by Justin Salisbury
From the Editor: Justin is a frequent contributor who works valiantly to think aloud with his Federation colleagues. He has points of view that some will endorse, and some will reject. As much as he believes in his decisions, most of his writing is aimed at addressing issues of blindness rather than trying to change the minds of others who disagree with him. I like the fact that he is up for a good discussion on almost any topic, but I also appreciate the fact that he believes the Federation has room for many diverse points of view, and the only issue on which we dare not be divided is equality of opportunity for blind people. Here is what he has to say about the controversial subject of reproductive rights and issues we should consider as Federationists:
We often encounter situations where we need to apply our personal philosophy on life to a given situation. This is true for our specific philosophies about blindness, though I believe that it is impossible for any individual to separate a philosophy about blindness from his or her broader worldview. Because I do a lot of advocacy on disability rights, I have built a broad network full of advocates who have taken an interest in some of the work I have done. I regularly enter into conversations about reproductive rights, and some disability rights advocates are confused about how these topics interact with each other.
We often say that everyone is an individual and is entitled to his or her beliefs. This is true. I have also observed the value of collective action, and I trust the National Federation of the Blind, as the oldest and largest organization of blind people, to elevate the voices of leaders who can communicate its philosophy effectively.
My experience is that the first thing that comes to mind when people hear reproductive rights is abortion. I will say straight off that I do not believe that our organizational philosophy implies that abortion should or should not be legal. As we strive to become more diverse and inclusive, we seem to struggle to figure out whose needs take priority. Depending on your political orientation, you may articulate the two major sides on reproductive rights as pro-choice versus anti-choice, or pro-life versus pro-choice. Should we prioritize the needs of the women who wish to be able to choose what happens with their own bodies or the needs of those people who wish to live in a society where nobody is allowed to participate in an abortion? Many people have conditional belief systems on the topic, such as thinking that abortion is acceptable when the conception occurred under certain conditions. I have strong opinions on the topic, but I am not here to talk about them right now. I do not believe that our organizational philosophy says anything about the broad nature of reproductive rights, but it can be used to articulate how and if blindness should be a factor in reproductive rights.
I think the key in dividing up the topics for discussion is not a matter of separating different kinds of reproductive rights, but that the discussion should instead be framed based on the kinds of blindness-related themes that come up in reproductive rights. In my view and current understanding, these themes are (1) having equal access to reproductive health care, and (2) being influenced to make a reproductive decision because of societal attitudes about blindness. Even these two categories can overlap.
When it comes to accessing any kind of healthcare, blind people face a number of barriers. We are often asked to complete printed forms, and this requires us to work with a reader and scribe, thus divulging our personal medical information to everyone who can hear us. Maybe we have to use an online healthcare billing system or patient care management portal, which can also create access barriers. We also need to be able to research our options, which creates a further divide when some of the channels through which sighted people can research their options are not accessible to us. If the healthcare that we want, need, or prefer is located in a place that is difficult for us to reach given our transportation options, this creates another barrier. These access barriers can all apply to blind women seeking reproductive healthcare. Additionally, the cost of healthcare makes it harder for people to access it, which also applies to blind women, a group earning less on average than blind men, sighted women, and sighted men.
For some types of healthcare, access barriers to information in the process are only available visually. Consider the example of pregnancy tests. As far as I know, there is no nonvisual option for reading a pregnancy test. Thus, a blind woman has to ask a sighted person to read her pregnancy test. I will never have this experience personally, but many women have told me that it can be a deeply emotional experience to take a pregnancy test and find out if they are pregnant. Sighted women have the opportunity to have that moment privately and to be the first human being to know if they are pregnant. Blind women are denied that opportunity. From what I hear, blind women do not generally want to count on their mostly-accurate color identifiers to read the color of the test. If vision were a mythical fifth sense that humans never had, we would likely have developed a pregnancy test that could be read through one of our other senses. I am not aware of any that have been developed to date, but maybe the scientists and engineers who want to invent things for blind people will take a crack at this one, perhaps in a way that bypasses the color identification process altogether.
Blindness should not prevent someone from having the same access to reproductive healthcare that would be available to their sighted counterpart. If sighted women can access the online healthcare information system, blind women should have equal access. If sighted patients can fill out the paperwork privately, blind patients should be able to do the same. For affordability, I am not sure that we should offer a disability discount, but there are funding mechanisms to help low-income patients receive care, and they are disproportionately used by blind patients; thus, we may have an incentive to support those funding mechanisms because of their disproportionate impact on our community. Any access barrier related to blindness should be toppled.
Societal attitudes about blindness can interfere in reproductive rights in many ways. We are working hard throughout the country to establish protections for blind parents to be able to raise children. We have over a dozen states that have passed different iterations of our model legislation, including Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawai‘i. Blind parents and prospective parents have faced much discrimination in the process of trying to become parents or maintain custody of their existing children.
I have heard many discriminatory points of view about reproductive rights for the blind. Some have said that we should sterilize blind people so that we do not risk spreading our blindness to the next generation. Others have said that providers should not give birth control to the blind because blind people should not or cannot engage in romantic encounters anyway. I have also heard that we should force blind women to either have abortions or give their children up for adoption because they cannot or should not be raising children.
I have also heard people speculate that, if a fetus is likely to be blind, the proper action is to seek an abortion so that the child will not have to live as a blind person. Yes, some proponents of prenatal genetic testing say that it is a good thing because then a couple can find out if their fetus is doomed to be disabled so that they can abort it, saving it the trouble of living the life of a blind person. Naturally, many blind people have spoken up loudly against using abortion to terminate a potentially blind fetus. This is a focal point of most of the opposition to a woman’s right to choose from disability rights activists as I understand it. There are many who believe that we would be better off dead than blind. In Hawai‘i, up until statehood in 1959, it was considered normal to kill disabled babies by drowning them in streams or by throwing them off cliffs. It was framed as a matter of human sacrifice. An old legend tells us that the cries that can be heard over cliffs in the evenings are those of the spirits of the sacrificed babies, but an alternative explanation is that these cries come from the birds’ nests built into the sides of the cliffs. This should not be interpreted as any kind of snub at Hawaiian tradition, but I think it provides a clear example of a set of attitudes which has been quite oppressive to people with disabilities. I personally know many people who were born blind, and I can say with certainty that my life is better because they are in it. If they had been sacrificed, euthanized, aborted, or whatever someone would call it, I would not have been able to benefit from the positive contributions that they have brought into my life.
Even though I have more complete personal views on reproductive rights, I do not claim the organizational philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind as support for most of them. I do believe, though, that our organizational philosophy can be applied to say that blindness should not be a factor in a person’s reproductive rights. Access barriers related to blindness should be addressed, and attitudes about blindness should not influence reproductive decisions. No blind person should be told not to have children because they are blind. Nobody should be afraid to have a child for fear it will be taken away. Nobody should be afraid to have a blind child. If they should fear anything, it should be navigating these waters without the backing and the positive attitudes of the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation has created a world where blind people are continuing to approach first-class citizenship, and we all benefit individually as we continue to build it collectively.