by Kenneth Jernigan
We who are blind are part of the larger society. We tend to see ourselves as others see us. We tend to accept the false views about our limitations and, thus, do much to make those limitations a reality.
I can offer a personal example. Quite sometime back, an article written by R. H. Gardner appeared in the Baltimore Sun. It was headlined: "Ice Castles A Little Hard to Swallow," and this is what it said:
Several years ago, I was at a party when a friend, for reasons I cannot recall, bet me I could not stand on one foot 15 seconds with my eyes closed. I had been quite an athlete in my youth (10 years old), during which period I could stand on practically any part of my anatomy-head, hands, ears, or toes-for an indefinite length of time.
I accepted the bet.
To my astonishment, at the count of five I began to waver. At seven, the waver turned into a stagger; and at ten I was lost. It was a great shock for a former athlete (even a 10-year-old one), and I have never forgotten it.
For something happens to your balance when you close your eyes. And how much worse it must be if youre blind!
Being blind, a scientist-friend once pointed out to me, cannot be compared to closing your eyes. When you close your eyes, you still see. You see the undersides of the lids with the light behind them.
But what you see when youre blind is what you see out of the back of your head. Theres neither light nor sight of any kind.
I was reminded of all this while watching Ice Castles, a film about a blind figure skater.... Im told there is a blind figure skater upon whose career the film is loosely based. But its hard to believe, in view of my experience trying to stand on one leg...
When I read that article, I pooh-poohed it and laughed it to scorn. So did one of my sighted associates. Then, just to show how silly it was, she closed her eyes and stood on one foot. But the laughter stopped, for she wobbled and fell. Then, she opened her eyes and tried it again. There was no problem. She kept her balance without difficulty.
"Nonsense!" I said. "Let me show you"-whereupon, I stood on one foot-and immediately lost my balance. That incident occurred many years ago, but I still remember it as if it had happened yesterday. Was I shaken? You bet!
After getting over the shock, I did some serious soul-searching. We know that the tests which are made by blindfolding sighted people to determine what the blind can do are totally invalid. I have been among the most vocal in pointing that out. I knew (or, at least, I thought I knew) that balance is a matter of the inner ear, not the eye. Why, then, did my associate fall when her eyes were closed but keep her balance when they were open? Perhaps the fact that she was accustomed to seeing things around her as part of her daily life made the difference, or perhaps (even though she is well versed in our philosophy) the matter went deeper. Perhaps (reacting to social conditioning) she subconsciously expected to fall and was tense. I suggested that she practice a few times with her eyes closed. And what do you know? It worked. In four or five times she could stand on one foot as easily with her eyes closed as open.
But what about me? I have never had any problem with balance. In fact, I was formerly able to walk across an entire room on my hands. So I tried standing on one foot again-and I could do it with perfect ease. If anybody doubts it, I will be glad to demonstrate. Then why did I fall the first time? I reluctantly conclude that (despite all of my philosophy and knowledge to the contrary, despite all of my experience with this very sort of situation dressed out in other forms) I fell into the trap of social conditioning. I hope I wont do it again, but I cant be sure. There is probably not a blind person alive in the world today who has not, at one time or another, sold himself or herself short and accepted the public misconceptions about how limited blind people are, usually without ever knowing it. Prejudice is subtle, and tradition runs deep.
Which brings me back to Mr. Gardner and his newspaper article. He was not trying to hurt the blind, but just to make a living. Nevertheless, based on his single false experience as a simulated blind person, he made sweeping generalizations about our lacks and losses. Do you think he would believe we are capable of equality-that we can travel alone, compete with others for a regular job, and live full and normal lives? Of course not. And his opinions count. He is a member of the press, a molder of thought. And how do you think he would react if one of us brought all of this to his attention?
Probably with defensiveness and resentment. Perhaps he would even help stimulate unfavorable publicity about us, not realizing or admitting why he was doing it-or, for that matter, that he was doing it. Of course, he might not behave that way at all. He might learn from the experience and be a better person for it.
A few years ago I went to a cafeteria with a sighted friend. We took our trays and moved down the line. When we turned from the cash register and started for the table, an accident occurred. A glass of water fell from the tray and splashed on the floor. "There will be those," I said, "who will see this and think the reason I spilled that glass of water is because I am blind."
"You are right," my sighted friend replied; "for you didnt spill it. I did. It fell from my tray, not yours."
All of this was bad enough, but there was more, and worse. I didnt leave it there: "How did you do that?" I asked.
This time my friend (who is as well versed in our notions about blindness as I am) responded with more than a touch of acid: "I did it the same way anybody else would," she said. "I tipped my tray. Do you think it is normal for the blind to be clumsy and the sighted to be graceful? Do you think sighted people dont have accidents? Why did you automatically assume that you were the one who spilled the water?"
It was a fair question, and it caused a lot of reflection. I reluctantly concluded that (despite all of my philosophy and knowledge to the contrary, despite all of my experience with this very sort of situation dressed out in other forms) I fell into the trap of social conditioning. I hope I wont do it again, but I cant be sure. The force of cultural conditioning is powerful, and changes in public attitudes about blindness are hard to set in motion.
If I, who have spent most of my life dealing with the problems of blindness, make such mistakes, how can I blame sighted people when they misjudge or fail to understand? Even though there are still a lot of wrong notions about blindness and what blind people cant do, we are learning and truly making progress. Whether sighted or blind, we should take pride in our accomplishments, but we should mix that pride with a little humility. We should have faith in ourselves and keep both feet firmly on the ground, but we should also know that sometimes we will be found standing on one foot.