|EBU Otsuki Award
“In The Borderlands”
Sweden Ann Jönsson(51/Female)
| It is a very special day. Many people have gathered at the large hotel in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo. They are from the government, the authorities, and from organizations. The Sri Lankan government is going to present a ten year policy for the handicapped. Organizations for the handicapped in both Sweden and Sri Lanka have worked together for a long time in order to make this happen.
I will be delivering the opening speech on behalf of Sweden. My friend Asanga (who will be interpreting) and I are packed together in the pulpit. Papers are spread out in front of us – my manuscript in Braille, my English text, his Sinhalese translation. I’m nervous, touched by the solemnity of the moment. A moment ago, I lit the oil lamp at the front of the stage. This is an honor and a tradition when something great is about to take place. I will now tell them that a handicap policy is about conveying hope, that change is possible.
I take a deep breath, with my hands resting on my manuscript. In the middle of all the excitement, I still feel calm – I know that I have the words in my fingers.
. . .
Today, Braille is a natural part of my life, just as natural as ”regular” text. I weave my way back and forth between my two forms of written language, depending on what I need to do. I feel a huge amount of confidence and happiness because of this. But it has not always been like that. To be able to see a little bit, like I can, means that you are living in a kind of borderland. You are neither blind nor sighted. For many years, it was very important for me to define myself as fully sighted. I did not walk with a white cane and I did not use Braille, which I had learned as a child. I imagine that I was living like an immigrant who had let go of her native language in the belief and hope of succeeding more easily in her new country. When I finally understood that I needed both of my written languages, I felt like I was finally coming home, like I was becoming a whole person.
I was born in the late 1950s. At that time, there was no question that visually impaired children should attend a special school. At the age of seven, I was sent to Tomtebodaskolan, which was 600km from home. My parents realized that we would not have much contact during the school year. They taught me how to read and write so that we could write letters to each other. My aunt, who worked at a bookbindery, made sure that our home was full of story books. A fantastic world opened up to me – in black and white text. I loved to read!
The move to Tomtebodaskolan made me ”blind”. I learned Braille and I enjoyed reading it just as much as I liked to read in my written language from home. I used to lie with a book under my covers long after the night staff said goodnight. I read until my fingers were sore. I now only used a pen when I wrote letters to my family.
After a while, I received a weekend family. Erik and Karen gave me “the outside world”. They encouraged me to never let go of the “regular” letters that I had been taught at home. Erik had been a sailor. He would spread maps across the kitchen table and tell me about places where he had been and about countries where big and revolutionary things took place – Vietnam, Algeria, Czechoslovakia. He said, “Ann, don’t ever stop reading. And don’t forget to use your abilities!” My weekend parents also gave me books.
After five years at Tomtebodaskolan, I returned home. I was so happy and full of expectation and my dream to be like everyone else was very strong. I wanted to cross the border to their side and leave my old boarding school world and everything that it included behind. I hated the thought of walking to school with a shopping cart that could fit the Braille books. All summer, I practiced, so I could read black and white text well enough again and I also practiced my handwriting. I could do it with a magnifying glass, a strong lamp, and with the book right next to my face. When the fall semester began, I left Braille behind. I thought it would be forever.
I was a good student. I often heard that my visual impairment was hardly noticeable. That made me happy. I graduated and later got my degree in journalism. When I started working as a reporter at a large newspaper, I decided to speak very little of my visual impairment. I just had to keep up! I remember one time when I was out reporting and I was sitting next to the photographer, pretending to be an absent-minded map-reader! Another time, I spent an evening alone at the office trying to make out the drawings of a new bridge-construction in Stockholm. I read a lot and wrote quickly. In this manner, I kept my professional life going. I got a job at a publishing house where I wrote, edited other people’s texts, and did proofreading!
I was successful professionally, but I was often tired. An inner stress was always present. When I had to present something before an audience I always felt pressured, afraid to lose control, and afraid to lose my words.
My life, and my view of who I wanted to be, started to change when I became a mother. Being responsible for a new little life became so much more important than continuing to play the roll of someone who was fully sighted. I started to use my white cane more often. I was also forced to consider how I used my energy. Sure, I would read a lot, but not in such a strenuous manner all the time. Eventually, I returned to Braille. Big words, but eventually I started to feel harmonious.
I felt a new sense of peace, both professionally and personally. In my job as advisor and speechwriter for two cabinet ministers in the Swedish government, I have been forced to work under a lot of pressure. Of course I am often tense when faced with my duties, but I still feel secure thanks to the fact that I now master my form of expression.
It is an average day at work. I am in Northern Sweden to give a speech about the work that is done to prevent homelessness. I attempt a smile at the audience and ask if they would mind doing without my personally drawn power-point images and simply just listen for a while. My manuscript in Braille is in front of me. There is a slight, awkward giggle from them, but they also seem relieved to have a different kind of start to their day. We have a good dialog about the conditions for those who live under the harshest of circumstances.
The next lecturer is a well-known sociopolitical debater, a very capable speaker. When he is up on the podium, he first looks at his notes, but then puts them aside. He looks at the audience and says, “I cannot help but admire our previous speaker for her contact with the audience, for the ability to look at you the entire time.” He then looks at his notes and begins his speech…
It is time to go home. Once again, I think about the fact that the ability to connect with your audience is not a given. You have to practice, all the time. And you have to feel confident. For me, confidence is knowing that I have the words in my fingers.