by Kenneth Jernigan

Almost everybody who thinks about blindness begins with the assumption that if you are blind, you are at a tremendous disadvantage in dealing with the everyday tasks of getting along and managing your life. To some extent, of course, that is true.

Regardless of other things, the world is structured for the sighted. Most books are in print, not Braille; an increasing number of electrical appliances have lights that flash and flicker instead of knobs that turn and click; and pictures are replacing words on everything from the cash register at McDonald's to the sign on the bathroom door.

Most of these items and appliances could be marked and produced in nonvisual ways, but the fact that they aren't (and that they won't be) is not an overwhelming problem. There are techniques for dealing with the reading, the flickering lights under transparent plates, and the pictures that tell you where to go and what to do.

Functioning as a blind person in a world designed for the sighted keeps you on your toes, but with a little thought and ingenuity you can manage. In fact, you can manage quite well. But that isn't the way most people look at it. They figure that if you are blind, your days are miserably bleak and limited. I've been blind all of my life, and I think I am about as happy and successful as most of the sighted people I know. It is true that I haven't made a million dollars or been elected president of the United States—but I get along, pay my bills, and look forward to a good dinner and a Sunday afternoon. So do the majority of blind people I know. And I know a lot of them—some successful, some just managing to get by, and most somewhere between.

And let me hasten to add that I am not just talking about people who have been blind from birth but about all of the other variations—those who became blind as children, those who became blind as young adults, and those who became blind in middle age or later.

But if blindness is how I say it is—if you can have as much fun, make as much money, and be as successful as anybody else—why do people think blindness is so tragic and limiting? I have given a lot of thought to that question, and I believe the answer is less involved with the major activities of life than with the insignificant details.

It is true that over seventy percent of working-age blind people are unemployed--not because they can't do the job but because people think they can't do it and because they haven't had opportunity. But most people don't know that. More to the point, they don't think about it, and even if they did, they would simply take it for granted that the majority of blind people are not unemployed but unemployable, and then they would pass on to something else.

No, it is not the big things that cause the average member of the public to think of blindness as tragic and limiting. It is the routine activities, the details. More specifically, it is the fact that when there is more than one way to do a thing and when one of those ways involves using sight, the sighted person will almost inevitably use the visual technique. It will be done without a second thought, with the automatic assumption that the visual technique is superior. Some visual techniques are superior, of course; some are approximately equal; and some are inferior.

Let me give you an example. A few mornings ago, my wife (who, incidently, is sighted) expressed some annoyance that her toothpaste had fallen off of the brush. I was quite surprised, for I realized that something I had always taken for granted wasn't so.

"Do you squeeze your toothpaste on to your toothbrush, looking at it as you do it, and then put the toothbrush loaded with toothpaste into your mouth?" I asked.

"Why, yes," she said. "Doesn't everybody do it that way?"

"I don't," I said. "I put the tube up to my mouth, bite off what I want, and then put the brush on my teeth and go at it." My wife was as surprised by my technique as I was by hers. "It makes sense," she said. "I'll try it." She did, and she said how much more efficient my technique was than the visual method she had been using. About a week later I asked her if she was still using my toothpaste technique, and she rather sheepishly said that she wasn't. When I asked her why, she thought about it a minute and then said, "I guess I'm so used to looking at it that it's just too hard to change."

Here's a case where the nonvisual technique is clearly superior but where the visual method is automatically used even though it is not as good. My wife (along with most of the other sighted people I have asked) has always, without even thinking about it, taken it for granted that the sighted technique is superior.

If she had considered it at all before our conversation, she would probably have felt that my method of putting toothpaste on the brush would be the same as hers except that I would need to feel for the brush, which would be a little harder than just looking at it.

Certainly the world doesn't turn on whether you bite your toothpaste or squeeze it onto a brush, but life is a matter of daily routine, not dramatic events. So let me move from toothbrushes to razors.

I shave everyday (or almost everyday), and I do it with an ordinary razor with a blade. Many of the sighted men I know tell me that they shave in front of a mirror. Yet, I have known a great many sighted men who have worked at schools or training centers for the blind and who, after seeing blind boys and men shaving in the shower, have tried the technique and adopted it. I have never known one of them to return to the visual technique. In fact, even those who shave in front of a mirror almost always rub their hand across their face to feel if it is clean shaven. Even so, the average person tends to think that shaving without sight is difficult. It isn't. The nonvisual method is easier and offers more flexibility.

Like most men who shave with a blade, I use shaving cream, the kind that comes from a can under pressure and makes a big pile of foam. Since I have to wash my face anyway, I combine the operation with shaving. I get my face (including my forehead) wet, and I then spread shaving cream all over it. When I am finished, I rinse and am done.

A few years ago, when I was making television announcements for the National Federation of the Blind, I thought it might be interesting to demonstrate different techniques used by the blind. I had shots made of me walking down the street, carrying wood to a fireplace, tying my tie, and shaving. As the TV editors looked at the pictures, everything was all right until they came to the shaving sequence. One of them said, "We can't show that. It would look like a vaudeville act, like somebody throwing a pie at your face." I gathered from my questions to them that they were accustomed to seeing TV commercials about shaving and that in those commercials a small amount of shaving cream is put on a part of the face. Those commercials, it would seem, had formed their image of what was normal and acceptable. As with some of the other things I have been discussing, I had always assumed that other men used shaving cream the way I did. Apparently such is not the case.

I said to one of the TV editors: "Don't you wash your face in the morning?" "Yes," he said, "but I don't do it with shaving cream. I wash my face and forehead with soap. I rinse my face; and then I put shaving cream on and shave." It seemed to me that this was a time-wasting, inefficient way to do it, but I thought I would keep my opinion to myself.

When I was Director of Programs for the Blind in the state of Iowa, we bought an old YMCA building for a headquarters and training center. It had seven floors, and the only way to get from the basement to the top was either by climbing the stairs or by using the elevator.

It was, to say the least, not a modern elevator. In fact, it was one of the old-fashioned kind using direct current. It had a grille-work at the front of the cab and a lever that you pushed one way to go up and the other way to go down. There was no way to tell when you got to a given floor except by looking—or, at least, that's what we thought when we moved in. But those of us who were blind had the strongest possible incentive to devise a nonvisual technique, for we couldn't afford to hire an elevator operator—and we didn't want to walk up and down the stairs between the seven floors all day.

My first thought was that if we couldn't see the floors, perhaps we could string a cable from the top to the bottom of the elevator shaft with some kind of tabs on it that would brush the elevator car and make a noise at each floor. That would have been expensive and complicated and we never got around to it. In the meantime we walked—at least, those of us who were blind did. Then, one of the blind trainees found that he could stick a knife or comb through the grille-work and touch the bar on the elevator door at each floor, thus allowing a blind person to operate the elevator easily and efficiently. A little later we learned that we had been going about the whole thing wrong. If we paid attention, we could feel the air currents coming off of the floors as we passed them and could level the elevator without any mechanical devices at all.

Why did it take us so long to discover this technique? I believe it was because it never occurred to us to think in any other way except in visual terms. We thought that if we couldn't see the floors, we needed to devise a substitute to do the same thing, to touch them in one way or another. Only when we opened our minds and let our imaginations run free did we get the solution.

The elevator technique we developed was not superior to the visual technique used by the sighted occupants of the building, but it was just as good. The fact that it was different didn't make it inferior. It just meant that it was different.

There is more opportunity for blind people today than there has ever been in the history of the world, and we are only beginning to realize our possibilities. We are truly changing what it means to be blind, and one of the ways we are doing it is by coming to understand that visual techniques are not necessarily superior to nonvisual techniques. And it isn't just blind people who are learning this. It is also an increasing number of the sighted public. We who are blind must lead the way and do for ourselves, but we must do it in partnership with the sighted. And we must do it with imagination and new ways of thinking.