Braille Monitor                                                    February 2009

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Blind, but Intelligent

by Harold Snider

Harold Snider stands on the Great Wall of China talking on a satellite phone.From the Editor: I have always felt great sympathy for hospital patients because they are likely to be very vulnerable to the whims of authority at a time when they are particularly ill-equipped to deal with the problems that all-too-frequently occur when prejudice and power converge to attack a weak, perhaps helpless, person.

When I was president of the NFB of Ohio, I had to intervene for a blind woman and her husband. He was hospitalized with dementia and other serious health problems. She tried to be with him as much as possible, but she had a job to do, so she worked with him so that he could remember to tell the psychiatrist that his wife wanted to confer with him. When she next arrived at the hospital, her husband was very upset because the doctor refused to meet with a blind family member. He preferred to discuss the case with the Alzheimer’s patient only. We managed to get apologies from everyone involved and an incident report in the doc’s personnel file, but I have very little hope that much has changed in that institution, except that it lost the business of that family for good.

The following report illustrates the problem we have with many (but certainly not all) hospital administrators and medical personnel. The problem might be easier to address if the situation facing blind patients and family members was universal. As it now stands, we must be on guard any time we or those we love are hospitalized. At a time when we are least able to fight for our rights, we must be prepared to do so, and we must simultaneously conduct ourselves in such a way as to persuade those who enter our rooms that we are calm, rational, and well balanced. This is of course grossly unfair, but it is the reality of being a member of a low-incidence minority, as blind people are. The following story recounts the way one person dealt with the problem. Perhaps it will encourage others.

Harold Snider is a longtime Federationist. He earned his doctorate in history at Oxford University. He has been totally blind all of his life, and he is certainly intelligent. Here is his story:

In his 1975 banquet speech “Blindness, Is the Public against Us?” Dr. Kenneth Jernigan began by quoting a poem written on the wall of a California coffeehouse. The poem implied pity for “dog-less” blind people. As if that were not bad enough, we incur pity and discrimination for all sorts of other reasons and in many unexpected places. This article discusses signs placed over hospital beds, specifically my bed and on more than one occasion.

When I was in graduate school at Oxford University in England in August 1973, I had to have my tonsils removed because of chronic tonsillitis. After difficult surgery I returned to my room, where I was visited by one of my readers the day after surgery. He commented in passing, “Harold, did you know there was a sign over your bed that says, ‘Blind, but intelligent’?” I told my reader with some disgust that I hadn’t known anything about the sign, and I asked him to climb on a chair and remove it, which he did with great alacrity. After an argument with hospital administrators, the sign stayed down.

In August 2004 I had a surgical procedure in the hospital. When my wife Linda came to visit me the next morning, she said “Did you know a sign over your bed says, ‘Blind, but intelligent’?” I told her that I didn’t know anything about the sign and asked her please to remove it. She promptly obliged.

Then, in October 2008 I was preparing for surgery in another hospital. In discussions with the preoperative department, I told them about the two previous incidents. They assured me this would not happen. On October 23, when I returned to my room after surgery, you guessed it. Over my bed was a sign that said “Blind, but intelligent.” I again had a discussion with hospital administrators, who informed me that it was their policy that a sign be placed above the bed of every blind patient. I told them they had violated my rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws, and that, if the sign didn’t come down, they would face a lawsuit, and I would own their hospital. Grudgingly they removed the sign.

So why the signs, and what was the motive? On all three occasions hospitals told me that they wanted their staff to know that I was blind. I told them that I had no objection to the staff having that information but that it should be placed in my chart and not posted over my bed. They said that I would interact with many staff members who would not read my chart and that the sign served a useful purpose. I replied that, if someone needed to know about my blindness, I was perfectly happy to tell him or her. None of the three hospitals, however, agreed with this logic. When you are in the hospital, you are vulnerable. You are ill and likely in pain. You don’t know whether to remain silent and tolerate the insult or do what I did and insist that the sign be removed.

Finally I would like to consider the wording of the signs themselves. I wouldn’t have been quite as offended if the signs had just said “Blind.” I might not have been quite as offended if the signs had said “Blind and intelligent.” But the signs actually said “Blind, but intelligent.” That really offended me, as if the natural state of blind people is stupid, but this one is an exception. It’s the sort of sign you put on the cage of an animal in the zoo. All such signs are so totally degrading that they are in my opinion unacceptable. The fact that I succeeded in getting these signs removed shows me how far we’ve come since the Dark Ages. The fact that the signs were put up in the first place shows me how far we have to go to make hospital administrators and sighted people in general perceive us as whole complete human beings having the characteristic of blindness.

The philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind doesn’t deal specifically with signs like “Blind, but intelligent.” Such a thing is too outrageous and egregious to have occurred to anyone as a problem. However, the purpose of this article and my story is education. In all three cases I refused to tolerate such nonsense. I told the staff members what they needed to know. I explained to staff members who came into my room that I was blind, and I also told them that they needed to let me know what they were doing and when. The hospital administrator’s assertion that the sign would have been even more important had I been unconscious is absurd because, if I had been unconscious, my blindness wouldn’t have been an issue at all.

After having been righteously angry and having dealt with the situation as promptly as I could, I believe I could have done nothing more. Educating hospital administrators and staff about blindness is a never-ending process for all of us who may need surgery. May God, in His infinite wisdom, save us from all those experts who think they know what we need better than we do ourselves.

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