Braille Monitor May-June 1986
Most blind people (especially those who have "made it on their own") get around to writing a book about blindness sooner or later. A majority of such books leave a lot to be desired--not only in content and style but also in perceptiveness, understanding, objectivity, and truth. Just as it is with scientists, so it is with the blind. Nobody "makes it" on his or her own! We build on the efforts and discoveries of others--and we who are blind (whether we admit it or not and, for that matter, whether we know it or not) build our achievements on the platform of accomplishments made by the National Federation of the Blind.
The book If You Could See What I Hear by Tom Sullivan (Copyright, 1975, Harper and Row, New York, New York) has a great deal of the "I have made it on my own" pattern about it. It is easy to gain the impression that Sullivan feels superior to his fellow blind (or, at least, tries to appear that way) and has pity for most of them. Incidentally, quite a number of the blind reciprocate this latter sentiment.
Two letters are illustrative--one from Mike Ruddy, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico, and the other from Aloma Bouma, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska:
Las Vegas, New Mexico
February 18, 1986
Dear President Jernigan:
At times in the Braille Monitor books about blindness are reviewed. One book that has not been reviewed yet is If You Could See What I Hear by Tom Sullivan. This book is about a blind person who believes that he has "made it on his own." To the average person he has made an excellent adjustment to blindness.
Let us look at his life briefly. Tom Sullivan became blind due to retrolental fibroplasia. After his father learned that Tom was blind, he took him from doctor to doctor hoping that a cure could be found. Tom's father made attempts to help him have a normal life while Tom's mother thought it was her "Christian duty" to protect Tom from the world. As it was, Tom lived a more normal life than a lot of blind children. He was toilet trained at home. He was, however, critical of those blind children who were not toilet trained. Tom believed that he made it on his own. He doesn't feel that organizing to improve the cause of the blind has any merit.
When he enrolled at Harvard in 1967 he heard the student who was supposed to be his roommate griping and complaining about rooming with a blind person. The student believed that he would have to "mother" Tom.
This attitude is why blind people have trouble in society. The most important chapter in the book is the next to the last--"Reaction and Reality." Tom's wife, Patty, receives a call from the Braille Institute. The Braille Institute wanted Tom to speak to a group of blind people. Patty told the Braille Institute that she thought Tom would like to. Tom became angry because he did not wish to speak. He was of the opinion that he had made it on his own. His attitude was "Let the other blind people make it on their own." Patty asked Tom what he was afraid of. I believe Patty was trying to make Tom look at his fear. Tom ended the arguement by taking his guide dog, Heide, to the beach. Tom made a speech there about what he believed about blindness. He was critical of the Perkins School for the Blind. The National Federation of the blind (regardless of the beliefs of Tom Sullivan) has benefited him and has been largely responsible for the success he has had.
There are blacks (not as many today as in former times) who profit from the labors of the civil rights movement but will not join or participate in it. There are blind people who do likewise.
April 21, 1983
The Wayne Stater
Wayne State College
On Tuesday, March 29, I had the opportunity to attend a concert lecture by Mr. Tom Sullivan on your campus. I would like to take this opportunity to present my opinions concerning his performance.
Taken on the surface level, Mr. Sullivan appears to be both optimistic and encouraging. But it is important to see exactly what he is encouraging.
During the course of his lecture Mr. Sullivan told the audience about several incidents in his life. These included such things as: pretending to be shy and nervous to impress a date, removing a glass eye to win wrestling matches, and driving jeeps into the ocean. It is clear from these examples that Mr. Sullivan has used his blindness to behave in an immature, irresponsible manner.
It is one thing to win a wrestling match fairly and competitively, bu is another to use your blindness to appear helpless and promote sympathy from your opponent by walking with arms stretched out in front of you. This only promotes the image of the helpless blind.
Mr. Sullivan made a statement at the end of his presentation in which he hoped he would some day be taken seriously as an actor and allowed roles in which it is irrelevant that his character is blind. I do not see this ever happening, for it is obvious that Mr. Sullivan himself promotes and uses his blindness. What he does and says and the kind of blind person he represents in offensive and degrading to many competent blind persons. It is an insult to the self-respect, pride, and dignity of blind persons for Mr. Sullivan to promote his blindness as a tool for getting whatever he wants, regardless of the consequences. Telling jokes about a blind man not being able to tell one end of a dog from another is disgusting and ludicrous.
Mr. Sullivan's theory seems to be turning a disadvantage into an advantage. This should not mean taking advantage.
I am concerned about the image of blind people which Mr. Sullivan promotes--the image that blind people are deceptive, manipulative, and exploitive. He also promotes the image of independence when, in fact, he is unable to walk onstage by himself and must use the aid of a sighted guide.
I strongly believe that a blind person should lead a full and productive life, including participating in sports and freedom of employment. Unfortunately, Mr. Sullivan is a poor example of the use of intelligence, maturity, and common sense in pursuing these goals.
I hope that your readers will realize that not all blind persons are like Mr. Sullivan.
Oh, and by the way... yes, I am also blind.