Researching a Protagonist with Disabilities
My new nephew, Seth Morris, is only five months old and I’m learning quite a bit from him already. For example, I already knew that we live in a very visual world, but what I didn’t realize was that it is through vision that we first interact with the world. My nephew can’t speak yet, of course. In fact he can’t do much of anything except lay there and be cute. But he is learning, every day in fact. He is learning to notice the things and people around him. He is learning to pay attention and to focus his attention, and I am learning to do this more as I watch his progress.
Seven years ago, when I decided to create a blind protagonist for my mystery novels, I didn’t really know much about the world blind people live in. I’d been writing articles about disability issues for many years prior but most of those seemed to be focused more on mobility impairments than anything else. However, since I’ve always worked by the adage ‘write what you can find out about’ I decided to learn about blindness.
I wrote an article about a device that used GPS and virtual reality to help blind people navigate their world, and I incorporated the technology into my stories. Back in 1983, when I was in social work school, I met a blind man who was able to tell how far stores and things were from his home just from the number of steps he took to get there. I met another who, through describing his own experiences, taught me about the prejudices and obstacles blind people face in our visual society.
I made lots of calls and sent out many emails trying to solicit help in my quest for knowledge. I took a course in sign language, even though it is a visual communication technique, just so I could learn about how different people communicate.
That led me to researching the history behind the creation of the Braille language, which I then incorporated into my fiction work. I learned about different ways to compete in sports too.
For instance, I learned that Judo was the perfect martial art for a blind person because the combatants are virtually always touching, which eliminates the need to hunt for your opponent. I spoke to the sports director of a rehab facility and learned about Beep baseball, which is like regular baseball but adds sound to the ball and pylons with sound emitters to the bases. My protagonist now participates in both of these sports.
My protagonist needed to be able to take care of his daily needs, so I had to learn how he could do that. One of the more interesting things I discovered was about the treatment of money. Blind or sighted we all need to learn to use money. In many countries paper bills of varying denominations are in different sizes while U.S currency is all uniformly sized. So, blind people have to learn how to fold there bills in order to recognize each by touch.
That may change. In 2009 the Treasury Department was sued by The American Council for the Blind resulting in an order to begin printing currency which blind people can recognize by touch alone.
Writers need to learn a lot in order to create believable characters. They need to know how their characters move and think. They need to know how the character will interact with the world that is created for them. That all requires research and the willingness to learn and adapt one’s worldview. By watching my nephew I have become even more aware of what I need to do in order to make my own protagonist grow as a ‘real’ person.
Robert Bennett, a former social worker turned writer, lives in the house he grew up in with his mother, one of his two brothers, two dogs that don’t get along, and a turtle. His lifelong focus has been a concern for the needs of society’s disenfranchised. His articles span a wide range of topics from sports to technology and from politics to social justice. His fiction is grounded in real world events and technologies as well as his own philosophical concerns. “It is the act of truly living and believing in yourself that is important, not the manner in which that action is undertaken.” Mr. Bennett has spoken to groups of physical therapy students, church members and senior citizens, and has appeared on several radio programs. Contact Mr. Bennett through his website at http://www.enablingwords.com/