Archive for May, 2011

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Well readers, I haven’t written as much as I would like in this journal, and when I have written, the entries have often been tailored to Lj Idol topics and blog carnivals. So I think an entry that is simply an update on my life is long overdue. I have so much to update you about, especially regarding the internship I will be starting May 31, the day after Memorial Day. But since there is a long story behind that, I think I will save that news for the next entry and start with a reflection on this past school year.

     Usually I am not the type to parrot famous lines to describe something, but I have to say I cannot think of a better way to describe this year than to say “it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I suppose every year of my life has been that way, but it seems like this year, I was more aware of the meaning of this line. Although this line was written by Charles Dickens, my inspiration to use this line was not inspired by him, but instead by Laura Ingalls Wilder. By the end of every year of college, I have been so tired and drained of ambition that I don’t feel like doing anything, and this year was no exception. I was able to muster the motivation to write the blog posted May 8 about Osama Bin Laden, a post that was relatively short compared to my typical writing style, but yet took me four days to write. But once that entry was posted, it occurred to me that what I needed was a good book to escape in to, a book that would be an easy read on a light subject. In other words, I wanted to finally read a book that was a polar opposite to the books I had been reading all semester for college. I had a small collection of books downloaded from bookshare on my SD card, book that had been recommended to me by various sources, but they all seemed heavier than what I was looking for. And then I remembered an article written for our newspaper that my mom read to me about a local woman whose childhood fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder led to a career blogging and doing research about her. “That’s it!” I realized. “Laura Ingalls Wilder would be the perfect escape read!”

     The first book of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, “Little House in the Big Woods” was required reading when I was in fourth grade because the woods where she lived in her early years were near Pepin, Wisconsin, and fourth grade was the year for learning about Wisconsin. Like a lot of kids at that age, I was often less than enthusiastic about school reading, but I loved this book even then. It even led to an obsession that probably annoyed the rest of my family about how wonderful the pioneer life was. But since fourth grade was eleven years ago, I decided it was time to read that book again, and if it is possible, I think I love and appreciate that book even more now. I only stopped reading this book long enough to eat meals and had it finished in less than 24 hours. From there, I have been on a mission to read all the books in the series. Yesterday, I finished the sixth book of the series “The Long Winter” and all of these books have been just as engaging as the first.

     So you are probably wondering where I found a correlation between Charles Dickens and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Even though Laura doesn’t say it as explicitly as Charles Dickens, her writing indicates that the late 1800s when she was growing up were clearly the best of times and the worst of times simultaneously. Of course, a lot of people like to point out how rough life was back then, with no modern conveniences like cars or electricity. But not having electricity or the inventions that came out of it, especially television, meant that after a hard day’s work, Laura’s father, referred to as Pa, would play the fiddle or tell stories, instead of just falling asleep watching some stupid television show like so many families do today. Pa was always doing some kind of back breaking labor, whether it was plowing, chopping trees or stacking hay. Even with all this labor, there were times when the family was barely scraping by. When the family lived in Minnesota, their crops were beautiful and almost ready to harvest when they were eaten by millions of grasshoppers. But when their luck took a turn for the better, they genuinely appreciated their good fortune more than people do today, an era where we can go to the grocery store and buy anything we want to eat any time of year, and where the globalized market we live in means that if a storm or something wipes out a crop in one area, we just import it from somewhere else. The children had chores to do at a very young age, and when they could play, they played with paper dolls or rag dolls. Given all of the fancy toys marketed to children today, children would probably throw a tantrum if all they got for Christmas was a rag doll, but since Laura’s childhood preceded this gluttony of consumption, she was so excited to get a rag doll. Then there were the illnesses that we have vaccines for today that were not available when Laura was growing up. Mary, Laura’s older sister ironically lost her sight because of scarlet fever. But she did not have a pity party. Instead, she focused on what she could still do, re-learned how to sew and studied with Laura so that she could still go to college one day. Now of course, my life circumstances aren’t nearly as extreme as those faced by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, but the point is that these books inspired me to think about the best and worst parts of my own life last year.

     First semester was the best of times in that I essentially only had 12 credits of coursework. I was enrolled in 16 credits worth of courses, the full course load at my school, but the business 101 class that my adviser recommended was so easy. I only had to answer two or three questions out of the textbook each week, and quickly discovered that I didn’t even need to read the textbook chapters because the professor said his lectures were directly based off the chapters. Listening to powerpoint lectures every day was kind of boring, but hey, I’ll take a boring class if it is easy! Having this one class that was so easy gave me more time for a life other than school, like singing in the concert choir, mentoring another blind student a few times and participating in Lj Idol. But that also made it the worst of times in that I allowed this easier schedule to make me more of a complacent student. Since my politics course didn’t have the dreaded ticket questions I talked about last year, I was less diligent about reading everything that was assigned, and in my communication law class, I could have scored better on my presentations had I taken them more seriously and backed up my arguments with more research. I didn’t fail by any means. In fact, I still made the Dean’s list. I just didn’t make the most of these learning opportunities the way I usually do.

     When I got my wisdom teeth out in January (see the entry I wrote January 8), it was the worst of times in that I had this unrelenting pain on the lower left part of my mouth where the incision had to be deeper because the tooth was fully impacted. After taking Vikodin every four hours only to have the pain come back again when the drugs wore off, my dad took me back to the oral surgeon the Wednesday after surgery, and it was discovered I had dry socket. So every day, we had to drive half an hour to the surgeon’s office where it took a nurse less than thirty seconds to pack the dry socket with this disgusting tasting stuff with numbing medicine on it. But that surgery was the best of times because it gave me a deeper appreciation for the comforting effect of soft foods like soup, pudding and applesauce. Also, it gave me a legitimate excuse to sleep away a few dreary winter days.

     First semester this year brought no crazy trips to the emergency room or need for surgery like first semester last year, although I did have a fever one day requiring me to miss school, and in November, I had this weird painful lump on my neck that the doctor diagnosed as inflamed tonsils and prescribed antibiotics. But second semester brought the best health I have ever had. Other than a few headaches caused by stress and sleep deprivation, I felt great because of a decision I made that this year would be the year I would eat healthier. While I will eat bacon, eggs and hashbrowns occasionally, most mornings now I eat oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, and this healthier eating extends to the rest of the day too, where I have made incredible strides in eating fewer simple carbs and high-fat meats and more whole grains, fish and vegetables. That combined with walking 4 miles an hour for at least half an hour on the treadmill or walking a minimum of two miles outside, has resulted in such stunning weight loss that pants that once fit me are now too baggy, so my mom has been buying me smaller pants, and donating my “fat pants” to Goodwill! In eighth grade, I tried a more extreme health plan where I gave up chocolate altogether and did a lot of situps in addition to my treadmill workout. Needless to say, this more extreme approach didn’t last. But this more moderate approach where I can still eat chocolate, just less of it, and where I choose one exercise to focus on, which I decided should be aerobic exercise, I have a wonderful sense that this approach will be sustainable for the rest of my life.

     Starting in November, it was the best of times in that my mom got a new job that allowed her to be off on weekends again, so we have been able to go to church as a family again. I don’t usually like football, but since my mom finally got to be off for the playoffs and the superbowl, there was something special about huddling under blankets on the couch and watching it as a family this year. But it was the worst of times in that during the week, Mom and I hardly ever saw each other, as she had to work more hours than she expected, and I had night classes three nights a week last semester. Then again, it was also the best of times in that I think I have developed a closer relationship with my dad. When I was little, my dad loved to ask playfully, “are you Mama’s girl or Daddy’s girl?” When I would always say “Mama’s girl!” he would pretend to cry like I broke his heart, but now that I spend more time with Dad, I have noticed we do have a lot in common, so maybe I am Daddy’s girl now! It is also the best of times because when I do get time with Mom, like this past Tuesday when my dad took my brother to a baseball game, or a few Saturdays ago when my dad was gone all day taking my Grandma to visit her sister in Illinois, the girl time with Mom was even sweeter and more special somehow.

     Second semester was the worst of times in that I had an insane amount of reading. Whereas in the past, teachers only assigned an article or a particular chapter out of a book to read, it seemed like all my teachers this semester were assigning whole books to read. One teacher even required us to turn in reading notes for all of the assigned reading. This meant that every weekend when I thought about just taking a day to blog or relax, I would see all of the reading on the syllabus, get a guilty conscience and spend the whole weekend reading instead. But it was the best of times in that this was by far the most interesting array of courses I have ever taken. My public policy course which was two hours twice a week, flew by because much of the time was spent discussing current issues that effect public policy, most notably my governor’s budget repair bill that stripped public employees like teachers of their collective bargaining rights. (You have all probably heard about it if you watched any national news in January.) My society and mass media course which was three and a half hours once a week, also flew by with fascinating discussions about how the media covered news events from the American Revolution in 1776 to September 11 and the wars that followed. I am really glad this course is required because now I give the news I hear more thought and critical analysis rather than just passively believing everything I hear which I know will make me a better journalist. In Communication Ethics, I also learned to think more critically about what it means to be ethical. Of course, you saw my paper written about the Japanese nuclear crisis. We also had other interesting class discussions, one of them being about the budget repair bill and whether the teachers protesting at the capital were engaging in civil disobedience. In English, I read beautifully written creative non-fiction and documentaries which gave me a deeper appreciation of that art. So while last semester was stressful, it was worth it for the awesome discussions and learning opportunities.

     It was also the best of times in that my hard work seemed more appreciated than ever before. My public policy teacher admired my enthusiasm and understanding for the material after classes and even asked me to help other students having trouble writing a thesis for their paper one class period. Then on April 9, I went to a special banquet hosted for all the humanities courses which included English, Communication, Politics, History, Art and Music, where I received the Journal Communications Award, and where the teacher I had for Communication Ethics gave a beautiful speech about my academic achievement and presented to me a beautifully engraved silver plate.

     The weather this spring has not been nearly as wonderful as it was last spring, so consequently, Gilbert and I were not able to take as many walks during the school year which really helped me cope with school stress last year. But on the few days when it was warm, I appreciated the walk more, paid more attention to the pretty songs of the birds and breathed the fragrant fresh air more deeply.

     I have noticed that every Laura Ingalls Wilder book ends with a sweet scene that reaffirms how wonderful life can be even when times are hard. My favorite of these moments is the end of “Little House in the Big Woods”, which ends with Pa playing the fiddle and singing “Shall auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne.” Laura, a little girl lying in bed in a warm cozy house, hears Pa playing the fiddle and watches Ma knitting in the rocking chair, and realizes those long forgotten days of auld lang syne are now and will never be forgotten. Perhaps this is an attitude we should all embrace, myself included. I am all too guilty of thinking “my life is alright now, but it will be even better when I get out of school, get paid for my hard work and have a house of my own.” But I should know there will be hard times then too. Just look at how many people are unemployed, or who aren’t compensated fairly for how hard they work. Or, just think about a startling fact I learned in a public service commercial today: that one in six Americans are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. Or even if you have a great job and are financially secure living a comfortable middle class life in your own home, the news coverage of the devastating tornadoes that hit Missouri and Alabama with so little warning shows there are no guarantees the same thing couldn’t happen to any of us. This goes to show life will probably always be the best and the worst of times, so we should all make the best of any hardship and appreciate the blessings in our lives here and now.

Advertisements

Another Lecture in Ethics

Well readers, after a long semester full of writing, I havent felt inspired to write lately, but I wanted to update this blog to let you all know I haven’t forgotten about you. Then I remembered that I had another ethics paper I wanted to share.

     You may remember that I shared the first paper I wrote in March. (If you got bored after the first sentence and did not read it, I understand.) I shared that paper because I was delighted about how much the teacher loved it, and in fact said my writing was advanced and that he just had some feedback about finer points like minor grammar issues.

     But despite how long he raved about my paper, I will never forget when he had finished going over the paper with me and said as I was walking towards the door, “Remember how I said in class that your second paper should be better than the first?”

     “Yes,” I said.

     “Do it,” he said, and I knew exactly what he meant. I wanted to reply that I couldn’t make any promises, as this first paper didn’t require any sources other than my own brain, whereas the second paper would require a little more research which can be difficult for me. But I was so impressed by this teacher’s high expectations that I found myself saying “I will!”

     And I did! Despite the fact that I had so many end-of-semester papers and presentations due all at once and couldn’t devote as much time to the paper as I would have liked, I received an A for it! Better yet, this teacher made the final exam optional so that if you were happy with your grade, you could skip the exam. My A on this final paper, on top of my excellent quiz and participation grades for this class led the teacher to send me an e-mail saying “don’t bother with the final exam!” I think that proclamation calls for a celebration by publishing this paper. I don’t usually brag, so I will stop now. I am just so happy about how well this class, and the whole semester, turned out. On that note, here is another lesson in ethics for those who are interested. Enjoy!

 

An Analysis of Ethical Communication In a Nuclear Crisis

Allison Nastoff

Communication Ethics

Thursday April 14, 2011

     The Japanese people, and for that matter anyone in the world who had access to a television, won’t soon forget the images that came out of Japan on March 11, 2011, a day that set a new standard for the term “natural disaster.” That morning, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake, followed by a giant tsunami, brought Japan to its knees. Whole communities were washed away, and the death toll is now estimated at around 13,000. But coverage of the devastation from the natural disaster was quickly overshadowed by another more ominous man-made disaster. Just as industrial countries around the world were thinking about building more nuclear power plants and switching to “clean energy”, two reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were damaged by the earthquake, causing fuel rods to overheat releasing radiation in to the surrounding air, soil and water, and releasing panic among everyone in the nuclear industry and people living in the surrounding communities.

     Considering the dangerous health effects of being exposed to high levels of radiation, not to mention the economic hit Japan is taking since other countries have banned Japanese products that may have been in the areas effected by the radiation, it is understandable that Japanese officials would want to try and calm people, even if it means downplaying how serious the nuclear crisis really is. For example, the United States evacuated Americans living in a fifty mile radius of the plant, while the Japanese government only evacuated people within a twelve mile radius according to a New York Times update on the crisis published April 9. But is it ethical for governments to try and downplay disasters of this magnitude? In a Democratic society, what is the most ethical communication from a government when a China syndrome seems possible?

     As the citizen of a Democratic country, my values have always dictated that a democratic government is by the people for the people, and thus, the government has a moral obligation to be transparent with the people it represents about what is going on. I also believe transparency is especially important after a national security disaster such as Japan’s nuclear crisis because those are moments when trust in the government is essential for effectively responding to the crisis. These days, national security crises are also moments when social networking has the potential to erode that trust as Jennifer Sims points out in a March 15 New York Times article. “Although outsiders need to be patient, recognizing the enormous stress all Japanese are experiencing as they cope with this crisis, Japanese officials need to appreciate that social networking can magnify noise; poor information policies will exacerbate their national security crisis, not alleviate it” (Sims).

     At a congressional hearing on September 5, 2003, then Senator Hillary Clinton echoes a similar sentiment when she said “To say that national security somehow justifies telling people the air is safe when it is not is to essentially say that people are going to be told that when they need their government the most at a time of terrible disaster, they cannot trust what they hear. A national crisis does not justify giving people the wrong information and continuing to do so days, weeks and months after the event.” Senator Clinton made this statement in the context of a hearing about the lung diseases suffered by firefighters after breathing contaminated air on September 11, 2001, but this statement is applicable to Japan’s current nuclear crisis as well. But since others, even those who live in the same democratic society may value the preservation of calmness and order even at the cost of transparency, making values subjective, determining the most ethical communication for this situation requires analysis of the situation using ethical principles.

     First, Aristotle’s Golden Mean Principle states that “Moral virtue is appropriate location between two extremes.” The virtue of wisdom which is also synonymous with sound judgement, could definitely apply to the above case. Certainly, the extreme of a response that causes panic and chaos would not be desirable in Japan’s situation, or for that matter any country facing a major catastrophe. For instance, had Japanese officials gone banging on doors screaming frantically that people need to evacuate immediately at the first signs of a radiation leak, such a response would not have helped anyone as such a response would have led to such chaos and panic among citizens that it would have become much more difficult to manage the situation. But though a more subtle extreme, the extreme of not sharing anything with citizens about what is going on or how much radiation citizens might be exposed to is just as dangerous because as Hillary Clinton said, this extreme leads to distrust in government at a time when such trust is crucial. So according to this principle, the middle ground, and thus the most ethical communication in this situation would be for government officials to exercise wisdom through honest reporting to the citizens of what is going on so that the citizens feel they can trust their government. Then, should more drastic measures like an evacuation be necessary, the trust the government developed with the citizens would alleviate panic and allow the crisis to be handled in a calm, orderly fashion.

     Although I have always interpreted Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative principle which says “act on that maxim which you will to be universal law”, to be a principle applying more to individuals, it certainly could be applicable to governments as well, especially in terms of a government’s expectation of other governments. After all, Democratic societies are constantly criticizing authoritarian governments for withholding the truth from their people. But if Democratic societies want other governments to be truthful to their citizens, then societies like Japan should be truthful with their people in times of crisis.

     But Immanuel Kant’s principle which says “never lie” makes determining the most ethical communication for this situation a little more uncertain. It is true that there is an implied expectation that governments in a Democratic society will be transparent because if a lack of transparency during a crisis causes harm, it could have serious political repercussions. But when analyzed from the perspective of a formal contractual agreement, applying this principle would indicate that while citizens trust and depend on the government to handle crises, they never entered an explicit contractual agreement requiring the government to keep them informed about the severity of the crisis. So while Japan’s lack of transparency is controversial, it does not meet Kant’s definition of a lie.

     But determining the most ethical communication becomes clear once again when applying Mill’s Principle of Utility which says to “seek the greatest good for the greatest number.” It is true that in the short-term, withholding information about the severity of a crisis could benefit society in the sense that people would not be burdened with unnecessary anxiety about a potential nuclear meltdown when they are already under incredible stress trying to recover from the earthquake and tsunami. But what about the long-term trust in government should a lack of transparency lead to harm? Democratic governments need to take this question in to consideration and realize that if a crisis as severe as a potential nuclear meltdown is mishandled, the resulting mistrust in government could take generations to restore. So while some members of society may prefer not to know the magnitude of a crisis in their midst, governments should realize that transparency is a much safer assurance of the stability of society long-term, and thus transparency is the approach that would ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

     Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance Principle which says that “justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations” is also applicable to this situation, and it leads me right back to the overwhelming evidence that transparency is the most ethical communication. After all, the whole theoretical purpose of government is to act in a manner that serves everyone’s best interests. Therefore, to remain true to their duty, Japan is obligated to be impartial to the emotions of people who may not want to know about the crisis and recognize that transparency is a more sensible approach for everyone involved.

     Finally, the Judea-Christian Principle which says to “love your neighbor as yourself” is definitely applicable to this case, and is perhaps the most important principle. Even if a government official decides not to release information about the severity of a crisis on the basis that he/she would not want such knowledge if he/she were an ordinary citizen, that person should also think about how upset he/she would be if he/she or a member of his/her family were harmed as a result of a lack of transparency. If that person thinks about the Judea-Christian principle in that way, he/she would realize that while transparency may contradict the more simplistic interpretation of this principle which says “do unto others what you would want done unto you”, according to the more accurate interpretation of this principle, “love your neighbor as yourself”, transparency is the most ethical communication.

     Of course, it could be argued that since I am just a college student with no experience in issues as sensitive as a nuclear crisis, I don’t know all of the implications that must be considered by government officials handling such a crisis. I will probably never be faced with such a sensitive situation either. Therefore, it is possible that if I were actually personally involved in such a situation and not just analyzing it theoretically as a college student, my opinion as to the most ethical communication would be different. Nevertheless, based on my current knowledge of the situation, I believe transparency is the most ethical approach.

Works Cited

Sims, Jennifer. What government transparency could mean for Japan’s nuclear disaster. New York Times. 15 March, 2011.

 

Tabuchi, Hiroko and Bradsher, Keith. Lack of Data Heightens Japan’s Nuclear Crisis. New York Times. 8 April, 2011.

 

Senator Hillary Clinton. Senate Congressional Record. 5 September, 2003. Page 21350.

Osama, Osama! Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye!

Last Sunday evening, May 1, 2011, my parents and I ordered The King’s Speech from our cable company’s on demand movies list. The war on terror was the furthest thing from our minds when about an hour in to the movie, the phone rang. My mom paused the movie to answer it. It was my sister.

     “Mom! Are you watching the news?” she asked excitedly.

     “No! What is going on?” Mom asked, concerned at first.

     “Oh my Gosh! Bin Laden is dead?” Mom gasped in shock and amazement.

     Upon hearing this proclamation, I think my heart skipped a beat, and needless to say, my dad and I did not object when Mom quickly hung up the phone and decided we could finish the movie the next day. All week, I haven’t been able to get enough news coverage of such an amazing event that I honestly thought would never happen.

     My emotions upon hearing this news were nowhere near as deep as those who lost friends and loved one on September 11, or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed. Even so, I could identify somehow with the spontaneous celebrations in the streets of New York City and outside the white house. Although I am not the kind of person who enjoys going to sporting events, I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like for the audience in that Philadelphia stadium, where it was reported the crowd erupted in cheers of “U.S.A., USA.!” Monday morning, I saw a New York Times article which reported college students singing “Osama, Osama, hey hey hey, goodbye!” This song has been stuck in my head in a jubilant way all week.

     Like all Americans, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the terrorist attacks on September 11. I was a sixth grader, sitting in class about to take my first Science quiz of the year when the principle came on to the public address system.

     “I have something very serious I need to tell you,” she said, and then proceeded to tell everyone who was in an elective like Gym to get to their homeroom. She would come back in a few minutes to give us the news.

     I went to school in what is considered an affluent and very safe school district. Even so, I couldn’t help getting a little frightened, wondering if a bomb threat or something like that was discovered. I also couldn’t help remembering news coverage of the year before when I was introduced to the world of middle school that I would be entering next year with a report that an eighth grader had brought a gun to this school. (The gun was never used, but still a scary discovery nonetheless). Well, I was right about the safety crisis part, but I never imagined it would be on the national level, not just the school level.

     “Two planes have crashed in to the World Trade Center, which is made up of two towers in New York City,” she announced solemnly when she came back. Then she told all the teachers that they could turn on the television so that we could see some news coverage. (I would find out later that the teachers had been informed of this tragedy but were told at first not to tell us students.)

     I don’t remember how long we watched the television coverage, but I will never forget the collective gasp of horror when the second tower collapsed, and one of the news anchormen calling that day “a day that will go down in infamy.” Despite not being able to see the carnage on the television screen, I had never before heard such a reaction from an event, so I knew it had to be horrible.

     Awhile later, the principle came back on the public address system and told the teachers to turn the televisions off and try to resume our normal class work, gently telling us students that the news coverage would just show the same footage over and over and it wasn’t good for us to watch it all day. So the teacher turned off the television and we took our regularly scheduled science quiz, and went through the rest of our classes like nothing happened, but I know students and teachers alike were merely going through the motions.

     When I got home from school, my mom was at her usual post at the end of the driveway where the bus let me off. At first, she didn’t say anything, probably so that she wouldn’t alarm me in the event that I hadn’t been informed about the tragedy at school, but when I told her I had heard what happened, I will never forget her account of the event. She was just thinking about what a beautiful day it was, the sky the most perfect blue, with not a cloud to be seen, when Dad called from work to tell her to turn on the news.

     I will also never forget the fact that she had made rice krispy treats. I don’t know if she had planned to make them anyway, or if it was a desperate attempt to salvage a tiny ray of sweetness and innocence out of such a tragic day, but I will always remember eating my rice krispy treat and Mom commenting that “this tragedy will effect all of us.”

     At first, I didn’t understand what she meant by this comment. I even remember thinking “no, this won’t effect me. Sure it was a horrible event that for a few days will make me stunned and sad for the families who lost loved ones, but since our family didn’t lose loved ones, it wouldn’t have a lasting effect on us.” As it turned out, Mom was right. Maybe Osama Bin Laden didn’t kill any of my friends or loved ones, but I realize now that he killed a lot of my childhood innocence and forced me to grow up a little faster.

     In fifth grade Social Studies, I had learned about the American Revolution and the brutal attacks by the British on the colonists. But I thought stuff like that was just history, and with all of our technological advancements and respected status in the world, nothing like that could ever happen today. All of the other lessons I learned in school on September 11, in particular the science lesson where we were learning how to measure our resting heart rate and compare it to our heart rate after exercising, seemed insignificant after learning that our country is not as safe and invincible as I always thought.

     At Halloween, my dad took me trick-or-treating, but it seemed as though no one’s heart was in it, which my mom attributed to the fact that celebrating Halloween almost felt akin to celebrating evil, which didn’t feel right after September 11. I remember begging and pleading to go trick-or-treating because I was still immature and wanted to do the happy childish things I had always looked forward to, so my mom threw together a costume (I don’t even remember what it was), and had Dad take me around the neighborhood while she stayed home to greet trick-or-treaters that came to our house. But to tell the truth, I don’t think my heart was in it either. It might have been due to the fact that I was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but I think September 11 also had something to do with the fact that I never went trick-or-treating again.

     Christmas that year was a sad time for our family because it was the first Christmas after my grandpa passed away, and two days before Christmas, a neighbor we were good friends with also died unexpectedly. But September 11 added to the sadness. We went through the motions of decorating the house, baking cookies and buying gifts, but again, our hearts weren’t in it. By the following Christmas, our wounds were starting to heal and we found joy in Christmas again. But it was a different joy, less about the new toys under the tree, and more about appreciating what is really important, spending time with loved ones.

     Before September 11, I lived in my own little childhood bubble, not really caring about what was going on outside my world. But September 11 was a rude awakening to the fact that there is a larger world beyond my bubble, and thus I started paying much more attention to, and understanding the significance of the news regarding the larger world. I couldn’t help recalling all of these moments when I got the long-awaited news last week that Osama Bin Laden was killed, and feeling as though there was finally justice, not just for those who lost loved ones on September 11, but also for the children who were robbed of their innocence.

     But the death of Osama Bin Laden also had another wonderful effect, which was the unity it seems to have brought to the whole country this week. Given all of the anger and distrust of government, especially regarding our budget deficit, it is easy to forget the incredible unity after September 11. On that day, all political differences were forgotten as everyone grieved and wanted the terrorists brought to justice. My favorite symbol of this unity was when one of my relatives forwarded my mom an e-mail of a cartoon with a silly song and tools to create a character that you could sign your name to and kick Osama Bin Laden’s butt! Even at my young age, I felt such pride and patriotism as Mom created a character for me. But as the horrible images of September 11 faded from everyone’s memory with time and the Iraq War divided the country again, I became cynical. I was even beginning to doubt if the United States was even looking for Bin Laden anymore as I hadn’t heard his name mentioned in the news lately, and I had learned some pretty unflattering things about our intelligence agencies in a public policy course I took this past semester.

     Of course Americans were divided about the degree of happiness they felt upon hearing this news. If I had lived on my own, I probably would have organized a spontaneous celebration in the streets, as did many college kids, but I know many people interviewed on the news didn’t like the idea of celebrating violence, even if it was Osama Bin Laden, and of course people who lost loved ones on September 11 pointed out that the death of Osama Bin Laden won’t bring their loved ones back. But while the country was divided on whether or not it was right to celebrate in the streets, our country was once again united in the fact that I have yet to encounter a single person who isn’t proud of our troops and somewhat relieved that Bin Laden is dead.

     My parents don’t think Osama Bin Laden’s death will unite the country long-term, and they are probably right. After all, we all saw how the unity and patriotism after September 11 was long forgotten by the time the United States invaded Iraq. So it probably won’t be long before this victory will be forgotten and Congress will resume fighting like junior high girls over the budget deficit. But for any historians who might stumble upon this blog in 200 years, it should be noted that at least for this week, differences were put aside, and not a person could be found who wasn’t proud to be an American.

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011: Raising Awareness about an Inaccessible Information Age

This post was originally written with the intention of using it for Blogging Against Disablism Day on May 1, an annual event since 2006, where people all over the world blog about something related to disabilities whether it be access, discrimination or negative perceptions of people with disabilities. The name of the blog that hosts this event is Diary of a Goldfish. Here is the link to the blog if you would like to read about this event or check out other blogs that participated in the event: http://blobolobolob.blogspot.com.

     Unfortunately, due to a lack of inspiration on May 1, I wasn’t able to submit this entry on time, but it was indicated that people who couldn’t blog that day would still be included in the archives, so I will e-mail the host with the link to this entry as soon as it is posted. As my fourth grade teacher liked to say, “better late than never.”

     On the release day for each of the Harry Potter books, my dad would stand in line at the bookstore early in the morning to buy a copy, which he presented to my brother as soon as he woke up. Then instead of watching cartoons or playing video games after breakfast, he would join in the Harry Potter hysteria, reading the book practically nonstop until it was finished.

     I would get my book a month later. As ruthlessly as my brother teased me about my blindness in other ways, like randomly poking me on long car rides and getting away before I could prove it was him, to his credit, he never spoiled the Harry Potter books for me. Even he saw how unfair this long wait was.

     I am not sure if I had to wait because the publisher wouldn’t give National Braille Press access to the book until it was released because of the whole secrecy thing that authors are obsessed with, or if the publisher did give them the book in advance but not enough in advance to get it brailled before the release day. But as a child, I didn’t care about the reason. I was just furious that a publisher would release such a huge sensation of a book before EVERYONE could access it. I am not sure whether or not getting the book on tape would have allowed me to read it on the release day, but I never liked listening to books on tape because there is something special about reading the same way sighted people do, with the silent experience of reclining on the patio or on the sofa, turning pages and reading the words for yourself. But when the mail man rang the doorbell to deliver the giant box, or two or three that was my book, and I got to bust them open and hold each volume in my hand, feel its newness and turn those crisp never-been-read pages feeling just like my brother did on the day of the book’s release, the wait was well worth it. (For the release of the final book, to my complete joy, I found out that National Braille Press was able to arrange for the book to be delivered on the day of its release! But why couldn’t these arrangements be made all along?)

     Unfortunately however, my reading frustration has effected educational reading as well. In elementary school, many of my textbooks were only available on tape, and this actually would have been fine with me. Textbooks, unlike Harry Potter aren’t meant for pleasure reading. School books on tape were fine when reading a book cover to cover, but of course with textbooks, teachers assign specific pages. In high school, I was finally given a special CD player where you could just type the page you were looking for on a keypad and skip right to it, but in elementary and middle school, my educational experience was marred by the good old fashion portable four-track player that did not have this feature. Each book would come with a braille sheet that would say for example “cassette 1 side 1: pages 1-30.” But of course, the teachers had to assign pages 10-25, so I had the choice of either just listening to the first nine pages, or playing a tedious game of rewind, fast forward, listen for a minute, rewind fast forward listen for a minute, until I found, or got close enough to, the correct page. Neither of these choices were appealing to a kid who, like everyone else, just wants to flip right to the page, get the reading done and move on to better things. So although my teachers caught on and weren’t happy about it, I would often just ask my parents to read my textbooks to me, which they were happy to do because they didn’t think all the time spent just trying to find the page was fair either.

     Even for Math, the one subject where my teachers recognized that the textbook had to be in braille, problems getting the book were not uncommon. One year, I think it was seventh grade, my parents and I came home from running an errand, to find a voicemail from my vision teacher who was in charge of ordering textbooks.

     “I found the textbook Allison will need for Math next year. But do you know how much it is going to cost? Five thousand dollars!” she said in a tone of utter shock and disbelief.

     Now of course, a braille book is going to be more expensive because braille is such a specialized code that the producers of these books have to get trained in which costs money, not to mention the fact that braille just takes up a lot more space than print. (For sighted visitors to this journal who may be unfamiliar with braille, one page of print can require as many as four pages in braille). In addition, math also requires the duplication of graphs and diagrams. But still, my parents, teachers and I were astounded by this price. I still remember my mom saying as a joke, “are the pages trimmed in gold or something?” Fortunately, I live in an affluent school district, but in many districts, ordering such a pricey math book would not have been possible, preventing the student from participating fully in class. But actually, I have not always been able to participate fully in class myself because often times I had to use an older addition of the same book because the newest addition the regular class used was not available in braille. I was still learning the same concepts, but I had to be assigned different homework problems than the rest of the class and thus didn’t benefit as much from the regular teacher’s lecture, which was based on the problems the other student had done.

     And then came college, where I was ultimately responsible for having the textbooks I needed, not my vision teacher. Fortunately, I have gotten better at coordinating with the Disability Services Office at my college, thanks to my dad who assured me it is not rude to put a little pressure on them and tell them I really need my textbooks on time. We even start checking the bookstore as soon as one semester ends, buy the books as soon as the bookstore receives them, and take them to the Disability Services Office right away for scanning. But the first year of college was rough. First semester, despite getting the books to them in July, I found out on the first day of class that they had barely started scanning them. By the time chapters did start trickling in to my inbox, the teacher had often assigned them the week before. If it weren’t for the fact that I lived close to home and am blessed with dedicated parents who read my textbooks aloud for me, I almost certainly would not have received the excellent grades that I did. Second semester, my parents and I thought we would try scanning the books ourselves since the state gave me a scanner and Kurzweil software that allows scanned pages to be read by a screen reader like JAWS. I couldn’t put up with this plan any longer than one semester though because I don’t know if it was the way the print textbooks were formatted, or if I didn’t have the highest quality scanner, but whatever the reason, it wasn’t uncommon to have large sections of illegible garble. In the time it took my mom to help me edit the garbled sections, I swear I could have done the assigned reading five times! Fortunately by sophomore year, I was much more comfortable advocating for myself at the college level, politely speaking up when I needed a particular chapter that hadn’t been sent to me yet. But another problem still drives me crazy. I have yet to do a research paper where I don’t have to deal with at least one PDF file that is a scanned page so that my screen reader cannot read the text, or one book that I would really like to peruse but which I cannot access. With the unreadable PDF files, I e-mail them to the disability services office which has been great about cleaning them up and sending them back to me, usually by the next day. With books, I have not had as much luck and thus have resigned myself to the fact that if it is not available on bookshare.org, (a site where people who are blind or dyslexic can register to download electronic books for an annual $50 subscription), I might as well not waste my time trying to find it anywhere else. Case and point? For a research paper I had to write this semester for a Public Policy course regarding the FCC’s regulation of indecency and profanity on television, I saw an awesome editorial, at the end of which it was indicated that the author of this editorial wrote a book called “The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture.”

     Since this short editorial had such excellent arguments, I thought it would be cool to peruse the book and see if I could use it to expand on the arguments in the editorial. So I checked Bookshare. It wasn’t there. I checked Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. A totally unrelated book by the same author was there, but not the book I needed. It wasn’t available on any mainstream audio book company sites and it wasn’t available at all from my local library. It wasn’t even available as an electronic file on Google books or Amazon. I thought that was a pretty in-depth search, but when I saw a contact form on the web site of the book’s publisher, I thought I would fill it out and explain my situation. My hopes was that they would direct me to a company I may not have heard where I could get the book directly. Instead, I received a reply a few days later saying that I could contact the disability services office who could contact the publisher for an electronic copy. Now, I am very aware of the Disability Services office doing this every semester for my textbooks, and based on how long it took for the books to be sent in the past, I think there is a lot of red tape. Then, when the books arrive, they often have to be cleaned up or converted to word files so that I can read them. Don’t you think that is a lot to ask of the Disability Services people for a book that I only wanted to peruse, that I might not even use in my research paper at all? Needless to say, I just cut my losses with that book and found another less awesome sounding but adequate book on Bookshare.

     I think what I am trying to say with these experiences is that I wish mainstream companies from education to recreation would stop and think a little more about how much equal access means to people with disabilities. Alright, I recognize there does need to be a little give and take. In an ideal world, it would have been cool to wait in line and get Harry Potter in braille, direct from the bookstore. But that would be a lot to ask since as I mentioned earlier, braille takes up a lot of shelf space! But in the 21st century, isn’t it a bit outrageous that it takes a month from the time the book is released in print until it is available in braille? I have heard four-track players are pretty much obsolete now, thank God! But again, why on Earth does a math book cost $5,000, and why haven’t publishers thought about the fact that releasing a new print addition before it can be brailled puts blind students at a disadvantage? In this the internet age, why aren’t all books available electronically so that blind people can purchase them directly like everyone else? In the 21st century, is it too much to ask to want to just be able to open any file and start reading, with no garble or scanned pages that screen readers cannot recognize? In other words, with all of our technological advancement in so many other areas, shouldn’t blind people be able to access a book or file just as easily and efficiently as anyone else?

     It is not generally my nature to gripe like this, and I really don’t think these access difficulties are intentional. I’m sure the publisher that created the scanned PDF pages wasn’t thinking “I hate blind people. I am going to scan this in such a way that they will have a harder time reading it.” I think the problem is simply that because blind people are a minority, there is not a lot of awareness or education regarding our needs in mainstream society. Without education or awareness, it would make sense that there is not a lot of thought given to these issues. So I hope that sighted people, especially those in the field of publishing educational materials, will stumble upon this entry and at least start thinking about these issues. Being the young optimist that I am, I have faith that with a little awareness, society would be more than willing to put these thoughts in to action, making the world a little more accessible for all.