Indian fair 010 I don’t often get the chance to explore the world as my character, Douglas Abledan (in Blind Traveler Down a Dark River and Blind  Traveler’s Blues), does. We live in a visual world and, like the rest of us, I relish my ability to see it. However, recently I’ve come to be able to experience a tiny bit of what Douglas might have to live with on a daily basis. You see (even our language is full of visual words), in the immediate vicinity of the house I live in there are several street lights that are not working. At least one of these has been out for nearly a year. The others fell victim to Sandy. Try as I might, and I have on several occasions, I have not been able to convince the town to do the needed repairs.

As a wheelchair user, being able to see my environment is very important. It allows me to navigate my chair to avoid pitfalls in the path before me, pitfalls that might otherwise throw me out of said chair. With the street lights out my ability to see at night is greatly diminished. Walking the dog, for example, now requires the use of a flashlight, which can be awkward to carry while at the same time dealing with an unruly dog and pushing the wheels of my chair.  Even getting in and out of my car has become more difficult due to the darkness. Try this…close your eyes and walk to your car. Open the door and get in without opening your eyes. It isn’t easy is it? Now, imagine being a wheelchair user who has to judge the distance between his chair and the driver’s seat of a car without the ability to see it clearly. The endeavor has often become a matter of faith as I try to lunge from one seated position to another on a moonless, overcast night.

Yes, Douglas Abledan has experiences that I, fortunately, often do not. But, through my ordeal with the broken street lights I have been given the opportunity to, occassionally, live in his world. I can’t say I enjoy the experience but it has given me much to think about.

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Surviving Sandy

I sat here, a day after Hurricane Sandy hit, wondering about my blind detective. We’ve had a generator powering our refrigerators and a lamp. But, when night fell, I knew I’d be plunged into darkness, like my character, Douglas Abledan. I’d heard that darkness would last about a week, a condition 90% of Long Island, NY faced.

Last night, as my mother and I struggled to play Scrabble by candle and flashlight, I thought about Douglas and how he learned to find his way in the dark after being blinded by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. I thought about a TV show I’ve been following, about a planet-wide blackout. Finally, I thought about pre-electricity times. People learn to adapt, I realized. Surely a week without power is inconvenient, but not so much so as blindness. I guess I write stories about Douglas Abledan because I am in awe of his, and other’s ability to adapt.

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Rolling Through New York Comic-Con

Comic-con, the multi-city comic book and sci-fi convention, is arguably the largest such event in the world. And, the event held in New York City is probably the largest rendition of the event. With over one hundred thousand attendees over its four-day run participation is not for the faint of heart, especially for those of us with limited mobility. However, such challenges have never stopped me.

Yes, for the past couple of decades I’ve used a wheelchair to navigate through my life, the result of a car accident in 1988. But, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve done quite a bit with my life despite my wheels. I’ve traveled. I’ve taken up archery. I’ve written 2 books. And, I’ve visited conventions.

At this point I should mention that I’m somewhat of a geek. By that I mean I’ve been collecting comic books for most of my fifty-one years of life. I’ve got many long boxes full of them. While I can’t tell you who wrote or drew any one particular issue, I can discuss the differences between Marvel and DC super heroes.

As I said, over the years I’ve attended various science fiction conventions, I remember fondly a Dr. Who convention I attended in Philadelphia, but never a Comic-Con. For the last three years I’ve tried to attend, but in each of those years some medical condition or other has stood in my way. Not this year. This year I refused to allow such a thing to get in my way. After all, this year I would be attending with my new nephews.

Now, getting to the convention was a challenge in itself. I don’t drive much these days, and I refuse to drive, or try to park, in New York City. So, I’m relegated to either take public transportation or roll myself to wherever I want to go. Fortunately the Javits Center, where Comic-Con is held, is no more than a few blocks away from Pennsylvania Station. It was a nice day so I decided to roll. I don’t know if many people realize this or not, but New York City is not exactly on flat ground. There are many hills to go up and down. Add that to the fact that, though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires it, there are not curb cuts on every street corner in the city. And, where they do exist, many are in disrepair. The long and short of this is my short roll was fraught with difficulties.

Once I arrived at the Jacob Javits Center I was surrounded by a sea of humans, monsters, and assorted super heroes all waiting to get inside. In fact a ‘lovely’ zombie woman tried to take a bite out of my neck until I explained I was not interested in her flirtatious ways. I expected to have to wade through that sea, but was saved by a kind gentleman who directed me to a relatively calm entrance.

Moving around in a crowded convention hall is difficult enough for able-bodied individuals. But, for someone who is on wheels and, therefore, below eye level, the challenge of not being trampled on while moving from points A to B is daunting to say the least. For some it is too much of a hassle. This is proven by the observation that I could count only five other wheelchair users during the entire time my family and I moved around the convention hall. Fortunately my brother and nephews guarded me from the worst assaults. Even through the highly trafficked vendors lanes we were able to stick together and visit some of the more interesting stalls.

Upon entering the Javits Center, I had secured a ‘medical’ badge, which identified me to the staff and crew as someone who may need additional assistance because of my limited mobility. That came in handy when we decided to visit one of the many panel lectures as all the rooms held a few seats open especially for patrons with those badges. You’ll need to ask for one when you arrive as it is not plainly obvious where, or even if, they can be acquired.

If you do not bring a wheelchair, but feel one may come in handy, The Javits Center does have a limited supply of motorized wheelchairs for rent. You’ll need to contact the Command Center at (212) 216-2196. For those with visual difficulties guide dogs and service animals are permitted, but you may need to show documentation for the need of such a companion.

Yes, my visit to this year’s Comic-Con came with its own set of challenges, but I would not have missed it for the world and I recommend attendance to both able-bodied and disabled fans of comic books and science fiction. You’ll definitely see me there next year; though you may have to point your gaze a bit lower than usual (grin).

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A visit to the zoo … on wheels

I hadn’t been to a zoo in decades. My brothers and I were semi-regular attendees with our grandmother we were children, but, as I grew, my philosophy about zoos changed. I no longer enjoyed watching animals walk around cramped and dirty cages. So, it was with some trepidation that I decided to join my brother’s family on a recent trip to the Bronx Zoo.

I should add that the last time I visited a zoo I did so on two working legs. Now I would go on in a wheelchair. And, I’ve come to expect that man-made environments are not always friendly to wheels.

Frankly I don’t know what I was expecting. I’d heard that zoos had changed over the years. I’d heard they’d become much more compassionate, giving better treatment and more space to the animals. But, I was wary. Still, I felt it was my duty as a new uncle to accompany my nephews.

No matter my own preconceptions, I was anxious to see my younger nephew’s reaction to the animals. At fifteen months he was just beginning to explore the wider world. Everything fascinates him. Still, I expected him to be somewhat fearful. Boy, was I wrong! He loved every minute of the experience. He giggled. He cooed. He pointed to, and tried to touch, the animals. And, I loved watching him.

For me the experience was somewhat different. The Bronx Zoo is huge. Getting around was a bit of a challenge. Though it was apparent that the designers and physical plant architects had attempted to make strolling along the many paths as easy as possible, there are some significant obstacles for those of us on wheels.

For one thing the hills were daunting. Whereas I almost never ask for assistance getting from place to place, and don’t like people touching my chair without my permission, in this instance I had no choice. I had to have my brother push me up and down some of the steeper slopes. Furthermore, though many of the paths were paved with concrete, there were several that were either broken up or comprised simply of packed dirt. A serious rainstorm would have made the latter paths inaccessible to my wheels. At one point during our excursion I made these points clear to one of the staff members and was told that when the season ended there were plans made to repave all the paths.

In closing, for other wheeled visitors to the Bronx Zoo, you might want to rent a motorized scooter. In fact, it might be a good idea if venues such as zoos and parks buy such conveyances for renting to needy patrons.

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Archery for wheelers

I had not shot an arrow or held a bow since I was a camper at Robin Hood Country Day Camp. That was when I was still on my feet. In 1988 I lost the use of them thanks to a car accident. Since then I tried several things in an attempt to keep in shape: skiing, tennis, martial arts. Each had limited success. For the past few months I had been contemplating archery. My interest was sparked every time I drove to the local shopping mall. There, by the side of the road, was a yellow billboard advertising archery supplies. Each time I past it I felt beckoned, but I never pulled over to investigate further.

A week or so ago I decided to take my interest a step further. Sitting in front of my computer, I googled ‘archery on long island.’ In a few seconds the search engine responded with a list of possibilities. I clicked the one geographically closest to my home. The website looked promising: instruction, supplies, and a shooting range. There was nothing, though, to indicate whether the place catered to wheelchair users. I clicked on the phone link and waited for the Skype connection. During the call I learned that the place was chair friendly. In fact I was told they had a few wheelchair-using clients. So, I made an appointment.

As I said, I’d studied martial arts, but not in recent years. My former sensei was still a good friend though. He was constantly encouraging me to get more exercise. So, when I told him my plan, he was all for it. In fact, he said he’d go with me sometime. He warned me, though, that I was in for more of a workout that I’d expected. I laughed off the comment, not remembering a tough time of it when I was that kid in camp.

Jump ahead two days. When I arrived at the archery place for my one o’clock appointment I was greeted enthusiastically by the man I’d spoken to on the phone. After paying the fee, and filling out some paperwork, he introduced me to my instructor.  The other students were much younger than me, reminding me once again of that camp experience.

The lesson consisted of the rules of the range, and a brief introduction to two types of bows available. I chose a compound bow, the kind with a pulley system that both made pulling the string easier and gave the shot more power. I had never used one and I was intrigued.

Over the next two hours I shot arrow after arrow at the target some 5 yards before me. I learned many lessons. The parent of one of the other students suggested that I lock the wheels of my chair. He said every time I pulled the bow back my chair shifted which, he surmised, made my arrows fly awkwardly. I hadn’t noticed but followed his suggestion, and he was right of course. My aim improved, though I still hardly ever hit the precise place on the target I was aiming for. I learned other lessons too, including the best position to lock my chair relative to the target.

There are many sports that have been adapted for people in wheelchairs. Archery seems to be one that does not need much adaptation. It does require a sense of balance though, and the use of muscles one might not normally use; muscles that might have become weakened by years of sitting in a wheelchair. I intend to continue with my lessons and my shooting. My sensei was correct when he warned me I might be sore after my workout, but I assume that feeling will diminish over time. Now I have to wonder if a blind man can participate in this sport. How would my character, Douglas Abledan fare with a bow in his hands? Comments welcome!

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Is the world accessible?

What do disabilities and the environment have in common? Quite a bit actually. As a person who uses a wheelchair to navigate through the world, I naturally play close attention to accessible pathways from point A to point B. I’m often disappointed in the lack of consideration environmental designers pay to wheelers. Like many in the disabled community, I had high hopes for change when the Americans with Disability Act was passed in 1990. But, while the legislation has produced many changes, it has not created a barrier-free world. Far from it in fact.

Sure, rules and regulations have been put in place to increase access in the man-made world, but, that access lags far behind what most of us experience in the natural world. Even without ‘accommodations’ most of us navigate outdoors much easier than we can indoors. One has to ask why that still is the case over twenty years after ‘accessibility’ legislation was enacted.

To give you an example, yesterday I went to check out the place that my brother and his fiancée are getting married in July. What I found was both pleasurable and disappointing at the same time. Outdoors, where the main part of the celebration will occur, was lovely and well thought out, with paths that made rolling around easy. Indoors, where the ceremony itself would take place, was a problem. The bathroom required a bit of gymnastics to get into the stall.

Unfortunately I have often found this to be the case. Architects either don’t know what the accessibility regulations are, which doesn’t require much research to learn, or think they can do them ‘better’ and they fail. Wouldn’t it be nice if architects paid as much attention to designing indoor accommodations as grounds keepers do in designing outdoor environments?

I’ve been writing about disability issues for over twenty years now so my interest in accessibility is not limited to my own disability. In my Blind Traveler mystery novels, for example, the protagonist is a blind man who uses auditory cues, through his navigator device, to interact with his world. Though my stories take place in a not too distant future, such a device is just now entering the market place. Wouldn’t it be nice if today’s architects and environmental planners took better advantage of visual, auditory and touch-sensitive cues to make both natural and man-made environments more accessible to those in the disabled community?

 

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What is Fiction?

Some people believe the world around us is illusion. They think the things we see, feel and hear are merely ideas our minds create. If this is true, each experience we think we have, and that writers write about, is fictitious. Others believe everything is reality. Our minds don’t really imagine anything. If one follows this line of thinking there is no such thing as fiction. Instead, what we call fiction is really an amalgamation of all our experiences, all our thoughts, all our dealings with other people.

Humans like to think of themselves as creative creatures. In fact, anthropologists say one of the chief traits separating humans from other animals is our ability to be imaginative, to invent tools and ideas to suit our needs. But, what if this isn’t true?

When crafting a story where do a writer’s ideas come from? Do they come from some outside source we pull into ourselves and mix in a creative manner? Or, do the ideas for our stories really only come from inside of us, our experiences, thoughts, feelings and encounters with other people?

When crafting a story a writer’s first job is to create characters to fill the world of his story. To make the story believable, and to draw reader’s interest, the characters have to be as fully developed as possible. We give them a physical description. We give them a job. We even imbue upon them interests and hobbies. Where do all these things come from? Simply put, they come from the world we live in. The real world.

Twenty years ago I began my writing career as a journalist. I wrote about technology, sports, politics; almost everything. Where did I get the material for my articles? Mostly, I interviewed sources. During this process I amassed a great deal of information. Some of it I saved in files. Much of it found a home inside my head. So, when I decided to turn my efforts to “fiction” it seemed only natural to use some of the material I had learned over the years to create my characters and my world.

My Blind Traveler mysteries began after I’d written an article about a piece of technology to help a blind person navigate his environment. After extensive research about the device, I wanted to explore what would happen if the person using it suddenly found it malfunctioning. First, I created my protagonist, giving him a job in the world of computers, patterned after someone I know. Then, I gave him an interest in architecture and music, two of my personal interests. I put him in world under constant threat by earthquakes because, in the “real” world, at the time our planet seemed to be experiencing a major uptick in seismic activity. Finally, I crafted a situation where, because of the technological malfunction, my character would literally stumble upon a murder about to take place. Is this fiction or is it an extension of reality? I’ll let you decide. I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

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