One More Thing about Sensitivity Readers

One of the tricky issues in the new phenomenon, the sensitivity reader for pre-published books, which I heartily support, is that every minority group has a multitude of opinions, just as the members of majority groups have. When my first book, Mom Can’t See Me, came out to very good reviews, 2 that were starred, my editor received a letter from a member of the National Federation of the Blind, trashing it. The letter objected to my daughter (narrator of the book) saying that “Mom probably makes more mistakes than other mothers.”

This raised holy hell with the letter-writer, despite the examples in the book of me showing competence. He denied that blind people were more mistake-prone than sighted folks. But when I was sighted, I didn’t gesture and hit penises. I didn’t hug a pilot, thinking he was my brother. So my experience suggests that seeing can result in goofs.

But only in the first few months of blindness did I worry that I wasn’t an equal citizen. As soon as I learned to be independent, I didn’t entertain any thoughts of inferiority.

I never joined the NFb or its competitor, the ACB, American Council for the Blind, though I did attend an NFB meeting once. It was the group “of” the blind, and it barred sighties. I am a sort of militant type and a couple of blind friends were NFB members, so I thought it would be the right fit for me. But as a swamped mother, I found the meeting agendaless and very social, so I didn’t think I had the time to join.

Then I learned that I did hold some different opinions from the NFB membership. For instance, at one time members claimed that though the blind can’t read print, the sighted cannot read Braille. Their point, I guess: both groups are equal. My problem, though, was that sighted people could learn to read Braille, but I could never read print again. And what was the beef anyway? We didn’t have to justify our equal place in the world.

Over the years I’ve found other small disagreements, different preferences. Some of us, yikes, even voted differently. But I’ve always valued the work of the NFB, as well as the ACB.

This is a long way to get to my recommendation that authors writing about characters with experiences other than their own do a lot of diligent work. We need to research what details can be offensive or stereotypic. We must interview a variety of people and weigh the contradictory opinions carefully.

Those of us in minority groups do have innumerable common experiences—i.e., blind people being snubbed by clerks, for instance, who ask their sighted companion, “what does she want?”

But we mustn’t forget that all groups have individual differences, varied values, and locate the commonalities. Authors may be wise to interview many voices and not just one sensitivity reader.





About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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