understand, like, "Why are you using a cane," or "why are you doing this?"
And I think it goes back to their ableist ideas and them feeling uncomfortable with me using a cane. Ableism is this idea that as a blind person or as a person with a disability, that you are less than, that you're not fitting into society. And so, it gets perpetrated in society by negative ideas, by loss of job opportunities, by discrimination at work and at school.
Blind people have a huge unemployment rate. We're about 70% unemployed. And there's a lot of factors that play into that, but one of them is ableism. And so, there's such negative ideas on what a blind person can do that we don't get job opportunities. You know, I was trained to be a teacher of blind students. I was on the job market, ready to go.
I was doing an interview over Skype. They didn't know I was blind, and they were like, "Oh, we want to see you in person. We, you know, we want you to come tour the school."
And they said, "We have one more question. What makes you different than all our other candidates?"
And I said, "I think the thing that I have above all other candidates is that I'm also blind. And so, I have this connection with my students that sighted people are just not going to have. I can talk to them about their experiences because I've been through them."
And at that moment they told me, "We don't think that's going to work out for us."
And they blatantly said, you know, "We don't think we can hire a blind person for this position."
They could not imagine that a blind person could do that was just appalling. People are constantly being treated that way in job interviews, in school, in the public, just everywhere.
The tattoo is in Spanish. It says "Aquí se respira lucha." Which translates over to "Here, we breathe struggle."
Transcript of Sara Minkara Interview
My name is Sara Minkara.
I am wearing a navy blue blazer with white stripes on the edge. I'm wearing a navy blue shirt under it. I'm wearing navy blue pants with white stripes on the side. I'm wearing a Navy blue and white hijab, so a headscarf.
It was one year into starting ETI, my nonprofit, and I went to Kennedy School specifically to learn about how do I develop programs in our organization that really allows us to focus on the work of disability inclusion?
I truly believe that the inclusion of all is a value for all. When we include people with disabilities, we benefit from the value that they bring forward. When we don't include, we are losing on out their value.
For me, I learned that lesson in grad school when I was in a classroom full of students and each student had a name card so people know who's speaking.
I remember in the beginning of the semester, I was like, "Hey, guys. Can you please say your name when you're speaking so I know who's talking so I can better access the class?"
And the professor was like, "No."
I was like, "What do you mean? I can't ask for my right?"
He's like, "The way you're phrasing it is that they are doing you a favor. But by them making the class accessible for you, by you accessing the class, you're able to contribute, and they are going to benefit from your contribution. So, then making it accessible for you is a benefit for them."
And that shifted my entire perspective on actually inclusion in general. (pensive music) Well, I'm a blind Muslim woman. I walk down the street, I'm faced with a lot of narratives, whether it's ableism towards my disability, whether it's Islamophobia, whether it's sexism.
In a lot of spaces, I'm entering those rooms, and I am dealing with those narratives. It's so important for me to say I am proud of who I am. I'm going to embrace it. And I'm going to bring that forward to the space I'm in. And I think that's empowerment when you're given the space to be who you are, be your authentic self, but be able to really explore what that is and bring that value forward.
Through our programming within ETI, we provide life skill training for our blind and visually impaired kids. Through that, we actually provide white cane training where we give them the white cane, and we teach them how to have mobility training.
And we've had parents come to us and say, "We don't want our kids to take home these canes."
They know that the white cane is going to be a symbol of blindness and disability. That means they're going to be labeled and stigmatized in the community. And this is common in so many different places in the world, you know, not just Lebanon. But whereas the kids love the white cane because the cane is a tool for independence. It gives them the ability to navigate their surrounding more independently, be more free.
Instead of the solution being let's not use a cane, the solution is let's start breaking down the stigma and make disability not a negative thing, but part of our reality and part of our narratives and part of our societies.
When I look at Helen Keller, she was able to do it and communicate and create so much hope and awareness and knowledge. And she was part of so many different movements, not just disability. She was a suffragette, she was a socialist, she worked towards women empowerment. And I think that for us as disability individuals, let's not stop at the disability activism, right? Let's bring disability across all aspects of who we are and across our work. I'm an entrepreneur. Let me bring my disability narrative and perspective to my fellow entrepreneurs. I'm a woman. Let's bring that disability narrative to woman conversations. I'm Muslim. Let me bring the disability narrative perspective to my Muslim community.
Let's mainstream this conversation. Let's not have individual separate conversation on disability, and Helen Keller was an amazing example of that.
Transcript of Denna Lambert's Interview
My name is Denna Lambert.
I'm a project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
So, I am an African-American woman with braids that are shoulder length. I have...I think brown eyes (laughs), and I am wearing a light blue shirt with a NASA navy-blue vest on.
Growing up, I didn't see myself being able to be a parent. Many folks around me questioned whether a blind person could parent. I am also single. Of course, I would want to raise a child with a spouse, but that didn't happen at the time. So, my thought was, hey, why not, why not adopt? I knew growing up that there are children in this world that need homes where they can be loved and cared for. And if I had the ability to do it, why not?
In January of 2019, I was called and said, "Hey, Denna, we have a match. A mom has decided that she would like you to raise her child."
Knowing that his mom decided this person is who I want for my son shows that she had been exposed to positive examples of blind people.
And we're also supported by disability rights laws that allowed for me to be able to choose to become a mom without discrimination. I was really lucky. I was able to be in the room when he was born. I was able to cut the cord. When I was in the hospital, I needed to learn how to give him a bath, this six-pound wiggly thing, you know. What am I, how am I going to give him a bath? It was not because I was blind. It was because I was a new mom.
Yeah! Kaleb is now two years old. Yeah, there we go. Full of energy! He is sighted, so he's learning the environment around him by what he sees. That's his primary sense, but that's not my primary sense.
I'm encouraging him to listen, to smell. I want him to learn that there's so much more to this world that we can experience, more than just what he sees.
DENNA (reading from a book): ...on a cozy bed.
DENNA: Oh, a snoring granny. Oh my goodness. It bit the cat!
He can have a fuller experience in life if he's able to adapt. My approach maybe would be different if I were a sighted parent. Because I'm having to do these things as a blind parent, I think that informs how I approach engaging with my son.
Transcript of Chris Downey's Interview
I'm Chris Downey. And I'm a late-50s white male, dress shirt, khaki pants. I am balding, so for those visual, I'm sorry for any glare off my forehead.
At the age of 45, when I thought I was just experiencing normal age-related sight loss, went in to have my eyes checked, and it turned out there was a tumor located right at the optic nerves. Had my surgery to remove the brain tumor. As a consequence of the surgery, lost my sight.
COLLEAGUE: You had brought up two additional ideas. One was about getting a drain groove at the top of the counter. Can you talk about that?
CHRIS: Yeah, that was based on an experience I had a couple weeks ago at a family's kitchen counter...With the passage of ADA, all the sudden, accessibility was mandated, and there was a lot of negative reaction against that by people in the profession who hadn't been brought up in that way of thinking. Having these new codes applied, it was getting in the way, sort of changing how they would naturally want to do things.
A city is really about being in the city. It's about being on the sidewalk. It's about walking around. Being an architect that designs the public environment, I want to be engaged with it, I want to explore it, and I want to know what's there.
This is my favorite spot for describing the anti-blind spot: places where the road infrastructure, the buildings, the architecture, primarily the cars sort of really take dominance over the pedestrian experience.
Unfortunately, if you're blind, you were coming down here, you had no way of knowing what lies ahead in this intersection. So, you get into this, and then what do you do? You know, as I'm hitting the sign that was over here, I'm hitting barriers. Then what do you do? How do you start getting out of here and solve it?
There are ways to do it. You can certainly do it. I would've located the access point into the garage away from this corner.
Get it further up in the street where it's not confusing the intersection, not confusing the path across it. If the blind and people with disabilities were only considered at the end of a process, there's little opportunity to really change things. That cake has been baked. And that's why I have more optimism for students coming up today who have the opportunity to learn about architecture, about design of anything, through the lens of inclusivity.
I've been wanting to come up here since I was working on the drawings. I was involved with a lot of the getting around, wayfinding, surface strategies for the pathway systems. So yeah, it's spectacular to be up here.
When you start thinking creatively within all the different requirements of inclusivity, it makes it part of that bigger agenda of really inspiring and designing for and building for that more inclusive society.
Transcript of Lachi's Interview
[Music] Title: There's nothing wrong with the prefix "Dis."
Narrator: An African-American woman wearing headphones joyfully sings into a microphone in a sound booth.
Lachi: Lachi is my name. I'm she/her. I'm a Black girl with cornrows. Today I'm wearing a black shirt with braille on it. it says "that's what I need." I am also wearing gray sort of pinstripey pants and then I'm wearing black booty shoes looking dope, and I'm holding a glitter glam cane that is painted red and glammed up because that's how we do.
Narrator: She grins. Lachi sits in a recording studio next to a large audio mixing board.
Lachi: I'm a recording artist. I am a songwriter. I'm a disability inclusion advocate. I am co-chair of the advocacy committee at the New York chapter for the Grammys. I'm also founder of Rant Recording, artists and music professionals with disabilities. So that's me!
Narrator: Lachi turns the corner and leisurely walks down her neighborhood street in New York City carrying her cane and a backpack on her shoulder.
Lachi: Being at the level that I'm at, having to navigate networking is intimidating for anyone. If you don't wave to the right person you could lose a whole deal. If you appear standoffish, you could lose an entire community...or being invited to the next party and knowing things.
Narrator: Lachi enters a building through a glass door that illuminates the large staircase in front of her.
Lachi: I was shooting myself in the foot when I would go to these networking events and not speak to anyone.
Narrator: Photo: Lachi wearing a white satin dress and a bright smile strikes a pose on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards.
Lachi: I was working so hard at my music and and in my industry to try to get to the next level.
Narrator: Lachi performing wearing a blue and purple dress and splashes of pink. She stands in front of a multicolored mosaic wall.
Lachi: I was confident in my music but it didn't translate to actually dealing with human beings.
Narrator: She enters a recording studio and is greeted by a man wearing a striped shirt sporting a thick beard.
Alvin: Are you ready to get some more work in today? Let's go.
Narrator: She makes her way into the sound booth.
Lachi: When I would go to studio sessions, or do whatever, it was rough because it was tough for me to get around or to see certain things and I didn't want to ask anybody anything. As a sighted-passing individual, I would try to hide it, and it was really only hurting myself.
Narrator: Photo. Lachi dressed in a white t-shirt with a thoughtful expression on her face in Forbes magazine with the caption, "Blind musician Lachi opens up on coming out of the disability closet."
Lachi: Eventually I had to get to a situation where I was like you know what I have to just be out about it and forward about it. So when I walk in I walk in Lachi-forward.
When I go to events I go up to people and I say, "Hi I'm Lachi. I'm blind, what's up? What are you doing? What are we doing? We doing something here?"
Narrator: Lachi sits center stage at the Kennedy Center wearing a gold-sequined dress that sparkles as she plays.
Lachi (singing): I was born blind, and I don't know why, God knows why, because He loves me so.
Lachi: Disability is one word, it's one identity. Just like African-American is one word.
If you say "Let's just focus on the American of African-American," you're erasing the African part of my identity. And then when you want to say things, like, "Oh, I didn't even see your disability." Just like saying, "I don't see race!" What are you trying to tell me? That my race and culture don't matter? My race and culture matters to me, just like my disability matters to me. So, I want you to see it.
Narrator: She sings intensely into the mic in the sound booth.
Narrator: Photo. Lachi in the New York Times Magazine wearing a white dress tank top and skirt performing. Caption reads "28 Ways to Learn About Disability Culture."
Lachi: I am an artist that identifies as blind. I am a blind singer. I don't see it as a schtick, I see it as myself, and if you see it as a schtick that is your problem because you think that is a thing that needs to be euphemized.
Lachi (singing): We're gonna take our time.
Narrator: Alvin sits behind the mixing board watching Lachi through the window of the sound booth beyond.
[Music continues. Applause]
Lachi: The other point that we want to focus on is dis-, there's nothing wrong with the prefix dis-. Did you know that the prefix dis- means to set apart?
I'm not trying to be like y'all people out here. I'm trying to be set apart and that's what "dis-" is.
So I'm distinct. I'm distinguished. I like a good discount. Like, there's so many amazing words that start with "dis." So that's the stigma I'm trying to bust.
Lachi (singing): We're off to rule.
Lachi: All right, y'all. There we go. We good.
Offscreen voice: Fabulous!
Narrator: AFB 100. Inclusion knows no limits.
Fade to black.