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Lisabeth Saunders Medlock, Ph.D. Headshot

Does Not Having a Smartphone Make Me Less Smart?

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I always see the tops of people's heads. Not just because I am tall, but because they are looking down at their phones. Their attention, their distraction, their primary interaction is with the world in their smartphones. It is a world, a way of being, now as foreign to me as a visually-impaired person. I am a non-texting, non-app-obsessed, non-game-playing owner of a flip phone. And I talk on it.

At the time of my accident in 2010, I had a BlackBerry. It was useless once I could not see. I tried to adapt it, using those fuzzy bubble markers to mark keys. They quickly rubbed off. Duh. I tried to use the voice command, but my phone just could not understand me. I usually ended up throwing the phone in frustration. I began calling her the BlackBerry bitch.

After almost three months of BlackBerry wrangling, I gave up and looked for a more useable phone for the visually impaired. I ended up with an indestructible old-school flip phone. It has a voiceover function so all the menus and items are read aloud in a female voice. She tells me who is calling so I do not have to have person specific ringtones in order to avoid calls. She also reads text messages out loud. So I can't read a text when I am around others, unless I want to be an exhibitionist.

It can also receive pictures that I cannot see. I just know it is a picture. This means I can utter the words "it was just so very, very small" and be telling the truth. She tells me what I am typing so I can send a text. But even with my super rapid flip phone texting fingers, it is time consuming. I am trying to listen to see if I have hit a button the right number of times to choose a letter. I have sent some pretty bizarre text messages. Or at least I have been told I have.

I bet you are thinking, what about Siri? What about the voiceover functions of the amazing IPhone? I tried, but Siri just couldn't understand me. And when you go into the voiceover mode you have to quickly double tap icons you can't see to open apps. And you have to scroll and move using three fingers. The pads of three fingers all making contact when you have nails is an impossible feat. And it was also impossible for the staff at the Apple store. They gave up too. Finally they paraded out another visually-impaired user who worked there. He admitted there was a steep learning curve. And as I now say -- ain't nobody got time for that.

At first I thought that not having the ability or time to text, use apps, know the latest news and weather at all times and play games on a phone left me on the fringes of modern society. But actually the opposite has occurred. Because I do not have access to the web and apps at my fingertips, I don't pay much attention to my phone. When I am doing something or with someone, I am truly in the moment. I am engaging and paying attention. In addition it has reduced the flood of information coming at me. So I don't waste time sifting through the useless to find the useful. When I want to know something I actively look it up on my computer instead of being a passive recipient of loads of information. The only thing I can't do is have a dialogue about my level on some candy game or the latest app to make you look older or fatter or like a zombie But since I have lots more time to read I can tell you, for example, how many children Thomas Jefferson had with his dead wife's half-sister.

My visual impairment has forced me to pick up the phone and talk to people. My preference and primary form of communication is through conversation. It is interesting that people who know I am visually impaired still send text messages. The first time someone does it I send back a text that says, "Dumb ass, you just texted a blind person." They are somewhat confused. But they do eventually start picking up the phone to communicate. Others are even willing to grab coffee or lunch or just stop by and hang out. Because of this I not only know who my friends are, but my friendships have deepened.

And I love that I can't see the screen on other people's phones. So I can't interact in their phone world. People keep holding up their phone to me and saying things like, "Do you think this guy I met last night is hot?" And I just smile and nod. And I can't see my 7-year-old's iPod Touch. But I am listening. I have caught her laughing and that is when I ask what she is doing. When she said, "I am watching funny cat videos" that she found via Google, I said, "Don't put the word pussy in the search box." She asked why and I responded, "Google does not know that word."

My inability to see people's faces forces me to attend to larger gestures and their voices. This makes me think about what we all lose now because face to face interaction or even phone dialogue is not the norm in how we communicate. Those who use text or email as a primary means of communication in building or maintaining relationships must be at a loss in really being able to connect. If we do not communicate face to face then how do we learn how to read non-verbal behavior or facial expression? How, if we are used to interaction where there is no real expression but emoticons, are we able to read inflection and intonation in voice to infer meaning.

I can't imagine choosing to have relationships that are primarily non-verbal. I know the loss I feel in not being able to really see people. And I know the importance of paying attention and hearing and listening and even touching people in order to feel more connected. To me interacting via text and e-mail and social media is kind of like being visually impaired. And why someone would choose that is baffling to me. It just seems dumb.

An excerpt from the book: Finding the Light Switch in the Dark: My Journey to Enlightenment from Blinding

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