by Glenn Moore
From the Editor: This article is gratefully reprinted from the Illinois Independent, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. How appropriate is the title of this newsletter given the subject Glenn Moore addresses: what does it mean to be independent? How should we react when others question our independence and think we are going too far in trying to demonstrate it? How do we turn our understandable frustration and irritation into meaningful public education? Here is what Glenn has to say:
It started last February, when a Federationist posed a simple question on the IL-Talk listserv. "How do you react when someone says that you spend a lot of time proving you can do things in spite of your blindness?" The question sparked a lively discussion. I suppose any answer to this question depends on what the comment meant in the first place. It also depends upon one's own disposition, attitude, and philosophy about blindness and living.
I think one first wonders, "What was meant by that type of comment?" I find that usually people accuse me of trying to prove myself when I insist on doing something that makes them uncomfortable. I think this is often the case when people call attention to a blind person who is doing day-to-day things. Sometimes the person making the comment seems to think the blind person needs help but, out of stubbornness or an unwillingness to face his or her need, won’t acknowledge it. I wonder if this belief comes from a subjective tendency to focus on the familiar.
At an NFBI convention a couple of years ago, Parnell Diggs related an encounter with a law professor. The professor told him he had no trouble imagining what it is like to be blind; he simply closed his eyes. Why do many blind people find such a remark to be offensive? The professor defined the experience of blindness literally, based strictly upon his own experience of vision. He understood blindness in negative terms as merely the absence of sight, and he reduced the blind person’s life, ambitions, and capabilities by neatly fitting him into the category of a person lacking sight.
I think a lot of sighted bias against blindness is based upon the idea that blindness is an absence of sighted experience. People who think this way focus on the fact that blind people do not gain experience through vision, the sense most sighted people rely on and assume is needed to gain knowledge of the world. The truth is that, while sighted people have plenty of experience with being sighted, blindness is not an absence of experience and knowledge. It's a parallel experience of its own.
If I speak French in a country of English speakers, at times I'll miss something and will want to have it explained to me. However, it would feel insulting to be treated as though I have no language of my own, let alone the ability to comprehend the concepts that can be explained in either language. Blindness has a life and functionality just as sight does. For example, Braille is not an absence of writing; it's a writing system that is not visual.
A common reply to the query about proving oneself was that sighted people sometimes imply, or flatly accuse, a blind person of having an attitude. Some members of the sighted public certainly have attitudes, so why wouldn't some of the blind public have attitudes, too? However, what sighted people tend to perceive as an attitude in the blind may simply be the refusal to fall into expected roles. One lister commented, "There's a basic expectation that we should be grateful for any and all assistance and that we should not be assertive." Another lister noted, "Some of us seem to be more passive than is needed."
Though a comment from the public may actually be on target, it also reflects something about the speaker, who may react for lack of knowledge about blindness. "We blind often expect the sighted to somehow intuitively know what help or non-help to provide," one lister wrote. "We get upset when we feel aggrieved by the ignorant sighted. In the absence of actual knowledge, people invent knowledge in its place."
Another commented, "They see a blind person, and somehow the idea that the situation calls for new rules and exceptional behaviors kicks in." These comments make me consider that it's important to engage people with things they don't understand. If the unique and uncommon become rare and mystical, the word "attitude" may mysteriously appear.
The speaker who claims you're busy proving something may have yet another meaning, and it's not a very flattering one to himself or herself. Suppose the blind person is doing something appropriate, and the sighted person offers intervention that clearly is not helpful, wanted, or needed. The reason the sighted person finds fault may, in fact, have to do with his or her own convenience or agenda. Recently a friend of mine was waiting to board a bus with her guide dog. A woman next to her complimented the dog and asked the dog if she could pet it. My friend politely refused, saying that the dog was working. "Well," the woman replied, "I'm gonna pet you anyway," and so she did.
By addressing the dog while ignoring the owner and dismissing the dog's purpose for being there, I believe the woman expressed her contempt for what she saw as my friend's unacceptable privilege to have a dog in a public place. Her interference with the dog's work was a way to defeat that privilege and passive-aggressively claim her own privilege instead. Though this behavior was not an offer of help, it is not unlike accusing a blind person of copping an attitude for not accepting help that is "for your own good."
Sometimes a person who says you spend (or waste) time proving yourself because of blindness really expects to be inconvenienced if you are left on your own. The person offers help for his or her own convenience and then claims you have an attitude for refusing.
Besides exploring what may lay behind certain comments made to blind people, I also want to consider what it means to prove oneself as a blind person. Some of our listserv members expressed that they were not trying to prove anything or gain attention, but they felt that they were always being observed. One post reads, "Whatever we do in our lives, we are proving ourselves ... as blind people. That's just life."
Another list member wrote, "I feel I'm proving that I can do things all the time ... Maybe I have an attitude. I think it's a healthy attitude for a blind person." Others agreed. "It is a positive attitude that I have. And it is an attitude that keeps me going on a daily basis," said one.
Another commented, "It's that attitude that has got me where I am today." These quotes tell me that proving oneself as a blind person is not an attempt to affect others negatively, but rather a lifelong determination to be unaffected by obstacles.
Most of the varied listserv responses fit under the umbrella of the philosophy belonging to the organized blind movement. Most posts acknowledged that there are times during interactions when blind and sighted people, all of us with our own shortcomings, just don't get it right. "One should endeavor to never lose one's temper," one lister wrote, "but I also think we have to forgive ourselves if we are imperfect."
This comment fits well with another lister's observation that "if we spend time worrying about others' perception of us and try to please others ... we would never be able to live the lives we want. Life is too short."
One safe and winning bet that helps hedge uncertain situations is respect. A sighted person, or anyone offering advice or help, should be honest about why she or he is reaching out. Certain behaviors, such as putting hands on someone, are never appropriate unless it's necessary to protect a person from real danger.There is more to know about blindness than what law professors imagine when they close their eyes. Many sighted people may feel frustrated or unsure about what is best to say or do when a situation seems not to be going as it should. As blind people we can teach them, as long as they're respectful. At the same time, they may know things about a given situation that will be useful to us. It's worth being open-minded without needing to give up being strong-minded.