Part II: The Building Blocks of Freedom: Mobility, Equality, and Independence

When the National Federation of the Blind was founded in 1940, the prevailing attitude about blindness was that the blind were helpless, that blindness signified inferiority, and that (with rare exceptions) those who are blind are incapable of productive activity. The philosophy of the Federation indicated that this tragic view of blindness was incorrect. By personal example, by public presentation, and by the written word, Dr. Jernigan sought to change this perception. In a continuing stream of speeches and articles he explained and demonstrated the principle that blind people (taken as a cross section of society) are the same as sighted people except that they cannot see. Blind people are not weird, but normal; not peculiar, but similar to you and your neighbor. Blindness need not be a handicap unless it is misunderstood. This concept was articulated in detail in an address first delivered to a convention of the National Federation of the Blind held in the 1960’s. This speech, reprinted a number of times, is, "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic." This is what Dr. Jernigan said:


From the Editor Emeritus: The first formal presentation of "Blindness-Handicap or Characteristic" was when I gave it as the banquet speech at the 1963 convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Philadelphia. However, I had been developing the ideas embodied in it for more than a decade, using them in classes at the Tennessee School for the Blind and later at the California and Iowa orientation centers.

After the Philadelphia convention I made a few revisions and gave the speech again in Albuquerque-in either 1963 or 1964. I don’t remember which. In any case it was at a district meeting of Governors’ Committees on Employment of the Handicapped for a number of southwestern states. The version presented at that time is the one we have used ever since, and I think it is fair to say that it has been (and still is) regarded as a cornerstone of our philosophy. It has probably been the subject of more attacks than most documents we have ever issued, and it has also been, according to many Federationists, a great help to them in forming their ideas about what blindness is and what it isn’t.

I think I haven’t revised "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic" for at least three decades, nor do I think it needs much revising now. It still represents the basic core of what I believe about blindness. It occurs to me, however, that a number of newer Federationists may not be familiar with this germinal document, so I thought it might be well to print it again in the Monitor.

When I wrote it, I was director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, and I have left it that way. Even so, a certain amount of superficial changing has been done. Here and there I have given a nod to political correctness, and I have done some jumping backward and forward in time. This leaves a few rough edges, but the body of the document is left intact. So here, with the exceptions I have mentioned, is "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic" as I wrote it over thirty years ago:

It has been wisely observed that philosophy bakes no bread. It has, with equal wisdom, been observed that without a philosophy no bread is baked. Let me talk to you then about philosophy-my philosophy about blindness-and, in a broader sense, my philosophy concerning handicaps in general.

One prominent authority recently said, "Loss of sight is a dying. When, in the full current of his sighted life, blindness comes on a man, it is the end, the death, of that sighted life...It is superficial, if not naive, to think of blindness as a blow to the eyes only, to sight only. It is a destructive blow to the self-image of a man...a blow almost to his being itself!"

This is one view, a view held by a substantial number of people in the world today. But it is not the only view. In my opinion it is not the correct view. What is blindness? Is it a "dying"?

No one is likely to disagree with me if I say that blindness, first of all, is a characteristic. But a great many people will disagree when I go on to say that blindness is only a characteristic. It is nothing more or less than that. It is nothing more special, more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests. When we understand the nature of blindness as a characteristic-a normal characteristic like hundreds of others with which each of us must live-we shall better understand the real needs to be met by agencies serving the blind, as well as the false needs which should not be met.

By definition a characteristic-any characteristic-is a limitation. A white house, for example, is a limited house; it cannot be green or blue or red; it is limited to being white. Likewise every characteristic-those we regard as strengths as well as those we regard as weaknesses-is a limitation. Each one freezes us to some extent into a mold; each restricts to some degree the range of possibility, of flexibility, and very often of opportunity as well. Blindness is such a limitation. Are blind people more limited than others?

Let us make a simple comparison. Take a sighted person with an average mind (something not too hard to locate); take a blind person with a superior mind (something not impossible to locate)-and then make all the other characteristics of these two exactly equal (something which certainly is impossible). Now, which of the two is more limited? It depends, of course, on what you want them to do. If you are choosing up sides for baseball, then the blind person is more limited-that is, he or she is "handicapped." If you are hunting somebody to teach history or science or to figure out your income tax, the sighted person is more limited or "handicapped."

Many human characteristics are obvious limitations; others are not so obvious. Poverty (the lack of material means) is one of the most obvious. Ignorance (the lack of knowledge or education) is another. Old age (the lack of youth and vigor) is yet another. Blindness (the lack of eyesight) is still another. In all these cases the limitations are apparent, or seem to be. But let us look at some other common characteristics which do not seem limiting. Take the very opposite of old age-youth. Is age a limitation in the case of a youth of twenty? Indeed it is, for a person who is twenty will not be considered for most responsible positions, especially supervisory or leadership positions. He or she may be entirely mature, fully capable, in every way the best qualified applicant for the job. Even so, age will bar the person from employment. He or she will be classified as too green and immature to handle the responsibility. And even if the person were to land the position, others on the job would almost certainly resent being supervised by one so young. The characteristic of being twenty is definitely a limitation.

The same holds true for any other age. Take age fifty, which many regard as the prime of life. The person of fifty does not have the physical vigor he or she had at twenty; and, indeed, most companies (despite recent legislation to the contrary) will not start a new employee at that age. When I first wrote those words in the 1960’s, the Bell Telephone System (yes, it was the Bell System at that time) had a general prohibition against hiring anybody over the age of thirty-five. But it is interesting to note that the United States Constitution has a prohibition against having anybody under thirty-five run for President. The moral is plain: any age carries its built-in limitations.

Let us take another unlikely handicap-not that of ignorance, but its exact opposite. Can it be said that education is ever a handicap? The answer is definitely yes. In the agency which I headed (I was director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind from 1958 to 1978) I would not have hired Albert Einstein under any circumstances if he had been alive and available. His fame (other people would have continually flocked to the agency and prevented us from doing our work) and his intelligence (he would have been bored to madness by the routine of most of our jobs) would both have been too severe as limitations.

Here is an actual case in point. When I was director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind, a vacancy occurred on the library staff. Someone was needed to perform certain clerical duties and take charge of shelving and checking books. After all applicants had been screened, the final choice came down to two. Applicant A had a college degree, was seemingly alert, and clearly had more than average intelligence. Applicant B had a high school diploma (no college), was of average intelligence, and possessed only moderate initiative. I hired applicant B. Why? Because I suspected that applicant A would regard the work as beneath him, would soon become bored with its undemanding assignments, and would leave as soon as something better came along. I would then have to find and train another employee. On the other hand, I felt that applicant B would consider the work interesting and even challenging, that he was thoroughly capable of handling the job, and that he would be not only an excellent but also a permanent employee. In fact, he worked out extremely well.

In other words, in that situation the characteristic of education-the possession of a college degree-was a limitation and a handicap. Even above-average intelligence was a limitation, and so was a high level of initiative. There is a familiar bureaucratic label for this unusual disadvantage: it is the term "overqualified."

This should be enough to make the point-which is that if blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the same way as innumerable other characteristics to which human flesh is heir. I believe that blindness has no more importance than any of a hundred other characteristics and that the average blind person is able to perform the average job in the average place of business, and do it as effectively as the average sighted person similarly situated. The above average can compete with the above average, the average with the average, and the below average with the below average-provided (and it is a large proviso) that he or she is given training and opportunity.

Often when I have advanced this proposition, I have been met with the response, "But you can’t look at it that way. Just consider what you might have done if you had been sighted and still had all the other capacities you now possess."

"Not so," I reply. "We do not compete against what we might have been, but only against other people as they now are, with their combination of strengths and weaknesses, handicaps and limitations." If we are going down that track, why not ask me what I might have done if I had been born with Rockefeller’s money, the brains of Einstein, the physique of the young Joe Louis, and the persuasive abilities of Franklin Roosevelt? (And do I need to remind anyone, in passing, that FDR was severely handicapped physically?) I wonder if anyone ever said to him:

"Mr. President, just consider what you might have done if you had not had polio!"

Others have said to me, "But I formerly had sight, so I know what I am missing."

To which I might reply, "And I was formerly twenty, so I know what I am missing." Does this mean that I should spend my time grieving for the past? Or alternatively should I deal with my current situation, sizing up its possibilities and problems and turning them to my advantage? Our characteristics are constantly changing, and we are forever acquiring new experiences, limitations, and assets. We do not compete against what we formerly were but against other people as they now are.

In a recent issue of a well-known professional journal in the field of work with the blind, a blinded veteran, who is now a college professor, puts forward a notion of blindness radically different from this. He sets the limitations of blindness apart from all others and makes them unique. Having done this, he can say that all other human characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses belong in one category-and that with regard to them the blind and the sighted are just about equal. But the blind person also has the additional and unique limitation of blindness. Therefore, there is really nothing the blind person can do quite as well as the sighted person, and he or she can continue to hold his or her job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

What this blind professor does not observe is that the same distinction he makes regarding blindness could be made with equal plausibility with respect to any of a dozen-perhaps a hundred-other characteristics. For example, suppose we distinguish intelligence from all other traits as uniquely different. Then the person with above 125 IQ is just about the same as the person with below 125 IQ-except for intelligence. Therefore, the college professor with less than 125 IQ cannot really do anything as well as the person with more than 125 IQ-and can continue to hold his or her job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

"Are we going to assume," says this blind professor, "that all blind people are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think not." But why, I ask, should we single out the particular characteristic of blindness? We might just as well specify some other. For instance, are we going to assume that all people with less than 125 IQ are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

This consideration brings us to the problem of terminology and semantics-and therewith to the heart of the matter of blindness as a handicap. The assumption that the limitation of blindness is so much more severe than others that it warrants being singled out for special definition is built into the very warp and woof of our language and psychology. Blindness conjures up a condition of unrelieved disaster-something much more terrible and dramatic than other limitations. Moreover, blindness is a conspicuously visible limitation, and there are not so many blind people around that there is any danger that the rest of the population will become accustomed to it or take it for granted. If all of those in our midst who possess an IQ under 125 exhibited, say, green stripes on their faces, I suspect that they would begin to be regarded as inferior to the non-striped-and that there would be immediate and tremendous discrimination.

When someone says to a blind person, "You do things so well that I forget you are blind-I simply think of you as being like anybody else," is that really a compliment? Suppose one of us went to France, and someone said: "You do things so well that I forget you are an American and simply think of you as being like anyone else." Would it be a compliment? Of course, the blind person should not wear a chip on the shoulder or allow himself or herself to become angry or emotionally upset. The blind person should be courteous and should accept the statement as the compliment it is meant to be. But the blind person should also understand that it is really not complimentary. In reality it says: "It is normal for blind people to be inferior and limited, different and much less able than the rest of us. Of course, you are still a blind person and still much more limited than I, but you have compensated for it so well that I almost forget that you are my inferior."

The social attitudes about blindness are all-pervasive. Not only do they affect the sighted but the blind as well. This is one of the most troublesome problems which we have to face. Public attitudes about the blind too often become the attitudes of the blind. The blind tend to see themselves as others see them. They too often accept the public view of their limitations and thus do much to make those limitations a reality.

Several years ago Dr. Jacob Freid (at that time a young teacher of sociology and later head of the Jewish Braille Institute of America) performed an interesting experiment. He gave a test in photograph identification to black and white students at the university where he was teaching. There was one photograph of a black woman in a living room of a home of culture-well furnished with paintings, sculpture, books, and flowers. Asked to identify the person in the photograph, the students said she was a "cleaning woman," "housekeeper," "cook," "laundress," "servant," "domestic," or "nanny." The revealing insight is that the black students made the same identification as the white students. The woman was Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most famous black women of her time, founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College, who held a top post during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and a person of brilliance and prestige in the world of higher education. What this incident tells us is that education, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and that when members of a minority group do not have correct and complete information about themselves, they accept the stereotypes of the majority group even when they are false and unjust. Even today, after so many years of the civil rights movement, one wonders how many blacks would make the traditional and stereotyped identification of the photograph-if not verbally, at least in their hearts.

Similarly with the blind-the public image is everywhere dominant. This is the explanation for the attitude of those blind persons who are ashamed to carry a white cane or who try to bluff sight which they do not possess. Although great progress is now being made, there are still many people (sighted as well as blind) who believe that blindness is not altogether respectable.

The blind person must devise alternative techniques to do many things which would be done with sight if he or she had normal vision. It will be observed that I say alternative, not substitute techniques, for the word "substitute" connotes inferiority, and the alternative techniques employed by the blind person need not be inferior to visual techniques. In fact, some are superior. Of course, some are inferior, and some are equal.

In this connection it is interesting to consider the matter of flying. In comparison with the birds, humans begin at a disadvantage. They cannot fly. They have no wings. They are "handicapped." But humans see birds flying, and they long to do likewise. Humans cannot use the "normal," bird-like method, so they begin to devise alternative techniques. In jet airplanes humans now fly higher, farther, and faster than any bird that has ever existed. If humans had possessed wings, the airplane would probably never have been devised, and the inferior wing-flapping method would still be in general use.

This matter of our irrational images and stereotypes with regard to blindness was brought sharply home to me in the early 1960’s during the course of a rehabilitation conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. I found myself engaged in a discussion with Father Carroll, a well-known leader in the field of work with the blind at that time. Father Carroll held quite different views from those I have been advancing. The error in my argument about blindness as a characteristic, he advised me, was that blindness is not in the range of "normal" characteristics. Therefore, its limitations are radically different from those of other characteristics falling within the normal range. If a normal characteristic is simply one possessed by the majority in a group, then it is not normal to have a black skin in America or a white skin in the world at large. It is not normal to have red hair or to be over six feet tall. If, on the other hand, a normal characteristic is simply what this or some other authority defines as being normal, then we have a circular argument-one that gets us nowhere.

In this same discussion I put forward the theory that a person who was sighted and of average means and who had all other characteristics in common with a blind person of considerable wealth would be less mobile than the blind person. I had been arguing that there were alternative techniques (not substitute) for doing those things which one would do with sight if one had normal vision. Father Carroll, as well as several others, had been contending that there was no real, adequate substitute for sight in traveling about. I told the story of a wealthy blind man I know who goes to Hawaii or some other place every year and who hires sighted attendants and is much more mobile than any sighted person I know who has ordinary means since most of the people I know can’t go to Hawaii at all. After all of the discussion and the fact that I thought I had conveyed some understanding of what I was saying, a participant in the conference said-as if he thought he was really making a telling point, "Wouldn’t you admit that the wealthy man in question would be even more mobile if he had his sight?"

This brings us to the subject of services to the blind, and more exactly to their proper scope and direction. There are, as I see it, four basic types of services now being provided to blind persons by public and private agencies and volunteer groups in this country. They are:

1. services based on the theory that blindness is uniquely different from other characteristics and that it carries with it permanent inferiority and severe limitations upon activity;

2. services aimed at teaching the blind person a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness-based on the premise that the prevailing social attitudes, assimilated involuntarily by the blind person, are mistaken in content and destructive in effect;

3. services aimed at teaching alternative techniques and skills related to blindness; and

4. services not specifically related to blindness but to other characteristics (such as old age and lack of education), which are nevertheless labeled as "services to the blind" and included under the generous umbrella of the service program.

For purposes of this discussion, categories three and four are not relevant since they are not central to the philosophical point at issue. We are concerned here with categories one and two. An illustration of the assumptions underlying the first of these four types of services (category one) is the statement quoted earlier which begins, "Loss of sight is a dying." At the Little Rock conference already mentioned, Father Carroll (who was the one who made the statement) elaborated on the tragic metaphor by pointing out that "the eye is a sexual symbol" and that, accordingly, the man who has not eyes is not a "whole man." He cited the play Oedipus Rex as proof of his contention that the eye is a sexual symbol. I believe that this misses the whole point of the classic tragedy. Like many moderns, the Greeks considered the severest possible punishment to be the loss of sight. Oedipus committed a mortal sin. Unknowingly he had killed his father and married his mother. Therefore, his punishment must be correspondingly great. But that is just what his self-imposed blindness was-a punishment, not a sexual symbol.

But Father Carroll’s view not only misses the point of Oedipus Rex-it misses the point of blindness. And in so doing it misses the point of services intended to aid the blind. For according to this view what the blind person needs most desperately is the help of a psychiatrist-of the kind so prominently in evidence at several of the centers and agencies for the blind throughout the country. According to this view what the blind person needs most is not travel training but therapy. Blind persons will be taught to accept their limitations as insurmountable and their difference from others as unbridgeable. They will be encouraged to adjust to their painful station as second-class citizens and discouraged from any thought of breaking and entering the first-class compartment. Moreover, all of this will be done in the name of teaching them "independence" and a "realistic" approach to their blindness.

The two competing types of services for the blind-categories one and two on my list of four-with their underlying conflict of philosophy may perhaps be clarified by a rather fanciful analogy. All of us recall the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Suddenly, in the 1930’s, the German Jews were told by their society that they were "handicapped" persons-that they were inferior to other Germans simply by virtue of being Jews. Given this social fact, what sort of adjustment services might we have offered to the victim of Jewishness? I suggest that there are two alternatives-matching categories one and two on my list of four.

First, since the Jews have been "normal" individuals until quite recently, it will, of course, be quite a shock (or "trauma" as modern lingo has it) for them to learn that they are permanently and constitutionally inferior to others and can engage only in a limited range of activities. They will, therefore, require a psychiatrist to give them counseling and therapy and to reconcile them to their lot. They must "adjust" to their handicap and "learn to live" with the fact that they are not "whole men and women." If they are, as the propaganda would have it, "realistic" they may even manage to be happy. They can be taken to an adjustment center, where they may engage in a variety of routine activities suitable to Jews. Again, it should be noted that all of this will be done in the name of teaching them how to accept reality as Jews. That is one form of adjustment training.

In the case of Nazi Germany, of course, the so-called "adjustment training" for the Jews passed the bounds of sanity and ended in the death camps of the Holocaust. The custody and control with which we as blind persons deal do not generally in present-day society express themselves in such barbarous forms, but it should be remembered that blind babies were uniformly exposed on the hillsides to die in earlier times. Today’s custodial attitudes about the blind are more often than not kindly meant-especially if the blind are submissive and grateful and if they are willing to stay in their places. In fact, with respect to the blind, the day of custodialism is hopefully passing.

We know what happened to the Jews and others in Nazi Germany who rejected the premise that Jewishness equalled inferiority. The problem was not in Jewishness but in the perceptions of others. Any real so-called "adjustment" would have needed to involve equal treatment and human rights. The problem was centered not in the individual but in society and society’s perception of the individual. In such circumstances (even if anybody had been inclined to use one) the psychiatrist would not have been helpful. The so-called professionalism of the Nazi psychiatrist would have made no difference since such professionals likely had the same misconceptions about Jews as the rest of Nazi society. The emphasis could not be on resignation; it had to be on rebellion. That is how it might have worked if even the rudiments of civilization had continued, but Hitler’s madness put an end to dialogue, and to a great deal more.

Even though we live in a different country and a different time, there is much we can learn by contemplating the interaction between Nazi society and the Jews. False perceptions about minorities that begin as nothing more than distaste or a feeling of superiority can magnify to a point of separation from reality. What seemed unthinkable yesterday can become acceptable today, commonplace tomorrow, and fanatical dogmatism the day after that. Both minorities and majorities can be dehumanized in the process.

Be that as it may, we must deal with the problems of our own time and society (and in our case, particularly with the problems of the blind). We must do it with all of the understanding and freedom from preconception we can muster. There are still vast differences in the services offered by various agencies and volunteer groups doing work with the blind throughout the country. At the Little Rock conference to which I have already referred, this was even more apparent than it is today, and the differences of philosophy repeatedly surfaced. For instance, when blind persons come to a training center, what kind of tests do you give them, and why? In Iowa (at least this is how it was in the ‘60’s) and in some other centers, the contention is that the blind person is a responsible individual and that the emphasis should be on his or her knowing what he or she can do. Some of the centers represented at that Little Rock conference in 1962 contended that blind trainees needed psychiatric help and counseling (regardless of the circumstances and merely by virtue of their blindness) and that the emphasis should be on the center personnel’s knowing what the student could do. I asked them whether they thought services in a training center for the blind should be more like those given by a hospital or those given by a law school. In a hospital the person is a "patient." This is, by the way, a term coming to be used more and more in rehabilitation today. (That is what I said in 1962, but I am glad to say that more than thirty years later we have made a considerable amount of progress in this area.)

With respect to patients the doctors decide whether they need an operation and what medication they should have. In reality "patients" make few of their own decisions. Will the doctor "let" him or her do this or that?

In a law school, on the other hand, the "students" assume responsibility for getting to their own classes and organizing their own work. They plan their own careers, seeking advice to the extent that they feel the need for it. If students plan unwisely, they pay the price for it, but it is their lives. This does not mean that the student does not need the services of the law school. He or she probably will become friends with the professors and will discuss legal matters with them and socialize with them. From some the student will seek counsel and advice concerning personal matters. More and more the student will come to be treated as a colleague. Not so the "patient." What does he or she know about drugs and medications? Some of the centers represented at the Little Rock conference were shocked that we at the Iowa Commission for the Blind "socialized" with our students and invited them to our homes. They believed that this threatened what they took to be the "professional relationship."

Our society has so steeped itself in false notions concerning blindness that it is most difficult for people to understand the concept of blindness as a characteristic, as well as the type of services needed by the blind. As a matter of fact, in one way or another, the whole point of all I have been saying is just this: Blindness is neither a dying nor a psychological crippling. It need not cause a disintegration of personality, and the stereotype which underlies this view is no less destructive when it presents itself in the garb of modern science than it was when it appeared in the ancient raiment of superstition and witchcraft.

Throughout the world, but especially in this country, we are today in the midst of a vast transition with respect to our attitudes about blindness and the whole concept of what handicaps are. We are reassessing and reshaping our ideas. In this process the professionals in the field cannot play a lone hand. In fact, the organized blind movement must lead the way and form the cutting edge. Additionally it is a cardinal principle of our free society that the citizen public will hold the balance of decision. In my opinion, it is fortunate that this is so, for professionals can become limited in their thinking and committed to outworn programs and ideas. The general public must be the balance staff, the ultimate weigher of values and setter of standards. In order that the public may perform this function with reason and wisdom, it is the duty of the organized blind movement to provide information and leadership and to see that the new ideas receive the broadest possible dissemination. But even more important, we must as blind individuals-each of us-examine ourselves to see that our own minds are free from prejudice and preconception.