I was a single mother and social worker with two degrees before a lifelong visual impairment known as retinitis pigmentosa deteriorated my vision to the point of legal blindness. If you turn a camera lens out of focus so that you can't identify a familiar person 10 or 12 inches from you, that’s close to what the world around me looks like. Things look so blurry that they are just mottled, colored shapes.
I was born with poor vision, getting my first pair of glasses at two years old. My vision worsened slowly, becoming less defined as the years progressed. My glasses got thicker, my contact lenses stronger. My eye doctor described my retinas losing cells like shingles shedding from a roof. I had to read larger print, sit closer to the television or computer monitor, enlarge my font from 12 to 14, then 16, 20, 36, 48. Finally, my doctor declared me legally blind at the age of 40.
Since social work was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, it was hard to give up, but I could no longer perform my duties, chief among them being driving. I had to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
There was something else I’d always wanted to do besides social work, and that was write. The desire to entertain myself and others with poems or short stories was just in me, and I did it as a hobby while growing up and into my adulthood. I even took a few writing classes in college. But could I do it as a profession? Now?
I didn't know any professional writers personally, so I had to find out how to become one on my own. I researched online and in Writer's Digest and Writer's Market, and followed their advice. I wrote a few articles on subjects I knew something about — parenting and social issues — then called my local newspaper editor, whom I wasn’t familiar with but still asked if he'd be interested in publishing me. He said yes, and that eventually led to a column, which didn’t pay but I didn’t care; it was a start, and I knew I’d need the experience.
I pitched article ideas to magazines and websites, and continued to write for free, which did eventually led to paid opportunities. I just kept going with it, building on the momentum as it happened. Once I realized I could make a career of it, I wrote everything that appealed to me: articles, short stories, scripts, poetry, reviews. Now I’ve been writing for 12 years — two years longer than I was a social worker.
You might think that being a freelance writer would be impossibly difficult for a blind (or legally blind) person, but that's a misconception. Before the computer age, the visually impaired could dictate their words to be set down in print or use a stylus to write in braille and have it transcribed, but today's accessible technology makes writing so easy that you may not realize I used a screen reader, speech recognition software and a magnification program to write this. If you aren't familiar with accessible technology, let me describe a few applications: My Windows 7 came with Speech Recognition, which types what you say. I also downloaded a screen reader called Non-Visual Desktop Access, which reads out loud the items on my screen, from a text document like this article to posts from my Facebook friends. Additionally, I have a magnification program that enlarges items on my 47-inch computer monitor.
There are other programs (Dragon, a voice-recognition software and screen reader, and Siri, which can perform all the above-mentioned tasks plus access files and applications) and devices (talking dictionaries, memo recorders, braille readers/writers, the iPhone 5, which could replace basically everything above), but you may now be wondering if blind writers would be able to carry on without all of this technology. I can’t speak for every visually impaired scribe, but I know that I would find a way, somehow, to keep writing, whether that meant learning braille or dictating the old-fashioned way. It’s hard to keep a creative spirit down.
Tammy Ruggles is a legally blind freelance writer and artist based in Kentucky. Her first paperback book, Peace, was published by Clear Light Books in 2005.
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