Blindness—The New Generation

An Address Delivered by Kenneth Jernigan
President, National Federation of the Blind
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention 1972

When I was a schoolboy taking literature classes, there was a helpful formula which told something of the development of the short story in America. It went like this: "Poe standardized it; Bret Harte localized it; Hawthorne moralized it; O'Henry humanized it; and Mark Twain humorized it."

It seems to me that this formula, with a little rearrangement, might well apply to the problem of blindness as it has come to be defined and dealt with by various social groups and interests. Thus we might say of blindness that many of the professional agencies tend to dehumanize it; the experts jargonize it; the counselors psychoanalyze it; the journalists sentimentalize it; the fund raisers melodramatize it; and the organized blind—what do we do?—we recognize it, naturalize it, and seek to de-mythicize it.

In the face of all these "izers" and "izings," it might seem there is no end of attitudes and approaches to the problem of blindness. But I believe that underlying all the variations there are two fundamentally opposing viewpoints: One of which is positive, still believed only by a minority, and true; the other of which is negative, widely accepted as fact, and thoroughly false. In one way or another everything we of the National Federation of the Blind do or say recognizes this philosophical conflict. It has been so since our founding in 1940.

We must never forget the historic and social significance of our movement or lose perspective in the momentary triumph of victory or sadness of defeat. The course is well marked and clear. It has been from the beginning; and, unless we lose our nerve or betray our ideals, there can be absolutely no question that the future is ours.

The first 32 years constituted a generation of growth: From infancy to maturity, from weakness to strength, from innocence to experience. It was also a generation of struggle, against alien forces from without and dissident forces from within—a struggle for survival and a test of endurance. That baptismal generation is now over and finished. The struggle has been won: The tasks of early growth completed. We are now well into our second generation.

At first glance it might seem that today we find ourselves on a new battlefield, facing new issues: As—in fact, to some extent—we do. The problems of the future, which even now press upon us, might initially seem to be quite different from the problems of the past—but this is more appearance than reality.

During the first generation of the Federation, Dr. tenBroek, our beloved leader, talked to us year after year about the misconceptions and stereotypes of blindness, the false images and ancient superstitions which dog our steps and are believed by a majority of the workers in governmental and private agencies, as well as by the public at large. These misconceptions and stereotypes, these false myths and images, still dog our steps and are still our principal problem. The thing that has changed is our strength and our numbers, and particularly, the momentum of our impact and our sense of purpose. The problem is the old problem— but we are not the old we—let there be no mistake about that. We are a new breed, the organized blind; and we are abroad in the land. We have come of age—with united action, organizational experience, resources, self-awareness, self-belief, and unshakable determination.

In the justice of our cause (and regardless of the costs) we are absolutely unstoppable and unbeatable. An increasing percentage of the public is beginning to understand, and even the agencies and foundations (some gladly and some with mulish bad temper) are coming to recognize the facts of life.

Therefore, I come to you tonight—as I have done on previous occasions and as Dr. tenBroek did before me—to talk to you about our problems as individuals and as a movement, and to plan with you the concerted action we must take.

As I have said, the choice is fundamentally one of competing philosophies. On one side is the philosophy which regards the blind as innately different and inferior to the sighted. On the other side is the philosophy which regards us as innately normal and equal to the sighted. These two conceptions compete with one another in virtually every area of life—from occupation to recreation, and from cradle to grave. One of them regards blindness as a dead end; the other regards it as a live option.

Let me offer you an illustration from what may seem the relatively unimportant area of recreation. I would not mention it at all if it were unique or exceptional. But it is not. It is the typical and standard thinking which pervades the field of work with the blind today—which fills the journals, saturates the conferences, and motivates the actions of the so-called "professionals." It is the very heart and soul of what we as blind people must change if we are to be free citizens instead of wards— and change it we will.

A short time ago I received a book from Brigham Young University, accompanied by a letter which read: "Dear Sir: If you believe that the blind person needs to enlarge his narrowed horizons and keep himself physically strong and toned, you will be interested in the first edition of one of our newer books SWIMMING F0R THE BLIND, by Gloria R. Seamons." The letter continued:

"Exercise may be more important for the blind than it is for the sighted, and swimming may well be the best kind of exercise a blind person can perform."

This communication, like the book it accompanied, fairly radiates the dead end philosophy of blindness. It begins by assuming that the blind person, any blind person, has "narrowed horizons," which need to be enlarged—and that swimming is the best available means of doing it. Poor blind fellow, he must lack the ability to handle more serious or complicated methods of broadening his experience or enlarging his horizons. Nor is that all:

"Exercise may be more important for the blind than it is for the sighted." Why? Is it because blind people are presumed to be immobile and passive creatures, who must be stirred and prodded into vacating the rocking chair for a little exercise?

Now, I myself happen to believe that swimming is an excellent form of recreation and exercise, for anyone. It is good for bald-headed men, red-headed women, gifted children, and persons who are blind—but neither more nor less for any of them than for the rest of them. To suppose otherwise is to impute a form of inferiority (of peculiar weakness) to the group singled out. This is, however, precisely the imputation of the book to which I refer, SWIMMING FOR THE BLIND. Thus, the introduction contains such statements as the following:

"The activities of the sightless. . . 'are limited, and there are not many occasions when they will have an opportunity to call upon such qualities as strength, speed and endurance...'" Or try this one: "Shall they be handicapped with feebleness, awkwardness, and helplessness in addition to blindness? . . " Or try this: "It is lack of energy and determination, not the want of sight that causes so many failures among the blind."

"In swimming alone," the book goes on to tell us, "can the average person without sight leap freely into the air without fear of injury. In swimming alone can they move freely alone while using a large number of the 'big muscle' groups of the body. . ."

"Sterling states," the book points out, that " 'It offers a creative life to replace the destructive one.'. . . Swimming is more of a social asset to the blind than the general public. A blind person fits well into a swimming party, but he often feels out of place in other activities."1

So says this typical bit of would-be research produced at Brigham Young University, but the blind person might well feel out of place even in a swimming party if he should practice the method devised by a scientific instructor named Belenky—who we are told "divided his beginning skills into eight phases. One of these phases included a 'whomping' movement in which the student was on 'all fours' in the shallow water. It was accomplished by a jump in which both hands were lifted out of the water."2

Despite the adventurousness of the "whomping" movement, Belenky (as it turns out) is far from adventurous concerning the abilities and general competence of the blind. Any person," he is quoted as writing, "but particularly a blind child, should at all times be aware not only of his abilities in the water, but his limitations as well. He should strive to overcome these limitations, but never can he be permitted to be foolhardy."3

Another expert named Sterling carries this prudence and caution even farther. He recommends that the blind swimmer use "a sponge taped to the top of the swim cap or head to avoid injury and lessen tension in learning to swim on the back."4

If the sponge on the head doesn't relieve all the tension of the swimmer, there is always the therapy of music—which we are told, "has been found to be beneficial for relaxing the students before the class begins or during the play period. It also provides a rhythm to which a swimmer may match his strokes. When piped underwater, music can make inviting the practice of rhythmic breathing."5

With a sponge on top, and music underneath, what more could the blind swimmer desire? Well, perhaps, he could be coddled, comforted, and controlled in the course of his training as exemplified by the following five-step set of instructions under the heading, "Health and Safety Measures:"

"1. The instructor must be the eyes for the visually impaired swimmer. Students should be met at the dressing room door and led to the pool at the shallow end ..."

"2. The teacher must work in the water with the swimmer. The student should not be over-protected, however, but should be encouraged to become as independent as possible."

"3. The instructor must be aware of danger signals such as chilling or over exertion and should allow the student to leave when necessary."

"4. If it is found necessary to leave the student, he should be placed in contact with the side of the pool, the deck, or a chair."

"5. The blind often have a discharge from the eyes and nose. Facial tissues should be kept handy."6

And one final warning from this expert to the teacher: "Each student should be allowed to work at his own rate, for rushing may impede learning. Generally the sightless progress more slowly than their seeing peers. Repetition, therefore, is important."7

If I may sum up the essential points of these various instructions, they would seem to be as follows: The Blind are dumber than other people. They are weepers and snifflers. They cannot be trusted to find their own way to the pool or be left alone, even in shallow water. Even more briefly, I might sum up what they are saying like this: You can lead the blind to water, but you can't let them think.

To these would-be scientists, with their insulting drivel, we the blind have something to say: You claim to be experts about blindness, and you say you are professionals; but in reality you are neither. You are witch doctors and fakes. In the name of helping us you hurt us, and you call it "professionalism." You even do it with our own tax money. We are here to tell you that we have had enough, and we are also here to tell you that we are going to put a stop to what you are doing. Call us radicals and militants if you will, but heed what we say. We have the will and the means to give force to our words, and your days are numbered!

If what I have been describing were unique, we might pass over it with amusement and even perhaps with tolerance. But it is, as I have already indicated, far from isolated. It runs like a polluted stream through most of the professional and technical literature of rehabilitation, and it bespeaks a deeply held assumption of the innate and ineradicable difference—the essential inferiority—of those of us who are blind.

Here, for a similar example, is Irwin M. Siegel, M.D., speaking on "The Biomechanics of Posture" in a symposium on Parameters of Posture and Mobility in the Blind, held at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute not long ago. "Much postural divergency," Dr. Siegel says, "is particular to the fact of blindness." What he means by that is—but let him say it in his own words: "A rapidly growing blind child is awkward in his movements because he has a poor discriminative appreciation of spatial relationship and is, therefore, totally oblivious of grossly faulty posture, He does not have the vocabulary or the experience."8

Now, let us play a little trick on Dr. Siegel. Let us repeat his statement, word for word, but with one slight change. Let us leave out the word "blind." Now, the statement reads: "A rapidly growing child is awkward in his movements because he has a poor discriminative appreciation of spatial relationship and is, therefore, totally oblivious of grossly faulty posture. He does not have the vocabulary or the experience." I ask you, is that statement any less acceptable—any less factual or plausible—than the original, which referred exclusively to the blind child? If you agree with me that it is not, then I have made my central point: It is not only beauty that is in the eye of the beholder; it is also inferiority.

We are not yet through with Dr. Siegel and his syndrome of postural divergency on the part of the blind. "Some of the problems commonly seen," he says on the same page, "are as follows: (1) Dorsal round back (kyphosis), often due to a structural problem that cannot be helped by exercise. Sometimes bracing may be necessary. (2) Twisted back (scoliosis), yet another structural problem which may occasionally require operative correction. (3) Flat feet, often correctable through proper foot wear."9

Now, let me just say about all this that it is not only nonsense but dangerous nonsense. In its correlation of blindness with flat feet, twisted back, and round back, the statement takes leave of all scientific sense and sanity and enters the realm of superstition. It may be that some people who are blind have flat feet; many, very many, do not, and never have had. It may be that some people who were raised in Canada have round back or twisted back; that does not make it a "Canadian condition." To say that blind people have flat feet, or that fast-growing blind children (not just children) are awkward in their movements, is to imply a cause-effect relationship in which blindness is the cause of a host of secondary disabilities and problems. It never ceases to amaze me that would-be scientists, when they are in pursuit of a generalization or a federal grant, can be more unscientific and downright stupid than ordinary, illogical laymen. In other words, as far as I am concerned, Dr. Siegel has not caught the blind flat-footed, even if he should happen to have dorsal round back.

It is surely the case that the main trouble with the treatment of blind people is not that we have been overlooked but that we have been overseen. We have been over-surveyed, over-classified, and over-studied, as well as overprotected. We have been subjected both to intensive examination and to extensive treatment. We have been aided and comforted, attended and supervised, virtually from cradle to grave. We have been transformed from people into clients, and from clients into patients; and, as I have already said, we are tired of it and intend to put a stop to it. Let those who resent this make the most of it. After all, it is our lives that are involved, and we mean to act accordingly.

Is it any wonder, in view of these prejudices and misconceptions on the part of self-proclaimed "professionals," that the general public should be confused and undecided in its attitudes toward blindness? The extent of this confusion is documented every day in terms of wild attributions, arbitrary exclusions, and discriminatory practices directed against blind persons. Recently in Iowa, for example, the head of the State university's Institute of Agricultural Medicine made headlines with a dire warning about the results of the misuse of ammonia as a farm fertilizer:

"We're greatly concerned," he said, "with ammonia accidents because the penalty for a mistake could be so severe—blindness. How can a farmer farm without eyesight? We're concerned with all kinds of agricultural accidents ... but even if a farmer loses a finger in a machine accident he can still farm, but not if he's blind."10

So said the university official. Such statements help us keep perspective. With all the massive publicity we have carried on in Iowa—radio, television, newspaper, public speaking, and the rest—a prominent spokesman of our State University can unqualifiedly declare (and the newspapers are willing to print his declaration without editorial challenge) that a blind person cannot farm. Yet, there are many blind farmers throughout the nation. Several of them are in the State of Iowa. One of them (totally blind and quite successful) is a member of the policy board of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. He is in the audience tonight.

As this episode suggests, great reinforcement of negative images and superstitions concerning blindness comes from the popular mass media of communication—the press, TV, radio, movies, even comic strips and comic books. As a vivid example in the latter domain, a recent issue of BATMAN grossly exploited public doubts and fears about the blind, disguising an army of "crooks" as blind men—complete with tin cups, pencils, heavy wooden canes, dark glasses, and signs reading, I AM BLIND. Upon first discovering these hoods tap-tapping along the sidewalk, Batman exclaims to his sidekick: "Odd, Robin! So many blind men out this late after midnight ... Almost looks like they're holding a convention in town!" "Not odd at all, Batman," replies Robin. "They are! The 'U.S. Sightless Society' is meeting here in Gotham." "Then," says Batman, "it's doubly odd!" At which point the text reads: "What has Batman noticed that escapes even the trained eyes of his veteran junior aide, Robin? And possibly you reader?" What do you suppose it is? Simple. In Batman's words: "Why would a convention of 'sightless' persons be out on the town—sightseeing?" They couldn't be, of course; so they must be fakes and crooks. Now I wonder what that makes of you and me? And what does it make of our own "U.S. Sightless Society"—the National Federation of the Blind? We, too, have tours, and some of us (I suppose) are fakes and crooks; but the two things are not necessarily related.

A short time ago tragedy struck a famous personage who is near and dear to us all—the great detective of the comic page, Dick Tracy. He was totally blinded (or so we were led to believe) by a fire which consumed his home and left only Tess Trueheart intact and able-bodied. What happened to Tracy was what happens to blind people almost invariably in fiction and the funnies: He dropped out of all public activity ("A blind detective?" hooted the chief of police: "Don't make me laugh!"), and Tracy took to shuffling about the city with dark glasses and an old-fashioned, heavy cane, accompanied in every drawing by the words "tap-tap." There was much weeping and wailing down at the police station and great celebration among the criminal element—until one day, a few weeks later, it was revealed that his blindness was only a hoax; and Dick Tracy could emerge from darkness and oblivion and once again take up his career as the scourge of the underworld. The comic strip had not only sentimentalized his blindness but had fictionalized and melodramatized it as well, playing on the ancient myth and exploiting it for all it was worth.

Insulting and humiliating as all these items from the professional literature and the mass media are, they might be tolerated except for the fact that they translate into acts of discrimination against individual blind persons and into second-class citizenship for all of us who are blind. This is what I have repeatedly tried so unsuccessfully to communicate to the members of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped. It is what other minority groups have said concerning their problems to government and the public at large. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, could not write "Uncle Tom's Cabin" today, nor could Amos 'n' Andy find a radio audience in the present climate of public opinion. The reason is obvious, and we as blind persons must understand that reason thoroughly and act accordingly.

Let me give you an example, a very recent example, of what happens to blind people in the climate of public opinion which permits the sort of professional literature and popular comics we have been discussing.

My example is drawn from correspondence which took place not long ago between a blind college student and a college administrator. The story began when Pat Wright, a scholarship winner at Occidental College in California, made application, along with two of her sighted classmates, to transfer to Howard University as an exchange student. It should be borne in mind as the narrative unfolds, that Howard is regarded by many as the nation's foremost black college with a high reputation for courage and leadership in the struggle for civil rights.

In his formal reply to the application of the three Occidental College students, Howard's Vice-President for Student Affairs indicated his acceptance of the two sighted applicants and went on to state: "I do have reservations with respect to Miss Pat Wright, the young lady who is blind. Given the nature of racial conflicts and concerns operative today, I would strongly advise against Miss Wright's coming to Howard. Many people today are extremely insensitive and bent on causing problems for others. It is my feeling that Miss Wright would find the experience to be less than rewarding."

There you have the logical result of the attitudes inherent in the professional literature and the comics. Miss Wright, the so-called "young lady who is blind," brought the matter into focus in her letter of reply:

"In examining your most polite and proper refusal," she wrote, "I find that without doubt your rejection of me is discriminatory, infringing upon my human right to live in the world in a place and manner of my own choosing.... I resent most strongly the prejudicial implications of that statement. You seem to be operating under stereotyped notions that people who are blind are by nature passive, incapable of adapting to new situations; inadequate to handle emergencies; physically immobile; physically incapable of functioning 'normally' in the 'sighted world;' and particularly vulnerable to the physical, verbal, and emotional abuses of 'normal' people."

There is more to Miss Wright's reply—including a reference to the apparent likelihood that she was being discriminated against on grounds of race and sex as well as of blindness. As it turns out, that was unfair; for in a second letter addressed to her, the university administrator took pains to point out that no such multiple prejudice or discrimination was intended. "I regret," he wrote, "that your interpretation of my letter was so at variance with its intent and wish to assure you that my decision was based largely on the absence of any special facilities and services in any campus building, for the blind, and not because of your race or sex. I would make the same decision in the case of a black, male applicant."

There it is again. There is no consciousness whatever of any prejudice or discrimination in this act of blunt rejection. The applicant for admission, it is clear, might be almost anything or anybody, and still be quite acceptable—anybody, that is, other than a blind person, whose condition allegedly necessitates "special facilities and services."

I have chosen this particular illustration, out of many similar cases which turn up every year, because it is especially rich in irony. What would this black official of a black university make, one wonders, of a rejection issued to a black applicant by any school on grounds that there were no special facilities or services available for students with black skins? He would, of course, cry "Jim Crow." He would protest that segregation and separate treatment are relics of a bygone prejudiced past, violating alike civil rights and constitutional commands.

As with the professional literature and the mass media, so with Pat Wright. The story is typical, not unique. Variations of her experience are enacted hundreds of times every day throughout the nation. Not only do they occur in major events but in the small incidents so familiar to us all. How often, when a blind person and a sighted person are together in a restaurant, does the waitress say: "Does he want cream in his coffee?" How often, in fact, (regardless of the setting) is the conversation concerning the needs, wishes, actions, or abilities of the blind person directed to a sighted associate, as if the blind person were not there at all? Of even more significance, how often does the blind person fail utterly to grasp the implications of the situation and show his conditioning to the stereotype by laughing at the whole thing, exhibiting his so-called "sense of humor?" It is not necessary to be deadly serious and never smile, but fat people who make jokes about themselves for being fat or black people who poke fun at the Negro stereotypes are usually more pathetic than humorous. We as blind people should not be defensive or have chips on our shoulders. Neither should we fail to understand what these things really mean and what actions must be taken.

In the small incidents and the "gut" issues of existence the stereotype confronts us every day, It confronts us in the sheltered shops which pay subminimum wages; it confronts us in the agencies which fear the justice of our cause and seek to dismiss us as militants and radicals; it confronts us in the distortions and jargon of the professional journals; it confronts us in the colleges and universities which deny admission; it confronts us in the insurance companies which refuse equal coverage; it confronts us in the landlords who hesitate to rent; it confronts us in the factories and offices which find reasons for exclusion and denial; it confronts us in the pity we constantly receive from the general public; it confronts us in the pathetic pride of those blind individuals who try to shun other blind people and our movement and who say, "I am independent—I am uniquely talented—I am not like other blind people—I have made it on my own with sighted people;" and finally, it confronts us in the lack of self-respect and the scraping and bowing of those blind persons who fawn on the agencies and their sighted neighbors and who are ashamed of their blindness and behave like the "Uncle Toms" they are. It confronts us, in short, in all of the activities and aspirations which go to make up life itself.

By any standard one cares to set, the challenge is formidable. The government and private agencies, established to assist the blind, more often than not serve as stumbling blocks to keep us down and keep us out. The mass media, while well-intentioned and wishing to help, reinforce the worst and most destructive of the misconceptions. The American Council of the Blind, that small group of bitter dissidents who splintered away from our movement a decade ago, is widely regarded as nothing but a front for the worst of the agencies—a company union, and a force for disunity. The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped, the self-appointed custodian and keeper of the blind, is working diligently to gain power and respectability. Partly because of all these things and partly because of long-standing tradition, the thinking of the general public is still largely controlled by superstition, prejudice, and ignorance about what we are and what we hope to become.

This is the picture, but it is only part of the picture. All I have said is true; yet, the future has never looked as bright as it does today. The reason is simple. We the blind are organized, and on the move. We have faith in ourselves and belief in the justice of our cause, and we have the determination and the resources to translate our faith and belief into action and accomplishment. Above all, we have found (in the National Federation of the Blind) the unifying force, the vehicle for success.

I want to make it clear that we are not condemning all agencies doing work with the blind. Far from it. We would not be where we are today had it not been for the help and understanding of progressive agencies. As I have said many times before, such agencies have nothing to fear from us. We work with them in partnership and harmony.

In fact, our purpose is not to condemn at all but to bring change—to be seen for what we are and heard with our own voice. The truth is as basic and elemental as this: We are simply no longer willing to live as second-class citizens. Regardless of the cost or hostility, we won't do it. If our choice is to have confrontation or to lie down and be walked on like rugs, then the choice is painful, but it is also inescapable. It must be confrontation.

In the struggle we do not stand alone. More and more of the blind are rallying to the cause, and many of the sighted are as dedicated to the movement as we are. An increasing number of the agencies are working with us, and there is noticeable improvement in the public attitude. Even so, the days ahead will be a time of serious challenge and conflict.

In stating our position perhaps we can do no better than paraphrase the words of William Lloyd Garrison, spoken over a century ago: We have determined, at every hazard, to lift up the standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation. That standard is now unfurled; and long may it float—till every chain be broken, and every blind person set free.

We are aware that many object to the severity of our language, but is there not cause for severity? We will be as harsh as the truth, and as uncompromising as justice. We are in earnest. We will not equivocate—We will not excuse—We will not retreat a single inch—And we will be heard!

This is the watchword and the message of the new generation, the new breed of the blind. It is the force of Federationism. It is the spirit of the movement. I say to every blind person who hears these words and to every sighted person who is truly a friend of the blind that the need is great and the time is now. The issues are drawn.

As I conclude, I am sure you know what question I will ask you. Think carefully and don't respond unless you mean it—unless you are willing to give of your time, your money, your strength, and your spirit. I ask you now, as I have done before: Will you join me on the barricades?


1. Gloria R. Seamons, SWIMMING FOR THE BLIND (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1966), pp. 1-3.

2. IBID., p. 6.

3. IBID., p. 12.

4. IBID.

5. IBID., p. 13.

6. IBID., p. 17.

7. IBID.

8. Irwin M. Siegel, M.D., "The Biomechanics of Posture: Applications to Mobility in the Blind," PARAMETERS OF POSTURE AND MOBILITY IN THE BLIND, Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1969), p. 50.

9. IBID.

10. DES MOINES SUNDAY REGISTER, August 8, 1971, Section T, p.l.


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Posted March 2, 1998

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