Roman Mars [00:00:02] Every kid learns differently. So, it’s really important that your children have the educational support that they need to help them keep up and excel. If your child needs homework help, check out IXL, the online learning platform for kids. IXL covers math, language arts, science, and social studies through interactive practice problems from pre-K to 12th grade. As kids practice, they get positive feedback and even awards. With the school year ramping up, now is the best time to get IXL. Our listeners can get an exclusive 20% off IXL membership when they sign up today at ixl.com/invisible. That’s the letters ixl.com/invisible. With no fees or minimums, banking with Capital One is the easiest decision in the history of decisions–even easier than deciding to listen to another episode of your favorite podcast. And with no overdraft fees, is it even a decision? That’s banking reimagined. What’s in your wallet? Terms apply. See capitalone.com/bank. Capital One, N.A. Member FDIC. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. There’s an old story by H.G. Wells, the science fiction writer, called The Country of the Blind. In it, he imagines a civilization of blind men and women who live in a hidden mountain valley without any knowledge of the sighted world. One day, an explorer stumbles across it.
Andrew Leland [00:01:32] He’s on an expedition in the Andes and gets separated from his team and in a landslide falls into this forgotten valley that has existed sort of out of contact with the rest of human civilization for many, many, many generations.
Roman Mars [00:01:46] That’s reporter and author Andrew Leland.
Andrew Leland [00:01:48] And it’s the proverbial country of the blind. This explorer–his name is Nunez–enters it with a kind of very colonial attitude, like, “Oh, well…” You know, he keeps on repeating to himself, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” And he sort of thinks he’ll just sort of single-handedly dominate them. And then he comes to discover that the world is really built for blindness and not for sightedness. And actually, they’re the ones with all the power. And it’s a lot about this question of escape versus assimilation, which in a lot of ways reflected my own experience of becoming blind and gradual vision loss.
Roman Mars [00:02:22] Andrew compares himself to Nunez, an accidental and sometimes wary visitor to the strange and often beautiful country of the blind. Andrew was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease during his freshman year in college. Over the past couple of decades, he’s slowly been going blind. But he still has some sight, so he exists between worlds–faced with a choice.
Andrew Leland [00:02:44] It’s the sort of dichotomy between do I embrace this? Do I assimilate? Do I become a citizen of this country, or do I rage against it and search for a cure and cling to the person who I was before losing vision?
Roman Mars [00:02:59] Andrew Leland has a book out today named after H.G. Wells’ story. We’re going to talk to him a little bit about the book later in the show. But first, we wanted to re-air a story that Andrew did for us a few years ago about the long and fascinating history of blind reading technologies. Enjoy. Andrew Leland has always loved to read. As a fifth grader, he was the kid who sat on a utility box during recess reading The Hobbit while everyone else played kickball. In middle school, he learned the trade names of the book imprints that published the druggy contemporary fiction that he was starting to get into. And in 2003, he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to work for his favorite publisher, McSweeney’s.
Andrew Leland [00:03:48] It was my dream job and working there exacerbated my already intense fetish for print.
Roman Mars [00:03:53] That’s Andrew.
Andrew Leland [00:03:54] I got to live out my fantasy of being an ink-stained wretch, even if that meant logging 12-hour days at an inkless computer. I edited essays and interviews, laid out articles, and took a weird amount of pleasure in typographical minutiae, like italicizing and commas and rewriting headlines so they fit the frame just so. At McSweeney’s, books and magazines were never just containers for words. They were works of art unto themselves. And I was trained to take as much care with the look and feel of the print as I did with the expression of the ideas in the text.
Roman Mars [00:04:24] But as much as Andrew loved print–he still loves it, in fact–he also has a condition that will eventually change his relationship to it pretty radically.
Andrew Leland [00:04:34] I’m going blind. Really, really slowly. Right now, it’s like I’ve got a foot in both worlds–blind and sighted. I have a degenerative retinal disease that’s given me severe tunnel vision. So basically, no peripheral vision. It’s like I’m peering at the world through a toilet paper tube–one that gets a little narrower every few months.
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:04:55] I’m going to try to read this and then see if I got it right. “Can… we…”
Andrew Leland [00:05:06] My retinal specialist told me that I probably don’t need to worry about losing the ability to read for another five years or so. But I’ve already started using a special digital program to learn Braille, which is not easy.
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:05:19] “Becocle?” What?
Andrew Leland [00:05:19] I want to get a jumpstart before I actually need it.
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:05:25] “Recocle?” What? Oh, “recycle.”
Computer [00:05:34] “Can we recycle a metal can?”
Andrew Leland [00:05:39] I know I’ll still be able to experience books for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to be going blind in the digital age and the golden age of audio. There’s an abundance of well-produced audio books and technology that can read aloud almost anything that appears on a screen.
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:05:55] “Puzzles?” “My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles.”
Computer [00:06:00] “My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles.”
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:06:07] What does that mean? My niece can do no such thing.
Andrew Leland [00:06:14] But despite all that, there’s still some mellow tragedy in the idea that in a few years, I’ll probably no longer be able to read print. After a life spent loving books, there’s now a real urgency for me in the question of how blind people experience literature. I find myself deeply curious about what graphic design might mean to someone who can’t see. And so, I started looking into the history of reading technologies for the blind.
Roman Mars [00:06:36] Traditionally, books are visual objects. And for centuries now, blind and sighted designers have been arguing over the most effective way to translate the visual ink print book into an accessible form for people without sight. For as long as blind people have been reading, there’s been this tension between systems that try to stay close to the original form of a book and systems that dramatically depart from our ideas of what a book can be.
Andrew Leland [00:07:03] Sighted designers have made incredible breakthroughs to create non-visual forms of reading for blind people. But as one blind critic pointed out, sighted designers have a bad habit of, quote, “talking to the fingers in the language of the eyes.”
Roman Mars [00:07:16] So the history of blind reading is really the history of finding a new language for the fingers and for the ears–one that captures the essential elements of the ink print book but in a new language that’s unbound from the visual.
Andrew Leland [00:07:31] And that history centers around two main shapes: Lines and dots.
Roman Mars [00:07:37] Our story starts in 18th century Europe–before Braille was invented–before blind people were even taught to read at all.
Mike Hudson [00:07:45] First off, no one thinks that it’s possible for blind kids to learn.
Roman Mars [00:07:49] That’s Mike Hudson, the museum director at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mike Hudson [00:07:55] And if they could, no one knows how to do it.
Andrew Leland [00:07:58] Without access to education, blind people were overwhelmingly poor, and their employment prospects were dim. If their families had enough money and time to support them, they usually lived at home, like adult children sitting idly around the house. Many others were forced to beg on the street. There were a handful of institutions in Europe to support the poorest cases, but they pitied the blind and hid them away from public view.
Roman Mars [00:08:21] But then this guy named Valentin Haüy comes along. Haüy was born into a family of weavers in France, and he was a skilled linguist. He was first inspired to help the blind in 1771 when he saw a group of blind people being mocked during a street festival in Paris. They had been given dunce caps and giant fake glasses, and they were made to play musical instruments and pretend to read books.
Andrew Leland [00:08:45] So Haüy founded the first known school for the blind. It was called the Royal Institute in Paris. But even as he’s getting the school going, Haüy kept his side gig.
Mike Hudson [00:08:54] And Haüy’s side gig is as a translator for the King of France. And so, every now and then, he’ll get these fancy, embossed invitations to various events.
Andrew Leland [00:09:07] And one day, one of Haüy’s students, a kid named Francois Lesueur, touched one of them.
Mike Hudson [00:09:12] And Francois Lesueur notices that he can feel something on these invitations. And that gives Haüy the idea to develop this idea of embossed printing in raised letters.
Roman Mars [00:09:26] So in 1786, Haüy makes the first machine embossed book for the blind–a treatise on blind education. It’s written in print, the kind that sighted readers would recognize. But the text is all raised so that blind students can feel the shape of the letters.
Andrew Leland [00:09:44] And it’s a radical move–not just the first book for blind readers in history, but basically the beginning of the idea that blind people can be educated. But there are a few problems.
Mike Hudson [00:09:54] Well–first off–no one can afford to buy these books. Okay?
Roman Mars [00:10:00] That’s because the books are massive and prohibitively expensive. But they’re also just really hard to read. They’re filled with ornate 18th century letter forms with their curlicues and flourishes, which are confusing to the fingertips.
Andrew Leland [00:10:14] It’s not until many years later, near the end of Haüy’s life in 1821, that a very different blind reading system begins to develop–one that uses dots instead of lines. It starts when a captain from Napoleon’s army visits the school to share a system that he developed for French soldiers. The captain describes how the system allowed his men to silently communicate with each other on battlefields at night. This is a clip from a very lively educational movie about this history.
Captain [00:10:40] Then I came up with the brilliant idea of making signs that my men could read in the dark merely by touch. I called it “Nocturnal Writing.”
Roman Mars [00:10:52] The director of the school at the time let a group of students experiment with the embossed pages that the captain had left behind. And in that group was a 12-year-old blind kid named Louis Braille. Over the next few years, he began to adapt that military code for blind people as an alternative to raised print.
Mr. Braille [00:11:11] Louis, you’ve been working on that for days. Your mother is worried. Can’t you take a break?
Louis Braille [00:11:17] No. I am so close. I’ve got it worked out so that all the letters of the alphabet are represented by raised dots in different combinations.
Roman Mars [00:11:26] Louis Braille simplified the military code and maximized its efficiency. He substituted the 12-dot system developed by the captain into a six-dot system, which allowed blind people to read faster by recognizing a letter with the touch of a single finger.
Andrew Leland [00:11:42] And while this code was inscrutable to sighted people, it was the system that blind people needed–designed by a blind person who understood intimately the needs of those reading by touch. Another advocate for the blind would say of Braille, “It bears the stamp of genius, like the Roman alphabet itself.”
Roman Mars [00:11:59] But despite its effectiveness, Braille didn’t catch on right away. It wouldn’t become the dominant system in France for another 30 years. And it would be nearly a century before it became standard for blind readers in the U.S.
Andrew Leland [00:12:13] Because it was effectively suppressed by a well-intentioned, world famous visionary of blind education. Around the same time that Braille was quietly developing his new reading system, an American named Samuel Gridley Howe came to visit the Royal Institute in France. He was doing research in anticipation of opening the first school for the blind in the U.S.
Roman Mars [00:12:35] And I wish I could tell you that while in France, Howe discovered the wonders of Braille. But that’s not how it went down. Instead, he saw the raised letter books, and he was intrigued. But in true American fashion, he found all their fancy flourishes impractical and typical of European excess. So, he decided to make his own system that improved on the Europeans’ work.
Kim Charlson [00:12:57] And he came back, and he modified it a bit.
Roman Mars [00:13:00] That’s Kim Charlson, the director of the library at the Perkins School, which Howe established in Massachusetts in 1829.
Kim Charlson [00:13:07] Because they were using a more gothic style font that he felt was a little too ornamental and more difficult to read by touch.
Andrew Leland [00:13:18] So if one of Haüy’s French books looked sort of like an ancient tome in a horror movie, whose letters rise up in fleshy protuberances, then Howe’s system is similar, but it looks more runic, Tolkieny, elvish. Howe sharpened his letters’ curves into points to make them more distinct under the fingertips. The letter O, for example, is shaped like a diamond. Howe calls his new system “Boston Line Type.”
Kim Charlson [00:13:41] Boston Line Type is really the beginning of literacy as we know it as a movement for people who are blind in the United States.
Roman Mars [00:13:52] And like the older French system, Boston Line Type was designed to be read both by blind and sighted people. If you’re able to see and look at one of these books, the letters are totally easily legible.
Kim Charlson [00:14:04] Boston Line Type allows blind people and sighted people to sit down together and to read. There’s no barrier between them.
Andrew Leland [00:14:13] And this idea was really important to Howe. He didn’t want blind people to use a system like Braille that was separate from what sighted people used. He thought it would isolate blind people and prevent them from integrating into the wider world. Long before the concept of universal design had been articulated, it was informing Howe’s thinking about how to design for people with disabilities.
Mike Hudson [00:14:33] And also, you can imagine the argument. “Well, we want our kids that are blind and visually impaired to use the same system that our sighted kids use, right?” That sounds good, right? But it turns out that raised letters are just not as good as Braille. So, it’s harder. It just is harder. That’s not intuitive to people who are sighted, but those letter forms are just not unique enough from each other. Sighted people look at Braille and they go, “Oh. It all looks the same.” But under the finger, those raised dots underneath your finger are just more tangible, okay? They just are.
Andrew Leland [00:15:10] And not only that, you can write in Braille. Unlike raised print, it doesn’t require a big heavy metal printing press. All you need is a small, simple tool called a “slate and stylus” that fits in your pocket.
Roman Mars [00:15:23] By the 1860s, some schools of the blind in the U.S. had begun experimenting with Braille. And while many faculty members still resisted it as an arbitrary, impenetrable system, the blind students who were exposed to Braille argued passionately for its superiority to raised letters. At the Missouri School for the Blind, students passed each other notes and reportedly even love letters in Braille, since they knew their teachers wouldn’t be able to read them if they got caught.
Andrew Leland [00:15:49] But Howe had invested a massive amount of time and resources into developing, distributing, and promoting Boston Line Type. And he’d become a hugely influential celebrity in the field of blind education. He was a master fundraiser–and key to that fundraising apparatus was the spectacle of a deaf blind girl named Laura Bridgman, who Howe taught to read using Boston Line Type.
Roman Mars [00:16:11] Bridgman was the first deaf blind person in history to get an education–more than a full generation before Helen Keller did. This achievement made Laura Bridgman and Howe international stars, which Howe leveraged to make Boston Line Type one of the dominant print mediums for the blind across the U.S.
Andrew Leland [00:16:30] Like Howe, many of the directors and faculty at schools for the blind were sighted, and many of them believed that they knew which system was best.
Catherine Kudlick [00:16:38] “Well, it’s easy for me reading a print letter, so it’s going to be easy for them with their fingers,” you know? And I think it’s a failure of imagination or a failure of empathy or a failure of experience.
Andrew Leland [00:16:50] Catherine Kudlick directs the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State, where she’s also a history professor. And she doesn’t even really buy Howe’s argument that Boston Line Type was universal.
Catherine Kudlick [00:17:00] He might have thought it was universal, but it’s universal in that way that the colonizer thinks things are universal. It’s like, you know, “These poor native peoples need educating, and we’ll try to bring them up to my level and make them like me.” They didn’t get the blind people to be the experts.
Andrew Leland [00:17:17] That’s a crucial part, right? I mean, that’s, like, a disability rights refrain.
Catherine Kudlick [00:17:22] “Nothing about us without us.” Yeah. In fact, the new way that people are starting to say it is: “Nothing without us.” Period.
Andrew Leland [00:17:32] I think Howe probably made a good faith effort to create a universal system–one that predicted universal design–one that he hoped would erase the line, dividing the blind from the sighted. But paradoxically, in committing so strongly to the universal page of Boston Line Type, Howe helped delay the adoption of a much better system by close to 100 years in the U.S.–a system where the blind person, Louis Braille, was the expert.
Roman Mars [00:17:57] By the early 20th century, Howe had died. There were growing numbers of organizations dedicated to serving the blind, and more and more of them were being led by blind people. In 1921, leaders from the most influential of these groups gathered in rural Iowa to form the American Foundation for the Blind. The AFB quickly became the most powerful blindness organization in the U.S., and one of their first priorities was to make Braille the dominant system.
Andrew Leland [00:18:27] But Americans being Americans–the same thing happened that had happened with raised letters. We decided that we could design things better than those pretentious Europeans could. So, a whole cottage industry arose with all sorts of competing systems–Braille knockoffs.
Mike Hudson [00:18:41] So now we’re heading into what we call the War of the Dots. Have you heard of that?
Roman Mars [00:18:46] We could spend an entire episode on the War of the Dots with Mike Hudson as our trusty narrator. But in a nutshell, before Braille truly won out in the U.S., there was another 50 years of competing tactile systems.
Andrew Leland [00:18:58] This period drove many blind readers bananas because every library for the blind was filled with books printed in these multiple competing systems. New York Point, Moon type, American Modified Braille.
Mike Hudson [00:19:10] There are others, by the way. We’re not going to go into them. But at one point the head of the Perkins School says, “You know, if anybody invents another code for the blind, we want to shoot them on the spot.”
Roman Mars [00:19:23] The decisive battle in the War of the Dots finally came in 1909. Cities like New York were rapidly growing. And for the first time, they had enough blind children to start building day schools for the blind.
Mike Hudson [00:19:36] And so they have a nice big two-day knockdown, drag out meeting of the New York Board of Education to decide which code they’re going to use in the New York City schools. So, they bring in all the heavy hitters, okay? I mean, everybody who’s anybody in blindness testifies before this body. And at the end, they take a big vote, and they vote for Braille. Okay? It’s the beginning of the end for the competing codes.
Roman Mars [00:20:08] By 1917, the rest of the country follows New York’s lead. And the newly standardized English Braille becomes the main way blind children are taught to read in the U.S. And with their increasing self-determination and literacy, blind people are more able to integrate into society than ever before. Blind children are starting to be mainstreamed into public schools. And for the first time, some blind people are getting office jobs using tech like Braille typewriters so they can work alongside sighted people as equals. It’s what Howe had hoped Boston line type would help them do.
Andrew Leland [00:20:41] But for all Braille’s advantages over raised print, it didn’t work for all blind people–like the thousands of soldiers who were coming back from war with eye injuries, who hadn’t learned Braille as kids. As you probably noticed, listening to me struggle to read that stupid sentence about my niece doing puzzles…
Andrew Leland (field tape) [00:20:59] “Puzzles?” “My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles?”
Andrew Leland [00:21:04] Learning Braille as an adult is really hard.
Computer [00:21:07] “My niece can ride a unicycle or do puzzles.”
Roman Mars [00:21:12] But as sound recording became easier and more affordable, those people who’d become blind later in life had new options–options that would transform our ideas of what a book can be. Translating ink print books into sound might seem more straightforward than building a tactile reading system. After all, books were born out of a few thousand years of people telling each other stories. And we all learned to read by having books read to us. But early efforts to make recordings of books for blind readers brought with them a new set of design challenges.
Andrew Leland [00:21:45] The American Foundation for the Blind partnered with the Carnegie Corporation to publish experimental books on Phonographic Records. They called them “talking books.” They hired narrators and pressed the recordings onto long playing records–25 minutes a side. These books were circulated by blind people about a decade before LPs became available to the wider public. The first audio books and the first LPs were made for blind readers.
Roman Mars [00:22:10] But these talking books raised big questions. What should a book sound like? How do you translate the elements of a codex–which is a fancy word for the thing that we usually call a book with paper pages, ink and binding–how do you translate one of those things into sound?
Mara Mills [00:22:26] The definition of the book basically imploded right after these talking books started to be developed because all sorts of producers started to come up with new ideas for things that they would call talking books that certainly had nothing to do with the codex form.
Andrew Leland [00:22:43] That’s Mara Mills. She’s a professor at NYU who works at the intersection of media and disability studies. And I promise she’s the last academic I’m going to introduce you to.
Talking Book [00:22:51] Let’s leave our chap for a minute and listen to his ringing, cathedral-like song…
Mara Mills [00:22:57] The Cornell Ornithology Lab, for instance, decided that they wanted to take some of their birdsong recordings and make a talking book for blind people out of them.
Talking Book [00:23:05] Their songs are among the finest of American birds…
Mara Mills [00:23:09] When Snow White came out as an early animated talking movie, the AFB decided they wanted to make a talking book version of the talking movie.
Snow White Talking Book [00:23:19] Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Recorded solely for the use of the blind…
Mara Mills [00:23:26] There was no book origin. They called it a “book,” and they circulated it as a talking book. But it was an audio description of the images in an animated film with some of the sound files and dialogue from that film.
Snow White Talking Book [00:23:43] The huntsman crept closer and closer. When he was right behind Snow White, he drew his big knife. Then Snow White noticed a shadow on the ground.
Mara Mills [00:23:54] Very quickly, all sorts of things began to be called books that had a very marginal relationship to the book form.
Roman Mars [00:24:03] And as talking books became more elaborate and theatrical–more filled with sound effects and music–some blind people grew frustrated.
Andrew Leland [00:24:11] More and more blind readers wound up breaking their record players trying to speed up the voices of the narrators. They weren’t listening for sonic aesthetic pleasure. They wanted the damn information, and the fancy productions moved too slowly for how fast they wanted to read.
Roman Mars [00:24:24] Which is the same impulse that makes people listen to podcasts at double speed.
Andrew Leland [00:24:27] As with raised letter books, the ornamental flourishes of music and sound effects got in the way of blind people’s desire for speed. And so, talking books began to sound different.
Bible Talking Book [00:24:37] The Holy Bible, The King James version, read by Alexander Scourby.
Andrew Leland [00:24:41] No nonsense narrators like Alexander Scourby became more popular in the 1940s and ’50s. And their voices became almost like fonts–standardized, legible, and most importantly, conveying information without getting in the way–more like the narrators of contemporary audiobooks.
Bible Talking Book [00:24:59] In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light.
Andrew Leland [00:25:18] The book historian Matthew Rubery told me that if you bring up the name Alexander Scourby with a blind person of a certain age, their eyes will fill with tears because of the associations they have with his voice. They grew up listening to him or reading him. So perhaps this is my consolation as I become a blind reader. I can just create a visual typeface for a verbal one.
Bible Talking Book [00:25:38] Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
Andrew Leland [00:25:44] In some ways, my fears about losing my visual relationship to books resembles the anxieties that sighted people have about the demise of print in the digital age. As more and more people read on screens, there’s an old guard who bemoans these new forms of reading as inferior. These critics believe that the trusty old technology of the book will always be the superior vehicle for ideas.
Roman Mars [00:26:05] You can hear this conservatism and condescension, not only in those people who malign the e-book, but also in the voices of people who say that you haven’t really read a book if you listen to it. They contend that real reading only happens with the eyes.
Andrew Leland [00:26:20] But the history of blindness and reading shows that the way we read has always been in flux. The media scholars and book historians I talked to all told me the same thing: Reading doesn’t happen in the eyes or the ears or the fingers, it happens in the brain. And this is a nice thing to hear if you’re going blind. It makes me feel like, “Forget my stupid eyes, I’ll still have my brain. And that’s where all the good stuff happens anyway.” But this idea doesn’t really soften or mask the fact that blindness is inescapably a loss. No amount of historical research or conceptual reframing can hide the simple equation at work here. I love books–ink print books with marginalia and typefaces and dingbats. And going blind will take that away from me. But I can’t let that be my only conclusion–that blindness equals loss. Full stop. Mara Mills told me about someone she met whose story could offer me an example of a different way to approach my life as a blind reader. His name is Harvey Lauer. He’s a blind guy who worked at the VA, testing all kinds of technology for the visually impaired.
Harvey Lauer [00:27:23] When you turn on a machine, you hear all the sounds in the earphone…
Roman Mars [00:27:31] This is Harvey using an optophone, a kind of scanner that would look at text and turn it into a series of tones representing the shapes of the letters. It’s another spin on universal design for blind readers. With an optophone, you wouldn’t need to create special books for the blind at all. With training, a blind person could read an ink print book using one of these devices. The optophone was first developed in 1912, but this recording is from 1971.
Harvey Lauer [00:28:00] Reading sounds like this. First, I’ll find the line. And then we’ll read…
Andrew Leland [00:28:12] Incredibly, some blind people actually learned how to read this way. After a lot of practice, they could hear these sounds and decode the words they represented, reading entire novels using what came to be called “musical print.”
Harvey Lauer [00:28:25] It said, “The necessary functions of the…”
Andrew Leland [00:28:33] Using the device as he tested for the VA, Harvey could read by vibration through musical print, plus Braille and super sped up talking books. He reads using more of his body–more of his senses–than perhaps anyone else on the planet. His colleagues called him a “cyborg.” He walked around with these devices dangling around his neck wherever he went, emitting vibrations and synthetic musical tones.
Harvey Lauer [00:28:56] I had to turn up the threshold…
Andrew Leland [00:29:01] Mara told me that this sometimes led to funny incidents of confusion, like the time Harvey walked into a 7-Eleven and heard all these electronic tones coming out of the various machines in the store. He tried decoding them because it seemed to him like they should be alphabetic. And then he realized–nope–they’re just electronic tones. It’s just the cash register. Harvey’s mistake in the 7-Eleven suggests to me a way that my future as a blind reader might actually signal something other than a total loss. Blindness could add something to my life, even as it takes something else away. Learning to read in new ways–through new senses–could increase my appreciation for the world around me. Harvey told Mara that he finds the electronic tones and cords of the optophone beautiful. He said they remind him of Debussy’s music, which gives me hope that whichever way I end up reading–through sped up synthetic speech or Braille or maybe some high-tech, post-optophonic, cyborg system that’s yet to be invented–that I’ll find the beauty in that kind of reading too.
Harvey Lauer [00:30:09] I really should use the other earphones and plug in the other speaker. “Hypothesis…” Or replace it with a more adequate one. “Failure to find support for hypothesis does not necessarily reflect on the quality…”
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Roman Mars [00:34:32] I’m back talking with Andrew Leland about what’s happened in the past few years since the story came out and about his new book. It’s called The Country of the Blind, and it’s out today. So, Andrew, I remember you were reporting the story. And sometime early in the process you learned that you might not be going blind as quickly as you once thought, and it made you question whether or not you should do the story. And we assured you that we thought you were the right person for the story and that you should produce it. And it was lovely. And years later I’m reading this book, and that anxiety of whether or not you are blind enough or the right kind of blind–it kind of pervades the memoir in fascinating ways. And it’s not just you; like, other people that you interviewed expressed this. Can you talk a little bit about that and what it says about our societal conception of blindness?
Andrew Leland [00:35:19] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a kind of imposter syndrome that I feel. And it really began when I started using the white cane, which–like all the blindness tools that I use–I had to kind of proactively adopt before it felt absolutely necessary because that’s how this sort of very slow process works, where certainly there could be a moment where I say, “Okay, I can no longer see the words on the page, so I need to learn how to use a screen reader, say, or learn Braille.” You know, if I waited that long, I would be in deep trouble. Much better to learn that skill in advance. And the cane was that way, too, where I thought, “Okay, I’ve kicked three dogs at this point. I think it’s probably time to adopt the cane.” But as soon as that cane comes out in public, you’re really forced right up against that perception of blindness as a binary. And people say, “Well, you’re not really blind. What are you doing with that cane?” And, you know, that’s something that I felt and I kind of, like, distantly sense on people’s faces. And then there were a few times where, you know, I heard explicitly some guy say, “You can see.” And it really highlights that disconnect between the experience of blindness, which more often than not is ambiguous in that way where there is some vision. You know, it’s only something like 10% or 15% of blind people have no light perception. And whether you have just a little bit of light perception or, you know, like I do like, low vision, where there’s still a few good degrees of central vision that I can use to see a lot of stuff–all of that complicates blindness in a way. But, yeah, the broader world has a lot of trouble understanding that idea.
Roman Mars [00:36:49] Yeah. That number of less than 15% of blind people have no light perception–it surprised me. And… I don’t know. I feel like I know things.
Andrew Leland [00:37:00] Yeah.
Roman Mars [00:37:01] That’s sort of stunning.
Andrew Leland [00:37:02] Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I think about the definition of blindness–it means a destitution, of sight. And, you know, that makes a certain amount of sense–that we want to define something in these binary terms. But the reality is that it doesn’t work that way. And blindness is a spectrum. And even people who have had their optic nerve completely severed–which is to say, Technically, in a scientific sense, no light is being perceived by their eyes–they describe a kind of visual tinnitus where there’s, like, swirling and flashing and undulating colors. And so, you know, the idea of vision and the idea of sight extends to all blind people, I’d say.
Roman Mars [00:37:41] You include this quote from Theodor Adorno at the beginning of the book. It goes that “the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” Why did you include that quote? What does that quote mean to you?
Andrew Leland [00:37:52] It’s a quote that I wanted to kind of hover above the whole book because my experience of becoming blind and losing vision is a splinter in the eye. I mean, literally, right? But, you know, not literally a splinter, but literally eye damage. But also, you know, it’s a thorn in the side. It’s a pain in the ass. But also, I think what Adorno is saying there is that we take these difficult experiences, and they have this tendency to illuminate the world and to allow us to really pay more attention than we otherwise would. And there’s another quote that I like that’s sort of related, which is that “happiness writes white,” which is to say when things are going good, you’re writing white ink on white paper. I don’t know if you ever keep a journal. People don’t tend to write a lot of journal entries when things are going well. It’s only when you’re miserable that you’re jotting things down. And so, I think I had that experience with this. Like, losing vision–becoming blind–made me a writer. It really, like, gave me that feeling of urgency that, like, there’s something I need to understand about this on a kind of existential level–and not just in a journaling, like, “I need to therapeutically process my emotions,” but also like, “Who am I becoming in a philosophical way, in a literal way?” But also, like, “Who are my people? And what are the ideas that are important to me now?” And all that was shifting, and it really clarified it in a way that did feel like a magnifying glass on my world.
Roman Mars [00:39:15] Yeah. This quest for “Who are my people?” is a huge and fascinating part of the book. I mean, it is a memoir of your own experience, but there’s so much history and reporting in it. And you talk to lots of people for this story. Could you talk about some of the more fascinating people that you met along the way in reporting the book?
Andrew Leland [00:39:32] Yeah. Part of the reporting that I was doing–it really is like personal reporting, right? Like, there are things where I’m being a good disability journalist and trying to kind of cover the waterfront in that way. But a lot of it is just driven by my own existential feeling of, like, “Well, if I want to be not just a successful blind person but, like, a happy, engaged blind person, let me find some people like that.” So, a lot of the people I write about in the book are role models in that way–kind of cultivating and collecting blind mentors. And so, I found people like this guy, Josh Miele, who recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant. And I really think he is a genius but also just funny and cool and down to earth. And he went blind as a kid and really didn’t like being blind–didn’t identify as blind. And then he went to UC Berkeley in the ’90s, where he was telling me about this place in the basement of Berkeley’s Moffitt Library called “The Cave,” where all the blind students would hang out. And they basically had free, 24/7 access to this suite of offices that was just, like, a laboratory of assistive technology, where they would have these wild devices, like the first screen readers, the first video magnifier, and then these, like, much weirder devices, like the optophone. And he really taught me this idea that blind people are hackers. There’s not just a subgroup of blind hackers–but really, to be blind and to solve the problems that blindness poses to you, you have to be willing to solve problems in the way that we think of hackers doing. And, you know, so somebody like Josh really made me feel like blindness was not just like, “This is going to be okay,” but like, “Oh, wow. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met are inhabiting this world.”
Roman Mars [00:41:07] You talk about that you want to cultivate an image of being an active protagonist in your own life, and it sounds like you admire that about Josh. Can you talk more about that idea and how, you know, popular depictions of blindness are generally unsatisfying, or–worse–they’re just mocking and diminishing because they involve a non-active protagonist?
Andrew Leland [00:41:28] Yeah. I mean, you know, to be fair, I think that I recognize in myself a feeling of passivity. I don’t think blindness encourages it, but I think that there is a risk where, you know, like, in my own home life, I notice, like–okay–it’s going to be significantly harder for me to find the garbage and the place where the trays are bussed in this restaurant. Maybe I’ll just let my partner do it, you know? And then I have this sort of internal conflict where I’m like, “Are you really going to be that kind of blind person who just, like, lets your wife tidy up for you all the time because you’re too blind to take care of yourself? Like, that seems horrible.” So, no, like… And so, I do think there’s a certain degree of pushing oneself that has to happen certainly that I’ve experienced. But I think what you’re talking about in terms of public perception–I think, you know, that image of the passive blind person who needs to be taken care of is not only the dominant one, it’s almost the only one that most people see, I think. And you experience it as a blind person. That’s what using a cane in public really showed me immediately was, like, as soon as that came out, people were like, “You’re standing on Elm Street.” I’m like, “Really? Like, could I have just been dropped out of a spaceship and, like, had no idea that, like, I’m on this road that I’ve walked a hundred times a day.” But it happens all the time. The streets in front of you… Like, you know, I can hear the cars in front of me and my cane is touching the curb. But, like, what about me and just this image of helplessness makes you think that I have no idea where I am or what I’m doing or where I’m going? And that is the not only popular conception–I think it’s, yeah… It can’t be overstated how much and how many people think that way about blind people.
Roman Mars [00:43:05] Yeah. You have this scene in the book where you mentioned being touched for the first time when someone’s guiding you. And the part of that just made me shudder, like, physically when I read it–that people feel like they have the right to touch you and guide you.
Andrew Leland [00:43:20] Yeah, I have a blind friend who told me that during the pandemic–when that kind of proximity to other people became much more taboo–she loved it because it meant that when she was in public, people just were touching her far less. And she also told me that she kind of seized on the sort of MeToo era and the language of consent that became much more widely understood and adopted. You know, somebody does that to her now–which, by the way, it is a daily occurrence for many, many blind people–she says, “I didn’t give you consent to touch me.” And that definitely has a much stronger message than, I think, if you’re just a blind person and say, “No, I’m good,” because people don’t believe you. And they say, “No, no, no. Let me just… The elevator is over here.” And you’re like, “No, no, no. I’m fine.” And you just can’t convince them. But if you say, “You don’t have consent to touch me,” it reminds them, like, “Oh, right. This is a human being who has the same kind of sense of personal boundaries that I do.”
Roman Mars [00:44:10] You write in the book about this sort of uncomfortable encounter with this guy in the neighborhood who sort of presumes a kind of intimacy and starts asking you, like, intense questions about blindness. And then you wrote this book that’s a memoir about it.
Andrew Leland [00:44:25] Yeah.
Roman Mars [00:44:26] Are you prepared for what’s going to happen?
Andrew Leland [00:44:30] What’s going to happen? You’re very ominous sounding.
Roman Mars [00:44:34] Well, I mean, in terms of people, you know, presume they now know a lot about you, and they feel closeness to you and feel like they could ask you questions. And maybe there’s going to be people like me asking you questions. I mean, how does this feel to have a story with lots of nuance? It has some pain, it has loss, it has some triumph in it–you know–it has all this stuff in it. And how does it feel to talk about it?
Andrew Leland [00:44:59] I think that guy bothered me so much in part because I hadn’t asked myself those questions yet. Like, he asked me, you know, “What’s it like going blind?” And that was fine because people ask me that, but it was still annoying. But then when he turned to my wife and was like, “What’s it like being married to a guy going blind?” And I was like, “Really? Like, now you’re asking her that?” And I think it bothered me so much because Lily and I hadn’t really talked about it. We had talked about it a little bit, but, like, not enough to have an answer for ourselves, I think–let alone this guy we barely knew. And so, I think I’m in a better position to deal with that now that I wrote the book. And I think I have a much stronger handle on what it means for me. And I think we have a better handle on what it means for our family. So that’s one part. The other part, I think, is that there’s no avoiding it. I think as a blind person–and I think this is probably true of anybody with a visible disability–people feel entitled to ask you about it. It’s almost as though you’re wearing a sign that says, like, “Ask me about what happened to me.” And like people saying, “Okay, let me help you across the street. How do you eat?”–you know, those kind of invasive questions–they just say, like, “How’d you go blind?” You hear this from people who I think wouldn’t dare ask a stranger intimate questions like that, but somehow disability invites it. So, part of me thinks that’s a losing battle anyway; people are going to ask me this anytime they see the cane, so I might as well give them the most thorough answer imaginable in the form of this book rather than just, you know, hide it.
Roman Mars [00:46:28] Go to 13th century France to tell you how this is happening. Yeah.
Andrew Leland [00:46:33] Exactly.
Roman Mars [00:46:35] So at the end of the book, you come back to H.G. Wells, and you revisit the idea of the Country of the Blind. And you flip it on its head–that there isn’t a Country of the Blind. You write that the blind belong to our world. We belong to theirs. It’s the same world. How did your feelings about the H.G. Wells story change over the course of writing the book?
Andrew Leland [00:46:53] Well, it’s hard because I kind of want to have it both ways. You know, I did write that at the end. And I do believe that. You know, and I think it’s this very cheesy sounding but also, like, incredibly important idea that just, like… We’re people, too, you know? And I think it’s important to be reminded of. And I think there’s a very human tendency to forget about the humanity of people who are different than you. And so, like, in some ways, that conclusion felt really important, even if it felt really obvious. And it’s sort of like I had to do all of this, like, really difficult intellectual work to arrive at a conclusion that I probably could have just told you in a cynical way at the beginning. But I think saying the exact same sentence but really meaning it–you know, with all the force of the research behind it–made it feel different. You know, but I don’t want to erase the difference either. And that’s sort of the paradox of identity that I wrestle with a lot in my life and in the book, which is to say, “Identity doesn’t exist without difference.” But then at the same time, you have to be a part of this, like, bigger club of humans, I guess. There’s this other idea that I really love. I hear it a lot from different disabled people, and the crux of it is we need access to your world, right? Like, I want people to write alt text so that I can access images on the internet. But also, non-disabled people need access to our world, right? And I think that’s another way of putting the same idea of flipping the Country of the Blind on its head, which is to say, like, it’s not just about how can you make a bridge to let disabled people understand and be a part of mainstream culture. It’s like, “What can mainstream culture learn from disability culture? What can sighted people learn from blindness?” And so, I think that’s another way that I concluded, I think, this journey was realizing that it’s a two-way street and there’s a lot that sighted people can learn from blindness and vice versa.
Roman Mars [00:48:44] Is there something about the book that you want to make sure that people get that is meaningful to you?
Andrew Leland [00:48:50] I guess the big one for me is that if you’re sighted and you lose vision, there’s inescapable pain in that. You’re being disingenuous if you say, like, “Whatevs. Lost my vision. Figured out how to be a blind guy. I’m cool.” Like, you have to grieve the loss of your sight. But blindness does not have to be a tragedy. And the lived experience of blindness is not one of unremitting tragedy. Other things can make life inescapably unpleasant, and there are certainly aspects of blindness that are unpleasant. But, like, in and of itself, there is joy, hilarity, weirdness, fun, excitement, and so on in blindness. And I think that people don’t believe me when I say that. And if there’s one thing I want people to take from this book, it’s that, like, blindness is wild and fascinating and not sad as, like, its primary qualities.
Roman Mars [00:49:51] This is awesome. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you. I really enjoyed the book. And I’m just so glad we get to revisit it a few years later.
Andrew Leland [00:50:00] Oh, thank you, Roman. I’m so glad that you read it–and not only that you enjoyed it, but that you read it.
Roman Mars [00:50:07] Thanks again. Again, Andrew’s book is called The Country of the Blind. It’s out today. I highly recommend it. It is fantastic. You should check it out. The original 99% Invisible episode was produced by Andrew Leland, edited by Delaney Hall, and mixed by Sharif Youssef. The new content from this week was produced by Kelly Prime. Original Music by Swan Real, who actually use sounds from the optophone in the score. You can see some cool videos of the optophone in action on our website. Many thanks this week to Sari Altschuler and David Weimer. We found out about the story of Boston Line Type from an exhibition they put together called Touch This Page. The exhibition is also online at touchthispage.com, where you can see examples of Boston Line Type and other precursors to Braille. Thanks also to Jen Hale and Jennifer Arnott at the Perkins School, Matthew Rubery of Queen Mary University of London, whose book about the history of talking books is awesome, and Waleed Meleis of Northeastern’s College of Engineering. The rest of the 99 team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon. Emmett FitzGerald, Martín Gonzales, Christopher Johnson, Kurt Kohlstedt, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Joe Rosenberg, intern, Anna Castagnaro, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.
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