Braille Monitor                                                    May 2009

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The State of Blindness
A Current Assessment

by Stanley Greenberg

Stan GreenbergFrom the Editor: Dr. Stanley Greenberg is not a member of the National Federation of the Blind, but you will see from the article that follows that he is very familiar with our philosophy and is largely sympathetic with our view of blindness and blind people in the world. He is now retired and lives happily with his wife. They have four children and eight grandchildren. He earned his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and he has worked and traveled all of his adult life using a white cane and, in recent years, a guide dog.

Stan has had two careers, first as a successful phonograph record producer, arranger, and executive and second as a human services leader. He retired from active employment in 1996 when he was executive director of the Westside Center for Independent Living in Los Angeles. His music activities include conducting orchestras, choruses, and theatrical performances as well as being a professional pianist. Since retirement he has been a member of several nonprofit boards and was chair of the Vermont State Independent Living Council. He has devoted much of his life to advocacy for the rights of African Americans, farm workers, and people with disabilities. He is an avid sports fan and a voracious reader.
I find myself agreeing with many of Stan’s assessments of the situation blind people find ourselves in today. As frequently happens, I am left with the conclusion that everything depends on whether you think the glass is half full or half empty and how much time you spend fretting over what is missing from your life. Everyone lives with some disadvantages: I have a friend who cannot carry a tune and another who has no appreciation of books. My husband is absent minded, and my daughter is allergic to animals and flower and tree pollen. I know sighted adults who cannot read or read well, and others who could not drive or have given up their cars. Each of us has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, abilities and inabilities. Our skills and interests make us the individuals we are.

In what follows you will find an objective and unsentimental catalog of the limitations that blindness imposes. But I find myself raising questions about the significance of a number of these limitations. If I now have available to me more newspapers than I can read (and have them earlier than sighted readers get them) and if I am overwhelmed by the number of audio and Braille books that I can read at any moment, how much more deprived am I than my husband, who hangs out in the college library every morning and can read whatever he wants? I don’t have access to a frustrating number of household appliances and other equipment—a problem that the NFB is addressing in Congress and with manufacturers--but my husband also is often frustrated by modern gadgets. It is frustrating to have to wait for our children or younger friends to figure out the mysteries that surround us, but we would both classify this situation as a nuisance. Be all that as it may, here is a contemporary assessment of what blindness entails. I am still of the opinion that, given the public’s tendency to pity us and presume our incompetence, as an organization and as well-adjusted blind people, we are better off minimizing our challenges and refusing to dwell on them, dismissing them as nuisances. That is just one reaction. See what you think:

“It’s respectable to be blind.” “We’re changing what it means to be blind.” These mantras along with several others have been passed down through the years from one blind person to another. They have been used as rallying cries to educate the public, boost the spirits of the blind people who have repeated them, and galvanize our advocacy efforts to gain our rightful place in society. They have also helped us to accept the reality that being blind is really okay in spite of conventional beliefs to the contrary.

The most frequently quoted of these maxims is, “With appropriate training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance.” It is this assertion which we will examine with the benefit of twenty-first century experience, knowledge, and understanding. We will measure its validity against the generally accepted definition of disability and suggest a new and more relevant clarion call.

First, however, it is important to retire an obsolete concept. If there ever was a homogeneous group labeled “the blind,” this group no longer exists. While it may have been true in 1940, when the National Federation of the Blind, the first consumer-driven blindness advocacy organization, was founded, all blind people can no longer be lumped together into a unique body with monolithic aspirations, jointly held principles, and a common agenda. Certainly groups of people who are blind can and do come together to achieve goals that individuals would be unable to accomplish alone. However, these individuals differ from one another as much as do any collection of people who are unique in every respect except for their common interest. It is essential that we abandon the notion that there is a discrete identity called “the blind” and instead devote our energy and talents to “walking alone and marching together.”

Less than seventy years ago, if you were a typical blind person, you were all but shut out of society’s mainstream. Your chances of obtaining a traditional job were virtually nonexistent. You might find menial employment caning chairs or tuning pianos, but even these opportunities were few and far between. The public and private agencies established to provide skills training, employment opportunities, and so-called adjustment training served to perpetuate the same stereotypical images held by society in general. Sheltered workshops run by highly paid sighted managers and trainers used their legally protected status to pay their blind workers unbelievably low wages. Managers of public places routinely denied entrance and service to blind patrons. Our entertainment options were limited largely to listening to Talking Book records and radio programs. The image of a blind individual, dressed in tatters and begging for pennies, was the caricature called to mind when most sighted people thought about a blind person. Many of us were hidden from public view in the back rooms of our families’ homes. Some of us were sent to nursing homes or establishments created to warehouse us. Naturally there were some glaring exceptions, but for most of us our lives consisted of endless hopelessness, lack of fulfillment, and degradation.

The group of determined individuals who founded the National Federation of the Blind in 1940 undertook a bold strategy to change what it meant to be blind. The effort consisted of three equally important objectives. First, they set out to change public perceptions about blindness through education and advocacy. Second, they undertook to redirect the purpose of agencies serving blind people to provide the skills and adjustment training necessary for us to be included fully in the world around us. Third, they considered it mandatory to re-educate blind people ourselves about our intrinsic value as human beings in general and as individuals who happened to be blind in particular.

Approximately seventy years later the picture is dramatically different. While the unemployment rate among blind people is unacceptably high, we are filling a variety of positions in a wide spectrum of employment disciplines. Sheltered employment remains an option for some, but many of the workshops established for that purpose are either managed by blind people ourselves or by sighted managers who understand their duties as well as the aspirations of their blind employees. Blind people are out and around, enjoying the broad array of leisure and entertainment opportunities available to those who are not disabled. Many of us travel locally, nationally, and internationally without incident or special notice. We are educated as children and trained as adults by people, many of whom are themselves blind, who understand our issues and promote our full inclusion in a diverse society. The percentage of us warehoused in facilities designed for that purpose has decreased and is continuing to drop. Certainly the goal of equal status has not been reached, and there is much more work to be done. However, many of us have achieved the status of respectability. Moreover, our efforts to change what it means to be blind have been largely successful. What about reducing blindness to the level of a nuisance? Is that goal achievable?

The generally accepted definition of disability, included in the Americans with Disabilities Act, refers to a condition which “limits one or more major life activities.” The legislation goes on to list many of those activities, one of which is “seeing.” The law’s framers, in consultation with many people with disabilities, recognized that, while it was eminently possible to ameliorate the impact of a handicapping condition to some extent through education, training, accommodation, and acceptance, the disability itself imposed as yet unavoidable limitations. This reality does not mean that disabled people in general and blind people in particular can not and do not live full and productive lives. Many of us provide living testimony to the contrary. It does mean, however, that obstacles are imposed by our disability that rise far above the level of a nuisance.

Travel presents the first factor to be examined. To a great extent we move from place to place easily and elegantly. We use canes, dog guides, and other travel aids to assist us in getting from one place to another. We have acquired the skills to know where we are, assess vehicle traffic, and determine the best and safest way to get to our destination. We have access to public and special transportation options, and of course we have family members, friends, and coworkers to drive us to locations not served by other means. We do not, however, have the ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, as quickly and as conveniently as we would like. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until we are able to walk out of our door, get into our own automobile, and drive ourselves to whatever location we choose just as does a person who is sighted.

Next comes information. We have access to a voluminous amount of data, literature, news, signage, and a mass of material on all subjects. We use Braille, commercially recorded as well as government produced Talking Books and newspapers, computers with speech and Braille access, radio and television audio, and a variety of other sources to stay abreast of current developments. However, that which we can access independently is a tiny fraction of what is available to people who are not blind. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until we can examine any document, read any book, peruse any newspaper, check out any sign, and read any note written by anyone who leaves it for us as do people who are sighted.

Our access to electrical appliances, communications equipment, games, tools, and a wide variety of devices is increasing. Laws have been enacted requiring manufacturers to make their products accessible if doing so is “readily achievable.” Some suppliers have gone the extra mile to include blind consumers among their most valued customers. Of course a wide variety of products are fully usable by us without modification of any kind. While progress with the others is encouraging, the amount of inaccessible equipment manufactured far exceeds that which is usable by us without sighted assistance. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until we can order any appliance, open any box, plug in any machine, and operate any device without sighted assistance of any kind at any level.

As the spendable income of blind people increases, we are observed regularly shopping in a wide variety of places. We dine out; purchase goods and services in a broad spectrum of restaurants and stores; enjoy entertainment in clubs, theaters, and stadiums; and make purchases on the Internet. However, much of our shopping requires sighted assistance. The vast majority of restaurants do not have Braille menus, and most of us can not afford portable reading machines. Labels on most inventory are inaccessible, and the cost of a barcode or currency reader is beyond our available funds. An increasing number of Websites are becoming accessible, but an overwhelming number are still beyond our ability to review. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until we can enter any shop, order a meal in any restaurant, appreciate any form of entertainment, and surf any Website by ourselves.

We use our senses to have a wide variety of experiences. We listen to a multitude of sounds, some artistic and pleasurable, some informational and educational, and others simply in the background. We taste foods that we enjoy and some that we would prefer not to eat, as well as medicines that can be either pleasant or otherwise. Our entire bodies feel an infinite number of sensations, and our noses inhale all kinds of smells. These four senses enable us to have a rewarding, satisfying, and full life. It is also true, however, that the wide spectrum of experiences available to people who are not blind are available to us secondhand. We are told of the beauty of visual arts by those who can see it. A multicolored sunset, the majesty of a scenic view, the beauty of birds and animals in the wild, and the magnificence of nature are made accessible to us through the eyes and words of people who tell us about them. The faces of those we love, the joy of seeing our new baby for the first time, the pleasure of watching our children grow into adults, and the thrill of observing rites of passage all come to us through the eyes and words of others. The selection of clothing, the decoration of a home, the choice of the color of our cars, and the decisions regarding all sorts of visual choices must be accomplished through the descriptions of those who are with us. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until the time comes when we can experience the visual independently, without our eyesight.

As blind people we have developed a variety of techniques and strategies enabling us to live as independently as possible. While our hearing is no more sensitive than that of the average person, we have developed the ability to use it to a far greater extent than people who are sighted. We work at remembering and identifying sounds, even those whose differences are marginal. We recognize and can recall the names of people by the sound of their voices. We determine when it is safe to cross the street by listening to the sound and movement of vehicular traffic. Some of us have learned to be aware of that which is in front of us by the feeling in our faces, a phenomenon known as “facial vision.” We use our memory to recall the arrangement of furniture in a room, the number of steps in a staircase, the location of items on a table, and countless activities that we experience daily. We carefully arrange our clothing, our print materials, our toilet articles and drugs, and many others of our possessions so that we can find them easily, but we simply can not compensate for all of the ways to replace the countless situations in which vision is used merely as a matter of course. We can not walk into a room, glance around, and locate something for which we are looking. We can not look across an expanse, recognize a person in a group, and make eye contact with her or him. We can not know if someone is waving a greeting to us across a street or ballroom. We can not read someone’s mood by recognizing a facial expression. We can not anticipate the subtle visual signals which potentially dangerous situations transmit and which are received only by the eyes. Blindness will not be just a nuisance until we can do virtually everything without our eyes that a sighted person can do with them.

If blindness is really not just a nuisance and if blind people can and do live independent and fulfilling lives in spite of the limitations imposed by this severe disability, we would be wise to develop a new rallying cry that embodies our present situation and our hopes for the future. We must continue to educate both ourselves and those who are not disabled about our intrinsic worth, our stunning capabilities, and our insistence on being a seamless part of the world around us. We must settle for nothing less than full inclusion, full recognition, and an uncompromising determination to be completely integrated into the real world.

Consequently, in an effort to embody all of our hopes, our goals, and the task ahead of us, the following should become our rallying cry: “With appropriate training, opportunity, research, and full inclusion in the world around us, blindness will be reduced to just another personal characteristic.”

 

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