by Fredric Schroeder
August 15, 2018
From the Editor: Fredric Schroeder is a person who continues to astound me with the things he thinks and writes. When he speaks at one of our conventions, you can hear a pin drop. He always manages to incorporate interesting pieces from literature, science, or history and make it relevant to today’s experiences for people who are blind. He has long done this for the National Federation of the Blind, but now he is prominent on the world stage as the president of the World Blind Union. Here is an address he delivered on August 15, 2018:
The introduction to a 1902 translation of The Iliad contains the following words by Theodore Alois Buckley: “… we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labor and anxiety to acquire.” (Theodore Alois Buckley, introduction to The Iliad of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope (New York: A. L. Burt, 1902)). These poignant words remind us that the struggle for progress is a struggle against our own human nature—the struggle to abandon the security and comfort of the familiar and step with hope and faith into the unknown. While nearly everything commonly believed about Homer has been drawn from his poems, little is truly known about him or even whether he existed at all.
Homer is assumed to have been blind, based on Demodokos, a blind poet found in The Odyssey. While blind poets were common in the ancient world, concluding that Homer was himself blind based on a reference to a blind poet in one of his works is at best tenuous. Yet, Homer remains an enduring testament to the ability of blind people to find a place in society—a testament to the ability of blind people, for all of recorded time, to work and contribute to the welfare of their communities, however difficult and limited the opportunities were then and however difficult and limited they remain nearly three millennia later.
Was Homer blind? Who knows? But what is known is that there were blind poets in Homer’s day, and the idea of a blind poet authoring one of the world’s most poignant and enduring works would not have been surprising in Homer’s time, and it is not surprising now. We know that blind people are a cross-section of society—some exceptional and others less so. Some ambitious while others not. Some are determined and others are timid. Yet opportunities then and opportunities now remain the exception for the blind, and that is why we have the World Blind Union.
The World Blind Union (WBU) advocates on behalf of the world’s estimated 253 million blind and partially sighted children and adults, but what do we advocate for? Blind people want what everyone wants: we want to live a productive life; we want to work and marry and raise a family. We want to live life in all its richness, with all its joys and opportunities, and we want to live with dignity. So, what stops us?
For the most part, opportunities for blind people are limited by low expectations, that is, by socially constructed barriers to full inclusion. For all of recorded time, blind people have been presumed to be helpless, in need of care. Nevertheless, blind people have shown over and over again that, given the chance, they can live productive, fulfilling lives.
Can blind children learn? Of course, but they need access to school books in Braille, and they need teachers who can teach them and who believe in their ability. Most of all, blind children need society to put aside its preconceptions and recognize that the age-old beliefs about blind people are false and must be replaced.
In the area of education, the WBU led the effort to establish an international treaty that would allow books and other materials produced in special formats for the blind to be shared between and among participating countries. The treaty, known as the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ip/marrakesh/), has now been ratified by forty countries, greatly expanding the availability of accessible materials for blind people living in those countries.
In our modern age, it is anticipated that the majority of accessible materials will be shared electronically. Accordingly, the WBU led an effort to develop a powerful new technology that makes Braille compact, portable, and affordable. At one time books for the blind were limited to specially-produced Braille and large print and later, audio recordings. Today, more and more materials are downloaded electronically and are read by means of what is known as refreshable Braille. Refreshable Braille devices display Braille characters with pins that rise and fall, but until recently, refreshable Braille devices were prohibitively expensive—typically over $5,000. In response, the WBU led an effort to develop the Orbit Reader, a refreshable Braille device costing under $500, one tenth the cost of previous devices.
Can blind adults work? Of course, but they need access to training and special technology that enables them to read computer screens and perform other work-related tasks. Most of all, blind adults need society to put aside its preconceptions and recognize that the age-old beliefs about blind people are false and must be replaced.
In the area of employment, the WBU helped develop and is now advocating the ratification of an international treaty, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that calls on countries to adopt a wide range of civil rights protections banning discrimination against blind people in employment. In addition to advocating for legal protections, the WBU has developed online resources (Project Aspiro) that provide information about the types of work blind people are doing and the training and tools that make high quality employment possible.
Can blind people travel safely and independently? Of course, but they face barriers brought about by changes to the environment that were made without considering the impact on blind people. Most of all, blind people need society to put aside its preconceptions and recognize that the age-old beliefs about blind people are false and must be replaced.
For example, new electric and hybrid cars are increasingly common. Cars traveling on electric power are essentially silent, meaning they present a danger to pedestrians, especially blind pedestrians who rely on sound to judge when it is safe to cross a road. As a result, the WBU is working with the UN to develop a worldwide standard that would require manufacturers to equip electric and hybrid cars with a sound device that will alert pedestrians, including blind pedestrians, to the presence of very quiet cars.
Whether it is education, employment, or community life, blind people have the ability to live as do others. Sometimes what is needed is new technology or special training, but what is always needed is an understanding that blind people can participate in the full range of activities others enjoy. In Buckley’s introductory words to The Iliad, “To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired.” (Theodore Alois Buckley, introduction to The Iliad of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope (New York: A. L. Burt, 1902)). Blindness need not isolate blind people, but low expectations can and often do.
We ask only the opportunity, the fair opportunity, to live as you live; to learn and to work; to dream and plan; to hope and aspire; to live normal lives free from the assumptions of the past. Said another way, we ask your understanding; we ask your friendship. For, as Homer, in his epic poem The Odyssey, reminds us, “…a friend with an understanding heart is worth no less than a brother.” (Homer. The Odyssey of Homer (VIII. 585–586), trans. George Herbert Palmer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1894)).