[Edited to include link to the original article: http://www.giditull.com/articles/wysiwyg_e.htm]
Life of a blind person in Israel, in the 21st century. For Gidi Ahronovich, its a new challenge everyday. But his spirit and attitude has helped him sail through. Inspiring post!
What You See Is What You Get
By Gidi Ahronovich
I initially thought about writing a short article about “Why There Are No Blind People on the Internet” and why no official website of the state of Israel is compatible to blind users. Eventually I decided that the problem is rooted much deeper than that, and is related to the lack of basic understanding of the problems of a blind person in Israel. Therefore, I opted to write about the day-to-day life as a blind person in Israel – an article which will involve a number of different areas, a bit of autobiography and small stories, in the hopes that the reader will be able to relate to my own feelings and experiences.
A short summary of my life
I was blinded shortly after birth. I was born prematurely, and the nurse put too much oxygen into the incubator. As a result I lost my sight. I was told that too much oxygen usually causes brain damage to premature babies and that I should take consolation in the fact that I’m “only” blind.
Ironically, my entire family comes from the world of photography. My parents are photographers, my brothers are photographers, my nephews are photographers, and only I am a stray child who went and became a bus driver…
As a result of the family occupation, my first childhood memories include many photography exhibitions, art exhibitions and movies. I remember myself as a child being dragged to exhibitions and getting descriptions of what you can see, and to this day whenever I’m in London, Italy or any other place, I go with friends to exhibitions and they are always astounded by my historical and descriptive knowledge of art.
I remember school as a very bad experience. In Netanya, where I live, a blind person who wants to learn Braille can only do so in a religious school. Thus, I was limited in two ways during my childhood: once by being blind, and once by being the only non-religious person in a religious institution.
My highschool didn’t really know what to do with me, and I ended up majoring in “Secretariate and Management”. They, too, didn’t really want to let me take finals. As a result, in 11th grade, I left high school and completed finals on my own. That was probably the most amazing time of my life.
Afterwards I studied music for a BA and graduated with honors from Levinsky College. I still work in the field to this day – truly a normal life. I’m completely independent and do everything. I’m a big fan of music, art, computers, trips and books.
So what’s the problem?
The problem that I wanted to present in this article has to do with Israeli society’s treatment of blind people in the 2000s. Even today, most people believe that blindness is something terrible and impossible to live with, and have difficulties dealing with blind people who try to blend in society. I think the best way to explain this mistreatment is with real stories from life.
I get to travel on buses a lot (for obvious reasons, I’ve yet to pass a driving test). Usually I sit in the back of the bus. As a principle, I refuse to sit in the first seats – those which are designated for the disabled. I sit, listen to cds and check out girls. People almost always talk to me and a conversation evolves, and the same questions are always asked. How can you live like this? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you ever consider suicide? How do you see colors? How do you dream? And of course, how do you pee without missing?
There was also someone who asked me how I have sex if I can’t see where to penetrate. I explained to him that I do it in the dark.
“Tell me man,” asks me a young passenger, “do you have a girlfriend?” Well, okay, I don’t right now, but when he asked me I did. “Yes,” I tell him. “Wow man, and how do you get along when you’re both blind, isn’t it tough?” I explain to him that my girlfriend isn’t blind, and he asks: “What do you mean? She’s not blind? So what kind of disability does she have?” I explain to him that “No disability. She’s a regular girl.” and he says, impressed, “Wow, that’s admirable of her.”
Really, all the stigmata regarding the issue of girls always amuse me. A while ago I emailed a girl through a dating website. The response I got was more or less: “What the hell could a blind person want with someone who can see? I don’t believe that you’re blind, because blind people can’t use computers and this has to be some scheme of yours to pick up girls.”
Or once, during a concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, an old lady approached me and asked: “Sir, are you married?” “Why, Madame?”, I asked, “You sound a bit too old for me.” She told me “I have someone for you to meet.” Out of experience from similar situations, I asked “And she is blind?” and the predictable answer was “Yes, her name is this and that.” “Madame, I know this girl, we have nothing in common.” This was too much: “But how could you not? You’re both blind.”
In fact, I barely know any blind people. I know two or three I met at random; I don’t condemn any relations with blind people. I just condemn the notion of “He’s blind and you’re blind. Talk.” I’m willing to talk with any person, whoever they are. If they’re blind I don’t have a problem with explaining to them why I surf the internet with one program or another, or why I order my canes online and don’t settle for what they sell here in Israel. But if aside from that I don’t have anything to talk to them about – a similar taste in music, books, art, I won’t keep talking to them just because they’re blind.
I’m not a member of any club for blind people because I don’t believe in staying isolated from society, but in full integration. As time passes, I understand that I’ve no problem with my blindness – I have a problem with the ignorance of people, and unfortunately, if people know one blind person, and they don’t particularly like him, they project that onto the rest of the blind population in Israel.
Someone once asked me on the bus “Sir, how can your parents let you out of the house when you can’t see anything?” Oh please. “Sir, how could they let you out of the house when you forgot to take your brain?”
I love movies very much. I particularly like foreign pictures, especially Chinese and Japanese. Then I can torment my friends and ask them to read me all of the subtitles – because it’s not in English.
Whenever I visit the cinema, my friends, who like my cynicism, always send me to buy the tickets. The cashier is always amazed, and once one even asked me to fold my cane and call Igal Shilon (the host of an Israeli prank show on TV) because the jig’s up.
The cynicism also escorted me during my service in the army – a time when many people who saw me on the street in uniform went up to me and asked, “What does the army have to do with someone like you?” I was working in the army’s radio station, and one day the army’s general commander visited, and when he approached me and asked “What do you do in the station?” I told him I was my commander’s driver. Years later, in a phone conversation with him, he told me he was looking for a driver and asked if I was available.
There are, of course, some advantages to being a blind soldier – when the commander announced a new law, according to which the guard could no longer read newspapers but only listen to the radio, I explained to him that I’m allowed to read newspapers in Braille during my shift, because it doesn’t take my eyes away from guarding.
The problem with state services and corporations is that they have no clue about the life of a blind person in Israel. Even the people who are supposed to handle the blind always see me as a strange character: I can never pass exams that are adapted for the blind because I don’t really know how to write Braille (I write on a computer).
Take, for example, a company like Bezeq (major Israeli phone company). When I wanted to connect to the ADSL they told me there’s no discount for the blind, because blind people can’t work on computers. When I invited their representatives to see how I do it they didn’t really bother to come.
With Orange, a cellphone company, I nearly ended up in court for discriminating the blind. While other cellphone companies have voice alert when you get a new message, Orange has only a drawing of an envelope on the phone screen. I explained to them that I can’t see the drawing, and therefore I often check my messages without knowing if I actually have any – an act which requires payment. They told me it’s my problem that I don’t see the envelope, and even recommended that I ask people on the street to tell me when I have a message and when I don’t. The story ended up in the press, and as a result of the intervention of Yediot Ahronot, a major newspaper in Israel, Orange agreed to take me out of their customer list.
Even the Central Library for the Blind in Israel, which does holy work in recording books, won’t record a lot of science fiction, due to low demand. And what could someone like me, a bizzare person with dubious taste that only wants to read science fiction, do?
There are many other examples. In a recent trip to London, my friend was eager to see a painting exhibition that was there. We visited the exhibition, and my friend saw a blind person walking with his wife, and she was describing the paintings to him – and no one looked at them strangely. I went up to him, talked to him, and realized how illiberal and painfully ignorant we are in Israel. In London I didn’t at all feel different, no one looked at me strangely, they let me touch things, didn’t bother me on the underground, and in museums treated me with respect and let me touch everything. In Israel, if I go into a museum and start touching the statues, there’s sure to be some security guard who’ll have something to say about it.
I was told once that in America there are blind people working at McDonald’s. If I entered a McDonald’s branch in Israel and asked for a job theyd call the people from the sanitarium.
I’ve had a Braille monitor for close to twelve years now, and I freely work with the computer. I was using computers even before then – I had a Commodore 64 (remember?) and I learned to play by the sounds it made alone.
Only a minority of the blind in Israel work with computers, because a Braille monitor costs around 30,000 NIS, and Windows translation programs are another 10,000 or so. Or, as my father put it, “For all my children I bought cars and for you I bought a Braille monitor.”
I don’t know why blind people fear the internet. Very few of them are connected, and most don’t even work on Windows but on DOS.
Even the expensive equipment I use isn’t perfect. For example, I can’t read what I write while I’m posting in online forums, and so the number of typos in my replies is relatively high.
Why exactly did I write all of this? Mainly because it was important to me to bring attention to the matter and encourage people to think about it. It hurts me that even today, in the 2000s, people believe that a blind person should sit at home, listen to the radio and work as a receptionist.
I’m probably making an ugly generaliztion here, but very few people know what a blind person is or isn’t capable of, and that’s a shame. I hope in the future this will change.
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