Note:  This article originally appeared in the April 1973 issue of The Braille Monitor

DISABILITY AND VISIBILITY:Uncle Tom, Blind Tom, and Tiny Tim

By Kenneth Jernigan

“Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim are brothers under the skin.” So declares a professor of English at the City College of New York, Dr. Leonard Kriegel, in a striking article published in The American Scholar (Summer 1969). Dr. Kriegel also happens to be (to use the blunt, old- fashioned term which he himself prefers) a "cripple." The full title of his article is "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro."

This scholarly essay, which is equally remarkable for what it says and what it fails to say, provides me with the text for my own remarks. The title I have chosen reveals my debt to Dr. Kriegel. It is "Disability and Visibility: Uncle Tom, Blind Tom, and Tiny Tim." Up to a point my remarks are an extension of the thesis advanced by Dr. Kriegel. Beyond that point they are a critique and a refutation of his argument.

The thesis of the Kriegel essay may be simply stated. It is that the cripple (that is, the physically disabled person) is today in much the same plight as the Negro in America a generation ago—before the advent of the civil rights era and, more particularly, before the rise of that militant movement of collective self-assertion known as "Black Power." As the Negro had been cast by society in the role of Uncle Tom (the bowing and shuffling "Darkie" created by Harriet Beecher Stowe), so the cripple is cast in the image of Tiny Tim—the famous little caricature of helplessness and pathos in Charles Dickens' classic story, "A Christmas Carol."

The force of these twin stereotypes, both of them symbolic of inferiority and helplessness, is such as to obscure the reality and actual identity of the Negro and the cripple—who, in effect, have become invisible. "It is," writes Kriegel, "not the black man and the cripple alone who suffer from invisibility in America." Other minorities also are alienated or misunderstood. "But one can suggest," he continues, "that if most persons are only half-visible, then the cripple, like the black man until recently, is wholly invisible. Stereotypes persist long after reality fades away; for us, Uncle Tom still prays on bent knees while Tiny Tim hobbles through the world on huge gushes of sentiment and love."

There is more on this point, in the Kriegel article, but this should be enough to give a serious dimension to the author's quip about the relationship between the symbolic figures of Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim. Neither figure is an authentic reproduction of reality; both are counterfeit images—but they still pass for the real thing and carry on their traditionally respectable careers in too many places and too many minds.

To these two brothers under the skin we may add a third—the oldest of all and, perhaps, the most destructive. His name is "Blind Tom." He is the proverbial blind beggar—the pathetic fellow with the tin cup and the clutch of pencils, who taps and blunders his way through the folklore of a dozen cultures, a shadowy figure on the lunatic fringe of life—the very model of dereliction and despair. The universality of the "Blind Tom" theme is recalled to us by poems such as this:

"The Spring blew trumpets of color;
Her green sang in my brain
I heard a blind man groping
'Tap—tap' with his cane."

You are not Blind Tom, of course, nor am I. But he is the label too often thrown over us like a straitjacket and, all too often, worn willingly and unprotestingly. It is as true of the blind person as the cripple that, to quote Dr. Kriegel, "what [he] must face is being pigeonholed by the smug. ...He is expected to behave in such-and-such a way; he is expected to react in the following manner to the following stimulus... He reacts [all too often] as he is expected to react because he does not really accept the idea that he can react in any other way. Once he accepts, however unconsciously, the images of self that his society presents him, then the guidelines for his behavior are clear-cut and consistent."

Up to this point Kriegel's analysis of the dilemma of the disabled is accurate and praiseworthy—and, with only minor reservations, can be extended to embrace the blind as well. Uncle Tom, Blind Tom, and Tiny Tim are all brothers under the skin.

So far, so true. But when Kriegel turns from diagnosis to prognosis—when he writes out his prescription for reform—he loses both nerve and credibility. For in the end he can see no real hope for the cripple, no prospect of a normal life or an equal role in society. Least of all does he envisage any concerted voluntary action by the disabled themselves to establish their "visibility”  and  to take a hand in their own destiny. Moreover, it is at this point that he abruptly abandons his analogy between Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim. "It is noteworthy," he writes, "that, at a time when in virtually every corner of the globe those who have been invisible to themselves and to those they once conceived of as masters now stridently demand the right to define meaning and behavior in their own terms, the cripple is still asked to accept definitions of what he is, and of what he should be, imposed on him from outside his experience."

If this is not the way it should be for the cripple, the author seems to be saying, it is the way it must be. For the cripple is, after all, a cripple. He really is helpless. But let Kriegel put the case in his own words. Pointing to the effectiveness of Black Power threats and actions, he declares: "If a person who has had polio, for example, were to threaten to burn cities to the ground unless the society recognized his needs he would simply make of himself an object of laughter and ridicule. The very paraphernalia of his existence, his braces and crutches, make such a threat patently ridiculous. Aware of his own helplessness, he cannot help but be aware, too, that whatever limited human dimensions he has been offered are themselves the product of society's largesse. Quite simply, he can take it or leave it."

Those are the words of total defeatism, the attitude of Tiny Tim himself—of the object of charity and pity, “aware of his own helplessness” and afraid to bite the hand that feeds him. Not for the cripple the dawning belief of black Americans "that they possess choices and that they need not live as victims." Why not? Because, we are told, "The cripple's situation is more difficult. If it exists at all, his sense of community with his fellow sufferers is based upon shame rather than pride. Nor is there any political or social movement that will supply him with a sense of solidarity. If anything, it is probably more difficult for the cripple to relate to 'his own' than to the normals."

There you have it. For all his higher education, for all his superior knowledge of literature and history, Professor Kriegel knows little of the world in which he moves, and about which he writes. In particular he knows nothing of the politics of disability, of the power and pride of self-organization among those whose problems in society may well exceed his own—that is, the blind. Of us—the blind—it was also once supposed that we could never relate to one another except in shame, and surely could not mount a social movement under our own steam and leadership without all falling down in the ditch. But look at the record and the reality. The National Federation of the Blind is well into its second generation, and not just going strong but stronger than ever—stronger in solidarity and commitment, stronger in achievement and effectiveness, strong enough to move mountains and shake foundations. As Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (the beloved founder of our movement) declared at our 25th Anniversary Convention in the Nation's Capital in 1965: "We have not only survived; we have not only endured; we have prevailed." We have prevailed over the agency system which once sought to keep the blind invisible, inaudible, and sheltered. We have prevailed over the welfare system handed down from the poor laws, which saddled the blind with a host of stigmas designed to keep us immobilized and destitute. We have prevailed over massive barriers of discrimination and exclusion in public employment, such as those erected by the Civil Service Commission, whose walls have now come tumbling down before the persistent trumpets of the organized blind.

Above all, perhaps, we have prevailed over the despair and disbelief in our own minds—the demons of doubt and defeatism, which whisper to the blind man that half a life is better than none, that there is no place in the sun for him but only a shelter in the shade, that his destiny lies forever in the shadows and blind alleys among the brooms and brica-brac of economic and social futility. Those demons, too, have been routed.

This we have done, and more,  in the span of a generation. What the organized blind of the National Federation have accomplished, others may also accomplish. Indeed, there is already in existence a national association of the physically handicapped—as well as numerous regional and special-purpose groups, such as the lively and progressive post-polio association in the San Francisco Bay area, which vigorously lobbies the state capitol and publishes a politically potent newsletter.

One wonders what these activist "cripples" must make of the tone of despairing pessimism which runs through much of Kriegel's article. One need not wonder at all about the reaction of blind Federationists to passages such as the following, quoted approvingly by Kriegel from the pen of another disabled author:

"Somewhere deep inside us is the almost unbearable knowledge that the way the able-bodied world regards us is as much as we have the right to expect. We are not full members of that world, and the vast majority of us can never hope to be. If we think otherwise we are deluding ourselves. Like children and the insane, we inhabit a special sub-world, a world with its own unique set of referents."

Do those words sound familiar? Of course they do. They are the very gospel of defeatism which once pervaded the literature on blindness and echoed gloomily down the corridors of the governmental and private service agencies. They are the sentiments of the New York Lighthouse administrator who declared a score of years ago that "the rank and file of blind people have neither the exceptional urge for independence nor the personal qualifications necessary to satisfactory adjustment in the sighted world." They are the viewpoint of the historian of blindness who unqualifiedly conceded that "there is little in an industrial way that a blind person can do at all that cannot be done better and more expeditiously by people with sight"—and who warned that "the learned professions, including teaching, are on the whole only for those of very superior talent and, more particularly, very superior courage and determination to win at all costs." The views of the crippled author are neither more nor less negative than the attitude of the agency psychiatrist who asserted that "blindness is a visible deformity and all blind persons follow a pattern of dependency"

But there is no need further to illustrate or recollect that old familiar refrain, whose dominant theme was that blindness is synonymous with helplessness and that the visually disabled must not be misled into supposing that they can ever venture forth into the mainstream of society. The simple and historic fact is that the blind have been venturing forth, in droves, for several decades now. We are teaching in the public schools and the colleges and universities of our states; we are effectively at work in all of the learned professions, including medicine and research science, as well as law and education; we have escaped the protective custody of the agency system, have broken the "pattern of dependency," and have won for ourselves careers of full participation and productivity, of self-sufficiency and self-respect.

And in the accomplishment of this great leap forward, let it be emphatically avowed, no force has been more powerful than the inner force of self-organization among the blind themselves. In the unity and brotherhood of Federationism, in the crucible of our often embattled struggle to gain a voice and a hearing, in the gathering of strength and access of confidence which the Federation movement has instilled in tens of thousands of blind Americans—in this remarkable adventure of mutual aid and common action we have found a new identity as free and responsible members of society.

The saddest feature of the "Tiny Tim" article, with its air of futility and hopelessness, is the utter failure of the author to recognize or understand the proven way out of alienation. Over and over he exclaims of the disabled that among them "there is no sense of shared relationships or pride"; that "cripples do not refer to each other as 'soul brothers'"; and that the only sense of community they can share "is based upon shame rather than pride." We have already noted this author's surprising ignorance of "any political or social movement that will supply [the cripple] with a sense of solidarity." But perhaps we should not be surprised; for this ignorance of the political facts of life, if inexcusable, is not uncommon among the supposedly informed commentators on disability. Indeed, nothing is more remarkable about the literature on blindness—both professional and inspirational—than the resounding silence which that literature displays on the issue of collective self-organization and  self-expression by blind Americans. One may search diligently (often for several years at a time) through the back numbers of the New Outlook for the Blind, house organ for the American Foundation for the Blind, without encountering a single reference to or mention of the National Federation of the Blind. One may pore over the massive files of professional publications and periodicals churned out by the agencies, both public and private, without even a glimpse of the most significant and progressive development of this century in the field of blindness: that is, the national movement of the organized blind.

I believe that it is the simple truth to observe that this conspicuous omission of virtually all reference in the literature on blindness to our organized movement is not accidental but deliberate: that it represents nothing less than a conspiracy of silence on the part of controlling interests in the agency system. If that charge sounds excessive, consider an analogy. Suppose that, after scanning all the published histories and studies of modern industry and employment, you were unable to discover any mention at all of organized labor and the trade union movement. Might you not suspect that so striking an omission could not occur by accident?

But this analogy is, of course, hypothetical. Let me, therefore, suggest another which is altogether real. One of the most important figures in the Russian Communist Revolution of 1918, and in the subsequent creation of the Soviet Union, was Leon Trotsky—whose leadership role was second only to that of Lenin. Following Trotsky’s defeat and expulsion at the hands of Stalin some years later, virtually all reference to him and his influence was expunged from Soviet histories and textbooks—even to the point of doctoring old photographs to erase his image. By this act of editorial liquidation the Russian government has not only denied the existence of one of its major revolutionary leaders; it has also rewritten history to conform to its political specifications.

There are, as the Church recognized long ago, two distinct categories of sin: sins of commission, and sins of omission.    The persistent silence of the agencies and their literature concerning the existence of the organized blind constitutes a sin of omission—a default of responsibility and a dereliction of duty. The sin is a grievous one, and its consequences are tragic. Because of this conspiracy of silence, some individuals who are without sight may never learn of the presence of the organized blind movement and thus may never know of the possibility of independence and achievement which might be theirs. Because of this conspiracy of silence, serious scholars seeking to survey the field of work with the blind may, in some instances, be so deceived as to fail even to discover the existence of the National Federation of the Blind.

Just how sinful this calculated omission can be is shockingly illustrated by a recent book of broad impact and influence, The Making of Blind Men, by Robert A. Scott. Scott writes an entire treatise on what he calls “the blindness system," a book which purports to make a thorough analysis of the agencies doing work with the blind in this country today and of the problems and hopes of the blind. Yet, I call your attention to the almost unbelievable fact that despite the author's claim to have covered "all major points of view, issues, and activities" in the field through nearly one hundred interviews with leaders and blindness workers, including "representatives of all major public and private organizations for the blind"—despite all this, there is no mention anywhere in his book of the National Federation or of any other organizations of the blind themselves! No mention—despite the fact that there are almost 50,000 of us in the Federation in every part of the country! Even in his detailed discussion of the varieties of agencies and organizations in the field, which is piled high with mountains of statistics and data, there is no reference to the organized blind whatsoever.

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.

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.

While there is much that can be done on the national level—through our publications and conventions, through our informational mail campaigns and white cane observances, through our congressional bills and alliances, through the speeches and writings of our national leaders—much also can be done at the grass roots, by our state and local chapters and most of all by individual Federationists on their own initiative. The challenge to all of us is simple: Let no discussion of blindness and the blind, in print or on the air, whether popular or professional, go unanswered unless it demonstrates a  recognition of the role of the National Federation and the organized blind movement. Let each of us cultivate the habit of verbal protest, by letter or phone call, whenever we encounter the worn-out half truths of those who celebrate the good works of foundations, agencies, and bureaus—of charities and service clubs—without an equivalent awareness of the other half of the truth embodied in Federationism. Let the word go out from every Federated corner of the land; let the whole truth emerge; let the people know.

The struggle of the organized blind today has shifted its focus and battleground, but it is no less critical or crucial than it was a decade ago. It is no longer a "hot war," fought out in the open for all to see and hear—as in the days of our battle for the right to organize, waged dramatically in congressional hearings and violent confrontations. Although the confrontation is still frequent and violent enough, it has largely become a cold war, a silent struggle underground, reminiscent of the words of the poet, "where invisible armies clash by night." Our struggle now is to become visible as a social force—to break out of the conspiracy of silence—to be seen, to be heard, and to be recognized.

When we have accomplished that breakthrough—when we are fully visible to the professionals, the public, and ourselves in the reality of our independence and collective strength—when these things have been done, we shall have buried forever the pitiful figure of "Blind Tom," the beggar boy, and have paved the way for a new understanding of the blind.

The challenge is real; the need is urgent; and the responsibility is ours. Enlightened professionals in the governmental and private agencies can and will help, but they cannot and should not be expected to lead the way. Likewise, sighted friends who believe in our cause and know what we are doing can give invaluable assistance; but again, they cannot and should not be expected to furnish the impetus or provide the leadership. We as blind people must do that job for ourselves. Do it we must, and do it we will! We have set our feet on the road. We have begun to march. We have taken up our positions at the barricades, and we shall not rest or quit until the job is done.


1. KRIEGEL, Leonard, "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro," The American Scholar. Volume 38, No.3 (Summer 1969), pp. 412-430. All subsequent ref-erences to this article are from these pages.

2. KEMP, Harry, "The Blind." Quoted in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (edited by Christopher Morley), Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1951, p. 882.

3. BEST, Harry, Blindness and the Blind in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1934), p.473.

4. FRENCH, Richard S., From Homer to Helen Keller (New York: American Foundation for the Blind, 1932), pp. 198-201.

5. CUTSFORTH, Thomas D., "Personality and Social Adjustment Among the Blind." Quoted in Jacobus tenBroek and Floyd W. Matson, Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), p. 7

6. SCOTT, Robert A., The Making of Blind Men: A Study of Adult Socialization (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1969).