From the Editor: The public is interested in blind people. It is a good thing they are, for that interest fuels public support and offers us a listening ear when we want to tell the world that what they think about our lives doesn’t square with our reality. One unfortunate aspect of this public interest is that almost any blind person with anything to say is quoted and is often portrayed as offering the definitive word on the experience of being blind.
In 2007 a young man named Ben Underwood got significant coverage for his use of echolocation, a way many of us can listen to reflected sound and detect buildings, parked cars, and other objects that are otherwise silent. When coupled with the use of a dog or cane, echolocation can be very helpful, but most blind people cannot use it without the aid of another tool to find curbs, steps, or small obstacles such as poles or signs. It is a wonderful supplement but does not replace the primary travel tools that make independent mobility possible. When Mr. Underwood got some significant publicity for his use of the technique and was portrayed as believing echolocation made unnecessary the other tools most of us depend upon for independent travel, Chris Danielsen tried to provide some adult perspective on facing the world as a blind person. Most of us know the difficult journey we had in finding a travel tool and then in selling it to families who weren’t happy about anything that made us look blind. We remember how the blind man with the cane too often conjured in our friends and loved ones the memory of a blind beggar they had seen and their resolve to see that we would inherit a better future. Chris tried to address these concerns and in articulating them upset a gentleman who came across the article. Here is what Kai Zander wrote in an email probably intended to reach the Monitor editor--with slight editing to correct punctuation for clarity--followed by President Maurer’s response.
From: Kai Zander
Subject: Braille Monitor article "What It Means to Walk with a White Cane" by Chris Danielsen
To whom it may concern:
I am doing research for a project and just came across a 2007 article in the Braille Monitor entitled "What It Means to Walk with a White Cane" by Chris Danielsen. While this is a five-year-old article, there are comments written by Mr. Danielsen that I cannot shrug off. I am floored that NFB would allow an adult to make fun of, insult, and criticize a child in a published article.
Allow me to backtrack: I am not blind. I do not pretend to understand the struggles the blind and visually impaired must endure on a daily basis. I am not writing you today to slight those difficulties. I came across the article while doing research for a picture book manuscript that I am working on. My main character happens to be blind. As I do not wish to insult or stereotype the community, I have spent countless hours reading articles, watching documentaries and YouTube videos about the blind--specifically blind children. Unsurprisingly, I came across a few articles and documentaries about Ben Underwood, the boy who could "see" with his ears using echolocation instead of a white cane to get around. It's one of those stories that remind people that 1) we haven’t seen it all, 2) the (seemingly) impossible is possible, and 3) believing in yourself and having a positive attitude can change your world. It is a powerful lesson, and Ben Underwood is (despite his untimely death in 2009) a symbol of hope for a lot of people--blind, sighted, old, young, black, white, etc.
Because of his unique ability, Ben Underwood got a lot of attention. He was interviewed by many people and was the subject of many articles and news stories. Apparently fourteen-year-old Ben Underwood said some things that greatly offended the adult writer, Chris Danielsen, and Mr. Danielsen responded and let the world know what he thought of young Ben Underwood: "Young Mr. Underwood did not seem to have any qualms about making a show of himself or about being compared to bats or aquatic mammals" said Chris Danielsen.
Having just watched the documentary, I feel this statement is both cruel and misguided. While Mr. Danielsen also says that the general public considers blind people to be helpless and incompetent-- he bashes a kid for being independent and determined. So the kid isn't doing things the traditional way--did a child deserve such disrespect? Mr. Danielsen basically called him a cocky, uninformed teenager who will soon "have to discover for himself the limits of his own capabilities." The subtext here reeks of a desire for this kid to fail.
I am not trying to disrespect the blind community on behalf of every kid that thought the seemingly impossible, every kid who dared to see what others couldn't--why is there such an urge to take that optimism out. That optimism is one of the most wonderful things we have in this world, but according to Chris Danielsen it's wrong.
So the kid said he would never use a white cane. How is that different than Muhammed Ali saying "I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was"? If that's what it took for Ben Underwood to accomplish what he did, then who cares? I don't think he said, "Anyone who uses a cane is horrible"--he just said that HE wouldn't. Mr. Danielsen took the comments personally and reacted too strongly to a child's comments.
I'm angry that this article still stands on the bulletin. Shouldn't NFB advocate embracing all philosophies? Instead it seems you allowed an adult to target a child. In my book that is unacceptable. It would be different if the scientists who wanted to study Ben Underwood were targeted--but they weren't. It would even be different if the article was written as an open letter to Ben Underwood's family explaining (nicely and respectfully) that the white cane is not a sign of weakness, but they weren't. The article easily could've attacked the media, but it didn't. The comments targeted a minor as the problem-maker; it's a 14-year-old’s fault why people think the white cane is a sign of weakness. A part of your community that you all should be protecting the most was fair game for attacks because why? He was on Oprah? He said something you didn't like? Ben Underwood will never be able to respond to Chris Danielsen's comments as a peer, because he will never be an adult.
I get what Mr. Danielsen was trying to say, but the part about "making a show of himself" and saying basically that he's just another cocky, dumb teenager who doesn't get it was cruel. The article could have been written so much better. Educate us on the power of the stick, without needing to take away Ben Underwood's power.
I do not know the world of the blind, but I do know bullying when I see it. You all let Chris Danielsen target a kid. And three years after his death, Ben Underwood’s inspirational story is stained by this article.
South African double amputee and Olympian, Oscar Pistorius said, "You are not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have". Ben Underwood had an ability. Why does the community seem so determined to deny him of this?
Kai K. Zander
There you have Mr. Zander’s email. Here is what President Maurer wrote in response:
SENT VIA E-MAIL
August 17, 2012
Mr. Kai K. Zander
Dear Mr. Zander:
Thank you for the thoughts contained in your letter dated August 15, 2012. As you might expect, I disagree with many of the conclusions you reach. I know Chris Danielsen to be a gentle man and a gentleman. I don’t think your characterization of him as a bully is warranted.
One of the problems with blindness is that, unless a blind person conforms to an image of inability and isolation, it is not possible to remain anonymous. In other words, all of us who express individual characteristics are on display and under examination much of the time. Any blind person who demonstrates unusual characteristics becomes the subject of public comment. Those who make outrageous statements are regarded as setting standards that others who are blind must meet. That Ben Underwood did this made of him a public figure. He was regarded as exemplifying a standard that other blind people must emulate. Chris Danielsen disagreed with the standard, and he said so. He had no wish to do any damage to Ben Underwood, but he did wish to behave in such a way that Ben Underwood did no damage to him.
The white cane is a symbol of independence. Ben Underwood did not know this. He caused other people to believe that the white cane is a symbol of dependence and inability. This is wrong, and public comment to say that it is wrong is fair. It might be unfortunate that Ben Underwood did not have the option of anonymity, but it is nonetheless true. Because he was not anonymous and because his comments affect others who are blind, it is reasonable for others who have opinions about his advocacy to express them.
I hope one day you will have the opportunity to meet Chris Danielsen. He is generous and gentle. He also has a very good mind and a wish to be of help to his fellow human beings. He has helped thousands of other blind people to achieve opportunities that they might not have had without him.
Marc Maurer, President
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND