Future Reflections                                                   Special Issue: Low Vision and Blindness 2005

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Low Vision, Blindness, and Federation Philosophy

Barbara Pierce
As the editor of the Braille Monitor, Barbara Pierce is often called upon to articulate the Federation philosophy.

One of the most annoying misconceptions about the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is the notion that committed Federationists are proud of their blindness and, if given a chance, would choose it over returned vision. Those who have heard and believed such statements are enraged, I think, because they consider it needlessly cruel to encourage the development of neurotic and twisted ideas in people who are already facing vision loss. Federationists, on the other hand, are frustrated when we are accused of holding such notions because, in fact, we donít.

Learning to be unapologetic and to resist feelings of inferiority because of blindness is healthy and very different from being proud of the characteristic. It is as absurd to be proud of blindness as it is to take pride in being six feet four, having size five feet, or demonstrating an IQ of 145. One may be comfortable or not with any of these characteristics, but one can certainly claim no credit for possessing them.

A person might well take pride in developing his or her artistic ability, athletic skill, intellectual powers, or expertise in the alternative skills of blindness, but that is very different from claiming personal credit for a God-given characteristic. Of course, being only human (and therefore often a little ridiculous), people frequently take pride in their naturally wavy hair, quick reflexes, or green eyes. It isnít surprising, then, that, in the process of evolving a healthy identity as a competent blind person, some of us act for a while as though taking pride in blindness were the goal rather than achieving self-confidence and effectiveness as a blind person.

Debunking the second half of the misconception is more complex. I donít think I know a single blind person who would actually choose blindness above fully functioning sight, if the exchange were an actual option. In a world structured for and largely dependent upon sight, it is obviously more efficient to use sight to get things done. But such a choice is virtually never an option. Most people with a little residual vision are faced with the dilemma of either depending on very restricted visual data for doing tasks or mastering the alternative techniques for getting the job done. The pragmatic question these people face in situation after situation is which strategy would be more efficient. The emotional freight that such decisions carry can be heavy indeed. If one has never learned effective alternative techniques and if one has always depended on vision, then vision--even very poor or painful vision--often seems the easier and certainly more obvious choice. Family and friends reinforce this tendency every time they urge the person not to ďact blindĒ because, after all, he or she can still see something.

Recognizing these pressures, experienced members of the Federation understand the importance of encouraging those with vision problems to get to know able blind people who are comfortable using the alternative skills of blindness. It isnít that we prefer blindness; we just prefer efficiency, confidence, comfort, and success. For almost everyone with less than 10 percent of normal vision, this means using some combination of blindness skills and remaining, genuinely usable vision. Working out the combination is time-consuming and often emotionally demanding.

When members of the National Federation of the Blind say that we are changing what it means to be blind, we are in part dreaming of and working toward a time in which efficient blindness skills are not assumed to be inferior, when vision, and all that goes with it, is not held to be more virtuous, only more common. We are working toward a time when children with significantly compromised vision and adults losing sight will face life free of our millennia-long prejudice against tactile exploration and auditory learning and find it easier to embrace the learning of such skills. When all people accept the challenge of sharpening all their senses instead of concentrating on visual data only, the world will indeed be a richer and more interesting place for all of us, and those with partial vision will move more easily and naturally from visual to nonvisual ways of accomplishing the business of living. Then we will truly have changed what it means to be blind.

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