Author Success in Spite of Visual Disability—Q & A with Debby Grahl

TMP: I was really impressed when I met you at the Florida Romance Writers Fun In The Sun Conference 2017 and heard your story of how you became a published author spite of your visual disability. Thank you for sharing your story.
DG: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell the story of how technology has made it possible for me to do what I love—write.

TMP: What is your vision impairment?

DG: I was born with a deteriorating eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. I lost the ability to read print in my early twenties. Even when I had sight, seeing the printed word was always difficult.

TMP: How did you become an author?

DG: Reading a book would take me twice as long as a person with normal sight. I became frustrated with this and began to make up my own stories. I would tell them to my friends on the way to school.

TMP: So you began telling stories at an early age.

DG: Yes, but I couldn’t do much with them. It wasn’t until the invention of computers and the screen-reading software called JAWS that it became possible for me to put my stories onto paper. Without that, I would never have been able to become a published author.

TMP: What do you mean?

DG: I couldn’t see the screen. But JAWS, the screen-reading software, reads aloud to me everything I type into my computer. Now I can read email, do research on the internet, and use a dictionary and thesaurus CD called Microsoft Bookshelf 98 Reference for Mac.

TMP: But social media is important for authors. What about that?

DG: Yes, it’s a sighted world, and people love pictures and graphs, whereas screen readers like JAWS do not. Sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram can be quite frustrating for someone like me. Freedom Scientific, the developers of JAWS, are constantly trying to keep up with these advancements, but they are always left one step behind. Thankfully I’ve noticed that a number of websites are becoming more user friendly for vision-impaired people. Although I have to say the speech software, JAWS, has advanced to the point that if there’s a picture posted on Facebook, it will say things like “two people sitting smiling,” or “three people standing in front of building.”

TMP: Are there any sites that are easier to use for vision-impaired people than others?

DG: Those that have more graphs than text are difficult. But there are sites that have a text-only option.

TMP: You have to be able to see the screen to use a mouse, don’t you?
DG: Yes, so with JAWS you do not use a monitor or a mouse. You do everything with multiple key strokes. Let’s take editing a manuscript with track changes. To read the track changes and comments you have to hit certain keys. JAWS reads aloud the changes, then you turn those keys off, and then you turn on a different set of keys to make the edits. This can be extremely time consuming. JAWS has many optional settings including one that reads all punctuation. But I find that when you’re reading back through the manuscript, hearing all the punctuation read aloud is quite maddening, so I turn off that setting. But I miss some of those pesky commas.

TMP: How do you do research?

DG: I use a reader associated with JAWS called OpenBook that scans books or documents and turns the text into speech. This is useful for doing research if the information can’t be found online. I also use it to read handouts from conferences.

TMP: How do you research online?

DG: I google most things. For example, I needed to know about what type of cars would have been produced in England in the 1930s. I discovered the Swift Motor Company had exactly what I needed.

TMP: Writing can be a family business. Are there things you have to delegate?

DG: My husband, David, is my first-line editor. He is the first one to read everything I write. He catches grammar and punctuation mistakes. He comes to my rescue when I run into sight-related roadblocks. For example, he helps me when I want to post my book covers, or pictures from writing events, since I can’t tell if I’m posting these right way up.

In losing my vision, there have been many challenges, but thanks to JAWS I was able to pursue my dream and become a published author.

Debby Grahl lives on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, with her husband, David, and their cat, Tigger. Besides writing, she enjoys biking, walking on the beach and having a glass of wine at sunset. Her favorite places to visit are New Orleans, New York City, Captiva Island in Florida, the Cotswolds of England, and her home state of Michigan. She is a history buff who also enjoys reading murder mysteries, time travel, and of course, romance. Visually impaired since childhood by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), she uses screen-reading software to research and write her books.

Her first published book, The Silver Crescent, a paranormal romance set in her home state of Michigan, won the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewers’ Choice award. Her latest book, Rue Toulouse, a contemporary romance set in New Orleans, was a finalist in the National Excellence in Romantic Fiction Award. Debby belongs to Romance Writers of America, Florida Romance Writers, and First Coast Romance Writers.