The Role of the Blind in a Democratic Society (NBC Broadcast)

An address delivered by Professor Jacobus tenBroek
President, National Federation of the Blind
1952 WSM Nashville, Tennessee - NBC Broadcast

[NBC Host:]

Blind men and women from all over the nation are gathering today in Nashville, Tennessee for a four-day convention of their organization, the National Federation of the Blind. In our studios is the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek of Berkeley, California.

The National Federation of the Blind is the organization of the blind themselves. It is dedicated to the presentation of the problems of blindness as the blind see them, and to the solutions of those problems as the blind have worked them out.

Dr. tenBroek has been blind since the age of seven. He holds doctoral degrees from the Universities of Harvard and California. He has taught law at the Universities of Chicago and Colorado. For the past ten years, he has been a member of the faculty of the University of California, and is presently also a member of the California State Social Welfare Board. Dr. tenBroek will speak on: “The Role of the Blind in a Democratic Society.”

NBC takes pleasure in presenting Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, President of the National Federation of the Blind, speaking by transcription from the studios of WSM in Nashville.

[Dr. Jacobus tenBroek:]

I should like to ask you to join with me in seeking the answer to what may seem an easy question: Have the blind a right to a place in the sun—or only to a shelter?

In more conventional terms, the subject I shall discuss with you this afternoon is the role of the blind in a democratic society. No doubt that sounds like a simple and straightforward issue, clear enough in its meaning, if not in its solution. But I fear that the appearance of simplicity may be greatly misleading; and so, before proceeding further, I shall ask you to bear with me while I attempt to clarify the principal terms involved—the big word "democracy" and that other term "the blind."

"Democracy" of course means many things to many people; and no doubt its accents and implications have altered somewhat over the years. But after a century and a half of living with the idea and the practice, most Americans would probably agree that whatever else it may suggest, the essence of democracy consists in four indispensable guarantees to the individual citizen: the guarantees of liberty, equality, opportunity, and security. Full membership in a democratic society, that is to say, entitles the individual to liberty in thought and action, equality of treatment, opportunity to develop his potentialities, and security against the calamities of fortune over which he has no effective control. The withholding or withdrawal by society of any of these fundamental rights from an individual leaves him at best in a role of probationary membership, of second-class citizenship, and to that extent refutes the practice and violates the spirit of democracy.

To come quickly to the point: Something more than a quarter of a million Americans today denied full membership in their society—restrained in liberty, forbidden equality, refused opportunity, and threatened in security—for the reason only that they are blind. Moreover, their tragedy is heightened by the seeming paradox that this denial of rights of citizenship is sanctioned by a society motivated wholly by benevolence and for the most part unaware of its intolerance.

This brings us squarely up against the second of our crucial terms: "the blind." What does it mean? According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word "blind" means, first of all, "sightless." But it also means (and I quote) "2. Lacking discernment; unable or unwilling to understand or judge; as blind to faults. 3. Made without reason or discrimination; as, a blind choice. 4. Apart from intelligent direction or control; as, blind chance. 5. Insensible; as a blind stupor; hence, drunk. 6. Made without knowledge or guidance or judgment; as, a blind purchase."

The word "blind,” like the word "democracy," has many different implications; but as this list of Webster's so graphically reveals, they are virtually all implications of inferiority, of incompetence, even of stupidity. Language habits, as we all know, arise simply as a response to our inarticulate thoughts and feelings; and it is therefore of the greatest significance that society has come to speak of an unreasoning choice as a "blind" choice, and an insensible stupor as a "blind" stupor. Unless something is done to alter drastically the habits of thought which have given rise to these expressions, it is clear beyond a doubt what the role of the blind must be in society. It must, in brief, be a role outside society, or at least on its outer fringe: a role of inferiority and assumed incompetence: the role of a pariah class.

The issue before us is not whether the blind are deserving of humane treatment; they are getting that. The issue is whether they are deserving of human treatment—consideration as normal human beings and full-fledged citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities which that entails in a democratic society. To many of you it may seem obvious that the blind are entitled to such consideration. I have still to prove my thesis that in fact they are denied this right: that with regard to the crucial four freedoms of democracy—liberty, equality, opportunity, and security—the nation's blind are the victims of a policy of containment and their efforts to achieve responsibility remain effectively smothered beneath a tyranny of kindness.

Years of research in the field of rehabilitation and years of demonstration by blind individuals have established that, given competent guidance and sufficient opportunity, the person who has lost his sight can once again make rich contributions to his own well-being and that of his community. Individual blind persons are today successful in a vast range of jobs in industry, commerce, agriculture, and the professions. I personally know blind people who are dairy farmers, chicken farmers, rabbit farmers, potato farmers, beekeepers, stenographers, switchboard operators, beauticians, cabinetmakers, radio repairmen, machine tool operators, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, engineers, university professors of law, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, businessmen, restaurateurs, grocery men, and a wide variety of salesmen.

One blind man, Dr. S. Bradley Burson, presently attending our National Federation convention, is a nuclear physicist, doing experimental atomic research at a project of the Atomic Energy Commission. In addition to these, there are blind people in many unskilled or ordinary occupations. All of these examples, however, are individual instances of success; hard won over almost insurmountable and all together unnecessary obstacles. For the vast majority of the blind, the story is quite different.

If they seek employment in private industries, in the public service, or in many of the common trades, callings, and professions, they will find the door of opportunity shut in their faces. Their own demonstrations of ability will have little bearing on the treatment they receive. Not their ability, but their disability will hold the attention of employers and boards of governors, and not their disability but its false concomitant of inability will determine their fate. All will agree that they are more to be pitied than censured, but more to be censured than hired.

Recently, in the state of New York, a blind man was denied the renewal of a certificate of extension of authority to practice osteopathy, despite the fact that he had been granted a license to practice osteopathy in the state of New York in 1919. That since that date he had engaged in the practice of his profession in the state of New York down to 1941, except for a period of two years when he was an instructor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy, and despite the fact that at least eighteen affidavits were submitted by blind persons currently successfully practicing osteopathy and medicine in other states.

Recently, a young blind lawyer passed federal civil service examinations for the position of junior legal assistant. The United States Civil Service Commission removed his name from the registers solely on the grounds of his blindness, despite the fact that there are known to be at least one hundred and twenty blind persons successfully practicing law in this country and that the blind person involved then secured an appointment as junior legal assistant with a bureau of the federal government not covered by Civil Service, which he has filled with notable success.

In cities, counties, and states throughout the land, similar obstacles are placed in the path of blind people, regardless of their competence by civil service commissions, licensing officials, governing boards of trades and professions, schools, and colleges. Acting on the same conception of blindness, personnel managers and employers in business and industry, generally exclude blind persons from employment by applying arbitrary physical standards, which have no relationships to the tasks to be performed. When the blind turn to individual enterprise as a solution to their employment problems, bankers and other lending institutions almost universally treat them as bad risks. 

What prevents the blind from practicing the rights and enjoying the fruits of membership in society? Quite simply, it is the refusal of their neighbors to take them at their worth, indeed. It is the reluctance of the vast majority of Americans to relinquish their comforting and charitable conception of the blind individual as not only sightless, but helpless. And not only helpless, but hopeless. Viewing him through this ancient stereopticon, they come to regard him as finally and permanently disabled, despite clear evidence to the contrary. And with the greatest good will in the world, they lead him by the hand off the busy main avenues and into the sheltered back streets of society.

Exclusion from the main channels of social and economic activity, and thereby the lack of opportunity for self-support, these constitute the real handicap of blindness, far surpassing its physical limitations. The absence of economic opportunity is more than the absence of economic security; it is the disintegration of the personality. It is men living out their lives in social isolation and the atrophy of their productive power. The curse of blindness is idleness. Idleness which confines the blind to the sidelines of life; good players warming the bench in the game that all should play.

When this groundless discrimination against the blind is brought to an end, when employers and personnel managers seek and accept the talent and labor of the blind on rational rather than an arbitrary basis, when the blind as workers are evaluated on their individual merits, rather than supposed class demerits, government, industry, and the public will soon come to acknowledge the great contribution, which the blind men and women of America have been waiting to make to the nation’s economy.

It will perhaps be objective at this point that the picture has been overdrawn, that the blind of America are not any longer condemned to total isolation without aid and without comfort. For have we not through our government established a variety of welfare and rehabilitation programs? We have indeed. But it is precisely at this level, unfortunately, that we encounter still another real tragedy in the situation of the blind. For the pervasive social stereotype of blindness as incompetence and inferiority is accurately reflected in these programs. Instead of helping the blind man to escape the deadly inertia of emotional, social, and economic isolation, our public assistance program actually reinforces that isolation. Instead of assisting him to become psychologically and financially self-reliant, it intensifies his utter dependence on others. The pervasive assumption of incompetence also underlies and qualifies most rehabilitation work for the blind. Case finding is almost nonexistent and counseling, guidance, training, and placement are severely limited. All too frequently, the end of this process is graduation into a sheltered workshop, sidetracked into these literal blind alleys by his training and his trainers, the blind client will find himself at last at the dead end of the road.
With the reinforcement of dependence by the public assistance program, with the custodial treatment by rehabilitation agencies, and with the exclusion of the self-rehabilitative blind man from industry, commerce, government, and profession, we have come full circle. The initial shock of blindness casts the blind person into what, by all scientific and rational standards, should have been a transient state of frustration and insecurity. But the general public falsely supposed that he was permanently helpless and treated him accordingly. Welfare agencies assumed that he was incapable of employment and built their system on that premise. Rehabilitation workers considered him limited to the economic backstreets and led him there. Business and industry, government and profession prejudged him before his appearance and found him wanting. And the blind man himself soon became convinced that these attitudes were impossible to fight and, finally, that they were true.

The four great rights of liberty, equality, opportunity, and security have gained a firm foothold in the ideological structure of American democracy. With respect to the blind, however, as our analysis has shown, they are more honored in the breach than the observance.

We the blind people in the National Federation of the Blind ask that the blind be given the liberty of action which is the groundwork of human dignity, the equality of treatment which is indispensable to self-support, the security of mind and body which is necessary to rehabilitation, and the full degree of opportunity which will enable them to prove their economic value and their social worth. But neither the National Federation of the Blind nor any other organization can itself grant the rights which will restore the blind to a role of full and equal membership in our society. Only you, the people, can finally decide whether the blind of America are deserving of a place in the sun—or must be kept forever in a shelter in the shade.

[NBC Host:]

You have just heard an address by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek of Berkeley, California, President of the National Federation of the Blind. This address came to you by transcription from WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, where the National Federation of the Blind are holding their annual convention.