The Universality of a Nuisance

From the Editor: The Internet listserv conducted by the National Association of Blind Students serves as an open forum for discussing ideas, seeking advice, and relating experiences. The discussions are often intriguing and thought-provoking. In the portions of the three posts reprinted below students discuss how to apply NFB philosophy in developing countries. How does one apply the NFB's philosophy of confidence, competence, and independence when opportunity is almost nonexistent and skills training can't be had?

     Mariyam Cementwala is a board member of the National Association of Blind Students. She travels frequently to India, and some of her most recent observations there inspired the following discussion. Mike Freeman is First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. Brian Miller is Treasurer of the National Association of Blind Students. He is an experienced traveler and contributed his perspective and reflections to the discussion. Here is what they have to say:

             Mariyam Cementwala
              Mariyam Cementwala

January 6, 2000

     Mariyam Cementwala: At present I am in Bombay, India. As I talk to various blind people, I am faced with questions which I feel I cannot fairly answer because people here see me as privileged. In the U.S. we have the luxury of acquiring and using access technology, so the slate and stylus is just another tool that a blind person can use. In India and in most third-world countries, where no Department of Rehabilitation exists to buy blind people laptops, speech equipment, scanning software, or reading machines, the slate and stylus is the only tool a blind person uses. People do use Braille writers, but computer technology is more difficult to obtain. The affluent might have it--not the average blind person.

     We in the NFB would like to think that problems caused by misconceptions, negative attitudes, and negative stereotypes are universal. We believe that with proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to an inconvenience and a physical nuisance. How do I advocate this philosophy to a person whose only reader throughout his schooling has been his mother? When I asked why this person didn't hire a reader by placing an ad either in the newspaper or in a college publication, he said, "You forget that the average person who would apply for the position may not even correctly pronounce the A in apple." I asked about books on tape or Braille books. Books on tape are difficult to get and have very poor sound quality, and Braille books are not readily available.

     In India there are no chirping traffic lights. In fact I am occasionally shocked to find traffic lights at all. The roads are a free-for-all. Cars, rickshas, taxis, buses, trucks, bicycles, and people move simultaneously any which way they can. In the U.S. pedestrians almost always have the right of way. In India there are no white cane laws that I know of to protect blind people. If such laws exist, it is certain that no one adheres to them. There is no such thing as parallel and perpendicular traffic; everyone just goes when they feel like it. There are no sidewalks or pedestrian crossings. People walk on the same roads that cars drive on. How do I say to someone here that blind people should travel independently when I find it an adventure to cross the average street? The difference is that I cross the street because I come from an environment in which people believe in blind people.

     In a country where the average sighted person is trying to fend for himself and is usually failing, is it possible for the blind person who is not from an affluent family to succeed? Is it possible for the blind of India to adopt a philosophy such as ours when all of their lives they've been told that blindness is tragic? Is blindness tragic in the third world and not tragic in the U.S.? The overall question is whether the NFB's philosophy is universal, or does it work only in the U.S.?

Regards,

Mariyam

  Mike Freeman
       Mike Freeman

January 6, 2000

     Mike Freeman: To begin with, Dr. Jernigan always said that we couldn't fairly judge the problems of the blind in other parts of the world, and we shouldn't judge the merits of the solutions to those problems propounded by the blind in other parts of the world. In other words, what works for the blind of the U.S. and Canada should not necessarily be expected to work and might not be ideal for the blind of Burkina Fasso, Bangladesh, or Byeloruss. As you've discovered, Mariyam, the blind in many parts of the world are subject to very different conditions from those we face in North America. What Dr. Jernigan was saying is that we should not willy-nilly apply NFB philosophy in excruciating detail to other parts of the world though in broad outline it still holds.

     Remember we say that, given training and opportunity, the average blind person can do the average job in the average place of business as well as his or her sighted colleagues. Most of the blind of the world lack opportunity, if not training. Are Americans privileged? Is the East backward regarding blindness? Yes on both counts. Euclid Herie delivered a speech titled "Children of Lesser Wives" at an NFB convention about a decade ago. It speaks to the attitudinal difficulties faced by the blind in the third world. Though these attitudinal barriers prove insurmountable for the average blind person, this doesn't negate the truth of the NFB's philosophy; but it does temper its application.

     Your discussion of traveling independently in Bombay is a good illustration of the applicability and limitations of NFB philosophy. Certainly it is far easier for a blind person to travel in the U.S, where cities and countryside have some semblance of order, than it is for blind people to travel in such places as Bombay. You asked how you could credibly advocate that blind people travel independently when even you found traveling to be an adventure. You answered your own question in the next sentence. You must instill a belief by the blind that they can travel independently. As you've discovered, this is more easily said than done.

     One final comment: in "Blindness: Concepts and Misconceptions," Dr. Jernigan tacitly addressed this question. He wrote that in primitive times seeing meant survival. Sight gave a survival edge, and it was an advantage to be able to handle or dodge a spear. Light was equated with good; absence of light meant increased risk. Blindness was equated with darkness, risk, and evil. Dr. Jernigan wrote that in the present, when there is no great premium in being able to dodge a spear, these disadvantages and antiquated notions of blindness no longer hold. Thus by implication modern civilization has made it easier for the blind. It is hard to argue with this notion. Although some blind people in third-world countries have always succeeded, the average blind person in the West has it far better and is far more able to function with minimal assistance. Thank you, Mariyam, for your provocative post.

Mike Freeman

 

  Brian Miller

        Brian Miller

January 7, 2000

     Brian Miller: I have traveled throughout the developing world, including China, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and some other locations. I have always found a direct correlation between the level of resources a society has to expend and the attitudes towards blindness and other disabilities. The reality is that for the vast majority of human beings life is a constant struggle merely to survive. Nearly two billion human beings live at a level of bare subsistence, where meeting the daily requirements for food, shelter, and potable water requires unceasing effort. It is important to speak of good cane travel skills, but what good are they when no one obeys traffic signals, no sidewalks exist, and basic pedestrian safety is ignored by the sighted, let alone the blind? What good is it to talk about competence on the part of the blind when given an opportunity, when even the sighted have no such opportunities?

     Our NFB history is a short one: a mere sixty years out of millennia of human history. However, despite the seeming bubble phenomenon, the most important component of NFB philosophy can stand apart from the burden of social and economic resources. I refer to proper attitude. We must start with the basic assumption that blind human beings have value, have worth, and can have meaningful lives despite limited resources. In some ways the lack of opportunity for all people in the developing nations is a great leveler. One can easily see how close to the margin of existence all humans live in places like Bombay. It is abundantly clear that human beings, blind or sighted, are fragile creatures.      Dr. Jernigan told us the story of Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate of the Bow Street Court in London in the latter eighteenth century. Did Fielding have computers with speech? Did he have Braille? Did he have a telescoping cane? Were there traffic lights with regulated signals that directed the carriages and pedestrians alike? Of course not, but he still made a difference in his community, in his life, and in history. We have to start internally, keep it simple, keep it meaningful. We can't export all of our techniques, but we can export attitude. We can liberate the blind from the historic notions of blindness as a curse or divine retribution.

     Yours,

     Brian Miller