by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: Fredric Schroeder is a man who needs little introduction. His work in the United States in the fields of education and rehabilitation is well-documented, and the passion he has for this work and the compassion for the people in it has made him an outstanding representative of blind people. It is not surprising that the world wants a bit of this man’s time. He currently serves as the first vice president of the World Blind Union, and in 2016 he will run for the office of president. Here is the moving speech he gave to a crowd so enthralled by his remarks that one could have heard a pin drop.
I remember Dr. Jernigan saying that, as long as one blind person is subject to discrimination, we are all subject to discrimination. I believe that sums up the essence of our philosophy, the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.
Seventy-five years ago a small number of blind people from seven states came together to found the National Federation of the Blind. The times were hard—very hard. There were no laws prohibiting discrimination against the blind. Employers could openly refuse to hire blind people with no fear of penalty. Buses and trains could refuse to transport blind people, unless they were accompanied by a sighted person. Landlords could refuse to rent to blind people, and hotels could turn away the unaccompanied blind. Many banks refused to rent safety deposit boxes to blind people, and blind people were routinely denied life insurance. When a blind person was hit by a car, the doctrine of "contributory negligence" held that the blind person, by virtue of blindness, contributed to causing the accident, thereby absolving the driver of responsibility for any injury the blind person may have suffered. Literally, blind people were deemed negligent simply by walking the public streets.
In 1940 nearly all blind people were unemployed, and there was no uniform welfare payment to meet basic needs. At that time the vast majority of blind people had to rely on the charity of family and friends for food and shelter. Most blind people suffered abject poverty with little hope of something better. But their hardship was more than the consequence of opportunity denied.
The blind of 1940 were subjugated to the status of virtual wards of the private and governmental agencies for the blind. The agencies exercised nearly total control over their lives. You may think I am exaggerating or overstating the situation, but consider this: in 1940, in my home state of Virginia, the state rehabilitation agency required sterilization whenever two blind people wished to marry. The agency explained that without a sighted person in the home there would be no one to care for the children, but there was a more ominous aspect behind the sterilization requirement. It was believed that sterilizing blind people was necessary to prevent hereditary blindness from being passed on to their children.
Unfortunately, the assumption that blind people live lesser lives was not aberrational to Virginia or unique to a single state official. In 1940, here and abroad, forced sterilization, under the banner of the eugenics movement, enjoyed nearly universal public acceptance. Eugenics was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Sir Francis Galton, first expounded in the 1880s. Galton concluded that the social position of the upper classes of Britain was due to their superior genetic makeup. Early proponents of eugenics believed in selective breeding of human beings and supported the forced sterilization of the poor, the disabled, and the immoral. How do you like that? Not only were we lumped together with the poor--no shame in being poor—we were lumped together with the immoral. I have full confidence in the ability of blind people to be immoral, but no more so than the sighted. But I digress.
In 1924 the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted eugenics legislation known as the “Virginia Sterilization Act.” It was challenged; however, the Commonwealth soon found the courts to be sympathetic to its goal and what eventually became the goal of thirty-one other states, to rid society of those who were presumed to pose an unreasonable social burden. In the United States Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell (1927), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the majority, found that the Virginia Sterilization Act permitting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, "for the protection and health of the state," did not violate the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. That was 1927, and the Virginia Sterilization Act was not repealed until 1974—yes, I said 1974—and, incredible as it may sound, Virginia was not the last state to repeal its forced sterilization law.
In 1940 the times were hard and hope a cruel dream. But out of subjugation and despair, somehow, a small, unimaginably fragile flame of hope first sparked and then gradually took hold and steadied. And from that small flame of hope came action.
My purpose is not to romanticize human suffering. Tyranny and bondage are cruel and defy moral justification; oppression, however well intended, is evil; despair is not the antecedent to enlightenment. But, in the lives of the oppressed, subjugation has been their reality, forcing the choice to endure or rebel. That was the condition of the blind in 1940, and the blind chose rebellion over obeisance. They would no longer endure; they had to rise up and take concerted action. They came together to seek social change, to seek expanded opportunity, to seek the chance to work and live as others do. They knew in their hearts that, joining together, blind people could change their condition and work toward social acceptance.
Reflecting on that time, our first president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, said: “When the founding fathers of the Federation came together at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to form a union, they labored in a climate of skepticism and scorn. The experts said it couldn't be done; the agencies for the blind said it shouldn't be done. ‘When the blind lead the blind,’ declared the prophets of doom, ‘all shall fall into the ditch.’"
Dr. tenBroek’s words remind us that our struggle, then as now, is a struggle against prejudice and misunderstanding; a struggle against the social attitudes that presume inferiority and prescribe isolation. We struggle to free ourselves from the low expectations that constrict opportunity and diminish our humanity. We struggle to rid society of its low expectations for blind people, as we struggle to rid ourselves of those same low expectations—low expectations that crush the spirit. Tragically, far too many blind people, lacking hope, conclude that living to endure is not living at all.
In December 2012, identical twins in Belgium were killed at their own request. The forty-five-year-old men, who were born deaf, spent their lives side by side, growing up together and later sharing an apartment and working together as cobblers. The two men had been losing their eyesight and soon would have been completely blind. According to their doctor, the prospect of being blind as well as deaf was unbearable. After winning approval from Belgian authorities, the two men were given lethal injections, ending their lives.
Under Belgian law people may be assisted to die if a doctor determines that the individual has made his or her wishes clear and is suffering unbearable pain. A member of the Belgian Commission of Euthanasia said that the twins met the legal requirements to end their lives since their suffering was grave and incurable. The official said that, when they became blind as well as deaf, they would not have been able to lead autonomous lives and that with only a sense of touch they had no prospects of a future.
The struggle of 1940 is the struggle of today. It is the struggle against low expectations. It is the struggle against the idea that it is acceptable, even merciful, to euthanize the blind to relieve their suffering and acceptable to sterilize the blind to relieve society of their burden.
While it is true that the forced sterilization of the 1940s is mostly a thing of the past, the underlying attitudes that gave forced sterilization its moral justification and legal protection remain. The courts still leave open the door to state-imposed sterilization, the authority to remove from society the unfit and undesirable. As disturbing as it is to contemplate, the United States Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell has never been overturned. As recently as 2001, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit cited Buck v. Bell to protect the constitutional rights of a woman coerced into sterilization without procedural due process. The court stated that error and abuse will result if the State does not follow the procedural requirements established by Buck v. Bell for performing an involuntary sterilization. In other words, according to the courts, compulsory sterilization is still okay, as long as the rules are followed.
For seventy-five years we, the blind of the United States, have worked together to forge new opportunities for the blind. For seventy-five years we have helped one another to live the lives we want to live, not the lives others prescribe for us, and our progress has been greater than the blind of 1940 could possibly have imagined. Still, while progress has been made, more remains to be done here in the United States and throughout the world, for the blind of the world are truly our brothers and sisters. Their hopes are our hopes; their dreams are our dreams; and their tears are our tears.
In August 2016 the World Blind Union will hold its ninth General Assembly in the United States, here in this very hotel. The General Assembly will be a time for the blind of the world to come together, encourage one another, and plan together, just as we in the National Federation of the Blind have been coming together, encouraging one another, and planning together, now for seventy-five years.
At the 2016 General Assembly, it is my intent to run for the position of President of the World Blind Union. The World Blind Union represents an estimated 285 million blind people around the world—285 million blind people struggling to free themselves from the low expectations that for far too long have defined the boundaries of their lives. The struggle ahead is daunting, but we know that progress begins with hope, the determination to seek a better life and to reject society’s kindly meant but misinformed assumptions about us--assumptions that have been used to justify euthanizing the blind to relieve their suffering and sterilizing the blind to relieve the burden they impose on others.
We must work together to increase access to education for blind children; we must work to expand employment opportunities; we must work together to gain recognition of our basic civil and human rights. And we must nurture and spread the flame of hope born of self-respect and the determination to govern our own lives, here and across the world.
No blind person suffers discrimination alone. As Dr. Jernigan taught us, as long as one blind person is subject to discrimination, we are all subject to discrimination. And the opposite is also true: the success of one blind person is the success of all blind people. The accomplishment of the individual is the accomplishment of us all, and with each step forward our collective future is brighter and more ablaze with opportunity.We must fan the flame of hope until it becomes an all-encompassing conflagration, an irresistible force impelling a change in the public consciousness leading to a change in educational and employment opportunities; a change in civil rights protections; and, most important, a change in the hearts and minds of blind people—a change that begins with hope and turns hope into action, action into opportunity, and opportunity into equality—equality for the blind of the United States and for the blind of the world.