Blindness – A Dying or a Living?

by Kenneth Jernigan

“Loss of sight is a dying. When, in the full current of his sighted life, blindness comes on a man, it is the end, the death, of that sighted life. It is superficial, if not naive, to think of blindness as a blow to the eyes only, to sight only. It is a destructive blow to the self-image of a man…a blow almost to his being itself.” Thus speaks Father Thomas J. Carroll, founder and director of St. Paul’s Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in his recent book on blindness.

Here, now, is a quotation of a different sort and from a different source. “My thesis is that the blind as a group are mentally competent, psychologically stable, and socially adaptable. And that their needs are, therefore, those of ordinary people, of normal men and women, caught at a physical and social disadvantage. This thesis affirms the capacity of the blind for self-reliance and self-determination, for full participation in the affairs of society and active competition in the regular channels of democratic opportunity.” Thus speaks Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founder and President Emeritus of this organization, the National Federation of the Blind, in his recent book on blindness, entitled Hope Deferred.

The two statements I have quoted to you are flatly contradictory and mutually exclusive. If Father Carroll is correct in his estimate of blindness, then Dr. tenBroek is mistaken. If Dr. tenBroek is right, Father Carroll is wrong. These two concepts of blindness are not only at odds, they are at war. The main battlefield of that war is the agency for the blind, but the conflict penetrates all strata of present day society; it is fought in the schools, it is fought in the factories, it is fought in the streets and the homes of America, it is fought anywhere and everywhere that blind people are. On the outcome of this irreconcilable conflict, rests the future course of welfare and social services and, indeed, the future of the blind themselves.

What is blindness? Is it a dying? No one is likely to disagree with me if I say that blindness, first of all, is a characteristic. But a great many people will disagree when I go on to say that blindness, last of all, is a characteristic. It is nothing more or less than that. It is nothing more special, or more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests. When we understand the nature of blindness as a characteristic—a normal characteristic like hundreds of others with which each of us must live—we shall better understand the real need to be met by services to the blind, as well as the false needs which should not be met.

Now, by definition, a characteristic—any characteristic—is a limitation. A white house, for example, is a limited house; it cannot be green, or blue, or red; it is limited to being white. Likewise, every characteristic—those we regard as strengths, as well as those we regard as weaknesses—is a limitation. Each one freezes us to some extent into a mold; each restricts to some degree the range of possibility, of flexibility, and, very often, of opportunity as well.

Blindness is such a limitation. Are blind people more limited than others?

Let us make a simple comparison. Take a sighted person with an average mind (something not too hard to locate); take a blind person with a superior mind (again, something not too hard to locate) —and then make all the other characteristics of these two persons equal (an impossibility, to be sure). Now, which of the two in this situation is more limited? It depends, of course, entirely on what you wish them to do. If you are choosing up sides for baseball, then the blind man is more limited—that is, he is “handicapped.” If, on the other hand, you are seeking someone to teach history or science or to figure out your income tax, then the sighted person is more limited, or “handicapped.”

Many human characteristics are obvious limitations; others are not so obvious. Poverty (the lack of material means) is one of the most obvious. Ignorance (the lack of knowledge or education) is another. Old age (the lack of youth and vigor) is yet another. Blindness (the lack of eyesight) is still another. In all these cases, the limitations are apparent, or they seem to be. But, let us look at some other common characteristics, which do not seem limitations. Take the very opposite of old age—youth. Is age a limitation in the case of a youth of twenty? It certainly is, for a wide range of things, and not merely for purposes of the vote. A person who is twenty will not be considered for most responsible positions, especially supervisory and leadership positions. He may be entirely mature, fully capable, in every way the best qualified applicant for the job. Even so, his age will bar him from employment; he will be classified as too green and immature to handle the responsibility. And even if he were to land the position, others on the job would almost certainly resent being supervised by one so young. The characteristic of being twenty is definitely a limitation.

The same holds true for any other age. Take fifty, which many regard as the prime of life. The man of fifty does not have the physical vigor he possessed at twenty; and, indeed, most companies will not start a new employee at that age. The telephone company, for example, has a flat prohibition against hiring anyone over the age of thirty-five. But, it is interesting to note that the United States Constitution has a flat prohibition against anyone under thirty-five running for president. The moral is plain: any age carries its built-in limitations.

Let us take another unlikely handicap—not that of ignorance, but its exact opposite. Can it be said that education is ever a handicap? The answer is definitely yes. In the agency which I head, I would not hire Albert Einstein under any circumstances as an employee if he were alive and available. His fame (because other people would continually flock to the agency and prevent us from doing our work) and his intelligence (because he would be bored to madness by the routine of most of our jobs) would both be too severe as limitations, or, if you like, “handicaps.”

Here is an actual case in point. Last fall, a vacancy occurred on the library staff at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Someone was needed to perform certain clerical duties and take charge of shelving and checking talking book records. After all applicants had been screened, the final choice came down to two. Applicant A had a college degree, was seemingly alert, and clearly of more than average intelligence. Applicant B had a high school diploma (no college), was of average intelligence, and possessed only moderate initiative. Jobs, incidentally, were hard to come by in Des Moines at that time and both applicants wanted the position very badly. I hired Applicant B. Why? Because I suspected that Applicant A would regard the work as beneath him, would soon become bored with its undemanding assignments, and would leave as soon as something better came along. I would then have to find and train another employee. On the other hand, I felt that Applicant B would consider the work interesting and even challenging, that he was thoroughly capable of handling the job, and that he would be not only an excellent but a permanent employee. As a matter of fact, he has worked out extremely well.

In other words, in that particular situation, the characteristic of education—the possession of a college degree—was a limitation and a handicap. Even above average intelligence was a limitation; and so was a high level of initiative. There is a familiar bureaucratic label for this unusual disadvantage: it is the term “overqualified.” Even the overqualified, it appears, can be underprivileged.

This should be enough to make the point—which is that if blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the same way as innumerable other characteristics which human flesh is heir to. I believe, indeed, that blindness has no more importance than a hundred other characteristics, and that the average blind person is able to perform the average job in the average career or calling, provided (and it is a large proviso) he is given the training and the opportunity.

At this point, I seem to hear a voice saying (at least, I have heard it in the past) that “you can’t look at it that way. Just consider what you might have done if you had been sighted and still had all the other capacities you now possess.”

“Not so,” I reply. "We do not compete against what we might have been. We compete against other people as they are, with their combinations of strengths and weaknesses, handicaps and limitations.” If we’re going to play the game of “just suppose,” why not ask me what I might have done if I had been born with Rockefeller's money (or even Kennedy’s, to be impartial about it), along with the brains of Einstein, the physique of the young Joe Louis, and I suppose you could throw in the persuasive abilities of Franklin D. Roosevelt? And, incidentally, do I need to remind anyone in this audience that FDR was severely handicapped physically? I wonder if anyone ever said to him, “Mr. President, just consider what you might have done and been if you had not had polio!”

Others have said to me, “But I formerly had my sight, so I know what I am missing.”

To which one might reply, “And I was formerly twenty, so I know what I am missing.”

Our characteristics, in other words, are constantly changing, and we are forever acquiring new experiences, limitations, assets. We do not compete against what we formerly were, again, I say, we compete against other people as they now are.

In a recent issue of a The New Outlook for the Blind, Dr. Walter Stromer, a blinded veteran, who now teaches in Iowa, sets forth a notion of blindness radically different from this. He sets the limitations of blindness apart from all others and makes them qualitatively distinct. Having achieved this feat, he can say that all other human characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, belong in one category and, with regard to them, the blind and the sighted individual are equal. But, the blind person also has the additional and the unique limitation of his blindness. Therefore, there is really nothing he can do quite as well as the sighted person, and he can continue to hold his job only because there is charity and goodness in the world. In short, all men are equal, but some are less equal than others when they are the blind.

What Dr. Stromer does not observe is that the same distinction he has made regarding blindness could be made with equal plausibility with respect to any of a dozen—perhaps a hundred—other characteristics. For example, suppose we distinguish intelligence from all other traits as qualitatively different. Then, the man with a one hundred twenty-five IQ is just about the same as the man with below one hundred twenty-five—except for intelligence. Therefore, the college professor (or you could take any other person) with less than that intelligence quotient cannot really do anything quite as well as the one who exceeds it—and can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

“Are we going to assume,” says Dr. Stromer in his article, “that all blind people are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think not.” But, I say, why single out the particular characteristic of blindness? We might just as well specify some other. For instance, are we going to assume that all people with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitation imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

This consideration brings us to the problem of terminology. And, therewith, to the heart of the matter of blindness as a handicap. The assumption that the limitation of blindness is so much more severe than others that it warrants being singled out for special distinction is built into the very warp and woof of our language and our psychology. Blindness conjures up a condition of unrelieved disaster—something much more terrible and dramatic than other limitations. Moreover, blindness is a conspicuously visible limitation; and there are not so many blind people around that there is any danger of becoming accustomed to it or taking it for granted. If all of those in our midst—to continue the parallel I began drawing—who possess an IQ of under one hundred twenty-five exhibited, say, green stripes on their faces, I suspect that they would begin to be regarded as inferior to the non-striped, and that there would be immediate and tremendous discrimination.

When someone says to a blind person, “You do things so well that I forget you are blind—I simply think of you as being like anybody else,” is that really a compliment? Well, suppose one of us went to France, and someone said: “You do things so well that I forget you are an American. I simply think of you as being like anybody else.” Would it be a compliment?

Of course, the blind person must not wear a chip on his shoulder or allow himself to become angry or emotionally upset. He should be courteous, and he should accept the statement as the compliment it is meant to be. But he should also understand that it is really not complimentary. In reality, it says: “It is normal for blind people to be inferior and limited, different and much less able than the rest of us. Of course, you are still a blind person and still much more limited than I, but you have compensated for it so well that I almost forget that you are inferior.”

This matter of our irrational language habits, our images and stereotypes with regard to blindness, was brought sharply home to me last year in the course of a rehabilitation conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. I found myself engaged in a debate with Father Carroll, the famous inventor of “the twenty lacks and losses of blindness,” who holds rather different view from those I’ve been advancing. “The error in my argument about blindness as a characteristic,” Father Carroll told me, “was that blindness is not in the range of ‘normal’ characteristics and, therefore, its limitations are radically different from those of other characteristics falling within the normal range.”

Now, if a normal characteristic is simply one possessed by the majority in a group, then it is not normal to have a dark skin in America or, for that matter, a white one in the rest of the world. It is not normal to have red hair or to be over six feet tall. If, on the other hand, a normal characteristic is simply whatever Father Carroll (or somebody else) defines as a normal characteristic, then we have a circular argument, indeed (and one that gets us nowhere).

In this same discussion, I put forward the theory that a man, who was sighted and of average means and who had all other characteristics in common with a blind man of considerable wealth, would be less mobile than the blind man. I had been arguing that there were alternative techniques—not “substitute,” for that word implies inferiority, but alternative techniques—for doing those things, which one would do with sight, if he had normal vision. Father Carroll and others had been contending that there was no real adequate substitute for sight in traveling about (and, I guess for that matter, in anything else).

I told the story of a wealthy blind man I know, who goes to Hawaii or some other place, every year, and who hires sighted attendants and is much more mobile than any sighted person of ordinary means. After all of the discussion, and the fact that I thought I had conveyed some understanding of what I was saying, a participant in the conference said—and said it, incidentally, as if he thought he were really making a telling point, “But, wouldn’t you admit that the wealthy man in question would be even more mobile if he had his sight?”

This brings us to the subject of services to the blind, and more exactly, of their proper scope and direction. There are, as I see it, four basic types of services now being provided for the blind by the agencies, public and/or private. They are:

1. Services based on the theory that blindness is qualitatively different from other characteristics, and that it carries with it permanent inferiority and severe limitations upon activity.

2. Services aimed at teaching the blind a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness—based on the premise that the prevailing social attitudes, assimilated involuntarily by the blind person, are mistaken in content and destructive in effect.

3. Services aimed at teaching alternative techniques and skills related to blindness.

4. Services not specifically related to blindness, but to other characteristics (such as old age, lack of education), which are nevertheless labeled as “services to the blind” and brought in under the “generous umbrella of the service” program.

An illustration of the assumptions underlying the first of these four types of services has been furnished, though not intentionally, by Father Carroll. The opening sentence of the first chapter in his book, which I have already quoted to you, reads, “Loss of sight is a dying.” At the Little Rock conference, he elaborated on this tragic metaphor, by pointing out that “the eye is a sex symbol,” and that, accordingly, the man who has not eyes is not a “whole man.” He cited as proof of this contention, the play Oedipus Rex. He said that this proved that the eye was a sex symbol, and, incidentally, I wish I could say—I didn’t think of it at the time—that I had pointed out to Father Carroll that he had the wrong drama in mind; the one that Freud wrote was not Oedipus Rex, it was Oedipus complex. What I did say to Father Carroll was that, in my opinion, he had missed the whole point of that classic tragedy.

Like many moderns, the Greeks considered the severest possible punishment to be the loss of sight. Oedipus committed a mortal sin (unknowingly he had killed his father and married his mother); therefore, his punishment must be correspondingly great. But, that is just what his self- imposed blindness was—a punishment, not a sex symbol.

But, this view not only misses the point of Oedipus Rex—it misses the point of blindness. And in so doing, it misses the point of services intended to aid the blind. For according to this view, what the blind person needs most desperately is the services of a psychiatrist; what the blind person needs most is not travel training, but couch therapy. According to this view, he will be taught to accept his limitations as insurmountable and his difference from others as unbridgeable. He will be told to memorize his lacks and losses—all twenty of them—and recite them to himself when he is tempted to behave like a normal human being. He will be encouraged to adjust—that word, “adjust,” means a lot of things to a lot of people—to his painful station as a second-class citizen, and discouraged from any thoughts of breaking and entering the first-class compartment.

The two competing types of services for the blind—categories one and two on my list of four types—,with their underlying conflict of philosophy, may perhaps be clarified by a rather fanciful analogy. Of course, you all recall the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany. All of a sudden, in the 1930's, the German Jew was told by his society that he was a “handicapped” person—that he was inferior to other Germans, simply by virtue of being a Jew. Given this social fact, what sort of adjustment services might we have offered to the victim of Jewishness? I suggest that there are two alternatives—matching categories one and two of my list of four.

First, since he is a—or at least, was—had been a “normal” individual until quite recently, it is, of course, quite a shock (or, in modern lingo, “quite a trauma”) for him to learn that he is permanently and constitutionally inferior to others and can engage only in a limited range of activities. He will, therefore, require a psychiatrist to give him counseling and therapy and to reconcile him to his lot. He must “adjust” to his handicap and “learn to live” with the fact that he is not a “whole man.” Things could be worse; he might be a blind Jew. If he is realistic, he might even manage to be happy. He may then be taken to an adjustment center, or put into a workshop, where he may learn a variety of simple crafts and curious occupations suitable to Jews. That is one form of adjustment training; category one of the four types of services outlined earlier.

On the other hand, if there are those around who reject the notion that Jewishness equals inferiority, another sort of “adjustment” services may be undertaken. They might begin by firing the psychiatrist. His services will be available in his own private office, for Jews as well as for other members of the public, whenever they develop emotional or mental troubles. They will not want the psychiatrist because the Nazi psychiatrist likely has the same misconceptions about Jews as the rest of society. They might then continue then by scrapping the “Jew trades”—the menial routines of the work bench, which offer no competition to the “normal” world outside. They will take the emphasis off of resignation on the one hand, and off of fun and games on the other. They will not work to make him happy in his isolation and servitude, but rather to make him discontent with it. They will make of him not a conformist, but a rebel. A rebel with a cause.

And so it is with the blind. There are vast differences in the services offered at various rehabilitation and orientation centers about the country. At the Little Rock conference already referred to, this kept coming up repeatedly. When a blind person comes into an orientation center, what kind of tests do you give him, and why? In Iowa and some other centers, the contention is that he is a responsible individual and that the emphasis should be on his knowing what he can do. Most of the centers, represented at Little Rock, contended that he needed psychiatric help and counseling, and that the emphasis should be on the center personnel knowing what he could do.

I asked them whether they thought services in a center—and, incidentally, the general services offered by rehabilitation for the blind—were more like those given by hospitals or like those given by a law school. In a hospital, the person is a “patient.” This is, incidentally, is a term coming to be used more and more to describe the rehabilitation client. The doctors decide whether the patient needs an operation and what medication he should have. In reality, the “patient” makes few of his own decisions. Will the doctor “let” him do this or that? In a law school, on the other hand, the “student” assumes responsibility for getting to his own classes, organizing his own work. He plans his own career, seeking advice to the extent that he feels the need of it. If he plans unwisely, and some do, he pays the price for it, but it is his life. This does not mean that he does not need the services of the law school. He probably will become friends with the profs and will discuss legal matters with them and socialize with them. He will also probably come to value and rely upon the advice given by some of them in a variety of areas. More and more, he will come to be treated as a colleague. Not so the “patient.” What does he know of drugs and medications? The other centers and rehabilitation services represented at Little Rock were shocked that we “socialize” with our students and have them to our homes. They said they believed that this threatened what they called their “professional relationship” with the students.

Our society has so steeped itself in the concepts concerning blindness that it is most difficult for people to understand the concept of blindness as a characteristic, and the services needed by the blind. For instance, in summary of the proceedings of our institute at Little Rock last November, the recorder stated the position of the Iowa program as follows: “The basic question seemed to lie in whether blindness as a disability alters basic personality or is simply an inconvenience, which may be overcome by persistence and determination, rather than by specialized services.” Now this, of course, misses the point altogether. For we most definitely do advocate for specialized services, but we also most definitely believe that blindness does not necessarily alter basic personality.

As a matter of fact, in one way or another, the whole point of all I have been saying to you is just this: That blindness is neither a dying nor a psychological crippling. That it need not cause a disintegration of personality. And that the stereotype, which underlies this view, is no less false and no less destructive when it presents itself in the garb of modern science, than it was when it appeared in the ancient raiment of superstition and witchcraft.

To be sure, Father Carroll, having announced that loss of sight is a dying, goes on in his book to say that “a new life is yet possible, but, oh, what a life. The life of a cripple, of an un-whole man, bereft and shorn of a priceless heritage, for which there are no alternatives, but only shoddy inadequate substitutes.” And Father Carroll is not alone in his views and his pronouncements, as I do not need to tell you in this audience, the majority of professionals—not all, thank God—in the field, the majority of the books and the articles, of the seminars and the discussions, echo and re-echo the same monotonous refrain. Those of us who have the opposite philosophy must make our voices heard in the land; we must demonstrate that what is claimed as science is often, in reality, only pseudo-science. In other words, not science, but what we might call “scientism.” We must go forward by positive action and individual example to establish the truth of our alternative creed. We must show that ours is not a blind faith, but an enlightened faith in the blind.

In conclusion, let me remind you of two very different declarations. One of them begins: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds, which have connected them with another, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes, which impale them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The second declaration states: “When, in the full current of the sighted life, blindness comes on a man, it is the end, the death of that sighted life. A blow almost to his being itself.”

The first of these statements is, of course, the Declaration of Independence, composed almost two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson. The second is the Declaration of Dependence, composed but recently by Father Carroll. The first declaration proclaiming independence ends on a note of triumph and confidence, culminating in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the equivalent of the doctrine of blindness as a characteristic. The second declaration announcing dependence ends on a note of dying, culminating in death, custody, and the pursuit of misery. It is the doctrine of blindness as a catastrophe.

The blind people of America have a clear choice of philosophy, and, therefore, of welfare programs and social services. If they subscribe to the Declaration of Dependence, despite the pages of qualifications and explanation, which follow it, they will accept the services that go with innate abnormality and permanent inferiority. If they subscribe to the alternative Declaration of Independence, they will insist on the services that reflect normality and point toward equality.

Let us recognize that loss of sight need not be an end but may also be a beginning. Not a dying, but a living. And, let us suit the action to the word by demanding that our social services be not funeral services for the dying, but dynamic activities for persons fully capable of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.