Braille Monitor                                                                                August-September 1986

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Blindness: A Left-Handed Dissertation

by Kenneth Jernigan

Everyone is familiar with the "revolution of rising expectations" which has raised the consciousness of deprived and dependent populations the world over during the generation since World War II. Abroad this trend has taken the form of independence movements, the rise of new nations, and the decline of the old colonial empires. Within the United States it has found famous expression in the civil rights movement of the "black-brown-red-yellow" revolt; the feminist movement, known as women's liberation; the aggressive youth counterculture of the sixties; and a variety of other self-assertive and self-directing mobilizations--such as those of the poor, the aged, and the sexually deviant.

Whatever their ultimate validity or vitality, most of these domestic movements and causes have been attended with considerable fanfare and commotion. They have captured the imagination and stirred the understanding of the general public. Not so with the blind. It is not that we have lacked sympathy or goodwill or widespread support. We have had plenty of that. Rather, it is that we have not (in present day parlance) been perceived as a minority. Yet, that is exactly what we are--a minority, with all that the term implies.

As with other minorities, we contend with an "establishment," which tries to put us down and keep us out and which denies that we even exist as a legitimate and cohesive group--with common problems, common aspirations, and common interests. Not only is our "establishment" composed of the general sighted public but, more particularly, of the network of governmental and private social service agencies specifically created to give us aid. Principal among these repressive agencies are the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC).

We have organized to take concerted action. In fact, the National Federation of the Blind (established in 1940) predates most of the activist groups of today. We, too, have our Uncle Toms. We have tokenism; we have efforts to divide and conquer; we have attempts to buy off the troublemakers; we have threats and intimidations; we have professional sounding studies and reports; we have impressive meetings and conferences; we have talk about positive and constructive action; we have the force and prestige of tradition and custom; and we have a hundred other delays and obstacles. But underlying all of these things (and far more complex) are our own problems of self-awareness and the need for public education and public understanding. We of the National Federation of the Blind, for instance, affirm that the ordinary blind person can compete on terms of equality with the ordinary sighted person, if he gets proper training and opportunity. We know that the average blind person can do the average job in the average place of business, and do it as well as his sighted neighbor. In other words the blind person can be as happy and lead as full a life as anybody else.

Even so, blindness has its problems. Properly understood and dealt with, it need not be the major tragedy which it has always been considered. It can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance, but it cannot be reduced below that point. Even if we were to contend (and we don't contend it, as I will shortly indicate) that there is absolutely nothing which can be done with sight which cannot be done just as easily and just as well without it, blindness would still be a nuisance, as the world is now constituted. Why? Because the world is planned and structured for the sighted. This does not mean that blindness need be a terrible tragedy or that the blind are inferior or that they cannot compete on terms of equality with the sighted.

For an exact analogy, consider the situation of those who are left-handed. The world is planned and structured for the right-handed. Thus, left-handedness is a nuisance and is recognized as such, especially by the left-handed. Even so, the left-handed can compete on terms of equality with the right-handed since their handicap can be reduced to the level of a mere physical nuisance. If you are not left-handed (I am not. I am a "normal."), you may not have thought of the problems. A left-handed person ordinarily wears his wristwatch on his right arm. Not to do so is awkward and causes problems. But the watch is made for the right-handed. Therefore, when it is worn on the right arm, the stem is toward the elbow, not the fingers. The watch is inconvenient to wind, a veritable nuisance.

Then there are butter knives. Many of them are so constructed that the left handed must either spread the butter with the back of the knife, awkwardly use the right hand, or turn the wrist in a most uncomfortable way--nuisances all. But not of the sort to ruin one's psyche or cause nightmares, just annoying. The garden variety can opener (the one you grip in your left hand and turn with your right--that is, if you are "normal") is made for "normals." If you hold it in your right hand and turn it with your left (as any respectable left-hander is tempted to do), you must either clumsily reach across it to get at the handle or turn it upside down so that the handle is conveniently located, in which case it won't work at all. Likewise, steak knives are usually serrated to favor the right-handed. Scissors, egg beaters, ice cream dippers, and other utensils are also made for the same group.

So are ordinary school-desk classroom chairs. How many have you seen with the arms on the left side? Of course, a few enlightened schools and colleges (with proper, present-day concern for the well-being of minorities) have two or three left-handed chairs in each of their classrooms, but this is the exception rather than the rule. It succeeds only in earning the ill will of chauvinist right-handers, who must use the desks when the room is full and the left-handed are absent. Of course, these occasional left-handed desks are the most blatant form of tokenism, the groveling gratitude of occasional left handed Uncle Toms to the contrary notwithstanding. In at least one case, it would seem, the problem of the left-handed is not just a side effect of the fact that the world is constructed for the right handed but a real, inherent weakness. When the left-handed person writes with ink (the ball-point pen was a blessing, indeed), his hand tends to smear the ink as it drags over what he has written. Of course, he can hold his hand up as he writes, but this is an inferior technique, not to mention being tiresome.

Upon closer examination even this apparently inherent weakness is not really inherent at all but simply another problem created by society in its catering to the right-handed. There is no real reason why it is better to begin reading or writing at the left side of the page and move to the right, except that it is more efficient and comfortable for the majority, the right-handed.

In fact, it would be just as easy to read or write from the right to the left (more so for the left-handed), and thus the shoe would be on the other foot--or, more precisely, the pen would be in the other hand.

The left-handed have always been considered inferior by the right-handed. Formerly (in primitive times--twenty or thirty years ago) parents tried to make their left-handed children behave normally--that is, use their right hands. Thereby, they often created trauma and psychiatric problems--causing complexes, psychoses, and emotional disturbances. Today (in the age of enlightenment) while parents do not exactly say, "left is beautiful," they recognize the rights of minorities and leave their left-handed progeny to do their own thing.

(Parenthetically, I might say here that those who work with the blind are not always so progressive. Parents--and especially educators--still try to make the blind child with a little sight read large type, even when Braille would serve him better and be more efficient. They put great stress on reading in the "normal" manner and not being "conspicuous." They make him ashamed of his blindness and often cause permanent damage.)

But back to the left-handed. Regardless of the enlightenment of parents and teachers, the ancient myth of the inferiority of the left-handed still lingers to bedevil the lives of that unfortunate minority. To say that someone has given you a "left-handed compliment" is not a compliment to the left-handed. It is usually the left hand that doesn't know what the right hand is doing, rarely the other way around; and it is the right hand that is raised, or placed on the Bible, to take an oath. Salutes and the Pledge of Allegiance are given with the right hand. Divine Scripture tells us that the good and the evil shall be divided and that, at the day of final Judgment, the sheep shall be on the right hand and the goats on the left, from whence they shall be cast into hell and outer darkness forever and ever. The guest of honor sits on the right hand of the host, and in an argument one always wants to be right. No one ever wants to be left behind. Whether these uses of the words "left" and "right" are subtleties of language reinforcing the stereotype and bespeaking deeply ingrained, subconscious prejudice--or whether they are accidental, as the "normals" allege, who can say? It may simply be that the left handed are supersensitive, wearing chips on their shoulders and looking for insult where none is intended.

It is hard to make this case, however, when one considers the word gauche. The 1971 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, says: "gauche ... left, on the left, French ... lacking in social graces or ease, tact, and familiarity with polite usage; likely or inclined to commit social blunders especially from lack of experience or training ... lacking finish or exhibiting crudity (as of style, form, or technique) ... being or designed for use with the left hand: LEFT-HANDED. Synonym see AWKWARD, gauchely, adverb: in a gauche manner: AWKWARDLY, CLUMSILY, CRUDELY."

Whatever else may be said, there is nothing subtle about all of that; nor is there anything subtle about the term "bar sinister," which comes from the Latin sinistral, meaning left-handed. The 1971 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, says: "bar sinister ... the fact or condition of being of illegitimate birth ... an enduring stigma, stain, or reproach (as of improper conduct or irregular status)." Supersensitive? Quibbling? Not on your life. Left-handers arise. You have nothing to lose but your chains. They probably don't fit you anyway, being made for the right-handed. Look for the new slogans any day: "Left is lovely," and "Get righty!"

As with other oppressed minorities, the subtleties of language and prejudice carry over into the job market. I know of a girl, for instance, who lives in Kansas and who sought employment in a factory in that State. She was interviewed and passed every test with flying colors. The prospective employer terminated the interview by telling her, "You are in every way qualified for the job, and I would hire you immediately, except for your handicap." In outrage and indignation she demanded to know what he meant. "Why," he said, "it's obvious! You are left-handed. The machines on our assembly line are made for the right-handed. You would slow down the entire operation." This is not fantasy but fact. The company makes greeting cards. The girl did not get the job.

If, in truth and in fact, the left handed girl would have slowed the assembly line, it is hard to see how the action of the employer can be called discriminatory. He could not be expected to buy new machinery simply to give her a job, nor could he be expected to redesign the entire factory. The "normal" person is right-handed, and it is reasonable for the factory to be designed accordingly.

Or does all of this miss the whole point? Is this not exactly the way employers and the general public think and talk about the blind? How did the employer know that the girl would slow down the assembly line? How did he know she was less efficient? Perhaps she had alternative techniques. Perhaps, in fact, she could have done the job better than most of the other people he had on the line. He decided (based on what he doubtless called "obvious" and "common sense" reasons) that she couldn't do the work. Accordingly, she was never even given the opportunity to try. Beware the "obvious," and look very carefully at so-called "common sense."

Do you still say there is no discrimination against the left-handed? Probably you do--unless you begin to think about it, unless you get the facts--and even then, some people will say you are quibbling, that you are exaggerating. How very like the case of the blind. How easy to make quick judgments and have all of the answers, especially when you are not confronted with the problem or compelled to look at reality.

From all of this, you can see that the life of the left-hander is not easy. Nevertheless, his infirmity can be reduced to the level of a mere nuisance. It need not mean helplessness or inferiority. It does not necessarily cripple him psychologically. With reasonable opportunity he can compete on terms of equality with his right-handed neighbor. The average left-hander can do the average job in the average place of business and do it as well as the average right-hander.

So far as I can tell, there is no inherent weakness in left-handedness at all. The problems arise from the fact that society is structured for the right-handed. But these problems (annoying though they be) do not keep the left-handed from leading normal lives or competing with others. They are at the nuisance level.

Therefore, even if blindness (like left-handedness) had no inherent problems, it would still be a nuisance since society is structured and planned for the sighted--sometimes when it could be arranged more efficiently otherwise. For instance, most windows in modern buildings are not there for ventilation. They are sealed. They are there only so that the sighted may look out of them. The building loses heat in winter and coolness in summer, but the sighted (the majority) will have their windows.

I think, however, that blindness is not exactly like left-handedness. I think there are some things that are inherently easier to do with sight than without it. For instance, you can glance down the street and see who is coming. You can look across a crowded room and tell who is there.

But here, it seems to me, most people go astray. They assume that, because you cannot look across the room and see who is there or enjoy a sunset or look down the street and recognize a friend, you are confronted with a major tragedy--that you are psychologically crippled, sociologically inferior, and economically unable to compete. Regardless of the words they use, they feel (deep down at the gut level) that the blind are necessarily less fortunate than the sighted. They think that blindness means lack of ability. Such views are held not only by most of the sighted but by many of the blind as well. They are also held by many, if not most, of the professionals in the field of work with the blind. In the Journal of Rehabilitation for January-February 1966, an article appeared entitled: "Social Isolation of the Blind: An Underrated Aspect of Disability and Dependency." This article was written by none other than Dr. D. C. MacFarland, Chief of the Office for the Blind, Social and Rehabilitative Service, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Dr. MacFarland says:

"Let me repeat a statement which I violently oppose. There is a slowly evolving fiction which can be summed up in the generalization, 'Blindness is a mere inconvenience.' I do not agree with this, and I do not know what to call such exaggeration in reverse. I think it has done its share of harm, throwing some very well-intentioned people off the track about what blindness really amounts to in people's lives."

It seems to me that Dr. MacFarland is as far off the track as the person who would contend that blindness is not even important enough to be considered a nuisance. I think it would be pleasant to look at a sunset. I think it would be helpful to look across a room and see who is there, or glance down the street and recognize a friend. But I know that these things are peripheral to the major concerns of life. It is true that it is sometimes a nuisance to devise alternative techniques to get the same results. I could have without effort if I were sighted, but it is just that (a nuisance), not a tragedy or a psychological crisis or an international incident.

It seems to me that many of the problems which are regarded as inherent in blindness are more like those of the left-handed--in other words, created as a natural side effect of the structuring of society for the sighted. It seems to me that the remaining problems (those that are truly indigenous to blindness) are usually vastly overrated and over dramatized.

Blindness can, indeed, be a tragedy and a veritable hell, but this is not because of the blindness or anything inherent in it. It is because of what people have thought about blindness and because of the deprivations and the denials which result. It is because of the destructive myths which have existed from the time of the caveman--myths which have equated eyesight with ability, and light with intelligence and purity. It is because the blind, being part of the general culture, have tended to accept the public attitudes and thus have done much to make those attitudes reality.

As far as I am concerned, all that I have been saying is tied up with the why and wherefore of the National Federation of the Blind. If our principal problem is the physical fact of blindness, I think there is little purpose in organizing. However, the real problem is not the blindness but the mistaken attitudes about it. These attitudes can be changed, and we are changing them. The sighted can also change. They can be shown that we are in no way inferior to them and that the old ideas were wrong that we are able to compete with the sighted, play with the sighted, work with the sighted, and live with the sighted on terms of complete equality. We the blind can also come to recognize these truths, and we can live by them.

For all these reasons I say to you that the blind are able to compete on terms of absolute equality with the sighted, but I go on to say that blindness (even when properly dealt with) is still a physical nuisance. We must avoid the sin and the fallacy of either extreme. Blindness need not be a tragic hell. It cannot be a total nullity, lacking all inconvenience. It can, as we of the National Federation of the Blind say at every opportunity, be reduced to the level of a mere annoyance. Right on! We the blind must neither cop out by selling ourselves short with self-pity and myths of tragic deprivation, nor lie to ourselves by denying the existence of a problem. We need your help; we seek your understanding; and we want your partnership in changing our status in society. There is no place in our movement for the philosophy of the self-effacing Uncle Tom, but there is also no place for unreasonable and unrealistic belligerence. We are not out to "get sighty." Will you work with us?