The Challenge and the Limit

An Address Delivered by
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
of the National Federation of the Blind
Orlando, Florida
July 6, 2014

One meaning of challenge is a demand that a change be made to rectify inadequacy or correct error. Recognizing challenges that confront us, categorizing them appropriately, and managing them effectively is a fundamental element of human character. A person may avoid challenges entirely, confront them only when required to do so, welcome them, or cause them to occur. Which of these approaches is dominant will determine, in part, the character of the individual.

Placing challenges in the appropriate category for action or not is the exhibition of judgment. Not all challenges deserve to be accepted. Some are trivial, and some are without merit for other reasons. However, an enormous number of challenges represent possible opportunity. Whether these should be accepted or rejected is determined by the value that might be achieved. When the demands of a challenge are accepted and met, the challenge becomes an opportunity. This is the excitement of challenge.

What is practical to expect in confronting challenges for us? Where are the limits that exist in creating the change that we might reasonably want? When does the expectation of change become unrealistic?

During the past several years, I have sat with the children who have been in attendance at the meeting of the parents division of the National Federation of the Blind, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. I take my place on the floor near the front of the room, and I invite those children who want to participate to join me. I say a few words about what we do in the National Federation of the Blind, and I ask the children if they have questions. One year a girl showed me her toy dog and explained to me that he barked. One year, when the K-NFB Reader Mobile had just become available, I passed the one I was using to the children for them to examine as I explained what the device could do and how it had come to be built.

The children ask all manner of questions. Recently, one boy, Drake Alberhasky, who lives in Missouri with his parents and his brothers and sisters, asked me how to build a time machine. I know a great many things, and he expected me to know how to build such a machine. When I admitted that I did not know, he was disappointed. However, I did not forget the question.

When I was reading Dr. Ray Kurzweil’s book, How to Create a Mind, I was intrigued by the description he offered of the mental experiments conducted by Albert Einstein. These experiments were necessary to the formulation of the special theory of relativity espoused by Einstein in his paper published in 1905. Until Einstein questioned the status quo, time and space were regarded as fixed and unalterable. However, Einstein concluded that with the addition of acceleration to a body, time changes in its application to that body when compared to others that are moving at different speeds. Time is not immutable; it changes with circumstance. Because the speeds required to alter time are much greater than the ones we customarily experience, we do not generally notice how time is being altered although the alteration at some speeds and distances on Earth is measurable.

All of this was known to me before I read Dr. Kurzweil’s book. However, the startling observation which I had not previously known is that the mathematics involved in the equations about the speed of light and the alteration of time do not preclude travel faster than light. A physical law may exist prohibiting faster than light travel, but the mathematics do not. Faster than light travel would cause time to move backward.

Although I was intrigued by Dr. Kurzweil’s observation, I wondered whether the idea deserved more than cursory consideration. However, I remembered what Dr. Kurzweil had written when I read a brief article in the December 28, 2013, Science News magazine. This article entitled “Below Absolute Zero, But Hot” tells us that the physicist Ulrich Schneider conducted an experiment in which potassium gas reached a temperature slightly below absolute zero. In my study of physics (which I admit occurred a long time ago), we were led to believe that no substance could travel faster than the speed of light and that no temperature could be achieved colder than absolute zero. These were thought to be limits to speed and temperature which had been created by the laws of physics—by the nature of the universe itself. If these limits do not restrict the properties of substances as they had been previously thought to do, what other possibilities may exist? I do not know how to build a time machine, but I do have at least an inkling about what is required to affect the passage of time. The mathematics involved might permit time to move backward.

The concept of challenge suggests to many that the demand for change must come from an external source, but it can also come from within. Frequently the most difficult challenges come from ourselves—to ourselves. Within the National Federation of the Blind we have strengthened our organization and our members through a process that incorporates mutual respect and admiration with mutual challenge. We have challenged each other to have faith in ourselves and our colleagues. We have challenged each other to imagine a future filled with greater opportunity than has been true in our past. We have challenged each other to have the courage necessary to create a spirit of acceptance for the blind within our society. We have challenged each other to be leaders within our own movement and beyond it. We have challenged each other to alter forever the patterns of thought in our society that relegate us to the position of an undesirable group with less ability than can customarily be expected of others. We have challenged each other to build a kind of technology that gives us full access to information. We have challenged each other to construct the machines that provide us with independent transportation. We have challenged each other to become a participating element in every profession. When we have accepted these challenges, and when we have fulfilled the requirements inherent within them, we have strengthened ourselves and our movement. We have altered the nature of the future available to us all. We have become the architects of our own tomorrow.

Limits have been created for us that circumscribe our opportunities for education, for employment, and for full participation in other activities of life. We have sometimes wondered just how limiting these limits are. What is there about a limit that makes the limitation real? When we have decided to challenge them, we have frequently met with criticism, but we have come to recognize that the limits must be challenged. We will take the limits that have been imposed upon us, and we will fashion them into the tools that will give us liberty. Liberty comes only to those who demand it, and the battles that surround such demands can be fierce. If need be we will take the limits and forge them into the armaments that will set us free. Liberty we must have, and demand it we will. We know what our lives can be, and we will live them to the fullest.

In 1976 Frances Koestler released her book with the title The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States. This intriguing title has irony because blindness is a conspicuous condition. We who are blind come to understand that we will be observed interminably—that anonymity is denied to us. However, the notoriety that we inspire often leaves us unrecognized for the people that we are. This pseudo-recognition leaves us unwelcomed and often isolated. This is a primary challenge in our lives. Though we are sometimes conspicuous, we are categorized out of society. We are observed but unknown.

A number of years ago my wife Patricia and I (both of us are blind) bought a house (the first one we ever owned) and moved into a West Baltimore neighborhood. It was a homogeneous residential area containing many people who had lived in the same houses for a long time. After we had lived there for a few weeks, one of our neighbors remarked, “We don’t mind if you people live in our neighborhood.”

This comment took me by surprise. It was meant to be a kindly welcome for the two of us, but the condescension was evident. Rather than saying “Welcome to the neighborhood,” my neighbor said, “We give you our permission to live in the same place that we do. We are regular people, and you are not. Despite this, we don’t mind if you stay.”

My neighbor would have been insulted had I replied to his comment that I didn’t mind if he lived in the same neighborhood with me. He thought of me as different from him, unusual, and not an asset to his neighborhood. He had never considered that blind people might want to be a part of the same place that he inhabited and that such blind people might make valuable contributions. He only thought of blind people’s participation in his part of the world when it became evident to him that there was very little he could do to stop it.

How often this is the case with us. The schools, the colleges, the booksellers, the internet providers, the transportation engineers, the entertainment industry directors, the employers, the politicians, the purveyors of pharmaceutical products, the managers in the medical profession, do not think of us as part of the group that will be participating in the activities they find important. The message is clear. We must ensure that they never forget who we are. We must meet the challenge presented by their assertion that we are an unimportant afterthought in their planning. We must insert our presence in all these activities of life with the spirit and determination that will change the assumptions that have been made about our incapacity or irrelevance. We must not wait for acceptance but demand it. We know what our lives can be, and we intend to live them to the fullest.

Sometimes those who offer commentary about us observe only our blindness and not our talents as whole human beings. Because of their misunderstanding they become yet another challenge. Consider, for example, some of the advice about blindness found on the internet. The internet is, of course, not only a resource but a wasteland where anything is said and everything is written. However, a website entitled, which contains substantial advice regarding blind people, offers citations to many authoritative sources. has a number of recommendations for us, or perhaps for the people their authors believe are in charge of us. One section of their advice is entitled “How to Take Care of Blind People.” This is part of what they say:

Keep walkways clear. Clutter is potentially dangerous, even for the sighted. Keep the floors clear of clothing, furniture and other items that a visually impaired person may trip over.

Let the person initiate touch. If she needs you to lead her somewhere, let her take your arm instead of grabbing hers. If you need to touch her, as with adjusting clothing or helping with grooming, warn her first.

Such is language from, and the only worthwhile comment is: How insufferably arrogant! When was it that I asked somebody to be responsible for taking care of me? Who authorized somebody else to decide what kinds of circumstance would authorize them to touch me or any of my possessions? Who would have the temerity to decide to adjust my clothing? Kevan Worley, in an attempt to find a method for making a point without becoming combative, has declared to a number of airline personnel that this day has been designated as “no grabbing blind people day.” eHow believes that blind people must have somebody to take care of them.

But there is more. Another piece is entitled “How to Feed a Visually Impaired Person.” Included in this remarkable section is the following:

Restock foods that the visually impaired person eats on a regular basis. This will make life easier for the person if he or she can get to the kitchen or pantry without aid. . . .

Don’t fill cups and mugs completely when serving drinks to a blind person. Leave room at the top to avoid spills, especially with hot drinks. If necessary, help the person find the rim of the cup at first. Use non-spill containers.

How does all of this strike you? When you attend an event at the Club, are you prepared to tell the person offering beverages that your glass should be only three-quarters full? Are you prepared to let the personnel know that anything else would be too dangerous for you?

And yet, there is still more. The eHow experts have a section detailing “How to Entertain a Blind Person,” listed in the part of the eHow presentation designated “Hobbies.” Here is part of the language:

When someone has poor eyesight, her other senses often are honed. Excite her taste buds with new and interesting meal options. Experiment with sweet and salty combinations, or maybe even a few spicy selections. Texture is also important, so add some crunchy toppings to soft pastas or rice for an interesting textural experience.

I have this question. What is it about entertaining blind people that makes it a hobby? What self-respecting person would tolerate being perpetually somebody else’s project? Independence, self-sufficiency, and self-assertion are essential to the human character. The assumption of eHow however is that these are absent when blindness comes.

Why is it that there is not a segment teaching blind people how to entertain sighted people? This could be a new hobby for the blind. I sometimes entertain sighted people, and I frequently give them food—sometimes even spicy food. But I didn’t realize that this is a hobby. Should I keep notes about how well the sighted people do and share them with other blind people who engage in this type of entertainment? Should we write a book about the best techniques for engaging the interest of the sighted? Should we create a website where we can display pictures and videos of sighted people being fed their spicy cuisine? How full should we fill their cups?

The image presented about blind people in the eHow website is not the one that we know so well. It is a shriveled, desiccated conception of what we are. And we have a message for the creators of this site. Don’t give us this malarkey. Don’t blight and belittle our lives. Don’t claim the position of experts. And don’t continue the myth that our lot in life is to be subservient to others. Get it right, or give it up.

The thinking behind the concept that blindness diminishes character and personality causes real damage. An article which appeared in The Sunday Times (U.K.) on May 11, 2014, describes a family with a daughter aged seven who is becoming blind but retains a significant amount of sight. The reaction to this circumstance is that the parents of this child are urging social service agencies and the public at large to assist in giving her the opportunity to see as many visual images of importance as possible before blindness takes forever her capacity to do so. Her parents have created a website which bears the title “Making Molly’s Memories.” The newspaper depicts the efforts of the family as “a race against time.” Having been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in December, Molly is now being encouraged to want to have visual experience all over the world before she becomes blind. Her mom says on the website:

All we can know is Molly's sight is deteriorating to a point where eventually she will lose her sight completely.

All we can do as her parents, family and friends is give her every life enhancing opportunity and experience whilst she still has her sight to make as many memories as possible.

Molly loves the world and animals. She wants to explore everywhere she can while she can.

The list of visual images being sought for Molly includes Buckingham Palace, a play in a theatre, and the pyramids in Egypt. Donations are requested to assist with travel. Already, £63,000 has been contributed—something over $100,000.

Viewing these things visually is undoubtedly worth doing. However, the damage comes from the implication that a life of joy and capacity will come to a close when vision is gone. What I am saying could easily be misunderstood. I do not oppose sight or the joys it can bring. I am well aware that visual experiences may be not just memorable but dramatic and moving. On the other hand, those who do not possess sight also experience dramatic and moving elements of life. To suggest that these will no longer be available to this child is to limit severely her future. To say that nothing will remain for her except memories is to declare that the productive part of her life will be gone. This is the damage that is caused when blindness is equated with the diminution of personality. This is a tragedy that a little knowledge, a little thought, and a little faith could avoid.

A similar piece is contained in The Daily Mail (U.K.) for May 1, 2012, entitled “Woman, 27, Warned She Faces Blindness after Tumour Op Draws up ‘Bucket List’ of World’s Most Beautiful Places.” In this article we are told:

When Jade Salero was told she needed to undergo surgery which could leave her unable to see, she decided to see the world.

The 27-year-old from Havant in Hampshire has been told she needs to have a major operation to remove a cyst from her brain.

On being told that the procedure may leave her blind, Jade began drawing up a bucket list of idyllic locations she hoped to capture in her memory forever.

She has pledged to visit world wonders such as Canada’s Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, United States. . . .

Jade said: “I just don’t want to waste any time really, I want to concentrate on making myself happy. . . .

“The surgeons have said to hold on for as long as I can and I’m going to do that because everything will change—the person who I am will change.” . . .

She added: “People still live when they are blind, it’s the other things that worry me.

“Your temper can be really affected as well as your personality. I can’t imagine not being in control of myself.”

The fear of blindness described in this article contrasted with the joy of sight gives this depiction depth. The end of a joyful life is anticipated with the accompanying change of personality, an altered temper, and the loss of control—all based on blindness. Major loss (such as the loss of sight) is a recognized psychological challenge, but this description asserts alteration beyond loss. It assumes a fundamental diminution of personal value. The portrayal resonates in the press and on the internet. But the depiction is one-dimensional. The joy of living and the ability to see are not synonymous. The absence of vision does not remove this joy. The personality does not automatically change, and the temper within the human breast does not become more oppressive with the loss of sight.

This leaves to one side the question whether it is necessary to observe Niagara Falls visually in order to appreciate its wonder and its power. Those of us who have been there might report that a great deal can be appreciated in other ways. We should tell Jade about this and urge her not to give up on life.

Not all people avoid blindness; some embrace it as an advantage to them, although in many cases they use only simulated blindness. In the Hemispheres magazine for January 2011 published by United Airlines a story appears entitled “Consider the Tardigrade: The Fast-growing Field of Biomimicry Encourages Innovators to Look to Nature—In All its Wonder and Weirdness—For Solutions to Our Trickiest Problems.” The first portion of this article reads as follows:

One afternoon in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dayna Baumeister stands in a room full of Herman Miller employees, next to a trunk filled with seashells, feathers and other natural miscellany, and hands a sea cucumber to Carolyn Maalouf, a blindfolded R&D engineer. Don’t guess what the object is, Baumeister says. Guess what it does. Maalouf takes a shot. Well, it’s spiky, she says. Maybe it needs those spikes to ward off predators? Another blindfolded colleague, meanwhile, is holding a swatch of sharkskin. With some guidance, he eventually deduces, correctly, from the smooth surface that his object is designed to move fast.

That they stumble through the exercise is pretty much the point. By eliminating sight—the sense that instantly would provide the “right” answer—the exercise succeeds in what Baumeister calls “quieting our cleverness.” This is crucial. Baumeister is the cofounder of The Biomimicry Guild, a group that promotes the increasingly popular notion that many of the best solutions to problems facing humanity can already be found in nature.

This article strongly suggests that blindness is an advantage in achieving knowledge through alternative methods of approach even though the blindness being used is simulated. How much more effective might the research be if actual blind scientists were used to conduct it? These blind scientists, who have experience gathering knowledge in alternative ways, might offer understanding that the unskilled hands of the simulated blind people would miss. Incidentally, the tardigrade, which is mentioned in the title of the article, is a tiny creature perhaps half a millimeter long that is versatile enough to survive drought, flood, and extreme temperatures. Some of them are blind.

Another inquiry, which recognizes the advantages of being blind, involves special shoes for blind people. As you know, I have criticized severely the concept that blind people need special shoes, but the shoes involved in this study may very well be special enough to deserve commendation. When we decided to build an automobile with an interface that the blind can use, the primary mechanism for delivering information to the blind driver involved vibrating motors. These were located in gloves worn by the blind driver, in pads beneath the legs of the blind driver, and in other pads located behind the back of the driver. The blind driver is required to get the feel of the vehicle and to learn about proper direction from the information gathered through these vibrating elements.

One of the projects involving shoes for the blind was presented at a TED event. TED, which is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, began in 1984, and it has grown to encompass ideas in many realms, imaginative and innovative. The article which appeared from the TED event, entitled “Soul to Sole,” contains the following commentary:

Anthony Vipin Das, an eye surgeon, has been developing haptic shoes that use vibration and GPS technology to guide the blind. This innovation—which could radically change the lives of the vision-impaired—has drawn the interest of the United States Department of Defense, which has recently shortlisted the project for a $2 million research grant. . . .

“The shoe basically guides the user [says Vipin Das] on the foot on which he’s supposed to take a turn. . . . The shoe also keeps vibrating if you’re not oriented in the direction of your initial path, and will stop vibrating when you’re headed in the right direction.”

This brief piece from the article is about as much description as is offered. Ordinarily, the Department of Defense does not have a major interest in the blind. However, it does have an interest in directional aids that can be used without light. These aids would be helpful in the dark or in smoke-filled environments. Beyond that, this kind of technology is being urgently sought for use by firefighters, soldiers, police officers, and other rescue workers.

That blind people may be the cause for the development of technology which will solve a problem for others who are not blind is worthy of consideration. A good many blindness-related technologies have been expanded to bring added capacity to non-blind populations. One of the most familiar examples of such development is the multi-font scanner which was essential in the development of the Kurzweil Reading Machine. This type of scanner is currently being used for non-blind applications all over the world.

We in the National Federation of the Blind have contemplated building blindness-related guidance technologies beyond the ones that we currently know. The vibrating cane has been part of blindness technology for forty years, but a more complex vibrating system could be useful in ways that the original vibrating cane was not. The belt with vibrating motors that can give direction to a person walking or riding on a bicycle is under consideration, and a number of other haptic devices have been imagined in conversations about creating guidance systems that will be effective at high speed. The shoes may be a good first step.

Blind people (we are sometimes told) are deprived because we cannot see the sunset, the faces of our children, the beauty of a painting, the landscape, or the stunningly beautiful human being who has just entered the room. With this in mind, I found myself intrigued by the question “What is beauty for the blind?” The lines from John Keats’s poem are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Everette Bacon, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, recently brought to my attention a brief video on the subject “How the Blind See Beauty.” Four blind people, two men and two women, offer comments about their impressions of beauty. One articulates that beauty is contained in the essence of living. One tells us that the lives of blind people are entirely made up of feelings and that these offer beauty. One believes that beauty is represented by her children. One says beauty is the experience of pleasant touches or aromas. One avers that beauty comes from finding joy. One says that appreciating goodness or caring for others is the source of beauty. One believes that beauty involves imagination. The attempt in the video is to get at a difficult concept and to assert that blind people have access to this concept.

I appreciate the effort of the people who put the video together—who made the comments about the experiences they have had. I would add my own thought on the subject. It seems to me that beauty is that which enlivens the heart and gives depth and purpose to life itself. In other words, I think it is one of the characteristics of love. It is evident to me that blind people have an enormous capacity for this. I have known it in my own life, and I have known thousands of blind people who share the experience with me. The aesthetic experience is not denied to us although it may be comprehended in a way different from that which sighted people use. Those of us who seek understanding in the aesthetic realm know that comprehension of aesthetic experience can be achieved by the blind, sometimes with intensity. Art, along with the beauty that goes with it, is an element of our lives, and some of us create it.

Destruction of the family because of blindness strikes at the heart of some of the most fundamental rights that we have. A few weeks ago a blind father called to say that he needed help. His marriage was coming to a close, and his wife was using his blindness as the means for demanding that his children no longer be in his custody. Furthermore, his visitation rights were also being limited to those times when his wife or another sighted person could supervise him.

When the children were born to these parents (one is now two and the other three), this blind father agreed to care for them while his wife worked. He has been principally responsible for their care from their beginning. Yet, when the marriage began to dissolve, this father was charged by his wife with being incapable of caring for his own children.

During the hearing about the custody of the children, this blind father was called to the witness stand to tell the judge about his talents, his training, and his experiences caring for his children. He has a college diploma and an advanced degree. He has been employed as an actor and as a professor of drama. His children are healthy and happy. One person called them delightful.

The judge noted that he was very impressed with the capacity of this blind father. Then, he ruled that this man could not have custody of the children because of his blindness. He also ruled that visits would be limited to times when this man would be supervised by a sighted observer.

After the judge made the decision that custody would be denied, the blind father asked for help. We are pursuing an appeal, and we believe that we will restore these children to the parent who has nurtured them for so long. The judge was impressed with the talent of the man, but he could comprehend only one of his characteristics—his blindness. His prejudice prevented him from noticing anything else. The decision of the judge is intolerable. Our families will not be destroyed because of somebody else’s prejudice about our blindness. We will meet this challenge, and we will vindicate the right of a father to love and cherish his own children.

In the National Federation of the Blind we have a philosophy which declares that we are in charge of our own lives with all that this implies. In our movement we also have members from every segment of society and from every part of the nation. The philosophy is essential, but it gains vibrant life only when it is put into practice by the members. Living our philosophy develops challenges that we offer to each other. I sometimes wonder why we cannot create a more effective legal structure, invent a more comprehensive access technology, or inspire a more welcoming spirit in the employment arena. When I wonder these things, I invite my colleagues to help me make a plan to assure that these thoughts become real. You sometimes wonder why I cannot muster the resources to implement an educational program that will change potential for blind children or adults throughout the nation. Each of us demands faith and performance from the other. When the demands we make of each other are met, we become more effective members and leaders than we have been in the past.

One of the most precious gifts I have is my friends in the Federation. Without you I could not have become the person I am. The friendship we have is a bond of trust. It means that when the challenges come we will not flinch. It means that when the demands are made we will pay the costs and find the energy to meet them. It means that when the charges come of inadequacy, weakness, or indecisiveness we will reject them. We will love, support, and believe in each other.

These friendships reach back into the past. Although I never met our first President, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, and although I knew only a very few of our members who were part of this movement in the first decade of its existence, the spirit they have given to what we have done has sustained me and our Federation throughout the later decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. I am quite certain that Dr. tenBroek and his colleagues at the beginning would recognize the force we have become and would have gladness in their hearts.

Our second great President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, was a close personal friend to Dr. tenBroek and to me. Dr. Jernigan experienced deprivation of opportunity in his life because of blindness, and he dedicated his whole being to bringing liberty to us. I promised him that I would find members who would carry on this tradition. Dr. Jernigan had a determined mind and a stout heart. He would recognize our Federation, and he would glory in it. We have kept faith with the leaders and the members who have preceded us, and we have made our promises to those who will follow. We will love, support, and believe in each other, and we will have the guts to face the hard choices when they come.

At this convention we have elected a new President. Mark Riccobono will be a good President. He will be a President who challenges us, but he will also be open to accepting challenges himself. He has judgment and a loving heart. Furthermore, he does not scare easy.

The challenge for us is to have the courage and to gain the talent that will make it practical for us to be a valuable element of every aspect of our society and to invent parts of it that do not yet exist. We must become known for the joyful lives we have and the contributions we make. Those who think of us as an afterthought, who doubt our ability, who want to control what we do and what we think, or who want to alter our family structures must not be permitted to dominate or control our lives. We must assure that our lives are what we want them to be. We must be the architects of our own tomorrow. Such is the challenge before us, but we have the capacity to meet it. Our spirit is abundant; our hearts are filled with joy. The prospects before us are as exciting as they have ever been. We can meet this challenge, and we will. Gather your strength. Gather your courage. Gather your will. And our plans will come true!