Braille Monitor                         April 2021

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Reconsidering Our Resistance to the Idea of Blind Culture

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Some folks can be counted on to deliver the article that makes readers say, “What is he saying? How do I feel about that?” If we gave an award to the author who most frequently writes this kind of piece, no doubt it would be Justin. Sometimes his articles generate letters of affirmation. Sometimes they generate letters and even articles saying, “I don’t think that’s the way it is. Let me explain it to you.” So here is another article that should make us think about our concept of ourselves, our movement, and the blind people who have not yet joined with us. After you’ve read and thought about what he says, please write us and let’s continue the discussion:

In our movement, we have often resisted the idea that there is such a thing as blind culture. I am certain that there will be people reading this article to whom I personally have parroted the talking points about how there is no such thing as blind culture. I am now challenging my own views on this topic and am doing it publicly in order to invite others to do it with me. Some of you who read this article will come up with ways to build upon what I have said, and I want that.

In “The Nature of Independence,” Dr. Jernigan said, “Unless you make advances over what we have done, you will, in a very real sense, fail to keep faith with those who have gone before you and those who will follow. In this context I would expect and hope that some of you will become better travelers (and, perhaps, better philosophers and teachers) than I, and if you do, I will take joy in it.” By questioning our prevailing stance on blind culture and its consequences for some of our movement’s goals in our contemporary landscape, I am attempting to keep the faith.

Most of the talking points that we have come to use in the Federation have been based on the lived experiences of blind white heterosexual cisgender Christian men with no additional disabilities rather than the lived experiences of all blind people. In other words, we’ve gotten good at explaining what it’s like to be white heterosexual cisgender Christian men whose only disability is blindness, but we are now starting to pay more attention to explain what it’s like to be blind and belong to some other minority. This may have influenced our resistance to the term “blind culture” over the years.

I am a mixed-race person, but I can pass for white in many situations. This occasionally lands me in conversations where white people think they are talking to a purely white audience, so I get the opportunity and burden of hearing some pretty candid renditions of white fear and white fragility. Please allow me to explain the following idea before reacting to it: Many White Americans have developed a discomfort with the notion of culture. I am not accusing anyone who has learned this discomfort with the idea of culture to mean that someone is intentionally racist, misogynist, or anything else, but I do believe that there are threads of prejudice that have snuck into the fabric of the outlook of people from privileged majorities. The same is true for oppressed minorities, but the effects are somewhat different. Everyone who has contact with other human beings is vulnerable to prejudice, but we all have to do our best to introspect, reflect, and address the ways that prejudice affects our emotions, thoughts, words, and actions. Sometimes I believe that White Americans feel left out in cultural discussions, as if White Americans do not have a culture, even though they absolutely do. Sometimes there might be a feeling of being left out when members of a minority gather together temporarily or form a more permanent kind of enclave. Sometimes, because White Americans are aware of how they often feel discomfort when they encounter cultures other than their own, they might be afraid to apply the term “culture” to the blind because they do not want to create that discomfort for the sighted.

I don’t know that blind culture contains a robust set of norms or traditions that make us unadaptable to a society dominated by sighted people, but I do know that there are some sighted people who hold the misperception that we are unadaptable to a society dominated by sighted people. I am also extremely aware of how other majority groups often decide that other minority groups are unadaptable to a society dominated by that majority. We all know that there are a lot of White Americans who spread propaganda to frame people of color as lazy beings who would much rather sit home on welfare programs than go out and work for a living. I want to emphasize how the instinctual pullback that many White Americans feel at the mention of “culture” may be obstructing our ability in the organized blind movement to participate as effectively as possible in the broader diversity and inclusion discussion.

Before I discuss prior positions of a few of our leaders from over the years, I want to start by saying that I hold high regard for each of them. I believe that each of them was speaking with the most innovative and cutting-edge collective perspective of the organized blind at the time. Today is a different day, and I think there may be opportunities created for us if we tweak our messaging to make it blend in with the contemporary dialogue.

Some of our leaders have previously contended that blindness is simply a characteristic which does not alter an entire pattern of thought and behavior. I agree that blindness is a characteristic, but our membership in the blind community is also a minority group membership. In fact, before I was born, Dr. Jernigan taught us that the blind were an oppressed minority. Within our minority group, we may have ways in which our patterns of thought and behavior differ from those of the broader society. I wonder if implicit bias and stereotyping toward other oppressed minority groups has informed the feeling that these other minorities had such extremely different patterns of thought and behavior that the blind should not belong in the same conversation.

If we want disability to be included in diversity and inclusion discussions, I think it helps a lot for us to have a clearly defined concept of blind culture. If we don’t do it, someone else will do it for us. In the past, I believe that sighted people’s articulations of blind culture have produced visceral reactions, and we have rejected the concept of blind culture altogether. Some of us may be afraid that blindisms, such as rocking or pressing on our eyes, will be lumped into the concept of blind culture so that society will have one more way to conclude that we cannot blend in. I think there is a middle road where we can discuss the concept without accepting all of the inaccurate articulations of it.

As we are starting to collectively agree through many of our own diversity and inclusion discussions, people have multiple identities, and we live in the intersection of them. This is also true in reverse, with the blind offering a cultural identity to the other identities to which we belong.

In 2019 I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at a professional conference involving the United States Access Board, which was held literally right behind my apartment in Honolulu, Hawaii. The keynote speaker was a fascinating professor from Gallaudet University, and some of his presentation techniques will stick with me for a while. His keynote presentation discussed the idea of deaf space and deaf culture, with the idea that the built environment could be different if it is actually built for people with disabilities. He believes there are actual architectural features that can be associated with deaf space and thus deaf culture. I cannot remember anything specific from his presentation, but I loved his answer to my question when it came time for the Q&A. I laid out for him the idea that some disability communities contend that there is no culture for them, like the blind community, but then the deaf community is proud to have deaf culture. I asked if he thought culture relied on a linguistic identity, like that associated with American Sign Language, or if there was some other way that he could define culture. He paused, and then he told me that he thought culture was a matter of a group having control over a set of norms that could be practiced in that group.

We do have certain community norms that are specific to the blind community. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire country shut down in-person gatherings and switched to conference calls, then to Zoom or similar videoconferencing platforms. When it came to conference calls, in my opinion, many sighted people struggled tremendously to figure out how to take turns speaking on the calls. Blind people were already well-adapted to communicating without visual cues because we do it all the time. We have a custom that works well for us. One person is running the meeting, and people who want the proverbial floor or microphone will say their name. This is like our version of raising a hand to signal a desire to speak. When the moderator or chair of the discussion decides that it is time to acknowledge us, they will, by repeating our name or perhaps giving us a simple “yes” in order to show that they are allowing us to speak. This is a communication norm that comes from blind culture.

I believe that there are sighted people who have adapted to the norms of blind culture so that they can blend in perfectly well. Many of us have had the experience of being shocked when we realize that someone involved in the blind community is actually sighted instead of blind. This feeling of shock was made possible because they had blended into blind culture so well.
I also wonder how much we adjust our speech based on what is most efficient in the Braille code. For example, the word “cannot” is shorter in Braille than the contraction “can’t.” I wonder if Braille readers choose to use the word “cannot” as opposed to “can’t” more often than the average American English speaker does it. I suspect that we do. Braille readership is associated with positive disability identity in the blind community, so Braille readership is associated with blind culture. Using “cannot” as opposed to “can’t” more often than the general public may be a part of blind culture. I do not believe that someone must be a Braille reader in order to fit in with blind culture, but I do believe that blind culture holds a special appreciation for Braille readership.

As with any situation in which we attempt to put our finger on a new concept, I am sure that there will be evolution in my own thoughts on this issue. I wonder if we should find a way to welcome the concept of blind culture for the simple reason that it will help us to get our disability identity included in the broader social emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

I get the vibe that there is a fear that acknowledging a blind culture will lead to us being segregated for it, but I think the answer is not to deny blind culture. I think the answer is to acknowledge that there is a blind culture and then work to ensure that no minority, including the blind, is segregated based on culture.

I don’t currently feel like blind culture is a robust set of different norms, but I think they do exist, and they do matter. I wonder: if we came to accept the idea that there is a blind culture, if we might start to notice more things about it because we are then more open to it. I do not know for sure if I believe that there is a blind culture, but I’m opening myself up to it as a possibility. If more of us do the same, maybe we will come to conclude that blind culture exists, and we can use this concept to help ensure greater inclusion of the blind into society.

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