Braille Monitor July 1986
by Jerry Whittle
(Jerry Whittle is a teacher at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.)
All of us as blind persons can probably recall times when a misinformed sighted person has asked us some strange questions concerning the nature of our blindness. For instance, when I once attended graduate school in Knoxville, Tennessee, there was a friend of mine on the city bus who had known and talked with me on several occasions. Suddenly one morning, she blurted out, "How do you know when it rains?" Seemingly taking a cue from her query, another commuter asked, "When you wake up in the morning, how do you know it is morning?" I answered facetiously by telling her that I owned a rooster, and then I told her that an alarm clock, a talking one, usually informed me that it was morning. These types of questions happen far more often than they should. I like to think that we are winning the war against ignorance among the sighted public; yet, when I voted in the national election in 1984, the lady in charge of the balloting told my wife to tell me to put my "X" on the dotted line. I had to explain to her with clenched teeth that I was a college graduate and that I could sign my own name.
Is it logical for us to expect the sighted public, the majority of them, to accept us as potential employees when they do not even think we have the ability to sign our names or determine when it is raining? I think that part of the problem is due to our own isolation, our own self-exile. For example, many blind persons (including me) live in small towns where there is no public transportation; therefore, we must stay at home far more than we would like, or we must depend on sighted friends or family members to take us where we want to go. Additionally, many of us seem reluctant to mix with our sighted peers, or we sometimes feel the coldness of people who do not want us to be a part of their social activities. The responsibility seems to lie with us to mingle and to stamp out the little brush fires of ignorance and misinformation which still exist throughout this country. We cannot win the battle against this type of ignorance unless we find ways of becoming an integral part of the sighted world. Furthermore, we must begin to make ourselves visible in small towns as well as large metropolitan areas in order to abolish the pockets of misconception which still linger.
Our united quest for acceptance will eventually eliminate prejudice and discrimination and ignorance; but the time has now arrived for all of us as blind persons to become a totally integrated social being who participates openly and independently in everyday activities in his or her environs. We must somehow overcome our own reluctance to join sighted organizations and public activities; and we need to make ourselves as visible as possible. Only then can we expect to educate a sighted public that encounters a blind person very rarely and then only on the arm of another sighted person. Moreover, we need to form friendships with sighted persons and invite them into our homes and allow them to see us conducting our lives in a normal and competent fashion. Lobbying in Washington and in our state capitals is an excellent way to educate and to eradicate prejudice; but we can do far more by lobbying in our own homes with sighted people with whom we wish to form friendships. We can all help by doing the little mundane things of life--riding the city bus, voting, buying our own groceries, merely walking down the streets of our own home towns (not on the arm of our husband, wife, or friend), and using an NFB cane. We have to emerge totally. Going to chapter meetings of the NFB and attending national and state conventions is good; but we all must go one step further and join civic groups and attend public functions, such as concerts, football games, and plays.
Have we formed our own subculture; how many of us have formed lasting friendships with sighted persons outside the NFB? How many of us try to avoid contact with the sighted world unless we are accompanied by someone who is sighted? Do we really walk the sidewalks of our home towns and conduct our daily business as our sighted peers, or are we still trapped in the old custodial attitudes of the past? One more question--can we truly expect to overcome ignorance and prejudice as long as we stay within our homes or within a blind subculture? I doubt it. Membership and participation in the NFB is an absolutely essential part of our march toward total acceptance in a predominately sighted world, but coupled with this membership and participation there should also be an ongoing attempt to integrate ourselves totally into our society. Just as the blacks have begun to do, we too must become very visible in all areas of life. Seeing a blind person walking down the street should not be a rare sight. It should be as the sunrise--and just as welcome. We should make ourselves increasingly visible to a misinformed public. When this happens, people will no longer feel uneasy in our presence, and they will no longer need to ask us how we know when it rains.