October Interview: Scholar, Teacher, and Guide

Eric Harvey, age 34, is a Ph.D. candidate at Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. He studies the texts, religions, and cultures of ancient Israel, Syria, and Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). He is writing his dissertation on a group of biblical Psalms which reused pieces of older texts. He lives with his wife Kristin, 2-year-old daughter Jane, and dog Faye in the San Francisco Bay area. For hobbies, he hangs out with Kristin and Jane, reads a lot, listens to too many podcasts, and enjoys strength training and yoga. Find him on Twitter and at his blog.

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

Both. I have always had low vision, but in the past four years it has begun to deteriorate in earnest. I have a diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa, but it is unusual in that I am losing central vision first.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

Our dog is a good dog, but she’s not a guide dog. In fact, she’s kind of an anti-guide dog, and she can get me into trouble when I try to walk her. So I have a cane. I don’t use it all the time, but more and more often I feel safer with it than without. I always use it now when I venture far from home or take BART.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

The unpredictability. I have a degenerative retinal disease, and my vision varies wildly from day to day, even hour to hour. Some days I can see and do certain things just fine, and the next I can’t. Also having to retool every habit and workflow that I have ever learned.

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

Oh wow—so many. My family and friends first and foremost. My wife is a huge support and cheerleader. Knowing my daughter relies on me to show up and care for her every day keeps me centered and focused on living life day to day. The rest of my family has also been incredibly helpful, but I don’t want this to turn into an Oscar speech!
Also, books. I’ve been binge-reading blind-lit for the past few months. I love to read memoirs by blind people who refuse to be held back by their blindness.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

I think a lot of people feel there’s no right way to talk to us, like if they open their mouths at all their foot will inevitably find its way in. It’s true that people say a lot of dumb stuff to blind people. Blindness activists in the last century rightly fought against the open mockery and condescension with which blind people were often treated. Now in the post-ADA world, the political and social climate is such that people don’t voice those noxious opinions as much (even though some still hold them). Instead, people tend to tell us how inspiring we are. But disabled folks have pointed out (again, rightly) how hard those comments are to hear over and over, how they objectify us and betray the speaker’s diminutive expectations for us. So now I think sensitive, thoughtful people are afraid to say anything at all, lest it cause offense, and this is not really a solution. It prevents dialogue and understanding, and leads to a greater sense of isolation among the blind.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem on a societal level, but for myself I take it as a challenge to be a teacher and a guide to sighted people. Those of us who are blind know much more than the sighted about blindness—what it is, what it isn’t, and what it means to live with it. We have thought through all of these things because we have been forced to. Most sighted people know no blind people, and meeting us prompts them to think about issues of blindness often for the very first time. Whenever anyone starts thinking about any topic for the first time, their thoughts are bound to be simplistic and naïve. They ask us the natural first questions, the simple questions that we asked and answered for ourselves long ago.

When I hear those questions, I try to remember that this is what’s going on, and that this is a chance for me to teach someone about something new. I try to have an answer ready to questions that I hear more than once—not a snarky witticism that shuts the conversation down, but an answer that invites them to rethink their assumptions. It’s not easy, because a lot of these questions poke at our exposed nerves. It requires a kind of strength and self-awareness from us that the people we engage with often do not demonstrate. But I think the effort is worth it, if it leads to more engagement and connection between the blind and sighted worlds.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

I seldom reread books, because that’s time I could spend reading a whole new book. I’m a novelty junky. I do have the strange urge to reread a book right now, though, so I’ll mention that one: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It is a beautiful, nuanced depiction of family, generational strife, American religion, and small town life that unfolds in a series of letters from a very old Midwestern pastor to his young son. It ends up being about something unexpected that reframes the whole work in a surprising and poignant way.

What book, person, or perspective makes you feel most centered?

Honestly, I don’t know how to answer this one. I feel centered with my wife and daughter, or when I’m reading and engaging with new perspectives or new information, or when I’m alone and chewing on ideas from things I’ve read or heard, or when I’m doing yoga, or… I guess a lot of things make me feel centered. I feel decentered when I’m overwhelmed or pulled on from too many different directions.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

I want to finish my Ph.D. and get a job teaching somewhere.

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about?

No clue. This is my first one!

What topics would you prefer to discuss?

I’m happy to discuss anything: my field, adapting to blindness, fatherhood (I’m the primary caregiver for my 2-year-old daughter), hobbies, the history of language, etc.

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