The Role of the Blind in a Democratic Society

An address delivered by Professor Jacobus tenBroek
President, National Federation of the Blind
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Tennessee, July 15, 1952

I should like to ask you to join with me in seeking the answer to what may seem an easy question: Have the blind the right to a place in the sun—or only to a shelter in the shade?

In more conventional terms, the subject I shall discuss with you this evening is the role of the blind in a democratic society. No doubt that sounds like a simple and straightforward issue, clear enough in its meaning if not in its solution. But I fear that the appearance of simplicity may be greatly misleading; and so, before proceeding further, I shall ask you to bear with me while I attempt to clarify the principal terms involved—the big word "democracy" and that other term "the blind."

"Democracy" of course means many things to many people; and no doubt its accents and implications have altered somewhat over the years. But after a century and a half of living with the idea and the practice, most Americans would probably agree that whatever else it may suggest, the essence of democracy consists in four indispensable guarantees to the individual citizen: the guarantees of liberty, equality, opportunity, and security. Full membership in a democratic society, that is to say, entitles the individual to liberty in thought and action, equality of treatment, opportunity to develop his potentialities, and security against the calamities of fortune over which he has no effective control. The withholding or withdrawal by society of any of these fundamental rights from an individual leaves him at best in a role of probationary membership, of second-class citizenship, and to that extent refutes the practice and violates the spirit of democracy.

To come quickly to the point: Something more than a quarter of a million Americans are today denied full membership in their society--restrained in liberty, forbidden equality, refused opportunity, and threatened in security—for the reason only that they are blind. Moreover, their tragedy is heightened by the seeming paradox that this denial of the rights of citizenship is sanctioned by a society motivated wholly by benevolence and for the most part unaware of its intolerance.

This brings us squarely up against the second of our crucial terms: "the blind." What does it mean? According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word "blind" means, first of all, "sightless." But it also means (and I quote) "2. Lacking discernment; unable or unwilling to understand or judge; as blind to faults. 3. Made without reason or discrimination; as, a blind choice. 4. Apart from intelligent direction or control; as, blind chance. 5. Insensible; as a blind stupor; hence, drunk. 6.... made without knowledge or guidance or judgment; as, a blind purchase."

The word "blind" then, like the word "democracy," has many different implications; but as this list of Webster's so graphically reveals, they are virtually all implications of inferiority, of incompetence, even of stupidity. Language habits, as we know, arise simply as a response to our inarticulate thoughts and feelings; and it is therefore of the greatest significance that society has come to speak of an unreasoning choice as a "blind" choice, and an insensible stupor as a "blind" stupor. Unless something is done to alter drastically the habit of thought which has given rise to these brutal expressions, it is clear beyond a doubt what the role of the blind must be in society. It must, in brief, be a role outside society, or at best on its outer fringe: a role of inferiority and assumed incompetence: the role of a pariah class.

Such a role for the blind would, I must confess, represent no radical departure from historical practice. From time immemorial the blind man has been the object of alternating social attitudes of rejection and overprotection—the opposite side of the coin of prejudice. The blind have been overprotected, like lunatics and lepers, because it was supposed that their disability was synonymous with inability to compete or participate in the regular channels of social and economic activity. They have been rejected both as a consequence of this paternalism and of the time-worn superstitions which equated blindness with evil forces and the wrath of God. In primitive societies the blind were either cast out as bedeviled or left to die as social liabilities. Even the high-minded Greeks of classical antiquity found no place for them in their philosophy of the good life but pronounced them parasites and condemned them to extinction. Through subsequent centuries, with the growth of the humanitarian conscience, these overt persecutions were gradually diminished, and the blind were finally extended the right to live and to be protected. Like the humane societies which developed during early modern times for the protection of dumb animals, a variety of benevolent and charitable organizations appeared in western society for the protection of blind people. This was a substantial improvement, of course, for the animals and for the blind. They were both assured of kindness and a home. They were not, and they are not now, assured of independence.

The issue before us, then, is not whether the blind are deserving of humane treatment; they are getting that. The issue is whether they are deserving of human treatment—consideration as normal human beings and full-fledged citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities which that entails in a democratic society. To many of you it may seem obvious that the blind have a right to such consideration. I have still to prove that in fact they are denied this right: that with regard to the crucial four freedoms of democracy—liberty, equality, opportunity, and security—the nation's blind are victims of a policy of containment and their efforts to achieve responsibility remain effectively smothered beneath a tyranny of kindness.

The real deprivation of blindness, let it be said once for all, lies not in its physical but in its social effects. The loss of sight by itself is tragedy enough, to be sure, imposing numerous and stringent limitations upon individual activity and demanding a far-reaching series of adjustments in every department of life and work. But such adaptations, however painful, can be successfully if not readily carried out, and by themselves need never result in permanent isolation and incapacity. Years of research and demonstration in the field of rehabilitation have established beyond all possibility of dispute that, given competent guidance and sufficient opportunity, the person who has lost his sight can once again make rich contributions to his own well-being and that of his community. Whatever may once have been thought, there is no longer room for question as to whether the blind man is competent to care for his personal needs and desires—such routine activities as traveling alone and shaving unaided. Nor is there any longer possibility of doubt as to his ability to carry on a normal social life and to take part in the central activities and affairs of his community. What is still more to the point, even less question exists today about his capacity to perform successfully a vast range of jobs in industry, commerce, and the professions.

What prevents the blind man, then, from practicing the rights and enjoying the fruits of membership in his society? Quite simply, it is the refusal of his neighbors to take him at his word and deed; it is the reluctance of the vast majority of Americans to relinquish their comforting and charitable conception of the blind individual as not only sightless but helpless, and not only helpless but hopeless. Viewing him through this ancient stereopticon, they continue to regard him as finally and permanently disabled despite clear evidence to the contrary; and with the greatest good will they lead him by the hands off the busy main avenues and into the sheltered back streets of society.

The consequence of all this helpfulness—the crowning touch to the tragedy of errors--is that the blind man himself usually succumbs sooner or later to the attitudes and assumptions of society, and succumbs to them not merely as a prejudiced practice to which he must defer but as complete and literal truth. In the typical case the newly blinded person, continuously in contact with the public stereotype, begins soon to see himself as others see him—which is to say, as an indigent and a misfit, unworthy of independence and incapable of normal association. Holding himself thus in contempt, he will retreat voluntarily to apathy and isolation, almost as eagerly as society seeks to impose it upon him. He will surrender unconditionally to the stereotype, on its own terms. He will sell his democratic birthright for a mess of almshouse pottage.

It will perhaps be objected at this point that the picture has been overdrawn, that the blind of America are not any longer condemned to total isolation. For have we not, through our government, established a variety of welfare and rehabilitation agencies on both federal and state levels? We have indeed; and because most Americans think of themselves rightly as both generous and kind, it is commonly assumed that these public agencies are adequately equipped to handle the needs of the blind. Most people take it for granted that they are prepared to supply assistance payments to the economically dependent blind, to aid their clients in adjusting to a world of darkness, and eventually to rehabilitate them through training for some type of useful work. But it is precisely at this level, unfortunately, that we encounter the second real tragedy in the situation of the blind. For the pervasive social stereotype of blindness as incompetence and inferiority is accurately reflected in the nation's welfare program. Instead of helping the blind man to escape the deadly inertia of emotional, social, and economic isolation, our welfare agencies actually reinforce that isolation. Instead of assisting him to become psychologically and financially self-reliant, they intensify his utter dependence on others.

Though destitution is a poor basis for the difficult task of economic and psycho-social readjustment of the blind, destitution is made a condition of eligibility for public assistance. Though economic encouragement by way of an improved standard of living, retention of reasonable amounts of resources, accumulation of some capital, and income are necessary to translate a theoretical social interest in rehabilitation into terms which have meaning and value to the individual, the blind man who is on public assistance is denied all of these or permitted them in sharply curtailed and wholly inadequate form.

Though poverty begets only poverty, stultifies the personality, and stifles ambition, gross material inadequacy is the rule, the nation over, under a standard of relief which has fallen far below the cost of living and left the blind ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. The means test, glorified into a welfare principle, in the expression "individual need individually determined," has been integrally associated with the precarious maintenance of the recipient at the barest level of minimum survival. Though for the many thousands of blind who might eventually be restored to self-support, it is indispensable that psychological independence be strengthened even while they are temporarily economically dependent, this is an impossibility if, as the means test requires, their scanty finances are under continuing review, their meager consumption expenditures are scrutinized and judged, and they are treated as chattels in custody without rights or powers of self-government rather than as first-class citizens.

Under the welfare system as it exists today, the blind man is treated as a congenital indigent who must be firmly guided through the most routine and intimate details of his private life by the insistent hand of the social worker. He is soon aware of the inferior position into which he has been thrust. He comes to understand that he is the victim of unique discrimination, that other groups in society—labor, farmers, and industrialists—make no such sacrifice in personal liberty in receiving a helping hand from government. And with this deepening realization his resentment is compounded; his frustration, insecurity, and hostility intensified; his alienation from self and society complete. He has been robbed of self-respect and the right to resume a useful role in society. For freedom in the direction of one's personal life is a fundamental democratic right, but it is also more than that—it is a basic human need. The individual who is not permitted to fulfill that need is sharply cut off from the rest of society; and, in the case of the blind aid recipient, he becomes the captive of a system which was designed to make him free.

The pervasive assumption of incompetence also underlies and qualifies most rehabilitation work for the blind. Case-finding is almost nonexistent; and counseling, guidance, training, and placement are severely limited. All too frequently the end of this process is graduation into a sheltered workshop. Sidetracked into this literal blind alley by his training and his trainers, the blind client will find himself at last at the dead end of the road.

If the blind person seeks employment in private industry, in the public service, or in many of the common trades, callings, and professions, he will find the door of opportunity shut in his face. His own demonstration of ability will have little bearing on the treatment he receives. Not his ability but his disability will hold the attention of employers and governing boards; and not his disability but its false concomitant of inability will determine his fate. All will agree that he is more to be pitied than censured, but more to be censured than hired.

With the exclusion of the rehabilitated man from industry, commerce, government, and profession, we have come full circle. His emotional, economic, and social alienation is complete. The energetic, self-reliant, and respected citizen of yesterday—before the onset of blindness--is today a hopeless dependent of the state. The initial shock of blindness had cast him into what by all scientific and rational standards should have been a transient state of frustration and insecurity. But the general public falsely supposed that he was permanently helpless and treated him accordingly. Welfare agencies assumed that he was incapable of employment and built their system on that premise. Rehabilitation workers considered him limited to the economic back streets and led him there. Business and industry, government and profession judged him before his appearance and found him wanting. And the blind man himself soon became convinced that these attitudes were not worth fighting and finally that they were true.

The four great rights of liberty, equality, opportunity, and security have gained a firm foothold in the ideological structure of American democracy. With respect to the blind, however, as our analysis has shown, they are more honored in the breach than in the observance. Excessive social-worker interference in the lives of blind welfare clients constitutes a flagrant invasion of their liberty. A welfare system which condemns the blind to perpetual surveillance while exacting no such sacrifice from other aided groups deprives these citizens of their right to equal treatment and equal protection of the laws. Inadequate welfare payments far below the accepted level of existence deny the blind their right to security. And, finally, the persistent refusal of both government and business to employ blind workers—and of the welfare program to furnish the incentive to advancement—is a clear violation of their right to opportunity.

The nation's blind, in brief, are the victims of a double standard. On the one hand they are seduced by the promise of independence and self-sufficiency emblazoned on the standard of the four freedoms. On the other hand they are trampled under by the four horsemen of pity, insecurity, overprotection, and rejection. The consequences for the blind citizen of society's ambivalence are all too clear. Materially he is denied the rewards and benefits held out by the four-fold ideal of freedom. Psychologically he is thwarted by the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality, immobilized by the polite restraint of an iron hand in a velvet glove—by the gentlemen's agreement through which the harsh fact of exclusion is concealed in an atmosphere of benevolence.

The ultimate goals of any public policy designed to aid the blind must be, first, the emotional and economic emancipation of as many blind citizens as possible; second, their reintegration into society as full-fledged members and first-class citizens. Expressed more simply, the twin objectives are independence and interdependence. The immediate means of implementing these objectives require an extension to the blind of those democratic rights and liberties through which they may be enabled to develop and apply their capacities and talents, and to establish their prerogative to equal membership in society. With these broad goals in mind, it is possible to single out several specific areas in which reformist action not only is feasible but may be expected to provide the stimulus for progressive change in all other areas of policy and philosophy toward the blind.

First of all, the so-called needs system must be abolished from both the law and the practice of social welfare. As long as the unrealistic concept of need—an archaic residue of the medieval Poor Laws—is retained on the statute books, the country of the blind must bear on its portals the inscription: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Moreover, the laws must be further revised to permit more reasonable exemptions both of earnings and property. What the blind applicant for aid is told in effect is: if you wish to get on the dole, you must promise not to try to get off it. These restrictive provisions effectively prevent the client from pulling himself up by his boot straps, from working his way forward in the traditional American way out of charity and subservience to independence and self-respect.

Second, the unjustifiable practice of social-worker infiltration into the lives of blind aid recipients must be radically reformed. The degrading assumption behind this procedure is that the blind are incompetent to plan their lives and budgets; it is the clear demonstration in practice of those dictionary definitions which suggest that to be blind is to be lacking not so much in eyesight as in foresight and insight, in mental vision and intellectual perception. The blind, it should be said, do need intelligent social-worker guidance in the planning of independent careers; they do not need the feeling of frustration and futility which are the product of social-worker captivity.

This failure of the public welfare program points up a deeper reform which is ultimately necessary to gain equality of respect and treatment for the blind. It is the reinterpretation of welfare itself away from the shackling philosophy of poor relief toward the modern conception of rehabilitation. In the new orientation, public aid for the employable blind must represent not a handout to the helpless but an encouragement to self-help: not a permanent charity which perpetuates dependence but an immediate incentive which invites independence. The American people have always believed in the virtues of work and condemned idleness as a plague. From this strongly rooted attitude have emerged both the gospel of self-help, of laissez-faire, and more recently the right to work, the social obligation of full employment. What can be said of a system which forbids to a substantial minority the possibility of self-help and the right to work—except that, if it is not inhuman, it is surely un-American.

The modern view of public assistance for the blind as essentially reintegrative depends largely for its success, of course, upon the simultaneous victory of this philosophy within the sister field of vocational rehabilitation. Far too commonly rehabilitation officers have shared the public prejudice which is typically expressed in rejection and overprotection—rejection from the mainstream of competition and overprotection in sheltered eddies of employment. What is needed is a profound revision of the rehabilitation process on the principle that the blind are normal human beings with a diversified occupational potential, possessed of the right and the capacity to do a full job in our economy. The principle of normality must infuse the entire program and strike the keynote of all rehabilitation efforts. It requires prompt methods of case-finding to rescue the newly blinded from apathy and isolation. It demands a new emphasis on counseling and training marked by full faith in the abilities of the blind and genuine cooperation in developing career plans. Above all it requires the thorough demolition of existing stereotypes concerning blindness in the minds of the public in general and of employers in particular. For ultimately, as we have suggested, it is this pervasive image of the helpless blind—the traditional equation of physical disability with total inability—which represents the greatest handicap imposed by blindness and constitutes the discrimination without justification by which a quarter of a million Americans are forbidden full citizenship in their society.

One concrete means of deterring economic prejudice and safeguarding the interests of the blind, perhaps the most urgently required of all, is that of adequate legislation. A very few states have enacted laws which prohibit discrimination among applicants for public employment because of physical handicap. But thus far the majority of states have failed to take this step, while private industry has been left completely free to perpetuate its prejudice against the sightless. There is immediate need for iron-clad legislative provisions, on both state and federal levels, which will guarantee to the blind a fair chance to demonstrate their abilities. If employers are required by law to evaluate blind workers on their individual merits rather than their class demerits, it is safe to predict that both industry and the public will soon come to acknowledge the great contribution which the blind men and women of America have been waiting to make to the nation's economy.

We the blind people in the Federation ask that the blind be given the liberty of action which is the groundwork of human dignity, the quality of treatment which is indispensable to self-support, the security of mind and body which is necessary to their rehabilitation, and the full degree of opportunity which will enable them to prove their economic value and social worth. But neither the National Federation of the Blind nor any other organization can itself grant the rights which will restore the blind to a role of full and equal membership in our society. Only you, the people, can finally decide whether the blind of America are deserving of a place in the sun—or must be kept forever in a shelter in the shade.

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