Braille Monitor                          February 2020

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Sighted Privilege: Recognition of the Problem is the First Step Toward Resolution

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: As a long-time reader and now the editor, I sometimes receive material that makes me uncomfortable. I come to my job with a set of values that have been influenced over a number of years by society, my experience, and my opinions about right and wrong. If I really want to understand somebody else, I have to start by suspending judgment while I read or listen. I have to be careful not to start constructing arguments as to how they are wrong before I actually hear what they have said. I have to work hard at not using their time for speaking as my time for preparing an answer that may agree or disagree with their statement.

Justin Salisbury sometimes presents me with articles that make me do a double take. Usually I read them, shake my head in wonder, and then go back to his email message to write a reply that usually says something like, “Did you really mean to say that you believe this? Isn’t what you really mean a little closer to what is commonly believed, and could you say it in a way that will cause less defensiveness?” Sometimes he agrees, and we work on a rewrite, but often his response is to suggest that I edit his remarks for clarity but trust that he means what he says.

Justin sent this article in early July. I read it, but I was preoccupied with convention planning, and I knew that it would certainly not make our August/September convention issue and that it was likely not to make the October one either, which is still predominantly convention-oriented. I don’t think I responded to him immediately, feeling that we would again go through our email negotiation. He has now gently reminded me that I have had this article for about six months and that he is still interested in seeing it published. This is an appreciated reminder. Having articles fall through the cracks is not impossible, and though I have a system, it is far from perfect. This time I am not going to try to talk him into changing what he sent. I think that indeed he is articulating a concept that will make many of us uncomfortable but one about which we should be aware. Sometimes I enjoy privilege that I do not want, did not work on a way to get, and can’t figure out how to nullify. When I find the end of the line at the airport and an official from TSA or someone working at the check-in counter immediately moves me to the front, what easy and respectable options do I have beyond “no thank you?” How big a scene do I make if the “no thank you” doesn’t work?

When I heard about the idea that I enjoyed white privilege, I took a visceral dislike to it. Certainly there was discrimination against people of other races, but white privilege got under my skin. I didn’t choose to be white. I didn’t work at having white privilege. I put a good deal of energy into seeing that everyone had the same privilege, and I felt that the term was more a statement of blame and accusation than it was a comment about the way things are. I wanted to reject white privilege as one of these newly coined words created by sociologists or activists, and the sooner the concept died away, the better I would feel about it. But concepts that have merit don’t often fade away, and, at least in my case, negative emotional reactions often do give way to rational consideration when one gets beyond feeling he is being blamed for the way things are.

This is a rather long introduction to ask that you work hard at reading this with an open mind. If you believe that something said here is wrong, send it along. Let’s talk about it; let’s figure it out together. As he makes clear, Justin intends this as a conversation starter and not the definitive word on blind privilege. Here is his article:

Throughout the history of our movement, different terms or phrases have evolved to describe phenomena faced by blind people. It appears to me that some of these terms were coined intentionally, while others may have simply been repeated because someone said something that resonated widely. For example, we have the term “hierarchy of sight,” which is a formal term that we often use in the Federation. We also have phrases like “don’t throw the nickel,” which Dr. Jernigan probably never expected us to say as often as we do. When Dr. Alan Dodds was writing the document that we now call “The Nottingham Report,” I doubt that he expected that we would have eventually branded our model of adjustment to blindness training with the words “Structured Discovery.” After spending over a decade as a student of our movement, I am going to attempt to encapsulate some of the themes which I have heard in our movement in one intentional term. I expect that no single person could produce a final and complete description of it at the time of its introduction, but 50,000 blind people can do a pretty good job of it. Thus, if people think that I have missed something, I beg you to fill in the blanks because I want it and because we all need it. The term that I am proposing is “sighted privilege.” The general theme is that being sighted carries a type of privilege in our society.

Often, people in a privileged population resist recognizing their own privilege, and it will be important that I construct my writing in a way that does not make sighted people feel attacked or threatened. I am attempting to do this, so please forgive me if anything appears too harsh. It is common in social situations for people to use examples of how marginalized populations are mistreated in order to demonstrate that the privileged group is not treated that way. Since this is the primary way of highlighting privilege that we observe in our society, I will take this approach, too.

While there are parts of privilege which can be articulated, it is my belief that privilege is one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Either that, or the parts form such a lengthy list that it is too laborious to compile them. It is also common for members of a privileged group to look at a situation of discrimination and write it off as an isolated incident, proceeding to go about their lives as if they never heard about it, while the member of the oppressed minority group may only have enough time to take a half breath before encountering another symptom of their lack of privilege, discrimination. Some people may deem it appropriate to say that discrimination and privilege are like the yin and yang.

I want to be sure that readers understand that I am not comparing sighted privilege to male privilege, but I am going to touch on the topic of male privilege in a way that hopefully helps this discussion. When I first heard the concept of male privilege at the beginning of college, my knee-jerk reflex was to reject it. I quickly thought of all the special opportunities that were given to girls and women for which I was not eligible. I remembered when my middle school class became an all-boys school once per month for about six months because the girls were going off to some program that was preparing them to go to college to study STEM fields. I remembered wishing that I was a girl so that I could have that opportunity, plus we had to go to class while they had field trips. I also remembered all of the scholarship applications that I could not submit because I was not a girl. I remembered how the girls would make $40 or $50 per hour babysitting during high school while the boys could not achieve any kind of similar-paying employment and were never hired to babysit. I felt like I could have been fast-tracked through life with all those extra opportunities if only I had been a girl. I have heard some sighted people say this about the special programs designed to empower blind people.

As I have grown older, however, I think I have come to understand the concept of male privilege much better than I once did. During college, I did a lot of community education work about sexual assault and domestic violence. At the beginning, I was the only heterosexual male who would show up. As time passed, other male students followed my lead, and we got a lot of attention throughout the Southeast for that: men involved in sexual assault programming. I learned that women did not often receive the same kind of respect and credibility when speaking up about this topic, and many of them would be shamed with accusations about their romantic habits using words that I will not put in the Braille Monitor. If a woman said something about sexual assault, far too many people—particularly men—would dismiss every word of what they had said, but, if I said it, people would listen just a little bit more, even if we said exactly the same thing. It shouldn’t be that way, but it all too often is, and it is still that way as I continue that activism today. This discussion only brushes on a small part of male privilege, but I believe that the concept is widespread enough in our society that people can find more information on that topic if they want it. Let me now return to sighted privilege, which also has tons of literature thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, but without that name used for the idea at present.

One night when I was in graduate school at Louisiana Tech University preparing for a career as a teacher of the blind, I remember sitting in my counseling ethics class and making a comment about how a certain counseling theme applied to blindness. I do not remember what we were talking about, but I remember what happened next. People in the class, including the professor, started shifting their weight and feeling uncertain about what I had said. I had the honor of going to graduate school with Joanne Gabias, who was raised by two leaders in our movement and who happens to be sighted. She understood what I was talking about and offered her endorsement of what I had said, elaborating with her way of looking at it. Then, everyone relaxed, they accepted the idea as valid, and the professor resumed with the lecture. Afterward, Conrad Austen, who now teaches at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, was talking to Joanne and me. He explained that the feeling in the room was that it wasn’t really true until a sighted person (someone with sighted privilege) said it, and, since we had a sighted person to validate what the blind person had said, it became true. I hadn’t been able to articulate that, but he did it well. For the record, I think very highly of the faculty involved in the Louisiana Tech University programs preparing teachers of the blind, and I have no anger toward those students who did not understand. If any of them read this article, I would not want them to feel bad about that simple scenario that night, but I would want them to understand that sighted privilege is real.

Now, I will attempt to highlight some of the major parts of sighted privilege. For more information, have a look at any other publication of the National Federation of the Blind. The term may not be used, but the ideas are present.

Assumption of Competence

It is common for sighted people to be given the benefit of the doubt that they are, by default, competent. Thus, they are assumed to be competent unless proven otherwise. Certainly, a sighted person could have other minority identities which disqualify them from the assumption of competence, but it is not their sightedness that is tied to the low expectations. Blind people are often assumed to be incompetent until we prove that we are competent, as if we swim in parallel streams with currents flowing in opposite directions. If I use a cane travel technique that makes me travel a different path from what a sighted person might use, people often assume that I am making a mistake related to my blindness and attempt to help me. For example, if I am walking down a long hallway to go into the last door in a place unfamiliar to me, I might walk to the very end and then come back to the first one. An observer might conclude that I made a mistake and want to tell me that I missed it, but I would still be fully on course as planned. People do not come to this conclusion as a consequence of a traveler’s sightedness. When a blind parent has his or her children taken away because of the assumption of incompetence, the alternative treatment for those with sighted privilege is that people do not default to assuming that sightedness implies incompetence. The same assumption of competence applies to many other areas of life, such as education and employment.

Curse, Shame, and Bad Luck

There are those who believe that blindness is caused by a curse, that blind people carry bad luck, or that blindness is a source of shame. These factors do not take effect for sightedness. People never think “because this person is sighted, there must be bad energy around him or her.” I doubt that anyone has ever been kicked out of a place of public accommodation or ostracized from his or her family because of the fact that they were sighted, but it has happened to many blind people because they were blind. This theme varies culturally, but I am going to go out on a very short limb and say that nobody has ever been treated this way because they were sighted. I have never heard of a sighted person feeling ashamed to be sighted, but I have heard of many blind people who were ashamed to be blind. When I get on a bus and sit down in the middle of a group of people and they all scatter like cockroaches to sit as far as possible from me, I cannot be sure that it is my blindness, but I can be sure that it does not happen to sighted people because of their sightedness.

Equal Access

When things are not accessible to a blind person, this creates a barrier. We generally do not have systems in our society set up in ways that are inaccessible to sighted people. Even if everything currently only in print existed only in Braille, sighted people could reasonably be expected to learn Braille, but blind people cannot reasonably be expected to learn print. When a blind person tries to apply for a job and finds that the online application portal is inaccessible to the blind, that person is forced to find other ways to submit the application. It could be done by asking a sighted person to clear the accessibility hurdle for us, or it could be a matter of contacting a human resources staff member to ask for an alternative arrangement for us to submit our application. Any separate arrangement places us in a segregated pool, and separate but equal has yet to work in human civilization. As blind people we run into access barriers on a daily basis. It may be something critically important, or it may be something minor. Often we cannot tell if it is critically important until we have access to it to know what it is. Even if we have developed ways to problem-solve to get around that hurdle, it is still an adaptation that we need to make that a sighted person would not encounter. These socially constructed barriers limit our participation in education, employment, and other mainstream channels of society. Those who benefit from sighted privilege often fail to recognize the absence of these barriers that they do not face. It is usually not something they requested, but it has been given to them as a part of their favored status.

Availability of Educational Opportunities

It is not difficult to find a teacher who knows how to teach print, but it is quite a task in some places to find a teacher who knows how to teach Braille. The same is true for other kinds of instruction that a blind person may need versus that which a sighted person may need. If a sighted person wants to become a medical doctor, nobody tells them that this might be off-limits because of their sightedness. For many blind children, unfortunately, the response is all too often that becoming a medical doctor would be off-limits because of their blindness. Even if people involved in their education never tell them that this doubt exists, the doubt erodes the interactions with the blind student and the opportunities which that student might have received. If the student is told, “You cannot study abroad because there are no disability accommodations overseas,” that student is missing out on opportunities to grow and develop as a meaningful contributor to the world. A sighted person does not think about how nobody tells them that they cannot do it because of their sightedness, which is part of the first-class status that comes with sighted privilege.

Confirmation Bias

When people have subscribed to the status quo idea of blindness, they have a tendency to be more open to information that confirms their existing beliefs than they are to information which challenges it. Thus, if we transcend the person’s existing ideas of how a blind person should function or act, we are all too often pushed to the back burner of that person’s mental clipboard, especially if they are looking for a blind person specifically. For example, if the coordinator of a conference on urban planning wants to invite a blind person to come speak about how urban planners can help blind people, they may already be hoping for a certain kind of blind person. They may want a blind person who will tell them that we need all kinds of special design features in our built environment. If a blind person tells them that for the most part blind people can adapt to the built environment with little need for modifications, that blind person’s words may not be fully embraced because they do not confirm the existing stereotypes held by those with sighted privilege. For another example, if a conference for teachers of the blind wants to invite a blind person—sorry, a person with a visual impairment—to come and address their membership, they are most likely to want to invite one who will tell them how good a job they are doing and reinforce their existing beliefs about blindness. A majority group does not have to deal with the expectation of confirming stereotypes and complimenting efforts toward integration which may be ineffective or inappropriate. Even with good intentions, the privileged majority may have its way of catering to the minority, which may not actually work well for the minority.

I have also noticed this phenomenon when it comes to government-appointed councils that claim to speak for people with disabilities or oversee disability service programs. With government-appointed councils, those councils are beholden to the political leaders who appoint them; their purpose is often to cement the status quo or whatever rhetoric might be the most politically fashionable at the time. By contrast, the leaders in the National Federation of the Blind are beholden to the members who elect us. When it comes to overseeing disability services, consider a state rehabilitation council in a state with a specialized commission for the blind. This council will be made up of a representative of the client assistance program, a community rehabilitation program, a few more specific classifications, and a number of blind people from that state who have been consumers of vocational rehabilitation at some point in time. If the state rehabilitation council is selected by the governor or some other executive branch leader, they are likely pre-screened by the leadership of the vocational rehabilitation agency. If someone is well-known to hold that agency accountable for its shortcomings, it is unlikely that the VR agency leadership will endorse his or her nomination. The leadership will want people who smile and tell everyone how great the agency is, perhaps just falling in line with whatever they say. This may be influenced by whether the agency is classified as a welfare agency or an education-related agency. Welfare recipients are often told that beggars cannot be choosers and criticized as ungrateful if they ask for anything different from the prescribed service. Sighted people are not expected to confirm existing beliefs about sightedness, but blind people are often expected to confirm existing beliefs about blindness and affirm our service providers no matter what. If we do not, we lose points in whatever processes are relevant at the time.

Biased Selection

People, such as employers or even someone looking for a romantic partner, have an idea of what kind of person they’re seeking. In the general population, it is not normal to expect that the ideal candidate happens to be blind. They just assume that the person is sighted, thus “normal.” When a blind person shows up for the interview, they are all of a sudden different and require cognitive flexibility on behalf of the person who was not expecting to hire a blind person. It may not require much actual work, but open-mindedness is difficult for some people. Furthermore, a person might think, “I would like to hire a blind person for job X.” While I do not at all want to discourage anyone from hiring a blind person, I also think it may be relevant to note that this particular statement demonstrates that a job has already been pre-selected as a “good job for a blind person.” This process of pre-selecting which types of jobs are specifically good for us likely involve some filtering through a set of existing beliefs and stereotypes about blindness. All too often, these jobs that are “good jobs for blind people,” are low-paying jobs involving very low levels of intellectual activity and often involve much repetition in a confined space. If a sighted person says, “I would like to date a blind person,” without someone particular in mind, that mindset can open a whole can of worms. I will leave it up to the readers’ imagination what kinds of expectations and stereotypes the sighted person may have about blind people. Sighted people do not often receive that kind of biased selection filter. The only example that comes to my mind is when a blind person hires a reader or driver; when this happens, it is not done with the assumption that a sighted person is confined to those limited functions to produce value in society because of sightedness.

We who are blind have many allies who have sighted privilege and can use it to help pull us forward. At any given time, it may be that one of them can reach for an opportunity first and then use their new position to welcome in the first wave of blind people to participate in that circle. For example, there may be an employer who is only willing to hire a sighted person for a given job, but then, if one of our allies gets that job, he or she can use it to usher blind people into that setting if we want to be there. I will avoid speculating about when this might have happened, but I am certain that it has, even if the sighted ally might not have realized it at the time. I have heard the story of a sighted woman who was operating an adjustment to blindness training program. She was told by one of her sighted instructors that she needed to stop giving the blind so much power because they would eventually be running that program. She said she thought that would be great, and, once she was promoted above the training program, she hired a blind person to fill her old job. Some noteworthy allies in our quest for empowerment most certainly include Merilynn Whittle, Mary Ellen Jernigan, Lea Días, Joanne Gabias, Dick Davis, Doug Boone, Darick Williamson, Jim Witte, and Floyd Matson to name a few.

My objective here is to introduce the concept of sighted privilege and hopefully allow it to be useful in the narrative about blindness. Sighted privilege is only one dimension of privilege that a person may have. Every person has a race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, etc., all producing varying types of privilege. It is possible for me to have male privilege or heterosexual privilege but not have sighted privilege.

I will also argue that sighted privilege is not perfectly binary, just like male privilege is not perfectly binary. Just as a woman may be given greater respect and promotion potential in the workplace if she exhibits more masculine characteristics, such as a deeper voice or a louder footstep, a blind person with more residual vision may also be given the same partial credit. Some sighted people want to know that a blind person has some useful residual vision as if it gives them more potential to contribute. Some blind people with residual vision may be able to overcome certain access barriers, like when I see a low-hanging tree branch and duck out of the way to avoid hitting my head. Sighted people simply avoid that low-hanging tree branch and think nothing of it most of the time. They surely do not think about how a society constructed for their benefit does not prioritize the trimming of those low-hanging tree branches.

This is how privilege works. It requires no malice, and those who have it did not ask for it. Society is constructed in a way that caters to the majority groups. In the case of the blind, the majority group is the sighted, and they regularly take their sighted privilege for granted. We who are blind do not want to knock down the sighted and limit their ability to enjoy full access to the mainstream channels of society, but we are working together to try to gain that access for ourselves. Sighted privilege is real, and the more society becomes aware of it, the more effectively we can reach for first-class status and enjoy true participation and integration with our sighted neighbors and colleagues.

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