The Braille Monitor                                                                                              March, 2004

(back) (next) (contents)

The Blind: A Case of Mistaken Identity

by Jacobus tenBroek

Jacobus ten Broek
Jacobus tenBroek

From the Editor: Several months ago a man in California contacted the national office offering us several tape recordings, including one speech by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. He said that the speech had been made on May 22, 1960, at a hotel in the Berkeley area, but he had no idea upon what occasion. From internal evidence it seems clear that the presentation was made to a Federation audience and was part of a larger conference, but that is all we know about it. Still it is vintage tenBroek: clear, rigorously reasoned, and insightful. The ideas are familiar to us, even though some are a bit dated, but any time we uncover a body of tenBroek thought, we have reason to rejoice. Here then is the best transcription we could contrive to produce of a rather poor recording of Dr. tenBroek's speech:

From time immemorial blind people have been the victims of mistaken identity. Not that their lack of sight has gone unnoticed or unrecognized--far from it. But at one time or another they have been falsely identified also as a class of pariahs, as divinely accursed, as mentally defective, physically incompetent, or socially unstable. It is only in very recent years that society has begun to give recognition to the novel doctrine that blindness means only the loss of sight, neither more nor less, and that any further loss to the blind person is the consequence, not of his blindness, but of the social and psychological conditions in which it occurs. In short, the disability of blindness is physical, but the handicap of blindness has always been predominantly social.

This is still today a revolutionary doctrine, not only among the public, but among the professionally informed and expert as well. In the social diagnosis of blindness, mistaken identification is still the rule rather than the exception. There are in particular two forms of mistaken identity by which the blind are victimized in modern society. The first is the mistake of over-identification, which assumes that if blind people are alike in one respect, they must be alike in all and in all respects different from the rest of society.

The second is the mistake of under-identification, which presumes that those who are blind have no characteristics at all in common and cannot for any purposes be grouped or classified together. We are all familiar with the fallacy of over-identification, which in its classic form identifies all who are blind as members of a class of abnormal, if not wholly incompetent, human beings. But we may not know how widespread this fallacy has become in professional and academic as well as public circles.

While many social scientists and workers for the blind recognize and resist this form of mistaken identity, there are others actively at work reinforcing and perpetuating it. The most dangerous form which this fallacy assumes is that of categorizing the blind as a deviant group in society. The concept of "deviant" is a recent and dubious device of social science to identify any person or group which departs in some significant way from the norm, that is, from the average and conventional. In other words "deviant" is a sophisticated synonym for the old-fashioned term "abnormal."

The social scientist may protest that this use of his concept of "deviant" has only a technical and statistical meaning. Those who are superior and unusually gifted are no less deviant than those who fall below the social norm. The fact is that deviation is seldom used to describe such differences as these. As one authority has noted, everyone is deviant in some respect. A man known to the author as abnormally short, abnormally good in singing ability, is undernourished, and is allergic to camel hair. In all of these respects he is markedly deviant, but he is a successful and in fact a prominent businessman with an enviable reputation. In short this man's deviations from the norm are no handicap because they pass unnoticed. He may be, as the author says, markedly deviant, but he is not marked as a deviant. On the other hand, everyone knows or supposes that he knows who and what a real deviant is. Sex fiends are deviants. Criminals are deviants; so are morons, fanatics, prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, and all who inhabit the skid rows and lunatic fringes of society.

In short the term "deviant" refers in its most common usage to immoral and antisocial behavior patterns and to the characteristics of abnormality which call for suppression or isolation. When the blind are so marked and classified, however innocent the intention of the classifier, they are effectually thrown back into the communal pit of outcasts and misfits, which was known to earlier centuries under the simple and accurate title of "bedlam."

Lest I seem to exaggerate, let me cite, for example, from the literature of social science. It is from a textbook significantly entitled Social Pathology, written by Professor Edwin M. Lemert of the University of California, Los Angeles, first published in 1951. "Pathology, as the dictionary tells us, is the scientific study of diseases and the diseased." What are the social diseases with which this author is concerned? They are the diseases listed in several chapters under the heading, Part 2, Deviation and Deviants, and they include the following: Blindness and the Blind; Radicalism and Radicals; Prostitution and the Prostitute; Crime and the Criminal; Drunkenness and Chronic Alcoholism; and, finally and inevitably, Mental Disorders.

These then are the deviations and the deviants, the forms of social disease and the diseased carriers, which are taken to be the proper subject matter of a study in social pathology. This is the company which the blind find themselves keeping in a modern textbook of social science. It is of course exactly the company which the blind formerly kept in the asylum and the almshouse. We need only to recall the American almshouse of half a century ago, whose inmates comprised, according to a classic description, "the criminal and the sick, the insane, the blind, deaf mutes, feeble minded and epileptics, people with all kinds of chronic diseases, short-term prisoners, thieves no longer physically capable of crime, worn out prostitutes, etc." In short, the almshouse was the place of last resort of all those marked indelibly by society as deviants. Over the years the blind have gradually made their escape from the bedlam and its psychological stigma, or so we had thought and hoped.

Are they now to be recommitted to the category of the asylums through a new device of mistaken identity, that of deviation and the deviant? This form of mistaken identification of the blind is not the superstition conjured up by ignorant folk unacquainted with the nature of social groups. It is not the shrewd device of tax-conscious citizens who fear the excessive cost of adequate social security. It is not the rationalization of lighthouse custodians with a vested interest in the preservation of the myth of incompetence and abnormality. It is not the excuse of sentimental and overprotective souls who enjoy ministering to the helpless so long as they remain perfectly helpless. It is the sophisticated theory of a professor of social science, an expert in social diseases, whose interest is the classification and treatment of pathological deviations from the norm of social health.

It is especially significant and in keeping with the proper moral attitude toward deviations that the author of this textbook on pathological behavior regards the blind, and particularly the organized blind, with undisguised suspicion. In fact, he finds them a crafty, if not a sinister, group. His chapter on blindness and the blind opens with these words, "Blindness is at once a dramatic and an engaging handicap that is found among all peoples of the world." At the very end, or near the end, he cites a newspaper story to illustrate the relative ease with which the public may be manipulated by the blind. He concludes his chapter with this evaluation, "As long as the societal reaction toward the blind remains as it is, there will continue to be a sizeable number of the blind who make a profession of dependency."

No less revealing is the pathologist's attitude toward voluntary organization by the blind. After a summary account of two so-called militant groups of the blind in Minnesota—militant apparently because they are all blind in membership and have had disagreements with social welfare workers—the author concludes, "All these facts create interesting speculation. While the actions of the two groups may be regarded as the group equivalent of tantrum behavior, they also raise a question as to what happens when the blind in a collective capacity desert their traditional roles of humility and agitate in an independent way like any other pressure group."

Finally the author's judgment of the general capabilities of the blind and, incidentally, which ones among them are especially gifted may be gleaned from this observation. Mind you this is in a textbook used in our universities. "While most of the blind are immobilized because of illnesses or because of extreme dependency, some blind mendicants are able to move fairly well through their environment."

This then is the modern form of mistaken identity, imposed upon the blind at the hands of some social scientists, the high sounding categorization of deviation and the deviant, which not only tars all who are blind with the same brush of abnormality, but shuffles them in with all those others branded by society as in some way undesirable, that is, radicals, prostitutes, criminals, drunks, and the mentally defective.

But it is wrong to think of this stereotype of the deviant as a new form of mistaken identity. It is rather, as we have seen, an ancient superstition in modern dress. It is the age-old conception of the blind as an abnormal, inferior, and suspect group, a group to be segregated and confined apart from normal society in institutions of charity and correction. Nor is the conception of the deviant the only form of over-identification indulged in by social scientists. There is also the equally frivolous abuse of the vocabulary of psychoanalysis by social workers and psychologists, an abuse exemplified by the loose currency given such terms as "compulsive," "aggression," "compensation," and the like, which has led in some circles to the appalling unscientific supposition that all blind persons are neurotic by definition, if not downright mentally ill.

Even so relatively sophisticated a volume as Alan Gowman's recent study of the war blind shows signs of succumbing to this easy imputation of ill-defined complexes and subconscious conflicts on the part of all who are blind, an attitude which leads inescapably to the inference that the primary responsibility for the condition of the sightless, for dependency and discrimination, for poor laws and prejudice, for exclusion, for over-protection lies, not with society and its institutions, but with the unsocial or unhealthy attitudes of the blind person himself. The consequences of such pseudoanalysis are as destructive as they are defeatist, destructive in their sweeping denial of normality and equality to all who are without sight, and defeatist in their suggestion that the only feasible solution to the social and economic problems that press upon the average blind individual lies in a change of heart or of metabolism on his part alone.

There is still another variant of that form of mistaken identity of the blind which we have labeled over-identification: the assumption that blindness means, not just the lack of sight, but the lack of normality; the lack of ability; and, very probably, the lack of sanity as well. This fallacy of over-identification occurs not only among those who are in opposition and different from the blind but even among many who are their friends and wish them well. Thus the state of Pennsylvania just last year passed a law permitting physically disabled persons such as the blind to teach in the public schools. Nothing could be more commendable or progressive, but the legislature could see no better way of accomplishing this than by an amendment to a section dealing with "mental disorders, communicable diseases, narcotics addictions, and immoral character." The law as duly amended now reads, "Section 1209, Disqualifications: No teacher certificate shall be granted to any person who has not submitted a certificate from a physician setting forth that said applicant is neither mentally nor physically disqualified by reason of tuberculosis or any other chronic or acute defect, communicable disease, or by reason of mental disorder, from successful performance of the duties of the teacher, nor to any person who has not good moral character or is in the habit of using opium or other narcotic drugs in any form or any intoxicating drink as a beverage or to any applicant who has a major physical disability or defect, unless such a person submits a certificate signed by an official of a college or university from which he was graduated or of an appropriate rehabilitation agency certifying that in the opinion of such official the applicant by his work and activities demonstrated that he is sufficiently adjusted, trained, and motivated to perform the duties of a teacher, notwithstanding his impediment."

Note with what unusual weight the burden of proof falls upon the blind or physically disabled applicant. All who apply to teach require medical clearance, but he alone requires a testimonial from his college or from his rehabilitation counselor to the effect that he is "sufficiently adjusted, trained, and motivated," that he has proved all this by his work and activities—whatever that may mean.

Not only is the burden of proof upon the handicapped, the bold spotlight of suspicion is on him, the underlying assumption that he is ill-adjusted and unmotivated, if not actually engaging in suspicious activities. The traditional associations of mistaken identity in the classic form of over-identification are thus vividly revealed even in this up-to-date and constructive legislation partially removing the absolute bar against blind teachers in the public schools in the state of Pennsylvania.

So much for the form of mistaken identity known as over-identification. There is an equal and an opposite form of mistaken identity which is no less vicious and destructive in its consequences--that of under-identification. It consists of the refusal to regard the blind as possessing many characteristics or any characteristics common to themselves which are also unique to themselves. It is the denial that blind persons can or should be classified together for any purposes whatsoever. This fallacy of under-identification is the device for example of those who reject the right of the blind to organize by themselves as an independent group on the ostensible theory that the blind people really have nothing in common which justifies their mutual association and indeed that it is somehow a denial of individuality for the blind person to seek common cause with others who are blind.

Thus the American Association of Workers for the Blind have argued, against the Right to Organize bill, that the great majority of blind persons prefer to be considered as normal members of society, that is to say, as individuals with no common characteristics which organizations might fight to free. At the same time the executive director of the nation's largest private agency for the blind opposed the bill on the grounds that it would tend to further the segregation of blind persons and to coerce them into an identification which he obviously considered artificial and unreal.

In short it is often argued that the blind have no right to organize because they have no need to organize, that there are no needs and purposes common to the blind which should draw them together in voluntary association. This form of mistaken identity, the refusal to identify or classify the blind on any grounds at all, is also the device of those who, like some agency reviewers of a certain book known as Hope Deferred, resist any and all generalizations about the blind as suggesting a unity and solidarity which they choose to disbelieve in.

Thus Philip S. Platt of the New York Lighthouse has said of the book, "It is regrettable that the authors throughout the book generalize about the blind, who have little if anything in common, except varying degrees of loss of vision." Thus also Vernon Carter, the national director of Recordings for the Blind, maintained in his book review that blind people differ widely among themselves in their personal characteristics and therefore cannot be classified together as a group at all. One wonders just how Mr. Carter's agency justifies its restrictive title, Recordings for the Blind, and even its existence, since there is no group of the blind. How is there a special and common need among them for recordings and talking books? The wonderment grows when one considers Dr. Platt's Lighthouse for the Blind. Here is a specialized agency providing a battery of services for a group which does not exist or which, at best, has little if anything in common except varying degrees of loss of vision.

This fallacy of under-identification is also exemplified by those who contend that the blind ought not to have separate sheltered workshops for purposes of training, therapy, or employment but should simply be thrown in with all others of the handicapped and unfortunate under a single blanket of "shelter." It is the fallacy further of those who would take away the preference of blind persons in the vending stand program and extend it to all who are in any way physically disabled. It is the fallacy still more significantly of all who resist the provision of specialized counseling, training, and placement facilities for the blind within programs of vocational rehabilitation on the grounds that blindness is after all just another disability, no more or less complex or severe in its nature or different in any way in consequences from any other handicap.

This form of mistaken identification is, most popularly of all, the fallacy of those who would dissolve the established categories of aid under the Social Security program of public assistance, namely the categories of the blind, the aged, the dependent children, and the permanently and totally disabled. The arguments which they advance are those of bureaucratic convenience and economy, but the assumption which lies behind it is that none of these categories or recipient groups are sufficiently distinct from the others to be treated independently in terms of their peculiar needs and specific problems. (Since we covered this territory this afternoon in our general panel, I will jump over a rather lengthy discussion of the value of the categories and the significance of terms of this overall classification.)

To argue for the preservation of the principle of separate aid categories under public assistance is not at all to defend the present boundary lines or requirements of eligibility for any one of these particular categories. It is entirely unreasonable and senseless, for example, to provide aid to needy children, as the law now provides it, only on the death, incapacity, or absence of a parent from the home. Children become needy on many other grounds, and they should be eligible for this program. Again, with reference to old age assistance, as I pointed out earlier, there is no sense at all in excluding those who are aliens who do not meet residence requirements. They are just as aged, just as much in need. Consequently the attacks upon categories should properly be directed to the misadministration of the categories, rather than to the idea of groupings based on special problems and special needs.

The under-identification of the blind is no less dangerous and destructive of their cause than the alternative fallacy of over-identification. Mistaken identity is no less evident where the blind are left wholly unidentified, where they are deemed to have no needs or attributes in common for any purposes whatsoever. Rarely of course are the advocates of under-identification entirely consistent. If it is legitimate, and some say that it is, for there to be an American Foundation for the Blind, on the assumption that a distinctive group exists for whom particular services are desirable and to be rendered by that agency, then it is no less legitimate for there to be a National Federation of the Blind on the assumption that the same distinctive group deserves the right to associate and to speak for itself.

Between the two forms of mistaken identity—those of over-identification and of under-identification—lies a broad field of true identification in which the blind may be properly classified together. The test in every case is plain and simple. It lies in the purpose for which the classification is made. If the purpose is that of public assistance, then, as we have seen, separate classification of the blind is proper. If the purpose is that of vocational rehabilitation, such independent treatment is again legitimate and desirable. It is legitimate because these purposes are clearly consistent, both with the peculiar needs and problems arising from blindness and with the social objectives of integration and self-support. In other words, where the purpose meets actual needs and forwards the ultimate goals of blind people, then separate classification is thereby justified, and there is no peril of mistaken identity.

On the other hand, if the purpose is that of segregating the blind from normal opportunity and participation on the ground that they are all alike in their incapacity, then separate classification is illegitimate and improper and becomes a virulent form of mistaken identity. If the purpose is that of maintaining blind persons in dependency and custodialism on the assumption of their universal helplessness, if it is that of regarding them as social deviants on a par with thieves and prostitutes, if it is that of dispatching them all to the psychiatrist on the assumption that they are neurotic by definition, if it is that of refusing them the ordinary rights of citizenship as those of dignity, privacy, and free expression, then the purpose is destructive, and any classification in its terms is illegitimate and improper.

Finally, if the purpose of classification is that of collective, voluntary organization of the blind, and if this organization is carried out not in order to raid the treasury of funds which properly should go to somebody else, to those more severely in need than the blind, if it is carried out not in order to make personal, political gains or power or economic wealth or popular prestige for given individuals, if instead it is carried out in the cause of collective self-expression and self-improvement toward the objectives of equality and integration, of opportunity and independence, who will then declare this purpose to be improper and this classification uncalled for.

Those of us who are blind, need we say it yet once again, are citizens as well. We wish to be treated as other citizens are treated for all ordinary and general purposes. But when we step off the crosswalk into traffic, we hope also to be recognized as blind. For most of all we wish to participate fully and to compete normally for our places in the economic community. But we hope that in the preparation for this competition our chances may be equalized through special services necessary to counteract our handicap. We who are blind hope that our interests will be recognized as only normal and reasonable by those who govern our affairs. But we also believe that we are the ones best qualified to interpret and express those interests to those who govern us. We seek neither to be over-identified nor under-identified but only to be accurately recognized as we really are in a way which will erase forever the ancient and double curse of our mistaken identity.

Historical note from the Editor: For more information about the issues discussed and the historical context of this speech, see Walking Alone and Marching Together, page sixty-one (inkprint) and other pages on the Kennedy bill.

(back) (next) (contents)