OF TOOTHPASTE AND SHAVING CREAM

by Kenneth Jernigan

Almost everybody who thinks about blindness begins with the

assumption that if you are blind, you are at a tremendous

disadvantage in dealing with the everyday tasks of getting along

and managing your life. To some extent, of course, that is true.

Regardless of other things, the world is structured for the

sighted. Most books are in print, not Braille; an increasing

number of electrical appliances have lights that flash and

flicker instead of knobs that turn and click; and pictures are

replacing words on everything from the cash register at

McDonald's to the sign on the bathroom door.

Most of these items and appliances could be marked and

produced in nonvisual ways, but the fact that they aren't (and

that they won't be) is not an overwhelming problem. There are

techniques for dealing with the reading, the flickering lights

under transparent plates, and the pictures that tell you where to

go and what to do.

Functioning as a blind person in a world designed for the

sighted keeps you on your toes, but with a little thought and

ingenuity you can manage. In fact, you can manage quite well.

But that isn't the way most people look at it. They figure

that if you are blind, your days are miserably bleak and limited.

I've been blind all of my life, and I think I am about as happy

and successful as most of the sighted people I know. It is true

that I haven't made a million dollars or been elected president

of the United States--but I get along, pay my bills, and look

forward to a good dinner and a Sunday afternoon. So do the

majority of blind people I know. And I know a lot of them--some

successful, some just managing to get by, and most somewhere

between.

And let me hasten to add that I am not just talking about

people who have been blind from birth but about all of the other

variations--those who became blind as children, those who became

blind as young adults, and those who became blind in middle age

or later.

But if blindness is how I say it is--if you can have as much

fun, make as much money, and be as successful as anybody else--

why do people think blindness is so tragic and limiting? I have

given a lot of thought to that question, and I believe the answer

is less involved with the major activities of life than with the

insignificant details.

It is true that over seventy percent of working-age blind

people are unemployed--not because they can't do the job but

because people think they can't do it and because they haven't

had opportunity. But most people don't know that. More to the

point, they don't think about it, and even if they did, they

would simply take it for granted that the majority of blind

people are not unemployed but unemployable, and then they would

pass on to something else.

No, it is not the big things that cause the average member

of the public to think of blindness as tragic and limiting. It is

the routine activities, the details.

More specifically, it is the fact that when there is more

than one way to do a thing and when one of those ways involves

using sight, the sighted person will almost inevitably use the

visual technique. It will be done without a second thought, with

the automatic assumption that the visual technique is superior.

Some visual techniques are superior, of course; some are

approximately equal; and some are inferior.

Let me give you an example. A few mornings ago, my wife

(who, incidently, is sighted) expressed some annoyance that her

toothpaste had fallen off of the brush. I was quite surprised,

for I realized that something I had always taken for granted

wasn't so.

"Do you squeeze your toothpaste on to your toothbrush,

looking at it as you do it, and then put the toothbrush loaded

with toothpaste into your mouth?" I asked.

"Why, yes," she said. "Doesn't everybody do it that way?"

"I don't," I said. "I put the tube up to my mouth, bite off

what I want, and then put the brush on my teeth and go at it."

My wife was as surprised by my technique as I was by hers.

"It makes sense," she said. "I'll try it."

She did, and she said how much more efficient my technique

was than the visual method she had been using. About a week later

I asked her if she was still using my toothpaste technique, and

she rather sheepishly said that she wasn't. When I asked her why,

she thought about it a minute and then said, "I guess I'm so used

to looking at it that it's just too hard to change."

Here's a case where the nonvisual technique is clearly

superior but where the visual method is automatically used even

though it is not as good. My wife (along with most of the other

sighted people I have asked) has always, without even thinking

about it, taken it for granted that the sighted technique is

superior.

If she had considered it at all before our conversation, she

would probably have felt that my method of putting toothpaste on

the brush would be the same as hers except that I would need to

feel for the brush, which would be a little harder than just

looking at it.

Certainly the world doesn't turn on whether you bite your

toothpaste or squeeze it onto a brush, but life is a matter of

daily routine, not dramatic events. So let me move from

toothbrushes to razors.

I shave everyday (or almost everyday), and I do it with an

ordinary razor with a blade. Many of the sighted men I know tell

me that they shave in front of a mirror. Yet, I have known a

great many sighted men who have worked at schools or training

centers for the blind and who, after seeing blind boys and men

shaving in the shower, have tried the technique and adopted it. I

have never known one of them to return to the visual technique.

In fact, even those who shave in front of a mirror almost

always rub their hand across their face to feel if it is clean

shaven. Even so, the average person tends to think that shaving

without sight is difficult. It isn't. The nonvisual method is

easier and offers more flexibility.

Like most men who shave with a blade, I use shaving cream,

the kind that comes from a can under pressure and makes a big

pile of foam. Since I have to wash my face anyway, I combine the

operation with shaving. I get my face (including my forehead)

wet, and I then spread shaving cream all over it. When I am

finished, I rinse and am done.

A few years ago, when I was making television announcements

for the National Federation of the Blind, I thought it might be

interesting to demonstrate different techniques used by the

blind. I had shots made of me walking down the street, carrying

wood to a fireplace, tying my tie, and shaving.

As the TV editors looked at the pictures, everything was all

right until they came to the shaving sequence. One of them said,

"We can't show that. It would look like a vaudeville act, like

somebody throwing a pie at your face."

I gathered from my questions to them that they were

accustomed to seeing TV commercials about shaving and that in

those commercials a small amount of shaving cream is put on a

part of the face. Those commercials, it would seem, had formed

their image of what was normal and acceptable. As with some of

the other things I have been discussing, I had always assumed

that other men used shaving cream the way I did. Apparently such

is not the case.

I said to one of the TV editors: "Don't you wash your face

in the morning?"

"Yes," he said, "but I don't do it with shaving cream. I

wash my face and forehead with soap. I rinse my face; and then I

put shaving cream on and shave." It seemed to me that this was a

time-wasting, inefficient way to do it, but I thought I would

keep my opinion to myself.

When I was Director of Programs for the Blind in the state

of Iowa, we bought an old YMCA building for a headquarters and

training center. It had seven floors, and the only way to get

from the basement to the top was either by climbing the stairs or

by using the elevator.

It was, to say the least, not a modern elevator. In fact, it

was one of the old-fashioned kind using direct current. It had a

grille-work at the front of the cab and a lever that you pushed

one way to go up and the other way to go down. There was no way

to tell when you got to a given floor except by looking--or, at

least, that's what we thought when we moved in.

But those of us who were blind had the strongest possible

incentive to devise a nonvisual technique, for we couldn't afford

to hire an elevator operator--and we didn't want to walk up and

down the stairs between the seven floors all day.

My first thought was that if we couldn't see the floors,

perhaps we could string a cable from the top to the bottom of the

elevator shaft with some kind of tabs on it that would brush the

elevator car and make a noise at each floor. That would have been

expensive and complicated and we never got around to it. In the

meantime we walked--at least, those of us who were blind did.

Then, one of the blind trainees found that he could stick a

knife or comb through the grille-work and touch the bar on the

elevator door at each floor, thus allowing a blind person to

operate the elevator easily and efficiently. A little later we

learned that we had been going about the whole thing wrong. If we

paid attention, we could feel the air currents coming off of the

floors as we passed them and could level the elevator without any

mechanical devices at all.

Why did it take us so long to discover this technique? I

believe it was because it never occurred to us to think in any

other way except in visual terms. We thought that if we couldn't

see the floors, we needed to devise a substitute to do the same

thing, to touch them in one way or another. Only when we opened

our minds and let our imaginations run free did we get the

solution.

The elevator technique we developed was not superior to the

visual technique used by the sighted occupants of the building,

but it was just as good. The fact that it was different didn't

make it inferior. It just meant that it was different.

There is more opportunity for blind people today than there

has ever been in the history of the world, and we are only

beginning to realize our possibilities. We are truly changing

what it means to be blind, and one of the ways we are doing it is

by coming to understand that visual techniques are not

necessarily superior to nonvisual techniques. And it isn't just

blind people who are learning this. It is also an increasing

number of the sighted public. We who are blind must lead the way

and do for ourselves, but we must do it in partnership with the

sighted. And we must do it with imagination and new ways of

thinking.