Future Reflections April 1982, Vol. 1 No. 3

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BLINDNESS: PERSPECTIVES FROM RACHEL

By Charles T. Stevens

(Editor's Note: The following article was a speech given by Mr. Stevens, Director of the Missouri Bureau for the Blind, to the Columbia, Missouri, American Business Women's Association on August 29, 1981. Mr. Stevens, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, has been blind since 1971.)

Rachel is our granddaughter. She is three years old and going on "bigger". She visits us on occasion and we take the opportunity to enjoy her second to second involvement in everything at once. One night recently, she was put to bed and we adults continued to converse. About thirty minutes later, I checked and found her sitting in the middle of her bed, sobbing her heart out.

I laid down on the bed beside yer. After a few moments, she calmed down and we talked. It developed that there was no light. We normally have a small night light which has proven"quite helpful. However, it was not on and I made no effort to revive it. Instead, we talked. She came to realize that cars sleep at night when they turn off their headlights, that birds sleep because they cannot see to fly and have no canes, that"grounderhoppers" and grass and trees also sleep at night. Shortly, she was comforted and announced to me that she was going to sleep, which she did.

When I came to the room Rachel was very afraid. At the age of three, she has acquired the beginnings of fear of darkness. I submit that many people believe that blindness refers only to total blindness, a misunderstanding. First, 92 percent of persons who become legally blind do not become totally blind. Thus, the word "blind" encompasses the entire ranges of visual acquity found in "legal blindness". At the same time, due to the functional limitations because of diminished visual acquity or field, a person who is legally blind must or should acquire alternative techniques which permit continued functioning at the same level of effectiveness. Our concept of the word "blind" is misleading. But it is further misleading when we also bring in darkness, which we fear. Thus, I reason, we develop a misinformed, misleading and inappropriate concept of blindness from early childhood.

As we come into adulthood, we find that the use of the word "blind" is normally the second of two meanings. The first meaning is that of the physical and the second is metaphorical. In my observation, the words"blind, blindness, blinding" are normally used in a negatively modifying sense. We have blind alley, blind ignorance, blind drunk, blind tradition, blind guess, blind hope--all these uses are summarized into three meanings; helplessness, hopelessness, and senselessness. Thus, our negative fear of blindness as darkness is joined by additional meanings, none of which can be considered positive.

The results of these beliefs about blindness are seen when blind persons are forced into unemployment, because employers, too, hold these negative attitudes. Blind mothers have been threatened with the loss of their children, not because they were inept mothers, but because they are blind. In both Florida and in Arizona, the National Federation of the Blind has been involved to prevent social
workers from gaining court orders against blind mothers solely on the basis of their blindness. Educators question the feasibility of educating blind children in public schools, another manifestation of misconceptions Inadequately prepared blind children find themselves excluded from the dignity of the work force. Employment among the general population is at about the 93 percent level. Among deaf persons, it is 66 percent, parapeligics are employed at the 48 percent level. But blind persons are employed at a 10-30 percent rate. The result? Blind people are forced to rely on public assistance.

But wait. There is optimism. My speaking before this august group is one example of hope. Let me talk about some blind women who are working. Ramona is a blind woman, mother of two, widowed. She has authored three books in the past three years and is presently assistant director of a nationwide program operated by the NFB to assist blind persons in finding employment. Joanne is a Ph.D. candidate and a technical representative for Kurzweil Computer Products. Margaret, mother of five and twice widowed is currently a secretary for a
St. Louis based insurance firm. Billie is staff psychologyst for a center for handicapped children; Pauline is a secretary for an Equal Opportunity Commission and Frances is a special education teacher for the blind in a Missouri school district. Marty works as a medical clerk and Bea works as a licensed practical nurse.

The point is simply this. While there is ample need for concern regarding the misconceptions about blindness, there is also ample room for optimism regarding changing attitudes. But, until blind persons demonstrate that we too can meet the same expectations as others, the problems which I have described to you will remain.

In a closing statement, I submit that it is O.K. to be blind. I believe that the person who makes this decision has potentially transcended the misconceptions, and mythology about blindness and is prepared for success. Conversely, one who believes blindness is bad also cannot avoid the same decision about themself, opening the road to mental and emotional agony.

If I permit Rachel to continue to fear rather than to respect darkness, the same road to misunderstanding and emotional distress is open. But if she is presented with facts, then the situation is handled honestly and openly. If blindness is approached factually, it can be handled as a challange not as a burden.

One of the very real ways which we can use to communicate that factual education is to go before groups answering their questions as openly and honestly as we can. Remember the only bad question is the question that is not asked. Thank you very much for this golden opportunity.

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