Braille Monitor                                                    April 2008

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Reflections on Philosophy

From President Maurer: On December 5, 6, and 7, 2007, a rehabilitation conference entitled "Dare to Be Remarkable," occurred at the National Center for the Blind. Staff members from the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and Blindness: Learning in New Dimensions (BLIND) made presentations. Shawn Mayo, director of BLIND, addressed attendees of the conference on December 6. Although I was not present for her remarks, I understand that she expressed the view that the task of an orientation center for the blind is to teach blind students that, when blindness is properly understood, it is a "nonissue." This choice of words caused much discussion. Before the day had concluded, I had discussed this remark with both Jim Omvig, a very longtime Federation leader, and Shawn Mayo.

Subsequent to the rehabilitation conference, Jim Omvig sent a letter to Shawn Mayo and others, and she responded. I was somewhat surprised both by what Jim Omvig said and by what Shawn Mayo replied. In a letter dated December 14, 2007, I expressed this surprise and added comments of my own. Upon reflection I have modified my thinking slightly, and I have altered my response accordingly.
One of the most oft-repeated (and frequently misunderstood) statements of Federation philosophy is that the real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. "The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exist. With proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. The ordinary blind person can do the ordinary job in the ordinary place of business and do it as well as the ordinary sighted person."

Many have said, either with annoyance or anger, that blindness is not simply a nuisance�it is much more than that. Of course the Federation has never said that blindness is either simply or only a nuisance. What we have said is that with proper training and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance. This leaves the social aspects of blindness to be considered, which can be a very great nuisance indeed and often much more than a nuisance. As I reflected upon the language employed in the rehabilitation conference, I wondered how blindness had changed in the decades that I have been working in the Federation.

It seems to me that the letters written with reference to the remarks of Shawn Mayo pose questions that have a fundamental impact on the underlying philosophical belief system of the Federation. Here is what was written:

From: James H. Omvig
Sent: Tuesday, December 11, 2007
To: Shawn Mayo, Pam Allen, Julie Deden, Marc Maurer
Cc: Joanne Wilson
Subject: NFB Orientation Centers and NFB Philosophy

Jim OmvigDear Shawn,
I don't want to make too big a deal of my concern with the way you stated NFB philosophy on Thursday, but since Dr. Maurer has raised it with you, I thought I'd let you know of my concern. And since I'm writing you, I thought I'd share it with the other centers. I'd hope we're all consistent and up-to-date concerning our NFB belief system.

As I told you, I was concerned when you began your remarks by saying that the purpose of an NFB center is to make blindness a "nonfactor" or "nonissue" in the lives of our students. I was concerned for two reasons: first, NFB philosophy has never been stated that way, and it surprised me; but, second, and even more important, our critics are always looking for something we say that can then be taken out of context and used to make us appear to be unrealistic or foolish.

I assume that, when you said a center's purpose is to make blindness a "nonfactor" in a person's life, you were really saying what we always say, "Blind people are normal people who, given proper training and opportunity, can compete on terms of absolute equality with our sighted peers," and that, "Given proper training, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance or inconvenience," that "Blindness is a normal characteristic that can be managed in the same way humans manage other normal characteristics." That's all clear enough to me and to those in the room who already understood and were committed to NFB philosophy.

But there were enough strangers in the room that the audience may well have included those who would be all too eager to leave the conference and head back home armed with what they would consider new ammunition with which to distort and smear. Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive and an alarmist, but I don't think so. I've been at lots of meetings and conferences over the past twenty-five years--during the time I've been writing about our training techniques and philosophy--where the effort from many traditional blindness professionals has been precisely that.

Actually, the issue of whether or not blindness is a nonfactor came up back in 1973. Someone wrote to Dr. Jernigan and said essentially, "You and the NFB are not consistent. You can't say, on the one hand, that blind people are normal people and then, on the other hand, also say that blindness is a nuisance or inconvenience, even if one has experienced proper training. Either we're normal, or we're not."
Dr. Jernigan answered this question at the 1973 New York convention in his speech, �A Left-Handed Dissertation.� Analogizing blindness to left-handedness, he pointed out that left-handed people are normal people but that, even so, left-handedness is still a nuisance (a characteristic) that is real and must be accepted and dealt with. Although the last paragraph of the speech is long, I thought I'd copy it here in its entirety, since it speaks to the point of blindness as a nonfactor. It reads:

For all these reasons I say to you that the blind are able to compete on terms of absolute equality with the sighted, but I go on to say that blindness (even when properly dealt with) is still a physical nuisance. We must avoid the sin and the fallacy of either extreme. Blindness need not be a tragic hell. It cannot be a total nullity, lacking all inconvenience. It can, as we of the National Federation of the Blind say at every opportunity, be reduced to the level of a mere annoyance. Right on! We the blind must neither cop out by selling ourselves short with self-pity and myths of tragic deprivation, nor lie to ourselves by denying the existence of a problem. We need your help; we seek your understanding; and we want your partnership in changing our status in society. There is no place in our movement for the philosophy of the self-effacing Uncle Tom, but there is also no place for unreasonable and unrealistic belligerence. We are not out to "get sighty." Will you work with us?

Shawn, I hope my raising this issue with you is not a bother. Since I have written so widely on the topic of NFB training over the past twenty-five years (based on hours and hours of discussions on the subject with Dr. Jernigan), I have a pretty good handle on what we think and why we do what we do. I recognize that our philosophy can grow and develop, and I also recognize that I am not necessarily the keeper of all knowledge on the subject, but I am not aware that we have progressed to the point that we say that blindness is a "nonfactor" in someone's life.

If I'm missing something, let me know. Also let me know about whether you think we need to be concerned any longer about how others state, or misstate, our positive message about blindness.

Hope all is going well at BLIND, Incorporated.

Jim Omvig

From: Shawn Mayo
To: James H. Omvig, Pam Allen, Julie Deden, Marc Maurer
Cc: Joanne Wilson
Date: Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Subject: RE: NFB Orientation Centers and NFB Philosophy

Shawn MayoDear Jim,
I am really glad that we can discuss this because our philosophy is so very important. I think that discussion is good but that we also have to be careful that we don't mistake discussion for criticism. I in no way think you were criticizing me for saying what I said. I believe in discussion as I'm sure you do, but I hope we never reach the point where the appearance of discussion is used to mask a one-size-fits-all philosophy. I don't think either you or I would want that.

"Left-Handed Dissertation" is a speech that we use regularly in seminar. Something I love about this speech is the way that Dr. Jernigan carried forward the ideas that Dr. tenBroek articulated in his Society for the Bald in "Within the Grace of God," and then President Maurer carried the same concept forward when he talked of the plight of the tall in "The Rest of Reality." It shows how durable our philosophy is even though it is articulated in different ways at different times.

When I was writing my portion of the panel presentation, though, I was thinking more about another speech we often use, "Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic" and particularly the passage: "No one is likely to disagree with me if I say that blindness, first of all, is a characteristic. But a great many people will disagree when I go on to say that blindness is only a characteristic. It is nothing more or less than that. It is nothing more special, or more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests. When we understand the nature of blindness as a characteristic--a normal characteristic like hundreds of others with which each of us must live--we shall better understand the real need to be met by services to the blind, as well as the false needs which should not be met."

I could have just put the term "characteristic" or "physical nuisance" in place of "nonfactor" or "nonissue," but I didn't for two reasons. First, the term "physical nuisance" was new and innovative when it was first used: however, we have used it so frequently that people�even people not overly familiar with our literature-may not be as inclined to think about the term and what it actually means. I'm no great rhetorician, but I do know that, while not wrong, repetition can have a sedative effect on listeners, and we intended to make people work at listening to what we had to say and hopefully remember and discuss it.

Second, I wanted to deal with this on more of a sociological level. There are a good number of folks who'd like to break all people down into a string of hyphenated subject positionings based on gender, class, race, sexual orientation, etc., and there are a lot of disabled folks who'd like to add disability to that list. I wanted subtly to show that, not only is blindness not a tragedy, it isn't an identity either. Joyce Scanlan received a call the other day from a college student wanting to research blind culture. We need to stand up, as Joyce did, and say blind folks are as individual as snowflakes. That is what I meant when I said, "The only real common denominator among blind people is blindness," the same as "Blind folks are a cross section of society." The concepts that blindness is a characteristic and that blind people are a cross section of society are two sides of the same coin, and I wanted to flip it around and show both sides. I thought the term "nonfactor" worked for this.

As far as anyone�s taking the phrase out of context and using it against us, any words can be twisted and misrepresented; that's the nature of language. People have done this with Dr. Jernigan's speeches as well as with those of other members. And the rehabilitation field has done this with the words we use to describe NFB training, informed choice, structured discovery, etc. In the context of our presentation "nonfactor" or "nonissue" means removing it from the individual's decision-making process. It's not that blindness goes away. We just want them to put it into perspective so that decisions that have been made on the basis of blindness are no longer being made on that basis.

The rehab establishment has a long history of false advertising when it comes to Federation philosophy, but that has never stopped us from speaking our minds. We were also addressing a seminar for professionals in the blindness field. While I wouldn't vouch for the intelligence of every person in attendance, we did assume that they were reasonably bright and at least mildly interested in the NFB and our thoughts on rehab, or they probably wouldn't have bothered to show up. We wanted to treat them like professionals and produce a presentation that was honest and intellectually engaging on the assumption that they would listen to the speech as a whole, consider it, and engage in meaningful dialog. I think that, if anyone wants to take one term out of context, that's his or her decision. I certainly don't have twenty-five years of experience in rehab or the Federation, but I believe that I have a firm understanding of our history and philosophy. I also believe I have the responsibility to carry our philosophy forward, and I am doing the best I can in this regard. I like what Dr. Jernigan said in his final banquet address, and I consider it a challenge I am trying to live up to:

I leave the presidency of this organization knowing that our movement has come of age and is fully mature. Make no mistake: we will go the rest of the way to freedom. I know it as surely as I know that the blind are as competent as others. I know it as surely as I know that the sighted are capable of accepting us as the equals we are. We of the second generation of the movement have kept faith with the first generation. We have treasured the heritage, expanded the opportunities, resisted custodialism, fought where we could with the weapons we have had to advance the cause, supported each other, nurtured our fellow blind, and sacrificed and planned for the future. We have also kept faith with our children, the third generation. We have transmitted to them a powerful movement. We have trained them in the ways of freedom. We have shared with them our beliefs and our understanding. We have wanted better for them than we have had for ourselves. And, above all, we have loved them. We do not seek to make them like us, for in our strongest imaginings we cannot go to the house of their ultimate tomorrow. We seek only to go with them as far as we can on the way.

Shawn Mayo
BLIND, Incorporated

December 14, 2007
Sent via email

Dear Jim and Shawn:
I have read your emails dated December 11 and 12, 2007, and I am a little surprised. I had thought that you, Jim, had expressed the view to me that Shawn's expression of philosophy overstated the case because it opined that blindness could be rendered a nullity, which you believed was impractical as a concept. In your email I do not find this assertion, which surprises me somewhat.

I found the conversation that we had during the rehabilitation conference about Shawn�s presentation fascinating. I wondered whether the proposition that blindness could become a nonissue could in any respect be possible. You related to me that this is what Shawn had said. If her argument is merely a restatement of what we have always said (whether her statement is subject to misinterpretation or not), then it seems less dramatic than what you earlier told me she said. I am well aware of what Dr. Jernigan said in "The Left-Handed Dissertation," and I agree with him. I think Dr. Jernigan's packaging of the ideas in that speech is among the most delightful of his writings. However, I am interested in knowing how Federation philosophy will develop. I do not believe that Dr. Jernigan thought up everything we should know. This implies that something new will be added to our philosophical comprehension of blindness and that we should be open to it. I hope I am open to the contemplation of ideas that extend beyond what all of us know. I think the thought of blindness becoming a nullity is an interesting one. I don't think I believe in it, but I would like to examine the proposition.

It seems to me that our expectations are greater today than they have ever been. Our technology is advancing faster than it ever has in the past. I also believe that we are challenging elements within society beyond those that we have addressed in former times. Will there ever be a time when blindness approaches irrelevance in the minds of blind people and of the public at large? Other characteristics of humanity that divide populations into groups have changed in importance. "No Irish need apply" is a saying that in the past meant exactly what it said. There are still tensions in Ireland, but in the United States Irish descent does not prevent participation in the broader society. Even the French and the British seem to work together these days. Apartheid is no longer the law of the land in South Africa. Will blindness ever become a nullity? I find this a fascinating question. I offer these thoughts only for what they may be worth.

Marc Maurer, president
National Federation of the Blind

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