Braille Monitor                                                 February 2011

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Featured Book from the Jacobus tenBroek Library

In this woodcut two blind students of the Royal Institute for Blind Youth, the Parisian school with which Louis Braille was associated, are depicted operating a printing press. Printing was one of the professions blind people in France were often trained in during the early nineteenth century.From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is librarian Ed Morman's review of a book in our collection:

The Making of Blind Men: A Study of Adult Socialization by Robert A. Scott. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1969.

In 1969 a young sociologist launched a bombshell into the comfortable world of the blindness establishment. Robert Scott was an assistant professor at Princeton University with an appointment at the Russell Sage Foundation. In The Making of Blind Men, he revealed to his readers that the perceived wisdom about the blind was simply wrong. Blind people were not by nature dependent and needy; rather, contact with the blindness system socialized them to view themselves as such. But what does the title of this book mean? Why “blind men” rather than “the blind” or “blind people”? And what could he have meant by “making” blind men?

First of all, let’s forgive Scott his apparently sexist title; after all, the second wave of feminism (what was then called “women’s liberation”) was just beginning to make headway when this book was written. The book is not gender specific; the only limit in the book’s scope was the result of Scott’s difficulty in finding data about the small proportion of blind people born blind (or who have no memory of being able to see). While his book therefore concerns the adventitiously blind in particular, there is good reason to consider his findings across the entire blind population.

The question remains, what did he mean by “the making of” blind people? Here he was not referring to the cause of any particular person’s vision loss, but to the role in which blind people had been cast. Scott’s point was that blind people have been “made” by social expectations that were largely the doing of the American Foundation for the Blind, the agencies, and the professional workers for the blind. Drawing on sociological theory that was current at the time, Scott described a “blind role” that the blindness system had taught blind people to adopt.

While acknowledging that goodwill may exist among workers for the blind, Scott pointed out that the professionals nonetheless have their own interests, which do not necessarily align with the interests of their blind clients. Professional workers for the blind tend to reject blind people’s ideas about what they want or need, and the workers—deliberately or unwittingly—reduce their clients to dependency on the agency. Agencies, moreover, need attractive but docile blind people for fundraising purposes.

What Scott somehow missed was that the blind were already speaking for themselves and had been changing what it means to be blind for almost thirty years. The Federation does not appear in this book at all, nor does Scott cite any writings by NFB leaders. Had he looked harder, Scott might have found a succinct summary of his main points in Jacobus tenBroek’s banquet address of 1957, “The Cross of Blindness.” In that speech tenBroek distinguished between what he called the disability of blindness—the simple inability to use vision as sighted people do—and the handicap imposed on the blind person by “the attitudes and preconceptions of the community.” Although use of the terms “disability,” “handicap” and now “impairment” have changed since 1957, tenBroek’s distinction—which Scott echoed in 1969—is now widely accepted in the disability community. To paraphrase Kenneth Jernigan, the anatomical or physiological characteristic we refer to as a disability can be reduced to a nuisance if, among other things, we educate the public to see the disabled as capable of self-determination and independence.

If Robert Scott missed what the NFB had to say about the blind, the NFB certainly took note of Scott’s interest in the subject. In fact, a year before Scott’s book was published, Jacobus tenBroek had solicited—and had received—Scott’s permission to reprint an article of his in the Monitor. Reprinted from the scholarly journal Social Problems, “The Selection of Clients by Social Welfare Agencies: The Case of the Blind,” appeared in the March 1968 Braille Monitor (the final issue tenBroek edited before his death at age fifty-seven). You can find it on the Web at <www.archive.org/stream/braillemonitorma1968nati/braillemonitorma1968nati_djvu.txt>.

It’s not surprising, then, that Hazel tenBroek took note of The Making of Blind Men as soon as it appeared. In the December 1969 Braille Monitor (now also available on the Web at www.archive.org/stream/braillemonitorno1969nati/braillemonitorno1969nati_djvu.txt), as associate editor she provided a “comment” (of more than five thousand words) about the book, generally praising it, but not pulling her punches when she saw errors in Scott’s approach or findings—most notably his failure to see that thousands of blind people had already escaped the social role assigned them by the agencies.

A year later the Monitor reprinted a column that Floyd Matson had written for the Honolulu Advertiser, his local daily newspaper. Matson was commenting on a controversy concerning blind vendors. To underscore his point about the capabilities of blind people, he cited The Making of Blind Men approvingly. Scott’s book, Matson pointed out, shows how “the handicap of blindness is a result not of physical disability but of dependent roles and custodial traditions imposed by a well-meaning society.”

But leave it to Kenneth Jernigan to parse out exactly what was right and what was wrong in Scott’s book and to conclude his analysis with a call to action for Federationists. In “Disability and Visibility: Uncle Tom, Blind Tom, and Tiny Tim” (<http://www.nfb.org/images/ nfb/Publications/brochures/Disability%20and%20Visibility_edit.html>), originally published in 1973, Jernigan takes Scott to task for failing to notice the organized blind. He then continues:

This incredible lapse of scholarship on the part of Professor Scott is, moreover, still more astonishing in view of the fact that his study is not laudatory but highly critical of the role of the agencies in what he calls the "blindness system." It seems unlikely indeed that he has consciously suppressed information concerning the organized blind. What is a great deal more likely is that such information was not volunteered by his informants, most of whom were agency personnel, and that it simply did not turn up in his scrutiny of the professional literature. In short, his otherwise valuable assessment of the field of work with the blind has been seriously distorted, not to say invalidated, by the conspiracy of silence on the part of powerful agency interests hostile to the philosophy and achievements of the organized blind movement.

Jernigan’s skill at building an argument is almost perfectly displayed here. He first criticizes Scott for his neglect of the organized blind. Then he notes that Scott nonetheless echoes the Federation’s criticism of the agencies. From these he infers a “conspiracy of silence,” through which Scott’s informants at the agencies effectively kept him from learning about the NFB. But this is not the conclusion of his argument. Instead Jernigan turns back to the NFB itself:

The moral of this story is crystal clear. The message of Federationism has not yet been broadcast far enough and wide enough; the voice of the organized blind is not sufficiently heard in the land. Not only must we reach more blind persons themselves with our philosophy, our history, and our program; we must reach out to the wider community as well, to the reading public and its writing members, and not least to those who write of social movements and stigmatized minorities and the politics of social service. We cannot rely on others to carry the torch for us; nor can we hide the light of that torch under a bushel, lest it be the light that failed.

The tenBroek Library director found this book fascinating. Apparently Robert Scott was ignorant of the NFB and all that it had accomplished by the late 1960s. Nonetheless, this sighted social scientist was able to discern much of what the organized blind had already learned from their own experience. Was the book ahead of its time, or behind? Judge for yourself. It is available as a Talking Book from the NLS (RC 25905).

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