Tag Archives: writing

Author and Former Caregiver Abbie Johnson Taylor Writes About Life and Love

Abbie Johnson Taylor

This is the month to write. Write. And write some more. November is National Novel Writing Month more commonly known as NaNoWriMo. Authors take on the challenge to write a novel (at least 50,000 words) by the end of the month. Although I am not a book author, I love reading audiobooks and engaging with authors. So, in honor of NaNoWriMo I chatted with a good writer friend Abbie Johnson Taylor. In the interview below Abbie shares why she became an author, her writing routine and gave nuggets of wisdom for newbies. Enjoy!

Abbie Becomes an Author

Empish:  Why did you decide to become an author? What was it about writing books that piqued your interest?

Abbie:  I’ve always enjoyed writing. But as a kid, whenever I wrote anything for school, whether it was a story or poem or a research paper, my mother, a college English teacher, always rewrote it. I’m not talking about just writing a version with all spelling and grammar mistakes corrected. She actually rewrote my papers so they sounded better. As a result, I lost faith in my own ability to write good material.

When I was in the eighth grade and had to do a research paper on cancer, she took me to the library, where we found books on the subject. At home, she read me the material and wrote the paper while I sat there and listened. I learned a lot about cancer and was glad to get a good grade on a paper I didn’t write. After that, I was content to let her do the leg work whenever I was assigned any kind of writing.

It never occurred to me to consider a career in writing until after my mother passed in 1999. At that time, I was a registered music therapist, working with seniors in nursing homes. I’d just gotten my first computer and loved the idea of putting words on a virtual page, then correcting mistakes and making changes with ease.

Empish:  You share on your website’s bio that in 2005 you got married and quit your job and volunteer work to focus on writing full time. I am sure that was a major change in your life. Share what that transition was like.

Abbie:  Yes, it was a major change but a welcome one. Although I had enjoyed my work as a registered music therapist, I was ready for a change. I was only too happy to spend all day at my computer, writing, revising, and submitting material for possible publication. But after Bill suffered his first stroke in 2006, I was again balancing writing with another full-time occupation-a family caregiver. Although this wasn’t easy, I managed to self-publish two books in the years I cared for him at home before he passed.

No Particular Genre

Empish:  Many authors place themselves in a particular genre such as romance, suspense, Mistry, self-help, etc. However, when I look over your body of writing work, you have written poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Is there a reason your books and writing don’t fit a specific genre?

Abbie:  No, not really. I just enjoy creating material in the many genres in which I write.

National Novel Writing Month

Why Grandma Doesn't Know Me Book Cover

Empish:  This month, as you know, is National Novel Writing Month, where the focus is writing a novel in 30 days. For the books you have written so far, how long did it take you to write them?

Abbie:  At the most, my three novels, “We Shall Overcome,”The Red Dress,” and “Why Grandma Doesn’t Know Me;” and my memoir “My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds,” took about a year to write. My two poetry books, “How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver” and “That’s Life: New and Selected Poems,” took several years.

Empish:  Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo? Why or why not? What was your experience?

Abbie:  No, I like to take my time when writing a novel. I know you should write first and edit later, and I do that. But I like to have an idea in my mind of what will happen to my characters before I sit down at my computer.

Writing Routines and rituals

Empish:  Many authors have a writing routine or process, such as writing at a specific time of day, writing so many words a day or having a favorite spot to write. Share your most important rituals that help you be a successful writer.

Abbie:  Since I no longer have a full-time job and have few obligations during the week, I spend most days at my computer, either writing, editing, or submitting. Most of this time is taken with creating posts for my blog, which go live almost every day. I also spend at least an hour a day reading posts from other bloggers I follow via email. I try not to work on weekends, but this isn’t always possible.

Empish:  Along the lines of your writing rituals, what adaptive technology do you use to assist with your writing process?

Abbie:  I use a Windows PC with screen reading software and a Braille display. I sometimes like to write in my recliner. For that purpose, I use a Braille tablet with the ability to copy files directly to Google Drive so I can access them on my computer.

Characters with Medical Challenges

Empish:  In your novel “The Red   Dress” and your newly released one “Why Grandma Doesn’t Know Me,” both deal with characters with dementia. Why did you decide to write stories with characters who are struggling with severe memory loss?

Abbie:  I created the characters in both these novels for different purposes. I really don’t want to go into detail for fear of giving away spoilers. So, let’s just say that I created these characters to provide a source of tension in the plot.

Empish:  Your other books are peppered with stories about your husband and his medical challenges. Why was it important to write about those experiences and share them with your readers?

Abbie:  Being a family caregiver can be an isolating occupation. You often don’t have an opportunity to socialize with other people, let alone others in your situation. So, I share my experiences to let those people know they’re not alone.

Abbie’s Writing Advice

Empish:  Lastly, for people who want to write a book and get published what words of wisdom and/or encouragement would you give them?

Abbie:  First of all, read, not just books in the genre in which you want to write but books and magazines on writing. Writers, like doctors and lawyers, must read up on the latest practices and trends.

Also, get involved in writing groups, either in-person or virtually. I’ve found people in such groups inspiring and supportive over the years.

Last but not least, write every day, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes, even if it’s just an email message. No matter what you write or how long you write each day, always consider yourself a writer.

Abbie Johnson Taylor is the author of three novels, two poetry collections, and a memoir. Her work has appeared in Magnets and Ladders, The Writer’s Grapevine, and other publications. She lives in Sheridan, Wyoming, where, for six years, she cared for her late husband, who was totally blind and partially paralyzed by two strokes. Before that, she worked for fifteen years as a registered music therapist in nursing homes and other senior facilities, facilitated a support group for visually impaired adults, taught Braille, and served on the advisory board to a state trust fund that allows blind and visually impaired individuals to purchase adaptive equipment. Learn more about Abbie  on her website, read her blog or connect with her on her Facebook page.

My Writing Toolkit: Three Essential Instruments for Successful Freelance Writing

black and white line drawing of two feather pens in an inkwell

Creating Website and Blog

It was this month 2 years ago when I decided to rebuild my website and launch my own blog. The desire to create a personal place to write my own thoughts and feelings about whatever was going on had been noodling around in my head for a long time. Prior to this time, I had been blogging and writing professionally for years but had not carved out a special place that reflected my own ideas and opinions.

Reassembling Writing Toolkit

Yet, I didn’t just want a place to document streams of consciousness or my views on the latest this or that. I wanted to maintain my online presence because I was moving back into freelance writing work. I had been a freelancer in the past and uderstood the importance and necessity of having a virtual home to showcase my written work. So, here I am two years later doing exactly this. Major goal accomplished.

In reestablishing myself as a freelance writer I had to reassemble my toolkit. I had to dust off some instruments. Throw out some old and rusty implements. Add some new and shiny gadgets. Today My writer toolkit is restored. But as I was cleaning and organizing some tools immediately grabbed my attention. Three I use frequently. Three I prefer over others.

First Writing Tool

I am a voracious reader as many of you already know. However, my reading is not just for leisure and entertainment. I also read for personal development and growth. Even more so to help with my work and career. Hence, reading is one of the tools in my toolkit. Part of my monthly reading is the Writer Magazine which I receive in audio format from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. This publication   is a valuable part of my career. I have learned so much about the freelance writing world along with tips and tricks on how to be an overall better writer.

Two facemasks expressing love of libraries and African American authors

I also read audiobooks on the writing craft. Currently on my list is “Who Said What:  A Writer’s Guide to Finding, Evaluating, Quoting and Documenting Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism” by Kayla Meyers. I just started but already I am learning so much about how to do deeper and richer searches on the internet. I am confident as I continue reading more precious nuggets of wisdom will surface.

Another book I added to my virtual bookshelf is “African American Women in the News: Gender, Race and Class in Journalism” by Dr. Marian Meyers. Although I don’t work directly in the newsroom or for a media company this book was good to read. It helped me to stay abreast of the trends in the newsroom as it relates to Black women and also the impacts of social media and how it is transforming the way we digest news.

Second Writing Tool

Reading is not the only way I absorb information and learn about writing. Sometimes I will become a student and take a mini online course. I am currently in the midst of going back to J-school with a refresher course on journalism. I am learning how to write eye-catching headlines. Ones that will grab a reader’s attention and encourage them to click on my story. How many times have you passed over an email or story online because the headline was not compelling? Yeah, I know because I have done it too. With so much content hollering for your attention writing a headline that stands out is critical.

Before the J-school course, I went through a session of webinars to improve my website. It was chalked full of useful hints on improving my site to draw more freelance work. Once the course was completed I was given a critique of my site with suggestions for improvement. AS I implement those recommendations I know it will help lead me to more opportunities.

Third Writing Tool

I have to admit this third tool has been hard for me. I know the freelance writer life is a lonely and solitary one. I have made some meager attempts to build a writer community which have gone flat. I realize the problem is my approach and method is vastly different than what is popular. What I mean is the majority of communities now, especially with COVID, are online. They are on forums, chat rooms, social media, or similar places. Well, that way of interaction has never been my speed. Some of it has to do with accessibility. Some has to do with who I am as a person. It is not my flavor. But I am coming to some understanding that I got to get with the program. So, I have been slowly migrating to these virtual communities. I am currently a member of a writers’ forum where I engage from time to time. Recently I joined a writer’s collective for Black folks that looks very promising. I will attend my first meeting next week via Zoom.

Surely, if I root around in my toolkit I will find other helpful writing tools. Things like podcasts, newsletters, email blasts and list groups. But the three I have shared rise to the top and are essential to my freelance success.

Hey Siri, What Special Occasion is It? It’s Your 10 Year Anniversary

Empish Using an iPhone

I remember several years ago, when I first started using an iPhone I was giving Siri a command. But before I did, I got distracted talking to my boyfriend at the time and said, “Oh, my God!” Siri heard me and immediately replied, “I am not a spiritual advisor. You must get a human being for that.” I looked down at my phone in shock and amazement. Did I hear correctly? Yes I did. Then I started to laugh loudly. My boyfriend asked me what was so funny and I shared with him what Siri said. Then he started laughing too. Siri can do all kinds of things; but that day she made it crystal clear that things related to religion was not one of them.

Since that day, I have become more skillful using my phone including Siri. Today I give her all kinds of commands. What is the weather for today? What is my doctor’s number? Set the timer for 10 minutes. Text this or that person. Spell the word Entrepreneur. Open Netflix or Overcast. These are some of the daily commands I give Siri and she doesn’t complain. This little personal assistant built into my iPhone has become so helpful over the years. I hate to admit it but I have become a little dependent on Siri to complete these tasks. When it comes time to cook in my kitchen or write a blog post I am hunting around for my phone so I can call up Siri for assistance.

This month is the 10-year anniversary of Siri. Some might say in all these years Siri should be doing more like other personal assistants on the market. Yet, for me I am happy with her performance. I am a low-tech person and the help I get is exactly what I need. So, Hey, Siri happy anniversary.

Today I’m Relaxing Instead of Working

Empish sitting on mat in a yoga prayer pose

It’s Time to Relax

You are sitting in a comfortable position. The room temperature is just right. There is relaxing music playing in the background. Someone with a soft and gentle voice is giving these instructions:  Relax. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Release with a slow awl. Sit back and close your eyes and gradually release the tension. Start with your toes. Working up your legs and hips. Moving slowly up your arms. To your shoulders, neck fingertips and head. Now slowly open your eyes and read my soothing blog post on relaxation. Well, maybe not the last part but you get the point.

I am relaxing today. Taking some time off. Maybe sleep in late for a change. Watch a movie or two. Read an audiobook. Or just do nothing. The last couple of Sundays I have been working. Writing blog post. Doing research. Taking courses to update this website. The list goes on and on.

It is good to take a breather from time to time. To rest, relax and release stress. To recharge my battery. I am an overachiever and Type A personality so I can get laser focused and I am in the zone. Then I am off to the races and not much else matters. The problem is I feel it later when my body is stiff, sore and aches all over. Making me exhausted and not good for much of anything else.

Blindness and Stress

also, because I am blind sometimes I feel the pressure to perform. To show the world and society blind people are smart. We are successful. We can contribute. We can do things. So many people have had little to no interaction with a blind person therefore all kinds of ideas and misinformation gets out there. Then people like me spend a lot of time pushing back on that and it is stressful.

When I saw on my calendar that Today is National Relaxation Day I knew I would definitely pause and take a break. And no guilt too because I have a legitimate reason. It is Sunday first of all and second a national observance. I got to do it, right? Yes, I do. So, I wrote this post in advance and when you read it I will be relaxing and not writing. I will not be working.

Relaxing Music Helps Me Sleep

Empish Sleeping

Now the other thing is this. I don’t just plan to relax today but relax on the regular. It is important to make relaxation a part of my lifestyle and not just a one off. So, what I have been doing is listening to relaxation, or maybe the better word is meditation, CDs. I started borrowing them from my county library through the Hoopla app. OMG! This app is wonderful because it is free and fairly accessible. Not only can I download audiobooks but movies and music too. So, one day I decided to try one of the meditation CDs to help with my sleeping problem. I found it extremely helpful as it soothed me and cleared my mind so I could sleep. I have made it a part of my nighttime routine or when I want to take an afternoon nap.

Now, I am done. No more talking about relaxation because it is time to actually do it. I am going to go and relax and I encourage you to do the same. But before you do, let me know ways you relax best in the comment section.

The Book Your Next Level Life Reinforced and Challenged My Career Goals

Your Next Level Life Book Cover

This past week I read a motivating and encouraging book. It challenged and inspired me to take my career to the next level. The book is titled Your Next Level Life: 7 Rules of Power, Confidence, and Opportunity for Black Women in America by Karen Arrington. She is the founder of the Miss Black USA Pageant, creator of the Next Level Women’s Summit, winner of a 2020 NAACP Image Award, a global philanthropist and mentor to thousands of young Black women.

It addresses the question what is the next level life for you? While keeping in mind it is different things for different people. Arrington looks at how Black women can feel stuck or trapped by other people’s expectations of what can be achieved. She wants the reader to stop playing small and start redefining what success really means. As I read this short but powerful book, I was deeply moved by Arrington’s passionate words because she reinforced a lot of the thoughts and ideas I had as well. Yet I felt a little overwhelmed by all that I was challenged to do. I have accomplished a lot in my life and career. Still reading the book I realized I have more to do and wondered how to do it as a Black woman with a visual disability. I struggled a bit to see myself fully in this book. Very few business and career books address the intersectionality of race, gender and disability. This is something that many of my disabled working friends talk about often. However, I decided to take the gems in this book and apply them where needed.

The Seven Rules

Arrington gives seven rules for leveling up your life. They are presented as chapters with thought-provoking questions, tips and ideas to handle each one. Her seven rules are:

1.  Identify Your Superpowers

2.  Find Your Next Level Friends

3.  Expand Your Horizons

4.  Magnetize Money

5.  Position Yourself Like a Star

6.  Keep It Real

7.  Give Back From Day One

Sometimes My Superpowers Need a Rest

AS I read these seven rules, I thought about the ones I needed to focus on the most. Which areas of my life needed the most improvement? I figured this was the best approach to the book. This way I could center myself on making small incremental changes. When it came to the first rule I was already there. I have a good self-awareness and know my strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the challenge for me is whether I want to stretch myself. Or whether I want to give myself a break because that superpower needs a rest. Sometimes you can be known for being good at a thing until you get tired and need a break. I think it is good to shift things around a bit to get some balance.

Challenged to Level Up Connections

Now, the second rule I really need to work on. Finding those level friends has been a challenge for me and it has not been for lack of trying. This year I began to work on this one more than previous years. I had joined two writers’ forums in hopes of building a community for my freelance work, but it went flat. Reading this chapter showed me I need to get back on the horse again. I also see that I need to reevaluate my current connections to see if they are in alignment with my life and goals. As Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?” I like what she said about how you are the sum of the five people you hang with. I had to really take a pause and think about that statement. My close connections are not bad, but they are not helping me to move forward and that needs to change. Fortunately, I am not around negative people, but it is more that the people I am around are not moving in the same direction as me.

Headshot of Karen Arrington

rule four on Magnetize Money was spot on. She said that wealth is your birthright. As women we don’t get equal pay for equal work, even more so for Black women and even more so for disabled women. This is a hard one and I have mixed feelings about what she said. Yes, there are more opportunities to create income and wealth but people with disabilities still did with huge barriers to employment. I have been taking courses, as she suggested, to help advance my career. Today, I am working on improving my website you are reading this blog on right now. I am also working on my Microsoft skills because I just installed Office 365, and I plan on learning how to spruce up my LinkedIn profile for maximum appeal. Still at times I feel no matter how much education, training and work experience I acquire, opportunities still elude me.

Other Rules Reinforced My Own Thoughts

The rest of the book’s nuggets of wisdom were encouraging and again reinforced my own thoughts and ideas. I reflected on her words about how I should be confident and unapologetic about who I am. That I should always keep it real because what I do is who I become. And, of course giving back. I totally agree with that rule. I have been a firm believer in contributing to society and community. I have been a volunteer for many years and continue to do so with my writing. So, if you are looking for a great read to help level up your career. One that will encourage you to take it to the next stage. One that will inspire and motivate you without being judgmental, then this is the book for you.

Purchase this influencing quick read online at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. You can learn more about  Arrington at her website KarenArrington.com, follow her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

The Disability Visibility Anthology Delivers Insightful Storytelling

Disability Visibility Book Cover

Reading with My Ears Book Review

The anthology Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century edited by Alice Wong has been on my audio bookshelf to read for months now. I finally stopped procrastinating and red this remarkable collection of writings by disabled and chronically ill activists, artists, and authors. The topics are as diverse as the type of disability presented. The 30+ entries cover technology, incarceration, fashion, homophobia, medical issues, organizing strategies, psychotherapy, racism, relationships, sexism and so much more.

Purpose of the Anthology

Wong is a disabled activist, media creator and research consultant. She is also the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community supporting and amplifying disability media and culture. In the introduction, Wong shares about how story telling itself is an activity not an object. It is the closest we can come to a shared experience. She shares about how she didn’t grow up as part of the ADA generation. Rather it was her collection of stories about people with disabilities that helped grow her sense of community and connection. She wanted this book to reflect and contribute three things:

1.  More stories about the disabled in the present while honoring the past.

2.  More stories about every day disabled people verses highly profiled ones in the disability community.

3.  Increase the diversity of the mainstream representation of disability which is mostly white and male.

The book is divided into four parts:  Being, Becoming, Doing and Connecting. This anthology is not a disability 101 guidebook or the best of list. Wong makes it clear that these stories are not meant to explain disability and are not here to inspire, motivate or encourage the reader. Rather it is the disabled speaking in their own words about being disabled. The stories come in various forms such as:  essays, speeches, an interview, a eulogy, statement and call to action. Content notes are provided for self-protection   and access so the reader is given a heads up that the material might be difficult to read or triggering. This allows the reader to skip around and select the stories that are the most interesting or compelling. Unlike others, I read through the whole book from beginning to end. I wanted to hear about the lives of others with disabilities to feel a sense of connection and community. In this post I am featuring a few of the entries that resonated with me.

Part One Being

In part one, Being, the entry titled When You Are Waiting to be Healed hit a nerve with me because of its relatability. The author deals with a vision challenge called nystagmus where the eyes move around uncontrollably. She shares about her family and religious experience in looking to God to heal her vision problem. Boy, could I relate to this story! In the early days of my blindness, I was there too. Praying for healing and understanding because I was confused about what was happening to me. People around me praying and telling me to be faithful that God would heal me.   But as my vision got worse, I had an aha moment. I realized this was going to be my life. Not that I stopped believing in God or prayer I just started focusing on learning how to live differently. The author shares that she was not a mistake waiting to be fixed and I totally agreed. I don’t look at my disability as something that I need to be healed from anymore. I don’t think that I need to be fixed or changed in anyway. I think this is exactly how I should be, and I embrace the beautiful life that I live.

Another similar story was I’m Tired of Chasing a Cure. Since my vision loss was due to an auto immune condition some people felt I should have spent more time researching cures and remedies. I just didn’t feel the need. The author brings up some powerful questions such as: how do we feel about ourselves? How do we feel when abled body people start advocating for cures which could eliminate our people entirely? These are some thought provoking questions and it is not that disabled people don’t desire a cure, but it would dominate their time. There would be no time to live. The author says the cost is too high because I miss living my life while chasing cures. This is so true. I have seen folks in the blind community spend a lot of time researching eye treatments, seeing various doctors, and having multiple surgeries to find a cure to their eye condition to the point they stop living.  They also lack basic blind skills that could help them live a better life. Sometimes I think that maybe this is a part of the denial/acceptance phase of things. Yes, I know that being blind is not the sexiest thing in the world, but it is what you make it. It is about perspective and attitude.

Part Two Becoming

In part two, Becoming, Nurturing Black Disabled Joy was an insightful read because the author was so transparent about not always having joy. She said that “hope is my favorite word, but I didn’t always have it. My joy is my freedom.” We live in a world where we assume that joy is impossible for disabled people. That sadness, depression, loneliness, and shame are the only feelings. People wrongly assume the life of a disabled person must be miserable, But I tell folks all the time I have met many an unhappy, bitter, and pissed off sighted person. So, what does that say? We are all human beings and feel a range of emotions. The disabled are no different.

Part Three Doing

In part three, Doing, I absolutely loved the entry Why My Novel is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy. I felt a sense of connection because this author is a writer trying to get their book published. The author has a brain injury that makes using a computer screen hard. I appreciated the emphasis on interdependence where we rely on each other focusing on strengths. Too many times in society we have the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality but in reality, that doesn’t work. Maddy, a friend with a similar brain injury, helps the author edit the manuscript.

Wall of Book Shelves

I could identify because in the blind community we do the same thing. One person might be totally blind and another low vision. We get in there and help each other with what needs to be done. As a writer, I could also relate because I have had to reach out to get additional support. I have had friends or paid assistance with reviewing my writing, taking pictures for my blog, or brainstorming writing ideas. Even this website and blog was not created by my efforts alone. I got help from others.

The author presses the need for more stories written by, about and for the disabled. I agree. Disabled success is not just about one person as portrayed in the media but many people behind the scenes helping to make the disabled person successful.

I don’t have the same exact disability as the author of Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time. Yet, I understood the need for extra time. I just never looked or thought about it as Crip time; that is time needed because of my disability. I find myself needing those extra moments in the morning to get up and get ready especially as I get older, and my body moves slower. I also need it in the afternoon. I find myself slow and sluggish around 3 p.m. and literally must lay down for a nap.

I have always noticed it in my writing. I have never been a fast-moving journalist. I knew back in college before I even became disabled those tight-type reporter deadlines were not for me. I preferred writing with a much longer lead time like for magazines or newsletters. Now, having a disability I see I am a slow writer. Pondering what I am going to say, listening closely to my screen reader, and monitoring my fingers snugged tight in a hand brace relieving my carpal tunnel

For many years I have advocated for better transportation. So, when I read the entry on the para-transit system in New York City I was nodding my head through the whole thing. I was like a parishioner in the amen corner at church, saying, “Yes, that is right.” Late pick-ups. Long ride around times. Drivers who don’t offer assistance. Poor route planning. Filing numerous complaints. Even being on TV and in the newspaper. Yes, I have done all those things too just like the author. However, at the end when she vividly described the driver using a cup to urinate in front of her on the bus that was it for me! The weird thing is I was not surprised because I had a similar experience.  Not on PARA-transit but in an Uber car. I felt some of the same feelings as the author. Why did the driver wait until I was the only one left in the car to do this? Why didn’t he stop along the way to go to a bathroom? If I were a sighted white woman, would he have done the same thing? IF he would stoop this low, what other things would he do? And, no I do not want you to touch any of my belongings or take my hand. Unlike the author I was not too concerned for my safety. I think I was too mortified to think about that, but she brought up a good point about vulnerability because this person was exposing himself. Things can happen to women and specially to disabled women. Like the author I did file a complaint with Uber but not much came of it except an apology and that they would ensure I would not be matched up with that driver again.

Part Four Connecting

In part four, Connecting, I agreed with the entry titled The Beauty of Spaces Created for and by Disabled People also called crip space.  This is a spot where you don’t have to justify or explain your existence. A place where disability is celebrated and embraced. Some think it is radical or tabu. The fact that we need our own space is disconcerting to people who can’t relate. The question becomes why you would want to associate with people like that. Perhaps for newly disabled people this kind of space would be overwhelming and uncomfortable. But for folks like me who are 20 plus years in the game being in a “crip space” can be quite reaffirming and enjoyable. It is because I feel comfortable in my skin and feel no shame around being blind. I have found my life as a disabled person fulfilling, happy and even adventurous.

As a matter of fact, I will be entering into my “crip space” next month when I attend the American Council for the Blind’s national convention. It will be my third year attending. This event is an opportunity for thousands of blind and visually impaired people to gather to talk, share, advocate and build bonds around blindness.

All the entries in this anthology communicate a wide array of experiences. Each an invaluable snapshot into what it is to live with a disability. The day-to-day struggles and joys of navigating the world through it. This collection of stories emphasizes the importance of sharing, writing, and documenting our own stories of life, love, joy, and pain.

Three Inventions for the Blind that Changed My Life

National Inventors Month

Empish Writing a Check

After I went blind some 20 years ago, I needed tools to adjust to my new life. I knew that as a blind person I wasn’t going to be very successful without some kind of accommodation or modification to the way I was living and moving in the world. May is National Inventors Month and I am very appreciative of the things that were created to not only help me regain independence but have a fuller and richer life. For example, I love my white cane for traveling. My metal guides for signing documents and writing checks. My talking and braille watches and clocks for time management. However, the three inventions that changed my life the most are talking books, screen readers and braille. I use these tools daily and wouldn’t know how to function without them.

Invention of the Talking Book

Thomas Edison originally wanted his Phonograph to be a talking book device for the blind. So, in 1877, he applied for a patent. One of the ten potential uses he listed was “phonograph books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.” Interestingly, this item was second in his list of ten; “reproduction of music” was fourth. It would take over 50 years before the Phonograph could be used for   talking books. This was due to technology and economic challenges. In 1931, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project established the “Talking Books Program” (Books for the Blind), which was intended to provide reading material for veterans injured during World War I and other visually impaired adults. Later, Learning Ally and the American Printing House for the Blind also produced talking books. The first test recordings, in 1932 included a chapter from Helen Keller’s Midstream and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. The organization received congressional approval for exemption from copyright and free postal distribution of talking books.

Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

Since those early days of vinyl records, talking books have evolved. First with cassette tapes in the 1960s and 1970s. Then compact disks in the 1980s and 1990s. Today it is digital downloads from a computer. The options of reading materials have also expanded with a wide range of fiction, non-fiction, magazines, foreign languages and other selections to choose from. Additionally, the NLS National Library for the Blind and Print Disabled has become the dominant source for free reading materials. Today, audio books have gathered universal mass appeal with both sighted and blind people enjoying them. This is so true because I participate in two book discussion groups with sighted peers. Some of them enjoy reading books in audio verses print. I remember when I first joined the talking book library it kept my love of reading going. The ability to access books in audio format has kept the world accessible to me. I have been able to learn, grow and be entertained because I can read books in this format.

Invention of the Screen reader

In 1986 Jim Thatcher, IBM Researcher and Accessibility Pioneer, created the first screen reader at IBM. It was called the IBM Screen Reader for DOS. At first it wasn’t trademarked because it was primarily for low vision staff members. Since it was created for DOS, which is a text-based Desktop Operating System he later created a Screen Reader 2. This one would be used for graphical interface PCs such as Windows 95 and IBM OS/2.

IBM wasn’t the only company developing screen readers. Freedom scientific produced JAWS, currently the world’s most popular screen reader. It was developed first for DOS and then Windows. I have been using JAWS since 1998 or so and it has revolutionized my life. First, it has allowed me to keep working. Second, it has allowed me to access personal information to maintain my quality of life. I can handle my finances, do internet searches, send emails, and even write this blog post.

Empish Using an iPhone

in 2009, Apple announced a new feature called VoiceOver making their products more accessible to people with visual impairments using the touch interface of the iPhone beginning with the iPhone 3GS. VoiceOver is the screen reader built into Apple operating systems including macOS, iOS/iPadOS, and WatchOS. Initially I was not on board with the iPhone. It took some time because of its flat surface yet eventually I bit the apple. Now I use my iPhone daily and listen to the AppleVIS podcast to keep up with the latest trends.

Invention of Braille

Empish Reading Braille

Braille is a code created for reading and writing. This code is a series of raised dots on paper. The braille code is made up of letters, numbers and symbols. It is not another language. The alphabet is based on a cell that is composed of 6 or 8 dots, arranged in two columns of 3 or 4 dots each. Each braille letter of the alphabet or other symbol, such as a comma, is formed by using one or more of the dots that are contained in the cell. Braille is usually found in a large book format on doubled sided paper to maximize space and can be read for math, science and music.

Born in 1809, Louis Braille was a Frenchman who lost his vision from an accident as a small child. When it was apparent that he could not be educated by just listening, his family enrolled him in the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. While there, as a teenager Braille began the process to create a reading and writing system by touch. He continued to perfect the system and as an adult became an instructor at the Institution.  Unfortunately, Braille’s method was not accepted by the sighted instructors and he died in 1852 never seeing his creation used by the blind. Eventually, the code was accepted and today this system is used all over the world.

A black and white braille label gun with turn dial displaying both braille and print letters and numbers.

I use braille mostly to read labels created with my braille Dymo label machine. These labels are great for all kinds of things like my spices, file folders in my home office, music CDs, and even lipstick tubes. I also read braille on calendars, greeting cards and bathroom signs. Got to know which door is the lady’s room, you know!

Empish Reading Braill Bathroom Sign

Without these inventions I am not sure what my life would be or look like. I actually shutter at the thought. I am grateful for the people who designed and created these devices to help me have a better life as a blind person.

Ever Lee Hairston Shares er Ambitious Life Journey of Blindness

Wall of Book Shelves

Reading with My Ears Book Review

The first time I heard about Ever Lee Hairston was several years ago when I read the book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek. In this depiction of two large families; the author wrote about an incident at a family reunion. Ever Lee called out the white Hairstons for how they mistreated her family who were sharecroppers on the land for many years. I remember thinking how bold this blind Black woman was to do this in this large crowded room full of people. However, she was spot on to say something because the white side of the family had profited for so long while her family lived in poverty. Second time her name popped up was while listening to a favorite podcast, called The Nod. She was being interviewed about her live. Then the third time was another podcast by Freedom Scientific sharing her life once again but this time including her published book. After running into this lady three times, I told myself this was no coincidence and that I needed to read her book to get the skinny on her life.

I found it in audio at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled and finished it last week. The book is titled Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey to Greatness Despite Her Blindness. I was interested in her life story because I don’t come across many blind Black women   who have documented their life. The only other time was when I read about Haban Girma. As I read her story, I pulled out four core areas Ever lee was ambitious about: her education, career, marriage/family and the National Federation of the Blind.

Ambitious about Education

Ever Lee grew up in the segregated south on the Coolemee plantation in Mocksville, North Carolina. She is the third of seven children. Her days were filled with school and picking cotton. She realized from an early age that sharecropping was not the life she wanted to live. It was hard physical work. She was fearful of snakes and her family had little income. She had a desire to become a nurse because one of her sisters was constantly ill. She knew her parents had no money for college so being the ambitious person she was, Ever Lee came up with a plan. She heard about work opportunities up north and during the summer she worked as a live-in maid to save money for school. During this entire time Ever Lee struggled with her vision. She knew something was wrong but was not sure exactly what as she didn’t go to an eye doctor and never told anyone because she was ashamed. All through college, living with her aunt and uncle, and working as a live-in maid Ever Lee kept her vision problem a secret. This caused her to struggle through school because she couldn’t always see the chalkboard, her printed books or exams. When it was time to take the nursing exam, she failed the eye test portion. She was deeply disappointed but pressed on and got her teaching degree instead.

Ambitious About Career

Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

Ever Lee was ambitious about her ability to be employed. She shared an incident where she applied for a position and got the interview. She dressed professionally, showed up on time with resume in hand but when she arrived it went downhill. The employer told her they had never hired a blind person before and she left disappointed. I also had a similar experience which happened shortly after I lost my vision. I went in for an interview and the first thing said to me was, “Oh, I didn’t know a blind person would apply for this job.” When that was said I knew, Like Ever Lee, I wasn’t going to get the job. That one statement spoke volumes about what that employer thought about the blind even though I was qualified for the job.

But like me Ever Lee pressed on and found a more opened-minded employer who not only gave her a job but helped her advance her career. She worked several years as a teacher and then later as a counselor at the Department of Health and Human Services. I worked for DHHS too when I was in high school and my first year of college. I was not blind at the time but I did have a blind co-worker, another one with cerebral palsy and a supervisor who used a wheelchair. Like Ever Lee this experience was rewarding, self-affirming and built my self-confidence. It also helped me when I went blind because I was able to pull from the experience to help me make it through.

Ambitious about Marriage and Family

Initially Ever Lee was hesitant about pursuing dating and romantic relationships because she was fearful her blindness would be exposed. She didn’t date in high school or college. She had been keeping it a secret the majority of her life.  But she did ultimately let go and fall in love with a guy and marry him. The relationship didn’t last because he was gaslighting and cheating on her. She realized this and took her son and left. She figured out what to do, got her career together, purchased a home and eventually met another man she married. When that marriage ended from abandonment, she still kept going. I have to appreciate Ever Lee sharing these intimate details of her life. failed relationships are hard to deal with and being public about it takes courage. Also, I admire the fact she shows them as just relationships where blindness is not the center. Many times, I have had to address the question/concern about my disability in a relationship as if it is the most important thing when so many other factors make up a successful match.

Ambitious About National Federation of the Blind

After years of struggle and disappointment, Ever Lee finally got a proper diagnosis. She was told by an eye specialist that she had a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). She was also told that it would probably get worse over time. Ever Lee’s vision did get worse and for a long time she relied on others to help. Or she “faked it to you make it.” While Ever Lee worked at DHHS she learned about more services for the blind. She got a call from the National Federation of the Blind inviting her to attend   their convention. Her aha moment came when she was offered an agenda in braille/large print. By this time, she could no longer read print and she didn’t know braille. This is when Ever Lee knew she needed more blind skills. So, she took 6 months off from work for vision rehabilitation training. She had already been using a white cane but needed more education on how to live an independent life as a blind person. I could relate too. I also took off from work for about a year to go through a similar program for the same exact reasons. Attending the convention and emersion in her training was the beginning of Ever Lee’s full involvement in NFB. After that she became an active member, advocate, mentor   and later joined the national board of directors. After losing my vision I also got deeply involved in the disability community. First, I became an advocate, then later public educator. Today, I am a writer and blogger on the topic of blindness.

How I Volunteer Virtually Regardless of a Pandemic

black and white line drawing of two feather pens in an inkwell

National Volunteer Week

When most people think of volunteering in the community it is something that you physically do such as feeding the homeless, building a house, tutoring/reading to children, registering people to vote, or running errands for seniors. All of those tasks are great volunteer opportunities and are well needed in the community but there are things that I have done as a volunteer sitting right at home.  I have been volunteering all my life in a variety of projects. Even after I went blind, I still kept volunteering. I just had to shift the way I did it. I figured out a way to use my journalism skills to help my community and even during a pandemic. This week is National Volunteer Week; April 18-24.   The Points of Light established it as an opportunity to recognize the impact of volunteer service and the power of volunteers to tackle society’s greatest challenges, to build stronger communities and be a force that transforms the world.

Started Virtual Volunteering

My first step into virtual volunteering was right after I went blind and lost my corporate job to downsizing, I was rethinking my career path and decided to volunteer at a non-profit. Since I was now a part of the disability community, I wanted to learn more and give back. I worked on a newsletter for a disability non-profit agency called disABILITY LINK. I collected articles and other content for the newsletter via email and phone. Wrote and edited the pieces, then submitted to my supervisor for publishing.

This was a good opportunity for me because it allowed me to give back, use my journalism skills in a professional way and learn about the disability community. It was a win-win all the way around. I began to realize that I could use my writing in a more meaningful way than just as a career.

Volunteering as a Radio Producer  

Empish with Guest Roderick Parker at GaRRS Studio

The next opportunity came in 2006 where a friend recommended me for the position. I was asked to help produce the Eye on Blindness Show by the Georgia Radio Reading Service. Prior to this time, my experience had been in writing only. So, this stretched my journalism skills and I was up for the challenge. Each month I was directed to find guests for the 30-minute show, do research, and write up show notes and promotion materials. All I did from home using my landline phone and computer. I also collaborated with the show’s host on topic ideas and future guests. I volunteered for about 3 years on the show. Later I was asked to come back and not only produce but host as well; which I gladly did for another 3 years.

Empish Using a Landline Phone

Volunteering as a Blogger

One day I got an email request for bloggers/peer advisors for a website called VisionAware. The website was a resource for people new to vision loss and they were looking for people to talk about their lives and give advice and information. Well, that was right up my alley. So, I filled out the application form and signed on. That was back in 2012 and I am still volunteering with VisionAware to this day.  We meet once a month via Zoom conference call to discuss topic ideas and themes for the site. We work to give true and honest information with a real-life experience. I write blog posts from home and submit via email. Volunteering at VisionAWare is rewarding because I can help others like myself and I get to work with a great group of people.

Virtual volunteering has been a wonderful experience for me. The things I have learned. The people I have met. The lives that have changed. This is all for the good and all from the comfort of my home. There are creative ways to volunteer. We are still in this pandemic and traditional methods may not be possible but you can still serve your community virtually. Check out the Points of Light database for virtual volunteer suggestions.

Recognizing 5 Black Women in Journalism During Women’s History Month

Stack of Newspapers

When I was taking courses in journalism in college, I learned about women in the news but they were more modern-day women verses historical. Since March is National Women’s History Month, I wanted to honor some women that impacted the industry from the past. Some of the women are not as well-known while others are famous. Regardless, they left a mark on American journalism that is noteworthy because of their courage, self-determination and strength.

Published Stories on Lynchings

The first woman, Ida B. Wells, was a journalist I knew because of her bravery and doggedness in publishing the stories of lynchings. She was born a slave in 1862 in Mississippi. When the Civil War ended, Ida’s parents became politically active setting an example of activism and advocacy she would use later in life. They also believed in the importance of education.  She became a teacher and moved to Memphis after her parents and one sibling died from yellow fever. Ida’s activism kicked off when she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in 1885for unfair treatment. She had been thrown off a first-class train despite having a ticket. Although she won the case locally, the ruling was later overturned in federal court.

After losing her teaching job Ida turned to journalism. In 1892 when three friends had been lynched by a mob, she began an editorial campaign against lynching. She was doubtful about the reasons Black men were lynched and set out to investigate several cases. She published her findings in a pamphlet and wrote several columns. Her exposure enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis. Ida was passionate about highlighting lynchings that she traveled internationally. Abroad, she openly challenged white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching’s. Ida was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States because of her bold and fearless stance on the topic. Despite lack of support, Ida remained active in the women’s rights movement. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage. Although she was in Niagara Falls for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), her name is not mentioned as an official founder; but she later became a member of the executive committee. Disenchanted with their white and elite Black leadership, she soon distanced herself from the organization. Late in her career Ida focused on urban reform in Chicago. She died in 1931.

Poet and Journalist  

The second woman was born shortly after the Civil War in New Orleans and later was actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Her name is Alice Dunbar Nelson  and she was a poet, journalist and political activist. Her first collection of stories, poems and essays, Violets, and Other Tales, was published in 1895. She was married to the famous poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar and during their marriage she published a short-story collection, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories. This collection was published as a companion piece to his Poems of Cabin and Field in 1899. The volume helped establish her as a clever portrayer of Creole culture. The marriage didn’t last owing to abuse and alcoholism from her husband yet Alice continued to move forward in her writings and romantic life.

Alice was involved in the Harlem Renaissance, even though she hadn’t lived in New York for many years since before her marriage to Paul and was still living in Delaware at the time. Her poetry, much of it written earlier, was rediscovered through its appearance in journals and collections like The Crisis, Opportunity, Ebony and Topaz. She was also a journalist and wrote a syndicated column, Une Femme Dit, and contributed a wealth of reviews and essays to newspapers and magazines. During the 1920s, she coedited the Wilmington Advocate, a progressive Black newspaper. She also published The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, a literary anthology.  Although a successful writer, Alice spoke about her challenges as a journalist in her diary. She discussed being denied pay for her articles and issues she had with receiving proper recognition for her work. Her diary was published in 1984 and remains one of the few diaries of a 19th-century African-American woman. Alice died in 1935.

Vintage typewriter on a wooden desk

First to Receive White House Media Credentials

Alice Allison Dunnigan was the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House, the Supreme Court, the State Department and Congress. Born in 1906 in Kentucky, Alice was a bright and smart student, and started writing for newspapers when she was only 13 years old. She began her career as a teacher, but wasn’t satisfied so took journalism classes and wrote fact sheets about information omitted in the school curriculum. Alice knew that to move forward she had to physically move so in 1935, she moved to Louisville. There she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender. Next, she moved to the Capitol. Initially she worked for the federal government as a civil service worker but still had her eyes on journalism. In 1946 Alice’s ambitions were realized when she became a Washington, DC, correspondent for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics. She worked mightily on getting her press pass and was approved in 1947, and quickly acquired White House media credentials the following year.

Despite these major achievements Alice still dealt with racism and sexism in the work place. While covering President Truman and President Eisenhower, Alice experienced discrimination. She was one of three African Americans and one of two women in the press corps covering President Truman’s campaign. During her years of covering the White House, she frequently asked questions regarding the escalating civil rights movement. In 1953 Dunnigan was barred from covering a speech given by President Eisenhower in a whites-only theater and was forced to sit with the servants to cover Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft’s funeral. It was not until President Kennedy that she was recognized as a member of the press when asking questions. Under his administration, Alice began a new career as a consultant. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. After retiring, Alice self-published her autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. She died in 1983, and in 2013, was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.

First to Have Comics Syndicated Nationally  

The next woman started off as a writer but was best known as a cartoonist. She was the first Black woman to have her comics syndicated nationally   across America. Jackie Ormes, born in 1911, used her artistic talent to remark on political and social issues happening at the time. Her portrayal of positive Black folks went against long held stereotypical and negative images. Her first strip in the Pittsburg Courier, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, followed the adventures of Torchy Brown, a young ambitious Black teen who traveled from Mississippi to New York to pursue her dream of performing in the Big Apple. During the 1940s, Jackie worked as a columnist at the Chicago Defender and published her next cartoon strip, Candy, about a funny, hard-working and smart maid. 

The Pittsburgh Courier published a new strip from Jackie after WWII called Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. It centered around two sisters, Ginger, the older, stylish sister, and Patty Jo, the wisecracking, insightful little sister. The strip was so successful it ran for 11 years with more than 500 cartoons. In partnership with the Terri Lee Doll Company, Jackie created the Patty-Jo doll in 1947. This was the first nationally distributed high class Black doll that had real child-like features and an extensive, fashionable wardrobe. The dolls were extremely popular and the wish of many Black and white children. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Jackie’s comic section was cut. She retired from cartooning and switched to painting. but later, Jackie had to stop painting entirely after developing rheumatoid arthritis. Still, she stayed active in the artist community through her seat on the board of directors of the Usable Museum of African-American History and Art. Jackie died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1985. She was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame in 2014.

Newspaper Owner and integrationist

Two pressmen are working in an old fashion pressroom with an old stop-the-presses type press.

Daisy Bates is a name I quickly recognized but not for her journalism background. Whenever I would read about Daisy it was her affiliation with the NAACP and how she advocated for integration with the Little Rock 9 in Arkansas. But before she got heavily involved in school integration, she married a newspaper man and they both ran the Arkansas State Press which focused on the need for social and economic improvements for the Black community. This paper became known for its courageous reporting of acts of police brutality against Black soldiers from a local army camp. Their persistence and drive in spotlighting these abuses led many white business owners to cease placing advertisements in their paper. Regardless of the financial loss, they continued to produce their publication. In 1959 they were forced to close the Arkansas State Press due to threats of racial violence. But Daisy reopened it in 1984 and sold it several years later. For many years Daisy continued her advocacy in education and civil rights involvement. For her work, the state of Arkansas proclaimed the third Monday in February, Daisy Gatson Bates Day. She died in 1999 and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom the same year.

All of these women had incredible stories of tenacity, strength and power. As I researched each one there was so much rich history on their lives, I struggled with featuring just the highlights because there was so much more than what appears in this blog post. These women were wives, mothers, sisters, friends and held other roles in their community. These women battled racism, sexism and all kinds of challenges as they tried to do their work as journalists. They were excellent examples and believed deeply in the power of the written word and its impact on their community and society. Journalism was not just a routine 9-to-5 job but a way to evoke social and political change. I can definitely relate and is also a reason why I chose journalism and why I wanted to recognize them this month.