Board of Publications Award from the 1980s Still Intrigues Us

by Penny Reeder

As a member of the ACB Board of Publications, I was just beginning to sort through the many writing samples and media productions that are eligible for our consideration for several 2023 BOP awards, when I was delighted to find in my crowded e-mail inbox a charming essay that was selected for a BOP award way back in the early 1980s! Deborah Kendrick is the writer who dreamed up the science fiction scenario that features an attractive federal employee, living in 2020, who uses a multi-line refreshable braille display to prepare for her meeting with the president of the United States (who happens to also be a woman – imagine that! ), as well as a somewhat successful non-violent rebellion that has altered the status of blind and visually impaired revolutionaries in several dramatic ways, and invigorated the use and availability of braille after its near disappearance in the prior decade!

Deborah submitted her essay in response to the BOP’s writing prompt which, that year, invited competitors to write an essay describing what life might be like for blind people in the year 2020. Back in that day, the honor of simply having been selected as the winner of the writing competition was pretty much the only prize that Deborah received (except for having her winning essay published in the Braille Forum). There was a cash prize, but no print or print/braille plaque to hang proudly on her wall. She couldn’t even attend the convention that year to accept her award in person.

Happily for ACB though, her selection as winner of the BOP’s 1983 Ned E. Freeman Writing Award acquainted Deborah with the American Council of the Blind, and we have been very fortunate to get to know her, not only as a member of her state affiliate in Ohio, but also as a friend and advisor to many on a diversity of topics, and a published newspaper columnist and author of several books on blindness-related topics, published by AFB Press and National Braille Press.

Here is Deborah’s winning essay. It’s fun to imagine what life would be like if some of her predictions had come true. We thank her for sharing the article, which was published in the August 1983 Braille Forum. Four decades later, we would still give Deborah our writing award!

20/20 with a Twist

(1983 Ned E. Freeman Writing Competition Award-Winning Essay!)

By Deborah Kendrick

She swiveled her chair to face the desk again and absently slid the reference volume under the appropriate clamps of the dot-conversion deck. After ten years, it still seemed a minor miracle, she reflected, as the familiar process began with a nudge of the switch and a few adjustments of knobs. It was always a little thrilling to run her hand up the tactually blank page and feel the braille emerging magically. As chief administrator of the Department of Visual Equality, she found paper work and reference materials to be endless components of the job. The dot-converter made it all so effortless, so compact.

There were drawbacks to the device, of course. Since only 10 to 30 percent of the text could occupy a page at one time in its dot-covered form (due to the variations in space requirements), it could be a small irritation if the machine needed to be put in its reverse mode for recalling data which had already fled the page. Because of her age, however (she would be 47 on 05/04/2020) and the memories those years had incurred, Mary Seymour was not prone to viewing such annoyances with much seriousness. How could she, when the horrors of the ‘90s – those years now called “the dark ages for the visually impaired” – seemed like only yesterday?

She had been one of the lucky ones – learning to read prior to the silencing of braille. Even during her own childhood of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, braille teachers had been scarce. In the mid-‘80s, university programs had ceased requiring braille for prospective teachers, and, with a reality more terrifying than any nightmare, braille production facilities had begun folding with rapid succession.

With the closing of radio reading service studios had gone access to print, to a large extent, and the withdrawal of special mailing privileges had taken most of what remained. By the 1990s, blind children were no longer being educated at all, and blind adults had begun to cluster together frantically for survival. Mary Seymour had been a teenager when the dark ages had become harsh reality, but she had tasted the joy of literacy and the freedom of movement sufficiently so that her role as a revolutionary had never been a conscious decision. There had simply been no other logical alternative.

It had been a grim eighteen years – meeting with groups, large and small, in secrecy; teaching with outdated materials; plotting, failing, and finally success. Ironically, their greatest strength had been an element of visual impairment itself. Working without light, after all, was no real hardship for any of them.

Many tactics of the visionary rebellion, Mary reflected, had been comic, and many had been devastatingly effective. Tampering with power sources had been their greatest tool. First there had been the television blackout, allowing only audio portions of broadcasts nationwide to be transmitted. If her optic sensor had been installed during those days, Mary smiled, it might have been entertaining to see the faces of those in countless homes as TV screens first rolled and then went utterly blank.

“You, too, can function without pictures,” the intermittent announcements had informed the seeing public. The rebels had scrambled computers, taken over radio networks, and then, tauntingly, ground all power to a halt. It had been a tedious struggle, but the gains had been remarkable.

A key to the success of the revolution had been its emphasis on peaceful tactics. No bodily harm had come to anyone on either side – unless, of course, one considered the capture of Mary and a dozen other revolutionary leaders or the optic sensor implantations as “bodily harm.” The reasoning on the part of their captors had been along the lines that if the leadership of the visionary rebellion were transformed into seeing persons, they would automatically abandon the cause, and thus dissolve the movement. Some medical experimentation had been conducted prior to the dark ages in which mini-cameras had been connected to optic nerves, resulting in minimal vision for the totally blind. The optic sensor plan had been based on that earlier data, but weakly so, for the results were something of a surprise to all.

If there had ever been a moment when she had weighed the possibility of giving up the rebellion, it had been during the time of her capture. People moved wordlessly around the hospital bed where she had lain helplessly restrained. To Mary’s repeated, although calm questions regarding their intentions, Mary was ultimately given the singular, short response: “You will see when the surgery is over.” And so she had – in a manner of speaking.

The final power shut-down had enabled the dozen captives to escape three days following their imposed surgery. Only gradually in the months of negotiation ahead were they to realize what the effects – and the intended effects – of the implant operation had been. None were rendered seeing persons in the conventional sense, as had been intended, but each experienced some unexpected heightening awareness. George Thompson, for example, discovered a kind of telepathic effect, enabling him to form a visual image of a room before entering it. Joan Brighton realized that she could perceive colors. Mary Seymour’s outcome was a bit more peculiar.

“I’ve always had an incredible hindsight,” she had quipped in the final days of the visionary rebellion. Indeed, her own optic sensor – a typical follow-up of the implant exercise – provided her with a detailed visual perception of human faces and environments, but did so only after she had left their immediate vicinity. It was little more than a novelty now, rarely of any practical use. She did, however, occasionally attract attention to herself by entering an unfamiliar area, quickly and briefly retreating so that the image could establish itself in her mind, and then calmly re-entering. Usually the tools of her childhood were sufficient – sounds, smells, and the unconscious absorption of environmental cues through every cell of her body’s surface.

The real success of the visionary rebellion had come in the form of print-accessing technology. Braille had been re-established in the universities in 2007, with far more stringent requirements than had ever existed previously. Visually impaired children were taught braille and print simultaneously, so that the choice was ultimately a personal one. Street signs, billboards, and elevators were all equipped with speech-synthesized devices. For those who used braille, dot-conversion decks were commonplace – desk models in offices for accessing books and computer information, and hand-held versions for quick reading of menus, entertainment programs, and similar materials. For the visually impaired print user, miniature high-powered magnifiers with polarity reversal mechanisms were the widespread answer to print accessibility.

Returning the reference volume to its place and noting that it was nearly time for her scheduled meeting with President Olga Henderson, Mary swiftly reviewed a few notes and switched off the converter. When she was a little girl, she thought, her teacher had told her that there were only two things that she could never do. “You will never drive an automobile,” she had said, “and you will never read print.”

Mary Seymour smiled with genuine contentment. Saint that she had been, even her teacher had underestimated the future of her visually impaired students. Private automobiles had been eliminated ten years ago now, so that the ability or inability of anyone to drive was no longer relevant. As far as print was concerned, she thought, giving the converter an almost affectionate pat, she had something better than reading print: she could read everything, and read it in her own familiar language of dots.

Now where, she wondered with a touch of annoyance as she pushed back her chair, had she left the portfolio of data for the meeting with the President? Slipping into her coat, unfolding her white cane, Mary Seymour walked briskly out of the office and hesitated expectantly just beyond the threshold. With an impatient shake of her hair, the anticipated image finally flashed before her mind’s eye.

“Ahh, yes,” she said aloud as she hastily re-entered the office and snatched the portfolio from the top of the file cabinet. From the dark-age days of the ‘90s, the blind had finally achieved their long-deserved status in education and employment and had secured a Department of Visual Equality in the bargain. The attractive woman who now strode confidently towards the elevators did not look much like a once tough-minded leader of the visionary rebellion. But, she thought, shifting the portfolio in her arm, she had the optic sensor as one amusing and occasionally useful souvenir.

“Going down,” the elevator spoke in its distinct, synthesized syllables. The door slid open and, smiling, Mary Seymour stepped inside.

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