by Cricket Bidleman
From the Editor: Cricket Bidleman is a name I think we will hear more often in these pages. She is now our marketing coordinator, but many of us know her from her winning of a national scholarship and her ongoing activity as a Federationist both before and during her time at Stanford. She has interesting observations on normality: is it something for which we should strive, or is it a barrier given its definition and our difference as blind people. Here are some of her thoughts:
“Wow, the way you did that was so efficient. I almost forgot you’re blind.” This kind of rhetoric is annoyingly common in society. The first time I heard something to this effect was when I was very young. I was bothered, but not greatly so, and then I wondered why I was bothered. I couldn’t articulate my feelings, so I actively tried quashing them. After all, these kinds of things are normal.
The explanation is simple, and yet in some ways, not so. What does normal mean?
I read Dr. Kenneth Jernigan’s Blindness: A Left-Handed Dissertation, which asserts that normality is the comparison of a minority to a majority. Jernigan uses the example of most of society being geared toward right-handed people, because right-handed people are in the majority, and are thus normal. He then asserts, and rightly so, that society is geared toward the sighted “normal.”
Think about it. Windowpanes, visual art, technology, movies, vehicles… very few of these are designed from the start keeping the blind in mind. We are an afterthought because we are not “normal.”
This lack of universal design forces the blind to use alternative techniques, which we must often create ourselves; or we are forced to ask for accommodations for equal access, which again places the burden on us. In most cases, we must do both of these.
Even the language that society uses, though perhaps not offensive, is still in favor of a sighted majority. “He’s blind to the issue.” “I was blindsided by that.”… I am not advocating for the elimination of such expressions but am using them to illustrate a point: the word “blind” is clearly used as a negative here. Dr. Jernigan uses the example of someone being “left behind,” or even that it’s good to be “on the right side of history.” The cases are similar.
“Wow, the way you did that was so efficient. I almost forgot you’re blind.” This, I believe, is intended to be a compliment. However, I don’t view it as one, and I’m confident that very few of my blind friends would either. Why is it good for someone to forget an aspect of my identity? If they do this, it’s not unreasonable to guess that they are also forgetting the obstacles that society puts in my way. It would be different to say, “You did that efficiently, despite the extra steps you had to take because of society’s lack of accommodations.” This is ignoring the fact that many women wouldn’t be pleased with people saying, “I almost forgot you’re a woman,” LGBTQ+ people wouldn’t be happy with someone saying, “I forgot your sexuality,” etc. Why does society expect me to be pleased with this language?
When I told people that I was accepted to Stanford, or later when I said I was going to/had gone there, one of the common reactions was “I’m impressed. I bet most blind people couldn’t do that.” I think that’s true, but not because of our disability. It is true, once again, because of the expectations that society has of us. The blind are expected to work in sheltered workshops, not as movie directors; we are expected to let others take care of us rather than to get independence training; we are even expected to let others dictate our needs, because somehow blindness is associated with lack of intelligence, or hearing, or speech.
These expectations create notable obstacles between us and the fulfilling of our potential. The world would have more blind movie directors if society let go of the thought that blindness prevents us from doing it. If people expected us to get independence training, the caretaker mentality would surely lessen. If people asked directly what we need, listened to our replies, and then internalized those, we wouldn’t be forced to shout into the void as often.
Circling back to the concept of the normal majority, I find the contradiction between this constant comparison of blind people to sighted people and the low expectations of the blind incredibly strange. The sighted cannot have it both ways. If we are compared to the sighted, then the expectations should be the same. If we are viewed as inferior as a product of our disability (which is, by the way, out of our control), then why are we being compared to a different population?
Why is normality even important? The concept automatically forces a divide between majorities and minorities. Universal design is less possible if people try catering to the majority rather than to everyone. If anything, this concept of normality is a way for the privileged majority to not stretch their horizons, to seek comfort in the fact that so many others are like them.
Blindness can certainly be correlated with lack of success, but it should never be mistaken as the cause. It is true that 70 percent of the blind remain unemployed. It is true that blind people in general do not excel at heavily visual tasks and that most blind people do not make a living through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, it is truest of all that this is not a product of blindness but a product of society. Lack of proper education, lack of creativity, an unwillingness on the part of the majority to stretch beyond what one perceives to be our limits—the defeatist mindset that comes with the thought, “Oh, they’re blind, so they do blind-people-stuff. They can’t see, so why should we try to help them understand visual concepts?”
In the end blindness itself does not prevent us from doing anything. Low expectations and lack of accommodations do. Start with the premise that blind people should be held to the same standard as everyone else. Acknowledge the difficulties that society puts in our way with lack of universal design, and add that if this was not the case, we could do anything that our sighted counterparts can. This is a much healthier mindset.