By Emily Michaels
My desk is a symphony of sensory material. In the center sits my laptop, with its modest 13-inch screen. On my left, I’m using a candle warmer to keep my cup of tea at a comfortable temperature. It’s black tea—a blend called “Paris” that promises hints of currant, vanilla, and caramel over an Earl Grey base. Past the teacup, I have a thick spiral notebook and handful of pens—some black, some purple, one red. My phone sits atop the notebook, and a stack of seven print books occupies the far end.
To the right of the laptop, I’ve placed a batch of papers, half-graded. Behind this first row of objects is a myriad of heavy-duty technology: wireless printer, large video magnifier, surge protector, lamp, and text-to-speech reading device. On top of the printer rests a volume of poetry, a little battered with dog eared corners. The book is made of thick white pages, each a sturdy 11 x 11 inch square that supports the embossed braille dots. I haven’t read any of it.
Tucked into various small spaces on the desk are ceramic bowls that hold lip balm, lotion, reading glasses, allergy meds, paper clips. I’ve painted some of these bowls myself—they’re covered in bright secondary colors sponged on in nebulous splashes. Somewhere, there’s a small crocheted coaster made of red yarn—a gift from a friend, like the braille book.
Perhaps it sounds like a cluttered space, but it’s not. I keep the center clean so I can work on my laptop, and I fold my laptop away when I prefer to write by hand. This space is infinitely comforting because it imposes no limitations on how I must work: it encourages fluidity.
The tasks I do at my desk are personal and academic, obligatory and pleasurable. I grade papers, I write student emails, I design assignments, I revise poems. I read all the time. Normally the stack of seven books reaches much higher, but I’ve recently allocated some volumes to a section on my bookshelf — a sort of “up next” designation that helps me manage all this reading I want to do.
And perhaps I should mention that there are several audiobooks downloaded on my iPhone—even a few Kindle books, because I’m experimenting with letting the VoiceOver software read to me that way.
So perhaps my desk is a symphony of text.
It’s a space that doesn’t make demands on me. It doesn’t say, “The right way to read is by sight” or “Productive blind people only read by ear.” It’s a space that allows me to move freely between sight, sound, and touch, to experiment with the different advantages these sensory modes bring.
It’s a literacy lab that helps me find my most creative self, because I determine the method of access.
I consider my own literacy education legendary—not extraordinary for its environment but for its teachers. My parents read to me, encouraged curiosity, and demanded my best. My vision teacher taught me to write in cursive a year ahead of my sighted peers, and taught me braille several years later—even though I was a print user. My English teachers kept me on task, helping me find ways around the tiny cramped print of Shakespeare. One college professor even petitioned our department to buy a $1000-edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. No one ever said, “You have to read it this way.” My Parents, friends, and teachers helped me find options for reading everything from medieval texts to choral repertoire.
Currently, my favorite way to read is multisensory: I hold the print book, pen in hand, and listen to the words read aloud—either by a professional audiobook narrator or by the pleasant synthetic voice of my computer. Though I can read print with the help of bifocals, I find that my eyes grow tired, so I keep the pen ready for annotating and let the narrator do the legwork of reading the text. If I have to grade a text or read it aloud, I use large print. Now that I have read my own work in public, I know that the perfect performance font is Cambria 24-pt, bold.
But I’d like to have the option of braille for performances. Though I’m a long way from braille fluency, I remember the basics, so the braille book of poetry is my next project. I’m going to learn the characters I don’t remember and then settle in for some tactile verse.
Because I call myself a literary person and a writer, perhaps it’s expected that I should experiment with text as I do. People expect the braille and audiobooks because I’m a blind woman, but the reality is, engaging with a text is meant to be multisensory. These “special” methods aren’t only for people with print disabilities; anyone can choose to approach text through a different sense—or senses. I encourage my students to read their work aloud—both their assigned readings and the writing they create—because the ear is a different point of access. Who knows what they’ll discover about the reading if they hear it?
All people need variety in the way they access text. Sighted people can read visually or listen to a text, but blind people’s access is often taken to extremes. Some claim that braille is the only way while others insist that braille is too bulky and archaic—that listening to text doubles or triples productivity. These extremes stifle each individual’s ability to develop a relationship with the written world and decide for his or herself which methods work best.
Just as their is no universal standard for “good writing,” there is no universal method for “good reading.” In a culture that prizes literacy, we should be talking about literacies. We’re not brains on sticks, we’re bodies in a textual world.
Emily K. Michael is and a blind poet, musician, and college writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. She currently teaches freshman composition and business writing at the University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, Bridge Eight, Breath & Shadow, Artemis Journal, Compose Journal, Disability Rhetoric, and I Am Subject Stories. She designs grammar workshops for multi-lingual learners and offer poetry workshops at local writing festivals.