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My Path From Poverty To Possibilities

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How Losing My Sight Expanded My Vision

Steph at the podium speaking in Erie
Steph Speaking At Disability InSIGHTS

Despite everything she’d been through; growing up poor, feeling unworthy, battling lifelong chronic depression, homelessness, and an endless reservoir of self-hatred she persisted. She wanted to quit life so many times because her self-critic constantly told her, she had no value. Even so, there were two things that kept her going: her drive and her intense belief that anything is possible. She is me and this is only a small part of my story. As a person of color, over 50, female, and living with an acquired disability; blindness, social justice has always been important to me and I know what it feels like to be excluded. Here’s the thing: No one, absolutely “No one wants to be reduced.”

Advocates Unite & Provide Insight

The first paragraph in this post was my introduction to my recent talks at two remarkable events. The first, a seminar, Disability InSIGHTS, was organized by my friend and phenomenal author, Amy Bovaird. Early this year Amy had this idea of hosting an event for Blindness Awareness Month in October. Next thing you know, she brought together a diverse group of authors, speakers, and exhibitors for a series of events celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Along with educating the public, the seminar was designed to showcase the value and accomplishments of people living with disabilities.

When I arrived on Thursday Amy and her brother Michael picked me up at the bus station. After a quick bite to eat we headed over to Hofmann Church & Religious Goods for a book signing to promote Amy and Max’s books. While I’d previously met Amy and Max meeting my friend Kerry Kijewski and her parents was a little surreal. I met Kerry who has also been featured here on Bold Blind Beauty, five years ago through blogging. Kerry and her parents, Janet and Bob traveled from Ontario, Canada to support Disability InSIGHTS.

I want to serve as a catalyst in the positive wind of change to blow over the vision-impaired community and sighted world alike to bridge understanding.

~Amy Bovaird

Back in 2016 On Being The Change You Wish To See I featured the above quote. What’s so noteworthy about this is Amy has consistently been the change she wished to see. From the books she’s written to public speaking, she continually pays it forward by increasing awareness about blindness. Following are a few of the speakers/exhibitors who were at the seminar:

Erie (service dog in training)
Erie (service dog in training)

Overall, Disability InSIGHTS was an amazing, insightful, and empowering seminar that I hope will continue. Brava Amy!!

Peers Challenging Beliefs

My second speaking engagement was at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind. SPARK Saturday (Self-confidence, Peer support, Accessibility, Resources, & Knowledge) was phenomenal.

Thomas Reid of Reid My Mind Radio kicked things off with his presentation “Podcasting with a Purpose, Developing your own Passion Project.” Thomas talked about how we all can use our inherent interests or hobbies for fun, advocacy, and personal fulfillment.

Next up was Kristin Smedley, if you recall I recently featured Kristin in Positive Change Begins With Action Through Advocacy. Kristin the Author of Thriving Blind who presented “Thriving Blind: A Parent’s Perspective.” A mom of two sons both of whom were diagnosed blind at four months of age, Kristin shared her experience and gave powerful life lessons for everyone.

Steph & Kristin Smedley image is described in the body of the post.
Steph & Kristin

Third, in the lineup was “yours truly” and yes, I was ridiculously scared yet at the same time energized. Thankfully, being able to share my passion for creating a world where every person is valued and included overshadows fear. Afterward, several more people would clasp my hand in theirs and thank me for empowering them.

Back when I received my final diagnosis and was declared legally blind I felt so isolated, scared, and didn’t know what to do next. Thanks to my friends at the PA Council of the Blind I had positive role models to help guide me on the next phase of my life. There is life after blindness, there is life after an acquired disability, as long as we are alive we can and must fulfill our purpose.

Summary Of My Talks

Before I lost my sight I viewed life through a very narrow lens. Today, my daily practice is gratitude without comparison, positivity as a choice, and kindness. While I consciously do these things I still struggle with depression, petty anger, self-esteem issues, and more. I’m slowly learning the importance of self-compassion, mindfulness, and forgiveness. The one thing I really love about life is the constant opportunities we are given to choose our path. We don’t have control over many aspects of our lives yet we always have an option on how we respond and this is what I hold close to my heart.

Image Descriptions:

  • Featured image is a photo of me speaking at the podium during the SPARK Saturday event. I’m wearing black wide-leg pants, white tee, and black flyaway sweater.
  • Gallery of nine photos (l to r)
    1. Amy Bovaird kicks off the Disability InSIGHTS seminar
    2. Max Ivey is speaking with Emanuel and his translator in the foreground
    3. The Sight Center of Northwest PA exhibition table
    4. Closeup photo of Emanuel wearing a white headband and his translator who is in a gray suit
    5. Abstract paintings created by a gifted young teen with autism
    6. Kerry Kijewski is sitting at the registration desk smiling broadly
    7. Autism Society Northwestern Pennsylvania exhibition table with a large 3-panel informational display and additional handouts
    8. Kerry and I are standing in front of a 6 foot vertical banner of Abby, Bold Blind Beauty’s fashion icon. Both of us are posing with our white canes. I’m wearing an olive green outfit (long sleeve asymmetrical sweater, leggings, and suede boots. Kerry is wearing a black outfit (black & white striped top under a black cardigan, pants and flats.
    9. Adaptive Yoga exhibition table with books, flyers, and pamphlets
  • Adorable photo of Erie eyeing a dog treat. Erie is a black lab service dog in training. Erie is currently living with his puppy raiser preparing for his upcoming intensive training.
  • Gallery of four photos of Amy and Max’s books (l to r)
    1. Seeking Solace by Amy Bovaird
    2. Mobility Matters by Amy Bovaird
    3. Cane Confessions by Amy Bovaird
    4. The Blind Blooger’s NYC Adventures by Maxwell Ivey
  • The final photo is Steph standing next to Kristin Smedley. I’m holding my white cane in my right hand and Kristin’s book Thriving Blind in my left hand. Kristin is wearing a white shirt under a navy blazer paired with navy pants.
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Blind Author’s Diversity, Inclusion & Anti-Bullying Novel

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Advocacy is in my blood and fuels my spirit. So when my friend Donna Hill sent me an email asking for help to win a book cover competition I said YES! Since I’m always looking for opportunities to increase accessibility, inclusion, and representation this opportunity is a fun way to do this. Please join me in voting for Donna’s book cover HERE. Together let’s change how we perceive one another. Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to present Donna:

Now in Final Round of Book Cover Competition: Vote it into the Winners’ Circle!

By Donna W. Hill

Earlier this month, my educator-recommended, young adult novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill, was chosen to compete in AllAuthor’s Cover of the Month Competition. I remember the first time I visited my special page and hearing JAWS, (Job Access With Speech) my screen reader, say “0 Votes Button.” It seemed like a hopeless case – not that I haven’t been there before.

I entered, and Jaws said, “1 Vote Button.” Since that first day, I’ve been working my butt off, following every lead and using social media in ways I would have never dreamed of only a month ago. Through blog posts, status updates, newsletters, emails to individuals, posts to my many Facebook and LinkedIn groups and requests to authors on the AllAuthor site, I’ve been doing everything I can to get the vote out.

Some of the procedures are complicated, but I’m doing them so much that it’s like my hands are dancing around the keyboard. I’m happy to announce that The Heart of Applebutter Hill is now in the fourth and final round! I’m using the opportunity to raise awareness about blindness, guide dogs and accessibility, & I would appreciate your help. If I’ve already convinced you, just go vote:

Description of the Book Cover of The Heart of Applebutter Hill

Book cover for The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill shows a cave scene - stalactites reflected in an underground lake, while a hand holds the Heartstone of Arden-Goth: photos, Rich Hill;, design, Lizza Studios.
Book Cover

The cover of The Heart of Applebutter Hill shows a cave scene – stalactites reflected in an underground lake. In the bottom right, a hand holds the blue, heart-shaped Heartstone of Arden-Goth. Photos by Rich Hill; cover design by Bob Lizza, Lizza Studios.

The idea for the book cover, however, came from yours truly. I have a beautiful blue glass, heart-shaped paperweight, which was given to me by my “secret sister” when I belonged to a women’s circle at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. The cave scene is a bit of a secret. I would like to find out if anyone recognizes it. I will say that my hubby Rich and I have been there twice, and without seeing it in the ordinary sense of the term, that cave formation dug a hole right into my imagination and provided one of the novel’s most exciting, scary and intriguing scenes.

Some Thoughts on the Big Picture

Pink breast-cancer-awareness afghan, designed and knit by Donna W. Hill,  features twining vine surrounded by butterflies and candle flames: photo by Rich Hill
Breast Cancer Awareness Afghan

Pink breast-cancer-awareness afghan, designed and knit by Donna W. Hill, features twining vine surrounded by butterflies and candle flames with “Buddy Check” in Braille: photo by Rich Hill.

Why is this so important to me? It’s October which makes it “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” and a celebration for me of twenty-nine years as a breast cancer survivor. I am aware that life is short and that there is a reason each of us is here, a unique perspective on the human condition we hold in our hearts and share as a gift to Life.

It’s also “Meet the Blind Month.” I was born legally blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative condition, and I feel an obligation to smooth the trail a bit for the next generation. People with vision loss are still dealing with the devastating impact of misguided, erroneous and cruel prejudices and low expectations about our potentials. These prejudices are held by people who have limited imaginations when it comes to their own impressions of what it must be like to not have eyesight.

Sighted Folks Need Our Help

The sighted world needs to learn about and embrace us for at least two reasons. First, many of us have developed survival, coping and innovation skills that are far less common in the general public. We know how to press on. We don’t have the luxury of giving up after a few tries. We endure humiliation and find ways of coping with it.

It was the news about how average Americans were reacting to the Great Recession that enlightened me. So many people have no clue how to deal with adversity. They’re devastated after applying for and not getting ten jobs. They are thunder-struck when their “friends” don’t want anything to do with them after they’ve lost their homes or jobs. The socioeconomic structure in which they place their trust is a mirage, and when they finally figure that out, they don’t know how to continue. It’s sad.

Secondly, there are people out there, from children to senior citizens, who are unknowingly living as temporarily sighted people. Most of the people in the world who are now blind lost their sight as adults. They grew up as sighted kids, soaking up the negative stereotypes about blindness, until they found themselves having to give up on life or transform their thinking about what it means to be blind. Too many give up.

Social Change Through Literature

Blooming Amarilis with a print copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill, a fantasy adventure featuring some awesome flowers: photo by Rich Hill.
Blooming red Amaryllis with book

Blooming red Amaryllis with a print copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill, a fantasy featuring some awesome flowers: photo by Rich Hill.

Blind people come from every race, religion, ethnic, social, age and economic group. From genius to developmentally challenged, straight to gay, we are a cross-section of humanity. To open the minds of the next generation, we need to get our young adult novels & autobiographies into the classroom, where books can open young minds about the abilities and common humanity of visually impaired people.

I have been working on this issue all my adult life, using music, classroom visits, school assemblies and now literature. The prejudices – yeah, there’s that word again – are deeply entrenched in the human mindset. Whether due to unfamiliarity or something else, these roots need some serious tugging at to break free.

Yes, we can open minds about blindness through literature. A book can give sighted people a safe place to get to know a blind person. It’s also important that young blind people get to see themselves in an exciting adventure fantasy. I believe it can help bridge the gap between the sighted public and the blind community and help kids who are losing their sight realize they are not alone.

Blind Authors & the Publishing Industry: a Locked Door

The publishing industry, while occasionally willing to take on the nonfiction stories of blind people who make it into the public arena, has been more reluctant to embrace fictional portrayals of blind people by blind authors. The disability community has a saying, “Nothing about us without us.” So far, however, the industry is more open to fictional portrayals of blind people by sighted authors.

Some blind writers have been told that their portrayals of blind girls and women are “unrealistic.” Others were told that the public wants their fictional blind females to be demure, spiritual and in need of rescue. Despite the obstacles, more excellent blind authors than ever are establishing themselves as career authors.

Blind Authors Find Ways Around Those Locked Doors

Whether through self-publishing or by working with small publishing houses, their work is getting out there. Some of my favorite blind women authors include Deborah Kent Stein, Amy Krout-Horn, Kristen Witucki, Meredith Burton, Phyllis Campbell, Jo Elizabeth Pinto, Patty Fletcher, and Lynda Lambert. As for blind men, there’s Jerry Whittle and Justin Oldham for starters.

Fiction by blind authors, however, is not on the bestseller’s lists. Several years ago, I ran across a report by the diversity watchdog group “Diversity in YA.” They track the Publishers Weekly bestsellers for young adult novels with main characters and authors with minority status, including disabilities. In 2013, there were no blind main characters. There were also no black main characters. Only the gay community even came close to having a percentage of books in line with population.

This is evidence of the rejection of diversity by the publishing industry and in my opinion something we need to change to create an atmosphere of inclusion in the general population. Here’s a link to the report:

Voting Instructions for Jaws Users

Go on over to:

  1. The page title is “Vote for The Heart of Applebutter Hill
  2. From the top of the page, use ‘h to next heading which is the book title The Heart of Applebutter Hill.
  3. Down-arrow past author & genre till you hear a number followed by “Vote button.” At this writing, I have 258 votes, so it should say, “258 Sign-in Vote Button.”
  4. Enter.
  5. You will be prompted to sign up to the site; choose ‘author or ‘reader. You can establish a nice profile, but you don’t have to.
  6. Give your email, password and sign up. Thanks, bunches, you’ve just voted.

More Links

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The Cheering Section Silences The Self-Critic

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Are you tired of feeling so invisible?
Are you sick of silencing your voice?
Do you still have hope that peace is possible?
My friend, oh you are not alone

You Are Not Alone | Songwriters: Emeli Sande / James Poyser / Salaam Remi

Squashing The Self-Critic

I hadn’t planned on doing a blog post today because I have two back-to-back speaking engagements this weekend. Seriously, I must be having some sort of out of body experience since I SHOULD be practicing instead of writing. However, when inspiration strikes I have to trust my gut and go with it. So here we go:

I am so excited about the events on Friday and Saturday because I get to do what I love—advocacy! Talking about the value and abilities of people with disabilities makes my heart want to explode. Well, maybe not explode because that would kill me, but you catch my drift. So anyways, the thought occurred to me, while in the shower I might add, that none of this could be possible without my cheering section.

My self-critic, I call her Cruella, as she’s quite cruel, is a monster. Fun fact: Cruella de Vil is also my alter ego who I adore because she’s so deliciously evil, but I digress.

Cruella the self-critic is constantly chattering non-stop in my head telling me I can’t do this, that or the other. Some days the noise is so loud I have to stop what I’m doing and take a nap, she wears me out so. However, today, while showering I heard another sound, it started out small then grew tall. To my delight, I discovered it was my very own cheering section. Honestly, I couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed because the cheering section silenced Cruella.

Thank You To My Cheering Section

You know who you are! You’re in the arena with me and accept me as I am, flaws and all, unconditionally. I’m so thankful to have you in my circle.

Robert, the braille and large print booklets you created are phenomenal. Kathy, the braille mugs are perfect. Vicky, the powerpoint presentation with audio cues exceeds my wildest expectations. Amy, offering to manage the BBB Facebook page has been huge and I can’t thank you enough. Carla, you are no longer with us yet your voice is one of the loudest and most supportive. Becky, and the Giggle Girls, I will carry you in my heart while sharing my message on the importance of inclusion and representation. Gigi, your constant encouragement has meant so much to me. Holly, Maria, Chelsea, Max, Nasreen, George, Cate, and Jose our friendships/partnerships are so meaningful and you are extraordinary people.

There are so many other people out there who’ve supported me and I am so grateful for our connection. Thank you for being there for me, you’re the BEST! ~Steph

During my talks, I’ll share my recipe for social entrepreneurship and limitless possibilities. If you happen to be in the area you can catch me here:

  • Disability InSIGHTS – October 18, Erie, PA
  • SPARK Saturday (Self-confidence, Peer support, Accessibility, Resources, & Knowledge) – October 19, Harrisburg, PA (Pennsylvania Council of the Blind Annual Conference)

On a side note, Emile Sandé is one of my favorite artists and here’s an awesome song from her new album.

Image Description:

A black and white photo of an excited crowd of concert-goers.

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From Despair To Captivating A Podcast

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The naysayers said you couldn’t succeed. What they didn’t know was their definition of success was not your definition. Creating your path by believing in possibilities has brought you to where you are today and will continue to guide and sustain you.

From “Dear Stephanae”

Have you ever felt like you don’t fit in? For most of my life, I knew I was different and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t “normal.” Then I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney and to my surprise was thrilled to find I’m different, not abnormal.

If you’ve been following Bold Blind Beauty for a while I’ve remained on message partly because of my introversion. The other reason why I’m consistent is because of the path I’ve been forging for myself.

A few months ago I was honored with a scholarship to attend a life-changing Daring To Own Your StoryTM retreat. The retreat, for blind and visually impaired women, opened the door to reveal a side of me I didn’t know existed. One of the tasks we were asked to complete on the retreat was writing a self-compassionate letter to ourselves. Needless to say, the introvert in me seized up and I was unable to finish my letter. Thankfully, I made a promise to myself to finish it at the right time. That time was yesterday and the opening paragraph to this post is from my letter.

Creating The Path

The thing with creating your own path is there is no blueprint or navigation system to direct you—only your gut. Outsiders won’t understand and will try to convince you that you’re delusional. Your inner self-critic incessantly keeps you second-guessing yourself and you’ll feel so lonely and afraid.

It cannot be a coincidence that this quote from my childhood has remained my favorite:

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead

where there is no path and leave a trail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s no coincidence that the people I’ve connected with on my journey would be instrumental in keeping me on my path. Today, Thomas Reid of Reid My Mind, sent me the link to the podcast we recently recorded and it warmed my heart.

In the interview, Because We Are Captivating, Tom and I talk about the path I’ve created and he did such a great job pulling it together. The timing is perfect as I’m preparing for two speaking gigs next week and am solely focused on the upcoming events.

I’ve included the direct link to the podcast below.

When you have a moment check out Tom at Reid My Mind who is sharing his talent as host and producer of the show. Thank you, Tom, for featuring me a third time on your podcast—it was a blast!

Image Description:

A stunning black and white abstract illustration of the head and left shoulder of a woman. She has both hands on her shoulder and her head is slightly tilted downward. What makes the image so magical is the trees blended into her face and background.