The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  March 2005

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Talking Sense and Avoiding Platitudes about Blindness

by Gary Wunder

Gary Wunder
Gary Wunder

From the Editor: We all occasionally fall into the temptation of seeing the world in black and white rather than in the shades of color that actually make up our lives and experience. I sometimes fear that the advent of email and its temptation to make instantaneous judgments markedly increases this tendency. I gather that Gary Wunder, president of our Missouri affiliate and secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, happened upon an email exchange moving in this unfortunate direction. At my request, he wrote a brief introduction to his response and sent it along to me. This is what he says:

Whenever blind people gather to talk about common problems and how to solve them, you can bet the discussion will be lively, thought-provoking, and frequently emotional. Quite often these days our discussions are held electronically on lists set up for the purpose of making this kind of communication possible. Never before has it been so easy to talk with so many, but this new technology is fraught with the age-old problems hampering serious communication, in addition to imposing a few of its own. It's hard not to fall into the trap of believing you're not being heard and to send the electronic equivalent of "Yes, but what I am saying is," which, as in face-to-face communication, evokes the same response in the recipient, who is equally sure she isn't being heard. Now remove from this emotionally charged and intellectually difficult discussion the cues given by one's tone of voice and inflection, and it's easy for people to misunderstand what others are trying to convey. Sometimes we are so wedded not only to what we are saying but the way we are saying it that we talk past one another, and our discussion erodes into responses which frequently begin with, "Yes, but what I'm saying is," or "What you seem unable to understand is... "

It was this observation that caused me to chime in on an email discussion about the nature of blindness a few weeks ago in which one of the issues of contention was whether we should work to change attitudes or instead work to tear down the barrier of inaccessibility which now threatens our education, our jobs, and our future.

After reading my post, several people encouraged me to send it along for whatever good it might do in the broader discussion we carry on here in the Monitor. With minor editorial changes on my part and perhaps major editorial changes from Barbara, here is what I wrote:

Sometimes when I preside over meetings, I see people who are very close on issues and yet, because of a word, a phrase, or a tone of voice, are committed to argue their points until the last dog dies. What is blindness--a mighty large question to answer in a phrase, and what is the purpose of any answer which could be so simply put?

To me, whether blindness is a nuisance and an inconvenience has much to do with the way I approach the world and my place in it, but day to day, whether it is a nuisance or something more depends on what I'm doing and to some degree how I happen to be feeling. When I drop something and have to hunt a bit longer for it than the sighted person who has watched me drop it and clearly sees it on the carpet, blindness is a nuisance and an inconvenience. But I'd rather be blind than suffer from a back problem which would prohibit me from bending to retrieve the object. When I'm given the opportunity to be the lead programmer to explore and implement a new piece of software but that software doesn't function at all with my screen reader, then blindness is more than a nuisance. I'd like to live in a world where my blindness is my issue alone, where my resourcefulness is so superb that, other than the physical observation that I carry a cane, no one around me even has to consider that I do not see. The truth I experience, however, is that my blindness is not so well camouflaged. My managers and coworkers understand that my technology allows me to do some things, and some things it does not. I can and do hire sighted assistance out of my own pocket for reading and transportation, but practically speaking this does not meet all the real-world needs I would like to accommodate. I cannot remain economically self-sufficient and hire a sighted reader to be with me throughout my work day. Neither can I hold someone in reserve eight hours a day to be ready for the ten minutes I need sighted help.

Recently an update to our hospital's workstations failed, and my colleagues were dispatched to each floor and to our outlying clinics. Their instructions were to perform a procedure deemed too complicated for the average doctor, nurse, or hospital administrator to perform. Doing workstation maintenance is not something people at my level would normally do--we have too much education and are paid far too much--but when emergencies strike, we don't quibble. I was of no help here. My ability to interact efficiently with the system means modifying one computer for my use. Moreover, the transportation which reliably gets me to and from work could not meet the need filled by my office mate who traveled twenty miles to an off-site clinic.

All I have said thus far would tend to weigh in on the side of blindness being much more than a nuisance and an inconvenience, but generally the nuisance proposition is the one to which I subscribe. A philosophy or an ideology is not something which can be applied absolutely. The world is never that simple. The Golden Rule is one I love, but not only can I not live it as completely as I would like, I'm not even confident that strict adherence to it would produce the desired result in my life. I don't want to kill human beings, but neither do I want to be in a position where an adversary is confident I won't do anything to him I wouldn't want done to me. I hold the Golden Rule as divinely inspired, but its application does not relieve me of the responsibility to decide when I will apply it and to consider whether in every situation its application is possible in the world.

I believe we live in a wonderful country, and when I think of it, I think of representative democracy; the land of the free; a government created of the people, by the people, and for the people; and a nation that values justice regardless of one's social class, race, gender, or disability. When I say these things, I do so knowing they provide the looking glass through which I see my country and my role as a citizen who loves her. At the same time I recognize many realities that suggest my claims for her are at best a dream and at worst an indefensible lie: It is better to be sick and rich in America than to be sick and poor; better to be rich and in legal trouble than poor and in legal trouble; better to walk many of our streets as a white man than to walk them as a black man. Skin color in my country should have nothing to do with the level of suspicion one's presence evokes, but the reality is often very different.

It is better to be a high-ranking official when Enron collapses than to be one of its employees forbidden to trade their stock in the declining weeks and months of the company's existence. A handful lose incomprehensible fortunes when the false claims of the company are revealed, but the vast majority lose everything. A few suffer society's judgment and punishment when they are found to have been dishonest, while those who worked for them suffer the harsher societal judgment that they have not adequately planned for their families' housing, food, medical care, and eventually their own retirement. How can this be so in a nation filled with people committed to seeking and following the will of a just and merciful God and in a land where the law mediates between the stifling of opportunities for business and the uncontrolled greed of a few?

I believe firmly that choices we make result in a real difference in our lives, but no reasonable person can argue that all of the good or all of the bad which happens to us is controlled by our choices or could have been foreseen by a rational person.

For me, saying blindness is a nuisance and an inconvenience is not an absolute, all-encompassing statement about the condition of not seeing or of the social problems which are created from that lack of sight. The statement is not the bedrock of NFB philosophy, and it is not a litmus test to determine whether one is or is not a Federationist. To me the concept of blindness as a nuisance or an inconvenience has value when contrasted with the view that blindness is a tragic condition which is the predominant characteristic of the one who is blind. Does the view I take between these two extremes make a difference? You bet it does. One view leaves me hopeless; the other gives me hope. One view says nothing in my life can be more important than that I do not see. The other tells me there are many components which make up Gary Wunder and that blindness is but one of them. One view finds me expecting the worst because I am the worst, while the other encourages me to use all my God-given talents in the dealings I have each day. One view says stay home and bother people as little as you can because you are, indeed, a bother, while the other says go forth, compete, make a contribution, take on the responsibilities of being a full-fledged human because that is exactly what you are.

Do we work on changing attitudes, or concentrate only on combating inaccessibility? For me the attitude from which one proceeds makes all the difference, for if there is no capability to contribute to the betterment of oneself and the world, then removing obstacles through increased access is both impossible and fruitless. If we talk only about attitudes, we create words without action. Which is more important, the air I breathe or the water I drink? At any given moment the answer depends on whether I'm thirsty or out of breath, but the abundance of one in the absence of the other is deadly.

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Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase--a house, college tuition, or a car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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