At the center of my novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill, is a plot to steal the powerful and dangerous Heartstone of Arden-Goth. the legend of the Heartstone (a blue, heart-shaped sapphire) was inspired by a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. Refugees attend a progressive private school, fly the Cloud Scooper, accidentally end up in the central domed courtyard of Bar Gundoom Castle and escape to the mystical land of Satori Green.
“It’s nice to snuggle up with a good book,” says Goofus, Hills’ kitty, a strawberry-blond male tabby: photo by Rich Hill.
Baggy, Abigail and Curly Connor (Abbie’s dog ) must find the person who is trying to steal the Heartstone, while dealing with summer school and their troubled friend Christopher. The heroine is a legally blind 14-year-old girl.
What? Wait! Why write a blind girl into a perfectly good fantasy adventure
My Theory About Blind Girls in Fiction
My belief is that by bringing blind and disabled teens into the lives of middle school students and older readers through fiction, we can break down the walls of ignorance and fear which separate us. It can generate more awareness and acceptance of our common humanity among the general public and will be invaluable to those who, though they are unaware of it, are destined to lose their sight. Ultimately, it will cut the cost of programs supporting otherwise able-bodied unemployed blind people.
For those with vision loss and other disabilities, it provides a rare and welcomed opportunity to see themselves portrayed as strong, well-rounded and capable characters in fiction. It is currently available in accessible formats for readers with sensory, learning and physical disabilities through Bookshare and Learning Ally, as well as in print and ebook versions at your favorite outlets.
A Few Things About Blindness
Blindness and visual impairments are low-incidence disabilities. Compared with autism, dyslexia or deafness, there aren’t many blind or visually impaired Americans. Nevertheless, visual impairments are on the rise. In 2008, the CDC projected a tripling of diabetes-related blindness in working-age Americans by 2050. Considering reports of skyrocketing Type 2 Diabetes in adolescents (a frequent cause of vision loss) and the unexpected difficulties in treating it, this prediction may prove to be conservative.
The situation facing blind Americans is fraught with irony. Though Tim Cordes and David Hartman graduated from medical school without sight, and others are lawyers, engineers, mechanics and excelling in many other fields, unemployment among otherwise able-bodied, working age blind Americans is over twice the national average. Braille literacy, despite strong ties to gainful employment and advanced degrees, is low; most of America’s blind kids are never taught to read it.
Many believe that the major contributor to this dichotomy is the profound social stigma surrounding vision loss. This stigma, fostered by unfamiliarity, presents special challenges for people dealing with low vision, their families and those who seek to educate and rehabilitate them. Similarly, it is a major issue for those who encounter people with visual impairments as customers, clients and co-workers. The stigma also impacts relationships among neighbors and family members.
The “unfamiliarity” is due not only to the fact that blindness is a low-incidence disability, but because blind children represent the smallest group of blind people by age. Consequently, kids, while in their formative years before prejudices have taken root, rarely come into contact with blind peers.
Most blind people grew up sighted and are fettered by their own negative opinions about vision loss. Rehabilitation counselors say that undoing these prejudices is the greatest obstacle to a successful transition to living nonvisually. Furthermore, most professionals in the fields of special education and rehabilitation go through their entire training without ever interacting with a real blind person.
The problem has a profound impact on blind girls and women, who have few role models in either the public sector or fiction. Though general audiences have no trouble naming several blind men, such as Stevey Wonder, Jose Feliciano and former NY governor David Paterson, the blind woman most frequently mentioned is Helen Keller, who died in 1968. What other minority has endured the lack of a female role model for over fifty years?
Bridging the Gap
I understand the problems blind people face in the sighted world. I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa and was the first legally blind child mainstreamed in the Easton, Pennsylvania School District. I have a B.A. in English literature from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. I wasn’t taught Braille in school and learned it only after college. Similarly, I wasn’t given a white cane. After I received my first guide dog, I got one, just in case.
It has been my life’s passion to bridge the gap between the blind and sighted worlds. I worked as a speaker and singer-songwriter for twenty years and have three recordings. My school assembly programs combined music with an interactive presentation about blindness and nonvisual ways of living independently. It hurts me that children, who someday will lose their sight, grow up so frightened of blindness and blind people.
For almost a decade, I have been writing about these realities for online magazines. I have appeared on many internet radio programs and have written guest blogs on these issues. I have also volunteered as a media relations specialist for various advocacy groups, including the Writers’ Division of the nonprofit National Federation of the Blind (NFB). In that capacity, I have placed stories about exceptional blind individuals and the issues accompanying vision loss with newspapers, radio shows and other media throughout the country.
Fiction & Social Change
Abigail & Curly Connor, from The Heart of Applebutter Hill, are standing in an Oval Opening at The Castle of Bar Gundoom: photo by Rich Hill.
Nonfiction and journalism, however, are not the only tools which can promote social change. From Oliver Twist and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to more modern works such as The Grapes of Wrath, Roots and Children of a Lesser God, fiction has played a significant role in raising awareness of social justice issues.
The Heart of Applebutter Hill is designed as a captivating adventure story, in which the reader gets to know a 14-year-old girl who is legally but not totally blind. Another character was blind from birth. It allows readers with visual impairments to see themselves in literature, and I hope that it helps readers – in and out of the classroom – to view people with vision loss as equals with talents, foibles and short-comings, like themselves.
Those using fiction to facilitate social change, however, are likely to encounter a major roadblock; the publishing industry is subject to the same prejudices as the general public. The watchdog group DiversityInYA, monitored the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list for books written by or about minorities including people with disabilities. Their research has shown that diversity in young adult literature is virtually nonexistent.
Blind writers, including me, learn that publishers and agents consider our portrayals of independent blind girls and women “unrealistic.” We’re supposed to be passive, long-suffering, spiritually gifted and most of all, in need of help. After a year, I gave up looking and self-published.
The Heart of Applebutter Hill, which features an intelligent and lovable guide dog, also has characters with other disabilities and addresses the issue of bullying. Despite popular beliefs that no one would do such a thing, more and more blind writers are beginning to speak out about the problem. A UK study shows that children with vision loss are experiencing high levels of bullying by their peers. Many of us think the problem in the U.S. is worse.
A Thought and a Request
A 6 petal lily: photo by Rich Hill.
Educators, rehabilitation professionals, and other writers recommend The Heart of Applebutter Hill for inclusion, diversity and anti-bullying initiatives in middle and high school, as well as for education, special education, healthcare, theology and technology majors in college. Can you help by reading it and sharing it with your friends and family?
Visit my Amazon Author Page at: http://www.amazon.com/author/donnawhill
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References: Blindness & Diversity in Young Adult Literature
“Diabetes Epidemic Signals an Increase in Blindness, Too” – The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/10/health/research/10diabetes.html?_r=2&ref=health#story-continues-1
Employment & Visual Impairments: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/qa_vision.cfm
Blindness Statistics – American Foundation for the Blind http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/2
“Bullying a ‘common occurrence’ for children with sight loss” – Optometry Today https://www.aop.org.uk/ot/industry/charity/2015/03/30/bullying-a-common-occurrence-for-children-with-sight-loss
Accessible Versions of The Heart of Applebutter Hill
Learning Ally: World’s Largest Provider of Human-Narrated Textbooks & Literature
Learning Ally carries The Heart of Applebutter Hill in the VOICEtext format; highlighted synchronized text accompanies the human narration. Listen and follow the printed word at the same time! http://www.learningally.org/BookDetails.aspx?BookID=KV589
Bookshare: an Accessible Online Library for Readers with Print Disabilities
Digital DAISY text, audio and refreshable Braille versions of The Heart of Applebutter Hill are available at: http://www.ookshare.org/browse/book/639304
Recommendations, Intro for Educators and Reference Letters
Professionals in the fields of education, rehabilitation, low-vision care, accessibility and the arts praise The Heart of Applebutter Hill. Read their comments at: https://donnawhill.com/recommenders-of-the-heart-of-applebutter-hill-from-professionals-
Dr. Karen Squier, O.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, Southern College of Optometry (Memphis, Tennessee ), and one of only 45 optometrists worldwide to have earned the highest level of certification in low-vision care from the AAO, has written “An Introduction to The Heart of Applebutter Hill for Educators”: https://donnawhill.com/intro-to-the-heart-of-applebutter-hill-for-educators/
What People Think about Donna’s Programs:
Download a PDF of reference letters from schools, colleges and other organizations who have experienced Donna’s presentations. Look under the heading “Download Reference Letters About Donna’s Presentations” at: http://DonnaWHill.com