An address delivered by Professor Jacobus tenBroek
President, National Federation of the Blind
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Baltimore, Maryland, July, 1948
I have a serious question to ask the sighted persons present would you swap vision for a good chicken dinner? On the face of it this is an absurd question, for no one who has vision would swap it for anything. But for those of us who are blind, this question is not necessarily absurd. It is not that we prefer to have lost our eyesight, but having been deprived of it, we have discovered it is dispensable. There are even some blind among us who assert that blindness is a joy; for, as they point out, those who lose their heads are decapitated; those who lose their clothes are denuded; does it not follow, therefore, that those who lose their eyesight are delighted?
Let us suppose that as we leave this meeting our sighted guests were to be involved in an accident which destroyed their vision. This is not an idle supposition. Every year, without regard for social or economic background, color or creed, through accident and illness, blindness is forced on thirty thousand men and women in the United States. What problems would you face as a newly blinded person? What needs would be yours? You would probably spent months or years consulting doctors and eye specialists in futile efforts to regain your precious vision. But after your patience and certainly your pocketbook had been exhausted, you probably would wish for death. The world we live in is a visually oriented world, and for the sighted eternal darkness seems unthinkable. You probably would resign yourself to be set aside from ordinary pleasures and accustomed pursuits. But if you were lucky enough to know something about blindness or were properly guided in the early days of your sightlessness, your adjustment would be swift. After initial orientation to self-locomotion and self-care, the world would become familiar through the auditory and tactual senses.
There are a quarter of a million blind persons in the United States, but this statistic fails to tells us that the blind man or woman has the same feelings and desires, the same sorrows and joys as sighted persons. You would probably be no different after adjustment to blindness from what you had been before you became blind. To be sure, there are physical limitations to blindness, but most of these are of no more than nuisance value. You bump into things; you occasionally lose your way home; you even, in the mistaken notion that you are following the clicking of high heels out of a crowded railroad station, wind up in the ladies' restroom. But with proper orientation you would develop techniques for overcoming this physical limitation in blindness. The Braille system would replace script in your books, tape measures, thermometers, carpenters' levels, and speech notes.
What I have said so far will illustrate the wide-spread misconceptions about the nature of the physical handicap of blindness. If sighted people find it hard to get an accurate notion of what blindness is in its relatively obvious physical aspects, how much more must they misapprehend its subtler psychological, social, and economic ramifications? It may, therefore, be worthwhile to try to clear up some of these misconceptions; for us to say what the principal problems of blindness are; for us to tell the story of blindness as we live it daily. Since we do it without bitterness or malice and knowing full well that the sighted community bears towards us nothing but the best will in the world and the most generous impulses, it might not be inappropriate to do this in the form of a Bill of Rights which we ask the sighted community to grant usa Bill of Rights, not declaring our independence from society but our need of being integrated into it; a Bill of Rights, not guaranteeing special favors and position, but equality of treatment; a Bill of Rights, not glossing over our weaknesses or our limitations, but recognizing us for what we are, normal human beings, or at least as normal as human beings are; a Bill of Rights according us a fair chance to live socially useful lives.
First among the rights which we seek from our sighted friends is the right to their understanding. Of their willingness to work for our welfare and their activity on our behalf we are assured. But what we need is their understanding. This is an assertion of our normality (if I may disagree with President Harding about a suffix). We are ordinary peoplesome little, some average, some great. But, in any event, we have the same strengths, the same reactions, the same desires, the same ambitions as the rest of humanity. In California in recent years two of our blind people have been inmates in the state penitentiary, one convicted of embezzlement, the other of second-degree murder. At the same time another blind man was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois; two others were Senators of the United States. The vast majority of us achieve neither of these extremes of success. Like most other people, we are neither criminals nor political leaders nor anything else that the average man is not.
I cannot speak of the right to your understanding that we are normal people without recalling the well-known lines from The Merchant of Venice, spoken in another context but applicable with equal force here: Have we not organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
The normality of blind people has an important bearing on the second right we would wish to see sanctified in a Bill of Rights for the Blind, namely, the right to security. What happens to normal people when they are permanently without business or employment, when they are subjected to unremitting economic dependence on others? The answer is that in the course of time their initiative disintegrates; they lose their social, political, and spiritual independence; they either suffer unendurable privation or become the easy victims of the hand that feeds them. This is what happens to normal men whether blind or sighted. But in the case of the blind an additional element is present. Over and above the economic problem, they face the necessity of making adaptations psychological, social, and physicalto blindness. Anything which tends to hamper the process of individual personal reconstruction weakens the personal integrity and reliance of the blind individual.
Now all of this is something more than abstract social doctrine. It has an immediate and a significant application to programs of public assistance. A program of public assistance which is to be consistent with these facts must be so arranged as to leave the recipient's independence unimpaired. He must be free to spend his grant as he pleases. He must be left to make his own decisions about where and how he shall live and what he shall do. He must have the divine election, so far as social existence and his own talents permit, of making the choices which determine his own worldly destinies, not without guidance, if he wishes it, but without intrusion, if he does not. Man does not forfeit the rights of individuality and the dignity of the person by economic necessity or physical handicap; and the injunction to be thy brother's keeper is not an order to become his master.
The public assistance acts of the various states and the Social Security Act of the Federal Government, as administered, violate and degrade these principles. Under them too often the blind are virtually made wards under social worker guardianship. The means test, individual budgeting, and social worker discretion on which all of these acts are based, strike down the very independence and self-respect of the recipients which must be developed if they are to build a personality and character which will enable them to live with a reasonable degree of usefulness and assurance. These acts first assume that blind people are necessarily paupers and then perpetuate them in that condition. The principle of individual need individually determined opens the way to, if it does not require, an inquisition into the most intimate affairs of the recipient of blind aid. This archaic system of pauper relief not only fails to stimulate recipients to become self-supporting, which should be a primary aim of any system of public assistance to the blind, but it also continually impresses upon them a sense of their own helplessness and dependence. This treatment of the blind is all the more remarkable since aid has been increasingly granted to other groups in our economy on an alternative basis, quite regardless of individual needto farmers by price support and parity payments, to industrialists by tariffs, to laborers by minimum wage and maximum hours provisions, to youth by public education. Blind persons as a class, no less than these other groups, require the helping hand of government to carry them to a healthy life embodied in active contribution to their communities.
The third right that we would seek to establish in our great charter of liberties is one that is not peculiar to the blind, but one which is common to allequality; but the special circumstances of blindness, particularly the lack of understanding about it, make it desirable to re-assert the right and show its relevance. The idea of equality has been associated with all the great struggles of the masses of mankind to better their lot in the history of Western civilization. It is viewed by the philosophers of democracy as the most enduring impulse and authentic demand of the human spirit. It has been established by our own national experience as the indispensable condition of liberty. It was placed at the base of our constitutional system from Lockean and Jeffersonian sources and placed in the Constitution as the culmination of the greatest humanitarian movement in our history, namely, abolitionism. It reaches back deeply into ethical, religious, humanistic, and libertarian origins.
Yet this fundamental part of our system and our heritage is daily denied to the blind. We are denied equal treatment under the rule of law, equal right to the self-respect which derives from a sense of usefulness, and equal opportunity to compete for the normal means of livelihood. More often than not a denial of equality involves a denial of opportunity, and this, the right to equality of opportunity is the fourth and the last of the rights we should seek to have included in our Bill of Rights.
“Full and equal membership in society entitles the individual,” says the report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights, “to the right to enjoy the benefits of society and to contribute to its progress. . . . Without this equality of opportunity the individual is deprived of a chance to develop his potentialities and to share in the fruits of society. The group also suffers through the loss of the contributions which might have been made by persons excluded from the main channels of social and economic activity.”
Exclusion from the main channels of social and economic activity and there by a lack of opportunity for self-support these constitute the real handicap of blindness, far surpassing its physical limitations. The government service is frequently closed to us through groundless discrimination on account of blindness. In some states this has been ameliorated by corrective legislation not so, incidentally, in the federal government but even in those states enforcement is spotty, difficult, and almost non-existent. In some professions, at which the blind have excelled, such as osteopathy and chiropractic, there have been persistent efforts to exclude the blind by administrative ruling. Teaching, especially in junior colleges and universities, where blindness is not a factor in performing the work, has as yet opened up only to a relatively few. In private employment the same story is to be told; the usual experience is for the blind man to be brushed aside as incompetent, as unable, as the fellow you could never expect to perform that job unless he could see. With respect to self-employment, which almost always involves some capital, the investor regards the blind man as a bad financial risk.
The absence of economic opportunity is more than the absence of economic security. It is the disintegration of the personality. It is men living out their lives in social isolation and the atrophy of their productive powers. The curse of blindness is idleness--idleness which confines the blind to the sidelines of life, players warming the bench in the game that all should play.
For equality of opportunity to be a reality to the blind, competent blind persons must be admitted without discrimination to the common callings and professions as well as to positions in the Civil Service. We do not ask that blind men should be given jobs because they are blind; we do not ask that they be given preferential treatment or handicap allowances. We ask only that when a blind man has the training, the qualifications, the dependability, and the aptitude, he be given an equal chance with the sighted that the bars to public and private employment interposed by legislative enactment, administrative whim, and managerial prejudice and misunderstanding be removed.
These problems too have a significant and an immediate application to the public assistance laws. Those laws, once again, are not geared to meet the real needs of blindness. It should follow from what has been said that every effort needs to be made to rehabilitate the blind into active endeavor, social contribution, and remunerative employment. Far from achieving these ends, or even from permitting them, the public assistance acts generally tend to perpetuate the blind permanently on the relief rolls. Earnings and other income are automatically deducted from the amount of the grant made, and thus much of the motive for rehabilitation, self-improvement, and active endeavor is removed. If the blind recipients of relief were permitted to retain a reasonable portion of their earnings and to accumulate a small amount of capital, they would have incentive to be active, to do something; their rehabilitation and productive effort would be encouraged; and the ultimate goals of self-support and independence of the public assistance rolls would open up to the realistic vision of men who cannot see.
Nor is this hope a dream of the future. The Congress of the United States unanimously passed a measure, unfortunately vetoed by the President, allowing the states, without loss of federal funds, to exempt forty dollars of the monthly earnings of blind aid recipients. For this measure we do honor to Congressman Reed of New York, Senator Martin of Pennsylvania, and Senator Ives of New York. They took the lead and put it across. They deserve and do receive the eternal gratitude of the blind. As Senator Ives explained on the floor of the United States Senate, this was but a short step in the right direction; but of all the steps, it is the most important, for it establishes a principlea principle whose ultimate fulfillment will drive to the shambles the soul-stifling conception of the needs basis a principle which, with public understanding, with security, equality, and opportunity, will convert blindness into a mere physical nuisance and blind men into social assets.
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