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Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

What It Means to Win a Hugo as a Blind Person

There is an archetype of The Reader.

The vision of The Reader in childhood is of someone who cannot pull their nose out of a book. They stay up late, hiding underneath the covers after bedtime with a flashlight, reading late into the darkest nights.

The Reader, based on that image, is sighted. Capable of reading a book with a flashlight, able to sustain long reading sessions like that.

So when I became the first blind person to win a Hugo Award, it defied the image of The Reader. Of the Writer. Of the devout Teller and Consumer of Stories.

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Your Face is Too Grubby: A Treatise on Face Touching

The blind woman’s hands graze the young man’s face after he urges her to do so. He eggs her on, saying she needs to feel his beauty. To him, it’s the only way that she’ll know what he looks like. Perhaps to an abled audience, this makes sense.

A scene later, and the blind woman finds a corpse in an alley. She feels the corpse’s face, and knows without a shred of doubt that it is her friend, whose face she just touched at the beginning of the episode.

…Right.

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Cataracts, Blindness, and Evocations of Horror

In the fourth episode of the second half of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season 1, Ros (during a flash forward helpfully provided by a tarot reader) has been cured of her blindness through surgery. She is so grateful, and so glad to no longer be a blind person, that she decides to give back.

She decides to volunteer at a “home for the blind.” (More on this later, I promise)

She arrives in a small room to find a preteen wearing a stark white blindfold. Presumably, this is where the blind people are kept. (Again, more on this later.)

It’s during this scene (which we’ll come back to later) that she utters my least favorite question, which I hear on average at least once a week.

“I’m so sorry. Can I ask…? Did it happen suddenly? I hope you don’t mind me talking about this, but how did you go blind?”

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Different Ways of Exploring Blindness: Bird Box and The Luminous Dead

This essay is a continuation of “Constructing Blindness,” a series by Hugo Award finalist fanwriter Elsa Sjunneson-Henry.

“I’ve been blind from birth,” is what I usually tell people, even though it’s technically not true. The only world I can remember is the world of being blind, though, so it seems like a truth even if it isn’t precisely what’s true.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” They reply, their voices sotto and hushed, as though to speak about my disability is scary or harmful. As though what’s obvious from the guide dog at my side (or the white cane in my hand) and the occluded cataract of my right eye is something I am trying to hide.

On the one hand, people are guilty for talking about my, as they might call it, deficiency. They are worried they are drawing attention to a difference which I’m more than happy to talk about—a personality trait which definitely makes people uncomfortable.

By the same token, though, people are fascinated. Many of them have never spoken to a blind person before; they are unaware of what it’s like to live the life that I do.

For most sighted people, the assumption is that there is only one kind of blindness. That no blind person wears glasses, that we cannot read, or use cell phones, that for all of us it is a resignation to the darkness.

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What Sabrina Needs to Do to Depict Blindness Realistically

“I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be… like you.” This statement is often accompanied by a gesture, usually to my face, sometimes to my cane. They are referencing my blindness, my cataract, my hearing aids.

They can’t imagine what it would be like to live with one eye, with limited vision, with no vision at all.

It isn’t that they have no imagination, but rather, it’s because the stories we’ve been told about what it’s like to be blind are so filled with fear and falsehoods, that I empathize. It would be impossible to imagine a life within the darkness, or even within the partial light, without fear.

As a blind consumer of media, I often find myself frustrated by these depictions of blindness, which give people little hope in a world full of it.

So we’re going to talk about it. This essay serves as the beginning of Constructing Blindness, a monthly series which will delve into how abled people are shown what blindness looks like, and what the reality of blindness is off the page, stage, or screen. The first new piece of media we’ll tackle is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Because here, we can talk not just about how blindness is depicted, but also about how blind people access media.

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I Belong Where the People Are: Disability and The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water made me feel less human.

On the surface, there are many things to like about The Shape of Water. The main characters, the ones in the right, they are all outsiders. They are people like me. With the exception of Children of a Lesser God, it is the first time I have ever seen a disabled woman as an object of desire. It is the first time I have seen someone swear in sign in a mainstream film. It is one of the only films out there to address some of my feelings about my body or depict them on screen. Let’s be honest, Children of a Lesser God was made in 1986. That’s 31 years of film history. That’s my entire life.

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I Built My Own Godd*mn Castle

I am going to tell you the story of how I destroyed my first novel. It’s a story that I wrote when I was young, a story that was about a girl like me, a disabled girl, confronting horrors and adapting to a world she didn’t quite fit into. I found my way to telling a different story—one I revel in now.

I am going to tell you the story of how I destroyed my first novel, but it will take a minute because these moments don’t happen in an instant. They happen over periods of time. They are a reaction to a lifetime’s worth of lessons.

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