Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1

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The Lack of Insight in Children’s Literature Regarding Blindness

by Merry‑Noel Chamberlain

From the Editor: I am not so naïve as to believe that if a child reads one book which portrays a blind character in a negative fashion, he/she will immediately and forever form an unalterable stereotype about blind people. Children are sometimes an enigma. They can be extremely vulnerable to very subtle messages that go right by us, and yet be totally oblivious to the blatant.

I remember a few years ago reading an article about the anti-oriental racism in the writings of a popular pre-World War II author. I was amazed. I had read every one of those books as a teen-ager and not once did that message connect with me, but as an adult, I saw it immediately. Why should this be so? I think that by the time I read those books, my values were firmly established. I discounted the racist remarks as purely the author’s attempt to draw a picture of a very dastardly villain. My parents had raised me to believe that all people were created equal, and were equally loved and valued by God. Furthermore, they lived these values. Their example outweighed the influence the racist’s remarks in these books might have had on me.

This does not mean that I believe books have little or no affect on impressionable young children. The power of the written word is tremendous. I believe parents should regularly supervise and discuss with children the books they read. This allows the parent the opportunity to reinforce the messages and values with which they agree, and the chance to explain why they disagree with others.

Books with blind characters present parents with an especially good chance to discuss opinions about blindness with their blind and sighted children. My guess, however, is that, especially in the early years, many parents do not feel secure enough in their feelings or knowledge about blindness to tackle this with conviction.  My hope is that the following paper by Merry-Noel Chamberlain will help parents feel more confident about, and be more discriminating when, selecting and reading books with blind characters to, or with, their children.

By the way, it’s OK if you find you do not always agree with the finer points of Ms. Chamberlain’s analysis of a particular book. It has been my observation that when it comes to the portrayal of blindness in fiction, it isn’t hard for most thoughtful, informed people to agree on what is very bad, or what is very good. It can, however, be difficult to agree on nuances in books that fall somewhere in the grey zone between.

So, who is Ms. Chamberlain, and how did she come to write this article? Merry-Noel Chamberlain recently completed a Master’s degree program in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Orientation and Mobility at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana. She wrote this paper to fulfill one of her class requirements. This program, operated in cooperation with the Louisiana Center for the Blind, aggressively recruits blind candidates. Ms. Chamberlain reports that she had “vision problems” all her life, but only within the last few years has come to terms with her blindness. Ms. Chamberlain is currently employed at the Iowa Department for the Blind as an Independent Living Service Coordinator. For the purpose of publication in Future Reflections, Ms. Chamberlain’s page number citations have been omitted.

Readers may get a free Braille, print, or recorded copy of the speech, “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?” by Dr. Jernigan which Ms. Chamberlain cites as the inspiration and basis for this article. To request it in the format of your choice, contact the NFB Materials Center at 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653. Here is Ms. Chamberlain’s paper:

 

Twenty‑five years ago, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan delivered a keynote address at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind entitled “Blindness: Is Literature Against Us?” In this address, Dr. Jernigan argued that stereotypes and false images of blindness permeated the literature of the time. Stereotypes about blindness in children’s literature can be particularly harmful because they may shape the way young people begin to think about blindness, thus providing a distorted image of the blind that is difficult to overcome later. Because over two decades have passed since Dr. Jernigan made his address, it is time that we re-examine our children’s literature to see whether it is still conveying the same misconceptions about blindness that it did in the past.

In his keynote address, Dr. Jernigan noted that there were nine common themes about blindness pervading the literature of the time. These nine themes included the following: Blindness as compensatory or miraculous power; Blindness as total tragedy; Blindness as foolishness and helplessness; Blindness as unrelieved wickedness and evil; Blindness as perfect virtue; Blindness as punishment for sin; Blindness as abnormality or dehumanization; Blindness as purification; Blindness as symbol or parable (Jernigan 1974). I propose to examine a representative sample of today’s children’s literature to see whether these themes, or other stereotypes about blindness, are still prevalent today.

It is, of course, even difficult to find children’s books that feature a blind character or that have a plot line focusing on visual impairment in any way. I visited popular bookstores to inquire about books with these features and repeatedly walked out empty handed. However, books on other disabilities, such as hearing loss/deafness, Alcohol Fetal Syndrome, or Attention Deficiencies Disorders, were in abundance. After inspecting an abundance of books on the shelves at bookstores, grocery stores, and even thrift shops, I gradually succeeded in developing a fairly large collection. For this study, I chose to examine some of the more popular books in my collection—those with the widest sales and therefore the greatest potential influence on the attitudes of the younger generation. I will discuss eight books with a reading skill level ranging from early childhood to adolescent.

The first book for beginning readers is Ben’s Glasses by David Johnson (1996). This book is about a young sighted boy named Ben, who was getting ready for class pictures at his school. However, Ben felt that he looked “goofy” in his glasses, so he decided to take them off before leaving for school. When he arrived at the school, he made several mistakes. He greeted a friend (which happened to be a hat rack), he made a comment to another friend regarding her hair (which happened to be a mop propped up against the wall), he entered the girls’ bathroom, and he even bumped into a chair to which he then apologized. Ben’s friends soon discovered that he did not have his glasses on, and they all discussed how everyone is different. Feeling better as a result of this discussion, Ben replaced his glasses. In the end, Ben noticed that the camera operator had his camera upside‑down. After this was corrected, the picture was taken, and all was well again.

This book attempts to be educational for the young reader by dealing with “problems and decision-making—even when the best thing to do is not always so clear.” Its apparent theme, as stated on the front cover, is that “Everybody is different in some way.” The problem with this book is in how it develops this theme. While the inside front cover stated, “filled with humor,” this humor is largely at the expense of the visually impaired character Ben. This book’s unstated themes would fall into Dr. Jernigan’s “Blindness as foolishness and helplessness” category because of the ‘silly’ and ‘helpless’ things which Ben did when he did not have his glasses on. Since this is a book for young readers, it may, unfortunately, establish in their minds stereotypical images of blindness; that blind people are indeed helpless, clumsy objects of comedy. Thus, when the children later meet a blind individual, they might perceive that person as foolish and helpless.

The same theme is apparent in the book Glasses for D.W. written by Mark Brown (1996). This story is about a young sighted boy, named Arthur, who had glasses, and his younger sister, D.W., who wanted them because she felt that “they look[ed] cool.” Arthur tried to tell D.W. that he really did need the glasses because, “before I wore glasses, things looked funny.” He explained that hats looked like bats, trash looked like cash, and a log looked like a dog. Therefore, D.W. closed her eyes and, pretending blindness, started to walk into the furniture and even into Arthur. A friend arrived, and Arthur told him that “D.W. is acting silly.” She then bumped into the friend and said, “Guess what? I can’t see!” The friend commented that D.W. was “nuts” and suggested they play soccer. D.W. wanted to play too, but her brother told her, “you can’t play soccer if you can’t see.” Suddenly D.W. could see again, thus she called it the “miracle soccer cure.”

Sadly, the pictures in this book reinforce the stereotypical image of a blind person with hands extended outwards and even an open jaw as D.W. bumped into a lamp that almost tipped over. Glasses for D.W., a book for young readers, expresses not only Dr. Jernigan’s “Blindness as foolishness and helplessness” theme, but also his “Blindness as abnormality or dehumanization” theme, for it surely is not normal to walk around with one’s jaw open. Young people who read this book would be likely to view the blind not just as a source of comedy, but as slightly grotesque figures lacking full humanity.

A somewhat different characterization of the blind occurs in Through Grandpa’s Eyes by Patricia MacLachlan (1980). It is about a little sighted boy, John, who saw things through his grandpa’s blind eyes. John described the different alternatives his grandfather used compared to the way sighted people do things. For example, while John would wake up because of the sunlight entering his room, his grandfather would wake up because of the warmth of the sun. When John wanted to know where his grandmother was, his grandfather told him to close his eyes and “look through my eyes.” John then heard the sound of his grandmother, who was working in the kitchen. This establishes the pattern of the book, as John continues to learn from his grandfather.

Throughout the book, Grandpa’s acute sense of smell is emphasized. Grandfather, while upstairs in his bedroom, could smell the fried eggs and buttered toast that were being prepared in the kitchen downstairs. On the way down the stairs for breakfast, Grandpa could identify the type of flowers in the kitchen. Grandma and Grandpa discussed how Grandpa could tell the type of flowers by smell. Later Grandpa’s amazing sense of smell surfaced again as he announced that he could smell the hot bread and spice tea Grandma had made for lunch, when he and John were far away from the house.

Similarly, Grandpa’s sense of hearing is brought to the reader’s attention. When he and John took a walk, Grandpa also could tell the difference between the various wild birds heard along the way. He could hear birds which John could not see due to their camouflage. Later, when Grandpa and John played the cello, it was stated that Grandpa learned to play music by listening. Thus, the story supported the stereotype that blind people are musically inclined, as well as the stereotype that they have an acute sense of hearing.

While this book supports many stereotypes, it also demonstrates some realistic alternatives. Grandma used the “clock method” to tell Grandpa where his food was on his plate. John explained, “I make my plate of food like a clock, too, and eat through Grandpa’s eyes.” During the walk, it was also mentioned that Grandpa took John’s elbow so that John could “show him the path,” bringing another alternative to the reader’s attention. Later, Grandpa could feel the south wind by the way his hair moved, instead of by seeing the trees lean. Back in the house, Grandpa demonstrated the alternative of pouring his tea by putting his finger just inside the lip of his cup. Later, Grandpa read Braille to Grandma and John, and in the evening Grandma and John watched TV while Grandpa listened as the music and words told him what was going on. Thus, the book provides the reader with some basic information on how the blind perform daily living tasks.

This book fell into Dr. Jernigan’s “Blindness as compensatory or miraculous power” theme because Grandpa’s senses of smell and hearing were emphasized all too much throughout the book. Furthermore, Grandpa did not show independence of travel by using the sighted guide method on the walk, so Through Grandpa’s Eyes conveys the “Blindness as foolish and helplessness” theme in that respect. While Grandpa was never ridiculed, as the central characters in the first two books were, he was not portrayed as being fully independent.

One interesting note about this book is that I located it among the special education books at a large popular bookstore. Through Grandpa’s Eyes is a Reading Rainbow Book. Therefore, it would be more appropriately placed in the children’s literature section of the store where children would be more likely to discover it. For even though it emphasized Grandpa’s sixth sense, it did educate the young reader about blind alternatives.

Another book about a grandfather, Susan Pearson’s Happy Birthday, Grampie (1987), provides an even more informed image of blindness. This book focuses on a young girl named Martha, who worked a great deal to make a tactile birthday card for her grandfather. “This was one card Grampie would be able to see even though he is blind.” The reader learned that every part of the card, from the picture to the letters, was made with a different type of paper with different textures. “She wanted Grampie to read it, too.” After the card was made, the family went to church and then to the nursing home where her grandfather lived. Once all the presents were opened, Martha gave the card to her grandfather. He took the card and touched it all over. Slowly, he felt the letters, then smiled and gave his granddaughter a hug. He then told her that he loved her, too.

It is to the credit of Happy Birthday, Grampie that it does not fit neatly into any of Dr. Jernigan’s categories. By making the blind character an elderly person in a nursing home, rather than someone who is more vibrant and independent, the author does treat blindness as helplessness. Otherwise, however, the book does not portray any stereotypes concerning blindness. This book does a wonderful job  explaining  tactile alternatives. Martha also spoke of what life was like when her grandfather could see. Therefore, this book was more true to life than any of the books I have written about thus far. It leaves young readers with a realistic concept of blindness.

A Native American story, Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault (1966/1987), is another children’s book that escapes the old stereotypes. It, too, is a Reading Rainbow Book, and it was located in the children’s literature section of the bookstore. This book is about a young boy, named Boy‑Strength‑of-Blue‑Horses, who was born blind. Boy‑Strength‑of-Blue‑Horses and his grandfather often told the story of the stormy night on which he was born. Every time the story was told, a knot was placed on the rope, known as the counting rope. The rope was a metaphor for “the passage of time and for the boy’s emerging confidence in facing his greatest challenge, his blindness.” The grandfather was strong and wise as he talked to his grandson, who seemed quite young and immature yet accepting of his blindness.

This book goes further than Happy Birthday, Grampie at showing the capabilities of the blind. First, since the roles of child and grandparent were reversed in this story, blindness was not associated with debility. The story also teaches some alternatives, as when Boy‑Strength‑of Blue‑Horses stated, “...there are many ways to see, grandfather....I can see the horses with my hands.” Finally, the book educates readers about the capabilities of the blind by having the young boy participate in a horse race. The boy spoke about the route he took and how he got information from his horse on when to turn. Although he did not win the race, this incident shows  the reader that blind individuals are quite capable of performing physical tasks that sighted people often assume are impossible for them.

Knots on a Counting Rope escaped Dr. Jernigan’s nine principal themes by not showing any stereotypes of blindness, nor drawing a negative picture of this state. In fact, the author did not even use the word blind in the story. The grandfather explained to his grandson that he was born with a dark curtain in front of his eyes. “Dark mountains” were used as a metaphor for difficult obstacles that people (both sighted and blind) face during life. Actually, this book was quite educational, teaching the young about Native American culture as well as blindness.

Equally educational is the classic Chinese folk tale The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen (1977), a story about a young princess who was blind. Her name was Hwei Ming which, translated to English, means “the lightless moon on the last day of the month...becoming luminous.” Hwei Ming’s father, the emperor of Peking, announced to the people that if anyone could help his only daughter to see, “such a person would be rewarded with a fortune in jewels.”

In the south country lived a gentleman who heard the emperor’s request, so he gathered up a few items and set forth on the long journey, bringing along a golden wood stick and whittling knife. “The sun rose hot on his right side, and the sun set cool on his left.” As the man ventured to the castle, he whittled on the stick pictures of the various locations at which he stopped along the way. When he arrived in front of the emperor and his daughter, he told her the story of his journey while she felt the pictures on his golden wood stick. “As the princess listened, she grew eyes on the tips of her fingers.” Hwei Ming then became a teacher to the other blind children of Peking. On the last page of the book, the reader discovers that the man was also blind.

In drawing the illustrations for The Seeing Stick, Remy Charlip and Demetra Maraslis chose an interesting approach. The pictures started off quite dull with pencil drawings of gray, white, and black. However, when the man presented the seeing stick to Hwei Ming, the pictures developed color and detail.

Like Knots on a Counting Rope, this folk tale is successful in avoiding the nine stereotypes about blindness that Dr. Jernigan identified. While there were earlier ‘hints’ that the man was blind, that fact was not truly revealed until the end of the book. Thus, the young readers, who may not know much about blindness, would probably think of this character as simply an ‘individual’ and not a ‘blind person.’ The author showed that a blind individual is quite capable of traveling without a sighted escort, and she did this without suggesting that he had miraculous powers. By the same token, The Seeing Stick did not portray blindness “as total tragedy.” The book did show the grieving of Hwei Ming’s father, but this was later turned around when Hwei Ming learned some alternatives. There might have been a touch of Dr. Jernigan’s themes of “Blindness as a perfect virtue” and “Blindness as purification” in the characterization of the princess. She seemed to be disconnected with the world around her or somewhat shy. Apart from this, however, the book educated its readers about blindness in an accurate and dignified manner.

The historical accuracy of another children’s book makes it the centerpiece of my own library on blindness. Louis Braille: The Blind Boy Who Wanted To Read by Dennis Fradin (1994) is part of the Remarkable Children’s Series. These books are based on information collected from journals, old letters, and historical documentation.

Fradin told the story of Louis Braille from his early childhood to his death. Fradin explains how Louis became blind by having an accident with an awl, a tool used to poke holes in leather. The awl pierced his left eye, and later an infection from the injury spread to his right eye. Fradin explains that “had this accident happened today, Louis would not have lost all of his vision. Doctors might have even saved his damaged eye. However, in 1812, people did not yet know about germs.” Fradin describs what life was like for blind people when Louis was young. However, he points out that Louis Braille’s family avoided the prevailing stereotypes by treating the boy no differently than any of their other children.

This book focuses on the important events in Louis Braille’s life. For instance, it tells of when Louis left home at the age of ten to be educated at the National Institute for the Young Blind in Paris, where he had to live apart from his family. Louis was extremely excited about attending this school because he had heard that the Institute had special books that the blind could read. These books had raised letters printed on thick paper and were very difficult and time-consuming for the blind reader. Thus, “the thrill of reading quickly faded” for Louis. Later, however, Captain Charles Barbier visited the Institute with an invention of night writing designed for soldiers to read messages in the dark. This night writing inspired Louis, at the age of twelve, to investigate developing a similar system for the blind. Louis believed there must be an easier way to read than the raised letter system. After three years, he completed his system and shared it with his friends at the institute.

The book also details some of Louis Braille’s later achievements. Fradin explained that after graduation, Mr. Braille became a teacher for the Institute and obtained a job playing the organ at a church nearby. He also spent many hours building a library of Braille books for the students of the Institute. The Braille system was a success for the students, but not for the officials of the Institute. “In 1843 the principal burned a number of books printed in Braille and gathered up the students’ styluses.” However, the students would not stop using Braille, so a year later this system was accepted by the Institute. The author concluded by pointing out that “Mr. Braille spent the rest of his life trying to introduce Braille to the world.”

Louis Braille: The Blind Boy Who Wanted To Read is well written and does not employ any of Dr. Jernigan’s nine themes. It portrays the blind individual as being capable, confident, and normal. As a teacher of Braille, I have incorporated this book into my own lesson plans. It is replete with abundant information about the history of Braille which is important for any Braille beginner. This book would help young children, whether sighted or visually impaired, to develop healthy attitudes about blindness.

To underscore the extent to which children’s literature has and has not changed from the time of Dr. Jernigan’s keynote speech, I will discuss one final book written before his speech was given. Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind is a chapter book for adolescents, by Margaret Davidson (1971). In many cases, it provids more detailed information than Louis Braille: The Blind Boy Who Wanted To Read. For example, this book explains that the director of the Institute, Dr. Pignier, was actually a good friend of Mr. Braille. Dr. Pignier personally saved money to publish a small book about the Braille alphabet titled Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain­song by Means of Dots for Use by the Blind and Arranged by Them (Davidson, 1971, p. 61). Copies of the book were sent to several important people in order to promote the Braille system. However, in 1841, Dr.. Pignier left the Institute, and it was the new director who did not like Braille. Davidson further explained that sighted staff members felt that if Braille were successful, the Institute would hire only blind instructors and thus, would not need the sighted ones. Furthermore, the sighted instructors wanted to keep the raised print because they could read it easily and did not want to take the time and effort to learn Braille. According to Davidson, it was the new director, Dr. Dufau, who burned all the books which Louis had transcribed into Braille. However, Dr. Dufau changed his attitude and later accepted the Braille system into the Institute. Finally, Davidson explains that Captain Barbier returned to the Institute to find out more information about the person who was adapting his idea of night reading to allow blind people to read. When Barbier discovered that it was a young boy, he became upset and would not accept the idea that the blind needed or had any desire to be able to read.

Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind, despite giving the reader a detailed history of Louis Braille’s life, reinforced certain stereotypes about blindness. In Dr. Jernigan’s list of themes, this book falls into the “Blindness as foolishness and helplessness” category. For example, Davidson explains that Louis could not participate in typical children’s games or even take a short walk down the street to a friend’s house. Similarly, Davidson informs the reader that the students of the Institute could not leave the building unless they all went together by holding a long rope led by a sighted person. Thus, children who finished reading this book would be likely to view the blind as abnormal people incapable of leading an independent life.

A re‑examination of Davidson’s book makes it clear why Dr. Jernigan in 1974 felt that literature was working against the blind. Unfortunately, as my study has shown, despite some improvements, this trend still continues today. Too often, in the books that children read, the ideas set forth can, in their young minds, create a negative perspective on blindness. Even today, there are few books that clearly portray the skills, attitudes, and independence of blind people in contemporary society.

It has been twenty‑five years since Dr. Jernigan presented his list of nine principal themes of literature at the National Federation of the Blind Convention. However, in the handful of representative books I examined for this study, five of those themes were apparent. If we look back to what he said about literature in 1974, I would have to say that his views hold true today. “If we consider the present,” Dr. Jernigan said, “there are signs of change, but the old stereotypes and the false images still predominate.”

What I would like to see in children’s literature (and in adult literature, for that matter) is demonstrated in another children’s book that I happened to come across in a local thrift store. It is titled Four for Cribbage by Gladys Yessayan Cretan (1981). The front cover is a simple picture of three children of various ethnic backgrounds, sitting around a card table playing cribbage. The table has a long cloth draped over it. Thus, at first glance, the reader would not know that one of the characters in the book has a disability. On the first page, the reader is greeted with a picture of a young girl and her dog. This girl, named Toby, has cable braces on her legs. The story is about Toby, who has just moved into a newly developed neighborhood and wants to have someone with whom to play cribbage. Eventually new people move into the neighborhood, so Toby is able to gain playmates. Throughout the book, the reader can observe Toby’s full body from time to time, and therefore the reader can see her cable braces and crutches. However, nothing is ever mentioned in the story about her disabilities. Nothing at all.

What I would like to see in literature of all levels are characters who are blind but who are not treated differently. I would like to see them portrayed simply as other characters in the book. Blind individuals would then be treated equally in literature, just as Toby is, and Dr. Jernigan’s nine themes would only be part of our historical record, not a reflection of literary conditions today.

References

Brown, M. (1996). Glasses for D.W. New York: Random House

Cretan, G.Y. (1981). Four for Cribbage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Davidson, M. (1971). Louis Braille: The Boy Who Invented Books for the Blind. New York: Scholastic.

Fradin, D. (1997). Louis Braille: The Blind Boy Who Wanted To Read. Parsippany, NJ: Silver Press.

Jernigan, K (Speaker). (1974). Blindness: Is Literature Against Us? (Cassette Recording). Chicago: National Federation of the Blind Annual Convention.

Johnson, D. (1996). Ben’s Glasses. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Martin Jr., B. & Archambault, J. (1987). Knots on a Counting Rope. (Rev. ed.). New York: Henry Holt.

MacLachlan,P. (1980). Through Grandpa’s Eyes. New York: Harper Collins.

Pearson, S. (1987). Happy Birthday, Grampie. (Rev. ed.) New York: Puffin Books.

Yolen, J. (1977). The Seeing Stick. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell

 

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