I recently did a Q and A interview with the editor and creator of my textbook, Susan Brand. You can read about that here
Since classes have been online because of the pandemic, Susan posted my interview on her course website this week. I thought I would share it with you here. Thanks for allowing me to share my story and asking such great questions, Susan.
We talk about everything from my early years as a blind girl, to time in college and about my writing these days. I hope when you read about my friend, Chelsea, you will learn to include blind (or insert disability) people into your circle in your college squad. I hope when you read about my lifelong friend, Helene, and her parents, I hope you learn friends come with all abilities. Helene’s parents never worried about me. I hope your parents don’t worry about their friend who has a disability, either. Lastly, let me just add, I share my story not because I’m a victim, but because I want to show people you can be a person who is an outcast and who most people brush aside, and then people can learn about what you stand for, your work, and that we really all do deserve everything sighted people do. As a writer, (and even doing PR for my high school,) you learn to humble yourself enough to know not everyone is going to like you, and that’s okay. Some people like my style and my message, others prefer bigger names like Molly Burk, and some like both of us. One of Susan’s students, Celeste, took the time to leave me a comment under the comments section here after reading about me, and it was really nice, so thank you and I’d love to connect. If you learn something, tell someone about it. Let’s change the way people perceive blindness. One person at a time. ❤
Miranda Oakley: An Interview with Susan Brand
- Please tell us about yourself! We’re interested in learning about your home, your family, your personality, and your hobbies and interests.
I’m the first person in my family to have graduated college. My sister graduated CCRI with an Associates degree in Arts and went on to pursue Dental Assisting. My mom was the vice president of a construction company and eventually worked as an assistant manager of a group home for mentally challenged adults. Now she works as a caregiver for the elderly. I’ve lived in Rhode Island my whole life. My sister and I were fortunate to grow up with a pool, and I live close to the beach, so that always works in my favor during the summer. =) Once you get to know me, you’ll learn that I’m an outgoing person. I love going to concerts, being outside in nature, and I am a huge fan of the TV show “In the Dark.” If you haven’t seen it, you must watch it! After you read this, of course. 😉 I’ve also been collecting foreign coins since I was a kid.
- Please share with us information about your school experiences in elementary education. In high school. What were some challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Elementary School: First of all, when I was in elementary school, apps did not exist. I had a TVI, (Teacher of the Blind and Visually Impaired) that would act as a go-between, who worked with myself and my classroom teacher. My TVI taught me how to use an abacus made for the blind to teach me about number place value. Nowadays, like with everything, there’s an app for that! I would Braille notes in class, but I also recorded classes on cassette tapes. Does anybody taking this class even know what those are?
I met one of my best friends, Helene, in elementary school. I always appreciated how her parents didn’t worry about me. When kids see we are not worried about something or someone, they don’t worry. Her parents weren’t scared of me. Helene learned not to be scared of me, too. People, even later in my adult life, have been afraid to include me in social activities sometimes out of fear that something might happen to me. Helene’s parents have never been held back by my blindness. They let Helene grow up with diversity, and since they accepted me, they taught her that it’s okay to be friends with people of all walks of life. If I needed to do something differently, they always came up with on the spot ways to make it so I could participate. They still do that to this day. My aid in school had to Braille materials by hand on the manual Perkins Braille machine. She became like another mother to me. She worked with me from kindergarten through eighth grade.
High School: High school was amazing. After eighth grade, I left public school and began attending a School for the Blind in Massachusetts. I met the same requirements as my public school, and I also had special classes where I could improve my blindness skills. Special classes included Braille, mobility, which is where an instructor teaches you how to safely get to places as a blind person, and life skills like cutting my food. While some students take academics, they also teach students who have various disabilities. This school grades assignments but doesn’t assign grades as you progress each year. One of the greatest things about this blind school was the fact that during the six years I was there, I was known for anything but my white cane. I worked on my own TV show and I participated in theater. At one point I was the captain of my track team and cheerleading squad. Our track had guide wires we could hold onto as a guide. As you ran, they would loosen up and tighten up when you got to the end. The indoor ones had tape so we could follow so we knew how many laps we were doing. We would travel and compete with other schools for the blind, and that was always fun. People decided whether they liked me or not based on my personality rather than my disability. Like with anything, this school isn’t perfect.
While I was away from home on weekends and vacations, some challenges included being away from my friends at home. Oh, and my dogs at the time, too. Because you know, animals are friends, too. This school has smaller classes, so my class had sixteen students. I was the only one in my senior class going to college. Because of this, sometimes I felt like I was doing everything that comes along with applying for college alone. In the beginning it was hard knowing I had to share my teaching assistant because she was like another mother to me. I understood that other students needed her help, too, but for a little while it was hard to hear about. As I grew into my own more at the school, I learned to be happy for all the students my assistant was now working with in public school. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was also really hard for me!
Cottage Life: Students at this school stay in cottages, so in a way I learned how to live in a dorm. Most people were friendly when I was there, but I did not like one cottage, in particular. I really didn’t like how most staff treated their students in this one cottage. Sometimes I found it hard to express how I felt to people there because I didn’t want it to seem as if I was not adjusting well. Students stay in different cottages depending on their age. It was hard finding a balance between what I felt like I could share with them and being in this cottage, it began to teach me what I value and what I don’t in the people around me. I’m thankful for those staff, though. Other than the one cottage experience, this school was great for me since I wasn’t receiving proper services in public school anymore.
- Please share your college experiences with us. What was your major? What was it like living in a dorm? How well did the academic and physical accommodations meet your needs? What was done well? What could have been done better?
Majors, Dorms, and Roommates: When I began URI, I originally entered the University as a journalism major and eventually changed to English a few years later. I lived on campus for three years and commuted my final three. I was given the accessible room, so I had the room to myself. My room was like a mini apartment. For many, college is their first taste of freedom. I had to think about everything when considering a roommate. If my roommate needed privacy, where was I going to go to give them space? I only really had my friend, Chelsea, and it was much easier for said roommate to go somewhere else than it was for me. Living in a dorm was both a blessing and a terrible experience. Not many students talked to me, and the ones who did kept conversations brief. Blind people across universities share the same experience in that it’s as if people don’t know how to hang out with a blind person. Taylor Swift’s music was great company because I was alone. A lot.
Student Assistants: I worked with students on campus that were paid to help me and the University put extra guest passes on my card so they could help me through the dining hall so I could get food, although later on I eventually ended up bringing my own food and eating alone in my room. It was extra responsibility added to their work, but the University used it as an incentive for them to help me. If you help Miranda get food, you don’t have to use your meal plan because you’ll be covered.
The students were also paid to help read what wasn’t accessible to me in an audio or online format. While I have become friends with a small few of them after graduation, at the time they weren’t paid to be my friend. They were told to keep it professional and just read, scribe for me if need be and leave. Obviously, people need to do their job. I’m a person, though, and most of them were friendly. One told me after we graduated the struggle of finding a balance between doing their job and being a friend. It’s hard. Do you do your job, or do you connect with that person with a disability and hope you’re not getting in trouble for being too personal? I always appreciated the SMALL handful of students who put me, Miranda, the sophisticated woman, first. If you’re mature enough, you will learn there’s a way to do your job and see people for who they are. At the same time.
Friendships: I didn’t get out much, so sometimes I had students working with me bring me to the library to work or take me on a walk because I was so isolated. The dorm was also a blessing because I met one of my good friends, Chelsea, my Freshman year. I always say she was the first one at URI to take a free chance on me. She was an RA and decided to get to know me. Miranda. She never took a penny for anything. Absolutely anything. Chelsea wasn’t ever ashamed to openly be friends with me and include me. I grew to trust and learn she is for real and doesn’t have pity on me. She included me in games, brought me to some of her meetings just so I could get out, and wasn’t afraid to advocate for me. Students always found it hard to advocate for me. They might think, “When do I advocate for somebody being mistreated on campus? She’s a nice person, but I need money this week, so what do I do?” Chelsea didn’t care about any of that stuff. She was brave enough to go to a few disability services meetings with me and advocate for me, physically and emotionally. Everybody needs a Chelsea.
Disability Provisions: While I fought a lot with disability services to accommodate my needs, something they did do well was working with housing so I could have the same dorm room each year. This made it easier on me mobility wise because the state only had one teacher who taught younger kids through the college level. Each semester I only had to learn how to get to different classes, and it helped not having to constantly learn a new dorm room. As far as academic accommodations, I found working with professors, even the difficult ones, better than working with disability services. I had to fight disability services to get my math book in Braille because they said another girl who is blind at a different University didn’t need one. I also had to fight for my student assistants each semester and constantly explain that I really did need them because not everything was accessible. I would start every semester, (except my last one!) behind because my students hadn’t been hired yet or my books were not scanned in the correct format, so I didn’t have any books. I found professors either wrote me off as too complicated or they accepted me in the classroom. Professors were good about the fact that I needed to sit up front in class and emailing me certain assignments. The Sakai site (now BrightSpace) was often difficult with my screen reading program so they were great about understanding that students sometimes needed to help me submit assignments. Sometimes they let me email them, instead. One challenge working with students assistants was that none of them were English majors, and this made it hard for them to explain certain English language conventions. In literature, that can be really important.
4. What are your career aspirations?
I’m working on finishing my memoir. My goal is to change perceptions of people with disabilities. I hope people who read it will make a positive change and be motivated to make disability a positive conversation instead of a scary, negative, awkward one. I’m also working on expanding my speaking opportunities as a motivational speaker for children and adults.
5. Tell us about your life’s accomplishments.
One accomplishment I am particularly proud of is that I got to be included in Susan’s textbook! It was such a full circle moment for me to be in the same book as one of my great professors. Also, I worked on my lifelong friend, Helene’s campaign last year when she ran for office in Massachusetts. Phone banking was great, but door-knocking was my favorite! It was great going around and meeting people and talking with them face-to-face about Helene’s campaign and issues that were important to them. It was also great to show others that people with disabilities have opinions, too. We’re not just something pretty to look at. We’re not just your daily inspiration. Some of us get political and some of us don’t.
6. What recommendations or advice do you have for sighted people in dealing with people who are blind? What stereotypes should be overcome?
- These are such great questions! First of all, blind people use words like see, look, and watch. You won’t offend me using everyday language.
- Sometimes we might need help and sometimes we don’t. If we refuse, we’re not being rude, and we appreciate you. Sometimes, even though you have good intentions, we learn specific landmarks to help us with travel. I learned, for example, once my cane came in contact with a lamp post outside Swan Hall, that told me how many turns I needed to take in order to make my way to the door.
- Sometimes helping us can throw us off if you leave us in a different place. If you leave us in a new place, be sure we are clear about this location and know how to get to the next location.
- If you’re not sure of something, ask, and don’t avoid it. We can’t read your mind, and we don’t expect you to read ours.
- Some of the best advice I can share is to please remember that not every blind person is the same. Is anybody the same? Lots of people approach blindness with a “one size fits all” attitude, and that’s simply just not true. Just because I like or dislike something doesn’t mean every blind person you meet is going to like and dislike the same things. Some people have low vision, meaning they can see to a certain degree. Others, like myself, don’t have any vision. My vision isn’t really lost though. J
- If you see a blind person at a table alone at an event, don’t think they are being antisocial. It’s hard for blind people to mingle without a guide, and people often misinterpret that as we don’t want to meet people. Come and say hi, and if you’re walking around enjoying whatever it is, offer to guide them. Ask what works for them, and you might make a friend.
- Don’t be afraid to use your eyes and see for somebody. Some of us don’t care and some, like myself, love a good description.
- People often think people who are blind are not as intellectually capable as people with sight and that’s not true at all. If a sighted person gets help on a paper that’s fine. If a blind person does the same thing, that’s not okay. That’s always been so crazy to me!
- Just because we do things differently than you doesn’t mean we should be left out. Blindness (or any disability for that matter) isn’t always scary or sad, so don’t make it that way. Introduce yourself, and we will eventually learn who you are. Please don’t think we remember every single voice we hear.
- Don’t be afraid, and don’t be ashamed. It’s okay to be friends or have relationships with a person with a disability.
- Lastly, please, please, tell somebody when you are leaving a room. Sometimes it’s funny, but sometimes having one-sided conversations can be awkward!
- What might we not realize about people who are blind? Even though society tells you so, my cane doesn’t define me. People with disabilities deserve everything you do.
- 7. In what ways might we become allies for people who are blind?
Get to know the person and decide if you like them based on if you vibe well or not. When you’re not afraid, eventually your friends, your colleagues, and your family are not afraid, either. If you become close to a blind person, if you work with a blind person, if you have a blind neighbor, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to let them into your circle when you’re not being paid for it.
8. Please share anything else with us as you like.
I know that was a lot. If you actually read this entire thing, thank you so much. I would love to meet you! If you’re interested or learned something today, tell people about it. I’d love to connect with you. Check out my website, mirandaleeoakley.com and leave me a comment! My website has all the ways you can find me. Thanks for your time, stay healthy, and I hope this changed how you view equality.