Future Reflections Summer 1991

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THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT: EDUCATING THE PUBLIC

by Ronda J. Del Boccio

Reprinted from the Minnesota Bulletin, Summer/Fall 1990; the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

The story about the seven blind men and the elephant keeps coming back to haunt us. Recently I attended a presentation at a local church in which the speaker used it. After he finished, I talked with him about the negative portrayal of blindness in that tired old metaphor.

"What the story means is that a person who cannot see cannot know truth," I explained. "The story incorrectly equates eyesight with insight."

I spoke in a straightforward yet undefensive manner. After all, I was interested in persuading the gentleman to my point of view, not in creating an enemy for life. I helped him understand the harmful effect such a story can have by using my own experience. I explained that as a blind person I am not likely to mistake the leg of an elephant for a tree trunk.

"I know what the story is trying to point out, but perhaps there is a way to say the same thing without making any group of people seem unobservant or ignorant," I said.

Often, people do not think about the way characters are portrayed in stories. When we make them aware of discrimination they are usually willing to listen and to change the stories they use, provided we educate them in the spirit of good will.

The speaker thanked me for making him aware of the negative image of blind people. He had not realized that the story reinforces stereotypes about blindness. As I talked with him, a more positive allegory came to me. I share it here as an alternative to the elephant story. It does not present any person or class of persons negatively. Here is the story I told to the speaker.

On a bright spring morning, several people walked along a path through the woods. They came to a tall oak tree whose thick trunk and sturdy branches revealed its great age. They stopped to admire the tree, each in a unique way. Before continuing their journey, they shared their experience of the tree.

"What a beautiful tree!" one of the group exclaimed.

"I love the shade it provides," said a young man. "It must make a nice resting place on a hot summer day."

"Did you hear all those birds?" asked an older woman "This tree is big enough to provide a home for dozens of birds and animals."

"I hadn't thought of that," said a younger woman "But I was thinking about how long the tree has been here. It must have been a sapling before the Europeans colonized the country."

"You must be right. I noticed how thick and strong the bark is," someone else added.

"Some woodpeckers have burrowed into the tree," an older man commented.

"It would be fun to climb to the top and look at the rest of the woods," a child squealed.

"I'm sure it would," said one of the men "I enjoy the smell of the leaves and the damp earth."

"The roots must dig deeply into the ground. I wonder what they look like," a teenage boy mused.

"This is truly a beautiful tree," one of the company observed. And all agreed.

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