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The Braille Monitor – February, 2001 Edition


The Way We Think of Ourselves

by Peggy Elliott

Peggy Elliot
Peggy Elliot

From the Editor: One of the hallmarks of maturity is honesty with oneself. We pretend with children, young teens, and those of diminished responsibility that they are what we are perfectly certain they are not--grown up and responsible. With kids the strategy is, I think, that we can help the youngster grow into adult behavior. With adults whom we believe to be incapable of assuming responsibility for themselves, the mechanism is different. When we see no hope of eliciting the responses of an equal, we tactfully ignore the inappropriate, assume responsibility when we can, or in extreme cases simply treat the person like the child he or she resembles.

I have observed this reaction in myself when confronted with immaturity or inappropriateness in others, and I have seen others behave in the same way. I have also been on the receiving end of such treatment from those who assume that a blind person has no business out alone and had better be protected. Fending off intrusive efforts to help, invasions of privacy and space, and assumptions of incapacity are things that all independent blind people get lots of practice doing.

What may be even harder to master is devising effective methods for getting controlled amounts of information or assistance when it is needed. Tactfully setting limits for would-be helpers is not easy and requires patience and a sense of humor. But the fundamental necessity for responsible blind adults is honesty with oneself.

My Braille skills are not what they should be. That is not because Braille is too difficult for me to master. It is that I did not bother to work on my skills when I was young enough for it to come easily to me. If you have trouble figuring out where you are or getting where you need to go, perhaps you have trouble making and keeping mental maps, or maybe you need practice paying attention to your surroundings. There is some reason for your problem, and it is not simply that you are blind, for many blind people know exactly where they are when they are traveling. We accomplish nothing but self-delusion and headaches for everybody else when we refuse to admit the truth about our skills to ourselves, particularly when the truths in question have to do with blindness.

Peggy Elliott, Second Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind, has been doing some serious thinking along these lines. Those who believe that blind people should be shielded from unpleasant truths will not care for her conclusions, but the rest of us would do well to think hard about what she says. Here it is:

I have known for a long time that there are two basic ways of thinking about blindness. One way, simply put, is that the blind person is responsible. The other way is that someone other than the blind person must be responsible.

I think we have all become familiar over the years with this second view. It is most commonly exhibited in two places: blindness service providers and potential employers. Those blindness service providers who believe that someone else is responsible for the blind person commonly assign the responsibility to themselves, make decisions which the blind person should make, and try to get his or her agreement either by convincing the blind person that blindness is a barrier to decision-making or by use of the power of withholding services to get the agreement. It's never pretty to see a blind person either willingly or by coercion giving up control of basic decisions, but it's more common than we would like to think.

The other place where we too often find the attitude that someone else is responsible for the blind person is in potential employers who do not inquire about the blind person's qualifications to perform the job but focus on ability to arrive at work, plans for finding the rest room, and other tasks of daily living that such employers assume the blind person cannot perform. The assumption of these employers is that, since the blind person cannot possibly perform such tasks independently, he or she cannot become a valued and efficient employee. The potential employer fails to hire the blind person without ever articulating the reasons why.

We in the Federation have long recognized both sources of the basic misconception that blind people cannot function responsibly. While we have often criticized specific instances of this attitude, our major thrust for years has been to focus on blind people ourselves. We have talked with each other, explained our ability to be responsible for ourselves, given each other demonstrations, offered tips for more efficient performance of a myriad of tasks without sight, and, most important, stressed the learning and mastery of basic blindness skills such as reading and writing Braille and learning to move safely and independently through our environment as the cornerstones of our ability to take responsibility for ourselves.

It's working. More and more of us every year move with confidence, offer invaluable role models to others, read our speech and work notes in Braille, get computers with Braille displays, and build lives of independence and dignity based on these foundations. By doing so, we're changing what it means to be blind and changing the future for all blind people.

Just in the last few years, I have noticed a third source for the notion that someone else is responsible for blind people. As I have said before, I think the fountain of this attitude often resides in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which has all too often been interpreted as a federal instruction to the able-bodied to take care of all disabled people. Much good has come from the ADA, especially in the area of accessibility for people using wheelchairs. But I detect a distressing whiff of custodialism developing in the public perception of the ADA as it applies to blind people and not much of a diminishing effect on those potential employers' attitudes. They still think we need someone else to take care of us. They now know that they have been nominated for the duty, and they are not excited about it.

The truly distressing recent development is among blind people ourselves. It revolves around the word "need." I have dutifully perused the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act once I noticed this trend, and I can find no single use of the word "need" among the many words of this eighty-page law. Yet I hear it commonly used to describe what individual blind people want. In the minds of such blind people, turning a personal desire into a "need" somehow seems to endow the desire with the force of law.

It has long been my experience that, for every personal desire or need--whichever way you term it--that one blind person may utter, you can find a blind person expressing exactly the opposite personal desire or need and a whole range of blind people articulating an infinite range of variations on the opinions of the first two.

This has always led me back to a contemplation of the fundamental role of the Federation as defined in its constitution as a vehicle for social action for blind people. Individual blind men and women can and do express a variety of opinions about what blind people need that is as wide as the galaxy. The Federation applies logic to the situation and seeks through discussion and experience to determine the maximum degree of independence for blind people and the minimum degree of intervention by other people that will bring about the best result for blind people. The answers aren't always obvious, and we often discuss issues for years, sometimes heatedly disagreeing while we work out the terms of the problem and the framework of the solution. But we carefully do it together, using our common knowledge and experience rather than that all-too-often erroneous personal opinion based on a constituency of one: "what I want" or "what I need."

But back to this newest development: the blind person as source of the opinion that someone else is responsible for the blind. I suppose it's always been around. I even suppose that most blind people have passed through a stage in which they devoutly hope that someone else will take responsibility for them. Most of us who belong to the Federation have passed beyond that stage, have realized that we are responsible for ourselves, and have set about to acquire skills and practice them toward mastery that sets us on the road to independence. Most importantly, we have studied and practiced the mindset of responsibility. We have watched other blind people, asked advice, quietly challenged ourselves to do things we once thought impossible, cheered others who are making such tries, and gradually come to the realization that, looking back, for quite a time we have relied upon ourselves for decisions and used as our method of making choices the fact that we are responsible for ourselves. But it appears that some of us blind people do not seek to change and grow, do not seek personal responsibility, have quite literally decided that it is easier to have someone else be responsible and that the Americans with Disabilities Act can be used to enforce this decision.

For example, I have noticed an increasing emphasis by blind people not in the Federation upon their "needs" being met by transportation providers. I recently read a description by one blind person of what he thought had been a nightmarish experience in an airport and another by a woman who felt that her treatment on a train trip was inexcusable. As I absorbed the details of each story, characterized by their authors as failures of the transportation providers to meet their "needs" appropriately, I felt greater and greater astonishment. It appeared to me that both blind people seemed to believe that they could enter the transportation system without travel skills or effort on their part to try, simply expecting one-on-one entry-to-exit personal-attendant service by employees of the transportation system. In the mind of each, it seemed to me, was the unspoken belief that a blind person cannot travel independently in an airport or on a moving train--a fact that should be so obvious to all that employees of the companies should have leapt to their sides at any point when the passenger was in motion, offering an elbow and a smile, pleased to be able to serve and delighted to do it without a request or demonstration of need, which should at all times, according to these blind people, be assumed.

I was astonished. I have traveled internationally through the air transport system and throughout the country on trains. Personally I have never needed or wanted assistance from airline or airport personnel or train employees. In fact, I have found it a rather tedious descant to my travels that I must continually refuse help I didn't ask for and then refuse it again and again, often from the same person, often as the person puts his or her hands on me and begins to move me bodily in some direction--never the one I have chosen but one the sighted employee has decided upon for me.

So here is a perfect instance of that difference of opinion I mentioned a minute ago. I want no help unless I specifically ask for it. When I ask, I am prepared to help the person I am questioning to give me useful information (that is, no pointing) so that I can achieve my goal of getting where I am going. I want the people I ask to know I am blind because that's the only way I can get them to provide useful information.

On the other hand, these two stories I recently read were written by people who wish help as the default setting--everywhere, every time movement is required, without their request and without anyone mentioning that they are blind. In fact, one of the authors reported with disapproval that the person who was supposed to help him told him that "you people always expect us employees to drop everything and do whatever you want, regardless of other duties"--just what I thought of the blind person's request. He obviously thought this was not only rude but a near-breach of the unspoken agreement he hopes for that no one will mention the reason he "needs" this help.

I am tired of hearing blind people say they have "needs." So does everybody else. The special use of this term by and about blind people is supposed to help all of us avoid the nasty little task of mentioning that the blind person "needs" something because he or she is blind. The reason for the "need" is supposed to be obvious, and politeness should keep all people in our vicinity from mentioning it. Moreover, our "needs" are assumed by all who use this formulation to be very specific and well-understood and to involve not only silence on the subject of why the need exists but also silence on any aspect of the blind person's situation he or she doesn't want discussed.

For example, the story about the blind person in the airport involved his returning to his home airport late at night when the airline employee was charged with locking up after that flight. Walking the blind person to the baggage carousel, finding his luggage, and then walking him and the luggage to the curb to find a cab for him were not in the employee's expectation and were being added to his duties of closing up the gate to which he would then return after having left it unattended. I could certainly see why the employee was irritated. But the thing I really couldn't understand was why the blind person, returning to his own home airport in a city where he had lived for a number of years, couldn't perform these tasks for himself and wanted an airline employee to do them for him.

Instead of taking the time to learn how to get around the airport for himself, this blind person expected others to help him every time he entered the airport and further expected that the help would be provided without his having to ask for it and with a smile.

The woman who rode the train told of being placed in the handicapped car. I didn't even know there was one, and I certainly wouldn't ride there. Her criticism of the train employees involved their not responding when she pushed her button for help and their not coming to tell passengers when food was being served since the intercom was not working. I think I would have found out about the food myself. And I can't imagine wanting to summon a train employee to my seat. If I for some reason want a train employee, I get up out of my seat and go find one, just like everyone else. Why should they come to us and to no one else? Apparently this blind train rider wanted assistance not accorded to any other train rider, wanted it instantly, and wanted it without having to call attention to her blindness. As far as I can tell, she had a long, hungry trip, but to her the problem was lack of train-employee focus on "meeting her needs."

Then there was the story written by the woman who was dropped off at the corner she requested by the bus company. The only complaint I hear from blind people about buses involves being able to find the right corner with the driver's help. But this woman found the right corner on the first pass--no question about it. But that wasn't the problem, according to her. You see, she couldn't figure out how to cross the street. That seems clear enough to me--bad training, lack of confidence, whatever. Do some brush-up work.

But the woman who wrote this story saw it differently. She asked the bus driver to get off his bus and to "line her up" to cross with the traffic light. The bus driver, quite reasonably in my opinion, declined to get out of his bus and "line up" a blind person. As she writes the story, then, due to the bus driver's cruel refusal to help her, she could not get across the street and so was compelled to begin a forced march along the sidewalkless side of the street upon which she was stranded with snow and mud underfoot as companions in a futile search for another traffic light she could figure out.

This woman diagnosed the second problem, in addition to the cruelty of the bus driver, as one of lack of buzzing traffic lights telling her when to cross. She is now on a campaign to fix both problems. It has apparently never occurred to this woman that her own skills are the deficiency in this story, not the cruelty of the bus driver nor the lack of buzzing traffic lights.

That's not a world I would choose to live in. I believe that my needs are my own to take care of and my responsibility, not that of someone else. Furthermore, I don't want other blind people to stamp their feet and demand that we all be helped every time we move more than an inch or two, without question and without any conversation about it. I don't want train employees hovering over me, shoving me into handicapped cars, and jumping to serve my every need or want. I don't want traffic engineers and bus companies leaping to help me whenever I turn up, even to the point of leaving an idling bus with other passengers to "line me up" and making traffic lights buzz in case I might pass by.

And I have worked too long and hard to be able to pass through the airline system as just another passenger treated just as badly as all the others and no differently to want to go back to the bad old days when, the minute my nose appeared in an airport, airline personnel were leaping out to put their hands on me and move me about according to their decision about what I needed as a blind person. In other words, I specifically and exactly want precisely the opposite of what the blind airline passenger, the blind train rider, and the blind bus rider say they want.

Most of all I do not want to live in a world in which everyone else is constantly responsible for meeting my "needs." In fact, I don't want anyone in the world to worry about my "needs" to try to meet them, or even to think about them. They're mine, not public property. They have not been federalized with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And I think we have enough trouble with the blindness service providers and the potential employers who presume we are not responsible. The last thing I want is for blind people to start standing up and saying that they're right, that we blind people--all blind people--have "needs," the exact same "needs," which must be met by somebody else, anybody else but the blind person. If that's what the ADA gives us, it will be a long, long step backward for blind people. There are now blind people abroad in the land advocating exactly that.

I continue to believe that the Federation has been right all along. Sure, it takes work. What in life worth having doesn't? But I refuse to believe, as an official of the American Council of the Blind told me recently, that most blind people cannot get around very effectively or safely right now and moreover never will. My own personal need is for blind people with those kinds of attitudes about the capabilities of blind people to re-examine them and to realize that claiming we blind people have "needs" is just a cop-out, a way of refusing to learn and to grow. I hope that thousands of my fellow Federationists need the same thing. Are you out there?

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