by James H. Omvig
From the Editor: Most Federationists know Jim Omvig. He worked first as a lawyer and later with Dr. Kenneth Jernigan at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He also headed the blindness rehabilitation program in the state of Alaska. He has written many articles for the Braille Monitor and published three books in the last five years. In this era of pointless political correctness he is particularly well equipped to remind us of some important truths. The following article first appeared in the January 2008 newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of California. This is what Jim Omvig says:
People who cannot see are blind, and the word "blind" is perfectly acceptable--in fact, it is absolutely essential--when one is referring to the lack of eyesight. In my opinion (I got this opinion from Dr. Kenneth Jernigan), a person is blind--and should learn to refer to himself or herself as blind--when vision has deteriorated to the point that, to function capably and efficiently, the individual uses alternative (nonvisual) techniques to accomplish the majority of life's daily activities. This is true even though there is some residual vision which may well be quite useful for certain limited and specific purposes.
There are some misuses of the term, of course, which are not desirable at all and which perpetuate negative impressions about blindness. These include such commonly accepted dictionary definitions as: "unable or unwilling to perceive or understand"; "not based on reason or evidence"; or "lacking reason or purpose" as in, "he ran blindly off the cliff."
Until around the middle of the twentieth century, it was common among educators, rehabilitators, sheltered shop workers, and others in work with the blind to use the word "blind" routinely when referring to people with very limited or no vision, since that is what we are. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new phenomenon gradually evolved: a group of master’s-degreed workers—eventually referred to as "blindness professionals”—entered the picture. It was not long until they, the "experts," began to take extraordinary measures to get blind people to deny their blindness and to use the slightest amount of residual vision so they could appear to be, as they put it, “normal"--to be sighted and avoid blindness altogether. Avoid the word “blindness” at any cost became the mantra. And the cost for many blind people was heavy because that avoidance encouraged them to deny an important part of who they were.
First came the large-print movement--just produce very large and dark print so that blind people with a little vision could read a few words a minute in the so-called normal way and not "have to learn Braille.” Then, before long, "vision stimulation" was introduced--it was argued that, if blind people would just try harder to use their very limited vision, they could actually improve sight and again be able to function normally. Of course this was a disaster and psychologically damaging for many blind people. Then, when tape recorders and computers came along, it was argued all over again that blind people could avoid Braille and the stigma of blindness and thus appear in yet another way to be normal if they would just jump on the technology bandwagon and give up literacy.
Along with these new professionals (and their new practices), a new vocabulary was also introduced. The word “blind” went out of vogue. Blind students who could read a little using very large print became "sight-saving" students. Others (with either limited or no vision at all) soon became "visually impaired," "visually limited," "visually challenged," "unsighted," "sightless," "sight-impaired," "low vision," or "hard-of-seeing," etc. Before long, teachers of blind children became "vision teachers,” and most recently some among the professionals have become so disconnected with the real world and with blind people that they have come to call work with the blind "vision rehabilitation therapy."
"How in the world," you may ask, "could such a distortion of reality have taken place among the very people who purport to help the blind?" Clearly, the reason behind it all has been an effort to try to avoid use of the ugly and dirty word, "blind."
Through all of these machinations the National Federation of the Blind has argued that the word "blind" is best since that's what we are, but many of our own members have not been able to articulate the reasons for our position, and some have been lured down the path of visual-impairment circumlocutions. Here is the short answer for why Dr. Jernigan taught us to do what we do.
In the first place Federationists have long since recognized that, to understand blindness correctly and also to know how properly to educate or rehabilitate blind people, one must be aware of the fact that blind people as a class are a minority in every negative sense of that term. It is the erroneous and negative public attitude about blindness that is the real problem with which we must deal. From infancy we have been taught that to be blind is to be helpless, to be incompetent, and to be inferior. Members of the general public have believed it, and most of us have come to believe it too. In time the blindness professionals also bought into the erroneous stereotyping and the low expectations that accompany feelings of inferiority.
We must change those erroneous public attitudes--the myths, misconceptions, and superstitions--first, of course, in ourselves and then in the broader society. We also understand fully that these very negative and mistaken attitudes about the inferiority of the blind have found their way into the educational and vocational rehabilitation systems. These very mistaken beliefs about blindness drive the professionals' effort to get their customers to deny their blindness at any price. And these mistaken beliefs must be eliminated as a key component of any high-quality education or rehabilitation program for the blind.
Finally, we of the Federation have come to know the fundamental truth that blind people are nothing more than normal people who cannot see and that, if we receive proper (that is effective) training, including appropriate attitudinal adjustment, we can participate fully in society and compete on terms of absolute equality with our sighted colleagues. We have learned that, for any blind person truly to become empowered and free, a process of what is commonly called adjustment to blindness is essential. Learning to use the word "blind" with ease and comfort and accepting blindness as a normal fact of life is a significant ingredient in the process. For it is commonly understood that you cannot change what you are not willing to acknowledge.
To summarize briefly, five major ingredients comprise this healing adjustment to blindness process. One, the blind individual must come to know and feel emotionally, not just intellectually, that he or she is a normal person who can be just as independent and self-sufficient as sighted people are. Two, he or she must become competent in the skills (the alternative techniques) of blindness. Three, he or she must learn to cope calmly and rationally with the strange or unusual things other people do or say because of their complete misunderstanding and lack of accurate information about blindness. Four, the blind person must learn to blend in to the broader society and to be acceptable to those around him or her. Behavior such as being punctual, neat and appropriate in appearance, reliable, courteous, and free from blindisms, etc., is important to avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes. And, five, the successful and truly whole blind person will recognize the importance of giving back. This means contributing to society in general and assisting in the organized blind movement.
Using the word “blind” with ease and comfort is part of the first of these empowering ingredients--coming emotionally, not just intellectually, to know that he or she can be equal with others in our society. It is also part of this first adjustment ingredient that the blind person comes to know that he or she is normal and that it is perfectly respectable to be blind.
For an exact analogy on the issues of denial and terminology, consider the struggle by African Americans to achieve equality and freedom. In the 1940s and ’50s, and even on into the ’60s, some black Americans actually tried to solve their problems by pretending that they weren't black at all but that they were white--this practice, denial at its worst, was referred to as “trying to pass.” Some people tried to straighten their naturally curly hair or lighten the color of their skin. Needless to say, this approach to conquering symptoms of inferiority didn't work.
Then enlightened and gifted leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came upon the scene. He and others realized that pretending you are something other than who you really are is fruitless and that the only meaningful way black Americans could ever achieve real freedom, equality, and self-respect was to accept their blackness and then to work together to make it respectable to be black. Dr. King knew that ultimately you must learn to love yourself as you are and for who you are to attain true freedom, dignity, and self-respect.
So it is with the blind. If you are blind but pretend that you are sighted--that is, if you engage in what some call the great masquerade, agony and frustration will be the result. In my own case I pretended (I tried to pass and deny my blindness) for fourteen years--from age twelve to twenty-six--before I encountered the National Federation of the Blind and became empowered. I have often marveled at the fact that I didn't develop an extreme case of ulcers during this painful time of my life. Since I believed that blindness meant inferiority, the fear that someone would learn just how blind I really was was very nearly unbearable.
This brings us back to the ultimate truth. If you are blind, you are blind. Accept it. Admit it. The very first step in this process is to learn to be able to say, with neither shame nor embarrassment, "I am blind." Like other minorities we have a job to do--we must learn to accept our blindness and then work with concerted action to make it respectable to be blind.
The same is true for professionals in the field of work with the blind. We have no business helping our blind customers (whether they be totally or partially blind) deny what and who they are and to try to pass or engage in the great masquerade by pandering to their fear of the word “blindness” and what it stands for in their minds. Rather, we too must learn that it is respectable to be blind. Only then can we truly help to empower and bring freedom to our customers by helping them accept their blindness.
One final point needs to be made although, if it is not properly understood, it may muddy up everything I have said to this point in this article. When I am talking about using the word "blind," I am talking generally about what should be happening regularly in the Federation, university programs, schools with blind students, or orientation and adjustment centers--in other words, in situations where people are actually involved in some type of positive experience. When a newly blinded individual is first met, however, and where that initial effort is to get the person interested at all in the Federation or in some kind of beneficial program, there are times when either we (or school or agency specialists) need to be willing to tread lightly and even use euphemisms when employing them allows the customer to recognize that the program or activity in question is appropriate and might be helpful.
I learned this lesson the hard way. When I left my job at the National Labor Relations Board in New York City to return to Iowa to work for Kenneth Jernigan at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, I first did some traveling with other, more experienced staff members to become familiar with each of the Commission's jobs. In traveling with one particularly talented VR counselor, I observed her for a few days and scarcely made a comment. Toward the end of the week I decided that perhaps the time had come for me to participate. To get started I asked a man whom we were visiting, "How long have you been blind?" “Blind” was not the word I should have used. "I'm not blind!" he screamed out at me with obvious distress.
As a novice, and perhaps as too much of a purist, I had failed to take into account that the people who have not yet accepted their blindness enough even to get to the point of taking necessary training may need to be dealt with differently from those who have made the decision to get on with their lives. From that day forward my approach changed completely when dealing with newly blinded people who had not yet agreed to enter a training program. "How long have you had poor eyesight," or some meaningless or useless variant thereof, became a routine part of my conversation. I did not want to make that same mistake again and perhaps even undo what had already been done to begin to persuade that potential new customer to get involved in proper training.
Having understood this last point, we who are blind must become comfortable with who we are as people. As with black Americans, we who are blind must learn to love ourselves as we are and for who we are, to attain true freedom, dignity, and self-respect.
Once we have come to know intellectually and to feel emotionally that we are normal people and that it is respectable to be blind, then I believe that we of the Federation have a duty to pass it on so that others may experience the freedom and empowerment which flow from internalizing the truth about blindness. So by all means use the word "blind" in your daily life and in helping those around you to get rid of the prejudice and low expectations that flow from a belief that the blind are inferior, but be sparing in its use when you are meeting newly blinded people or members of their families. If you approach the newly blinded in this way, it will not be long until their attitudes begin to shift. Eventually, of course, we of the Federation intend to introduce the truth and to teach the whole world that it is respectable to be blind. We can make all of this come true if we stick doggedly to the principle spelled out by some wise philosopher who said, "Life is action, not a spectator sport."