by Edwin Cooney
From the Editor: How many times have we complained, either to ourselves or aloud to a friend, how ignorant people can be about blindness, only to find that we too are ignorant about so many things that we shouldn’t be surprised or outraged when people don’t understand us. Edwin Cooney is a blind man with uncommon perception and the ability to articulate what he thinks and feels. He knows well the problems that spring from people’s assumptions stemming from misconceptions, but he also knows that he is, alas, a frail human being, and those things he finds fault with in others are, to some degree, found even in himself. Ed is a 1966 graduate of the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia and a graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo in 1974. He holds a master's degree in American, modern European, and medieval European history. Since June of 2005 Ed has been writing a weekly column. What you see below is an example of one of his nearly three-hundred columns. They are his take on history, current events, and the human dynamic or, if you prefer, the factors that cause people to get along with one another or the opposite. His goal is to achieve one of three things with each: to inform, to stimulate, or to entertain the reader. You can get his weekly column free of charge by contacting him at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Here is what he says about preconceived ideas, those of us who are victims of them, and the pitfalls we face when trying to size up another human being:
It was on the afternoon of Monday, June 18, 2007, that I arrived at the Amtrak train station in Washington, D.C., aboard Train #125 out of Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey. I was on my way home to Alameda, California, after a full three weeks of happy reunions with old friends and first-time meetings with new ones. I felt content for the most part. I was even reasonably satisfied with my own behavior in the way I'd handled one or two touchy situations that are a part of daily relationships and circumstances.
My train was only thirty minutes or so late, but that was all to the good. It meant that I would have to wait only twenty or twenty-five minutes for Amtrak Train 29 scheduled out of the station at 4:05 p.m. It would be especially pleasant if Train number 29 was nicely air conditioned against the eighty-five to ninety degree East Coast heat and eighty-five plus percent humidity, but that matter would take care of itself.
Then came the word that, due to an equipment failure, Train 29 to Chicago would not be able to meet its 4:05 p.m. departure schedule and that no estimated time was scheduled for its departure. A trainload of Amtrak passengers waited patiently in the station, hoping that the mechanics would be able to remedy Train 29’s ills quickly enough for all to be on their way in time to make necessary connections.
As I waited, I found myself seated between two gentlemen. One, from Chicago, told me that he spends a lot of his time on board his houseboat. The other, Archie from Rhode Island, said he also likes to travel but prefers solid terra firma. At one point in our conversation Archie, in his delightful New England accent, informed me that a blind man without hands was seated a short distance away and was "fumbling" with his suitcase and obviously could use help. Archie was gone for only a very short time before he returned to report that the "blind man without hands" was all right and needed no help.
"Where is he going?" I asked, wondering if he'd be on Train 29 once it got rolling.
"I don't know," replied Archie, "but he's here with the rest of us." Wow, I thought to myself. Here we are in Washington, D.C., and not too far from me is a blind man without hands. It's got to be Iraq, I told myself. Then I began to create a whole set of assumptions about this man's background: he has to be a veteran; he's in Washington for treatment and rehabilitation at Walter Reed hospital; he's an Iraq War veteran; his injury is recent.
Next came my assumptions regarding his state of mind: He's gotta be angry and bitter about his recent war injury; he's gotta be apprehensive and even frightened as he struggles to adjust to his deficiencies; he'll be lost or easily disoriented; he'll need lots of help. He'll be sad and perhaps even clingy. Next I went to the root of my assumptions--my own fears, needs, comforts, and ideas of convenience. What would I do without hands? I'd be totally lost without a sense of touch. How could I function as I do today using a cane? What'll I do if he's in my car? I'll have to help him, because, after all, he's one of "us."
Then came my final hope: Maybe he'll be in another car if not on another train.
Alas, such was, most fortunately, not to be. Shortly after six-thirty p.m. I was assisted onto Train 29 and into the lower portion of a car, which is where passengers who are senior or with disabilities may ride. The car was reasonably cool, and my seat was next to an electrical outlet so that I could conveniently listen to taped books and recharge my cell phone. The train had started to move, but the conductor hadn't come to collect our tickets. I mumbled to myself out loud wondering whether the act of eating my lunch would automatically bring the conductor around to take my ticket. Suddenly, from one seat behind me and across the aisle to my left, I heard the chime of a talking watch. Then a cheery voice said: "Who's this blind guy who talks to himself?"
Next came introductions. His name was Dan, and I, of course, introduced myself as Ed. My introduction to him confirmed his assumption about who I was. Thus I didn't have to say anything to him about my disability. What's strange is that, although he rather quickly explained his condition to me, I don't recall precisely how he confirmed to me that he was the blind man without hands.
Almost instantly, even before Dan told me much about himself, my fear-laden presumptions and perceptions melted away. Dan, after all, was Dan. Dan was not a set of my presumptive fears. Within minutes of our beginning our conversation the conductor had come around taking tickets, and Dan was making plans to go to the dining car for supper. Since I'd had my lunch, I didn't need the dining car. I'd join him in the lounge car for happy hour. Thus it was clear that Dan got around as well as I did.
During happy hour Dan and I easily conversed on a number of topics. He was easy-going; he flirted with the ladies much more easily and with seemingly much greater confidence and resourcefulness than I. Even more, Dan was funny.
Once we were back in our car, Dan told me that at the age of fifteen, which was back in 1955, he'd injured himself while constructing a hand grenade. He went on to explain that as a youngster he'd learned to make such incendiaries in order to protect himself from possible harassment or harm from Chicago's youth gangs. One day, he explained, he'd accidentally installed the wrong type of trigger on his latest grenade, and his life had been changed forever.
He went on to talk of his daughters, one of whom served in the Balkan conflict in the late 1990s. He spoke of his life's work as a rehabilitation counselor for the Department of Mental Health in Decatur, Illinois. Dan is now retired and doesn't have to work for monetary reasons; he just likes to keep busy. The reason he was on the train was that he was returning home from a job interview in Alexandria, Virginia. The only assistance I provided him was to dial and hold my cell phone as he called his daughter who was meeting him in Chicago so that he could let her know that the train was running late.
When Dan and I parted in Chicago, I knew that I'd met an extraordinary person. Certainly my vacation--and, if I allow it, perhaps my life--had been enriched by that man named Dan. However, I was also aware that I'd been guilty of one of humankind's most subtle but devastating injustices. I was guilty of the act of preconceived negative personal perception. What is even more incredible to me is that I am acutely sensitive to the fact that I am a lifelong victim of such preconceived negative personal perceptions. How many times have I been denied opportunities for work, friendship, even love, because of a person's negative perceptions and ultimate inability to imagine interacting comfortably with me in a working or loving relationship? How many times have I answered the inquiry people often make about what is hardest about living with disability by saying, with some intensity, that the most difficult aspect of living with disability (which, in my case, is total blindness) is dealing with the public's perception of it.
The answer to both the above questions is--too many times. Preconceived negative personal perception often is devastating to persons who live with disability. Unfortunately its practice--which I'll define here as preconceived negative conclusions about others based on poor knowledge of the conditions under which another person lives--is widely practiced and affects far more than the disabled.
Thus people with disabilities and people of different races, of different religions, of different classes, and of different economic stature are all too often ready-made victims of our preconceived ideas about how they live, what they believe, what they can do, and what they will be like. What is more, one shouldn't assume that the poor and disadvantaged are the sole victims of negative personal perception. The rich and powerful can also be victimized--and often are. Their ability to protect themselves more easily from negative personal perception doesn't in the least justify the practice.Hence the victim of racism can also be a racist; the offended can indeed offend; the sinned against can--and do--sin--as I learned once again on Monday, June 18th, 2007. Just because I'm aware of others' capacity for preconceived negative personal perception does not immunize me from practicing it myself. Furthermore, negative personal perception may not be the only path to our individual and societal failings, but it's surely one of the most well-taken paths. Next to the path of least resistance, the path of negative personal perception is the easiest to take, and it's taken too often by far too many--including this observer. Thanks Dan. Because you're you, I couldn't get away with it--this time, anyway!