On Blindness, Equality, and Achievement: Who Defines Us

President Riccobono stands on balcony with city of Baltimore in the background

On Blindness, Equality, and Achievement: Who Defines Us

by Mark A. Riccobono

Language is a fundamental building block to creating patterns of understanding. For centuries the term “blind” has been used to articulate negative concepts and to identify individuals who, because they possess the characteristic of not being able to see, are assumed to be less capable than others. This began to change in 1940 when we, the blind of the nation, organized a movement to decide for ourselves what our future would be and to redefine blindness by shattering the stereotypes.

Kenneth Jernigan set forth one of the strongest articulations of our understanding about blindness in the 1960s with his reflections on "A Definition of Blindness". This understanding has been reframed and restated in many ways including in my own writings. Consider my 2020 banquet speech “Language, Action, and Destiny: The Lived Experience of the Organized Blind Movement.” As I note in that speech, use of the word “blind” is not merely appropriate, it is essential to reflecting the belief that it is respectable to live and compete on terms of equality as a blind person. We use the word “blind” because we reject the outdated notion that blindness is a tragedy that limits the possibilities. For us, the word “blind” has power and meaning. For those who are vision centered, “blind” evokes fear and uncertainty. Language reflects belief, and we will not sell out our beliefs. We, the blind, follow our words with the action of living the lives we want. The result of our persistent and collective action is our shattering of the old meaning of blind and creating a new, stronger, authentic meaning. 

People frequently tell me that people know what blind means and it cannot be changed. That is not my experience. I thought I knew what the word “blind” meant until I met the members of the National Federation of the Blind. They demonstrated something different and they helped me own the word and define its meaning in a new way in my own life. When I used the word with confidence and began backing it up with actions—like traveling independently—my confidence and beliefs grew. This was a process of understanding for me and the growth and learning continues even today. I want to help others have that same transformational journey. 

People sometimes say to me that when we use the word “blind” it leaves them out because they still have some eyesight. This demonstrates that we have more to do towards creating understanding that blind is a broad definition. We want those experiencing progressive changes in their eyesight to recognize that they have a common interest and bond with other blind people even if they do not yet fully identify with others who are blind. It is in fact the diversity of experiences with blindness that have helped shape our philosophy about living the lives we want as blind people. 

I do not think about being blind anymore. It is part of who I am and how I experience the world. Before I embraced blindness as a characteristic and learned the techniques to compete in the world, I thought about what I could or could not see all the time. Lifting that burden gave me the freedom and power to focus my energy on the things I need to do to pursue my own dreams. 

October has long been an important month for teaching others about the capacity of blind people. We used to designate it as “Meet the Blind Month.” That work was valuable as it helped us get to be better known in our communities. However, we are rebranding it this year as “Blind Equality Achievement Month” in order to raise the expectations even farther. We want more than to just be met, we want you to stand with us for equality, opportunity, and security. We want our nonblind friends, family, and colleagues to come to know that the definition of blind is best shaped by our lived experience not by the misperceptions of those who have not lived with the characteristic of blindness every day. For those who are not blind, yet, as it certainly may happen if you live long enough, that when that day comes we want you to know that it is a new beginning and not an end.

We, those individuals who identify as blind people and who will not let that one characteristic define our future, have determined to redefine “blind” in the world. We invite you to join us in sharing this new definition, this authentic understanding, so that all blind people may live the lives they want.