Braille Monitor                                                    May 2009

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The Mythology of Discrimination

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: This address was delivered by President Maurer at the University of Notre Dame on Friday, March 6, 2009. He was invited to keynote a conference on blindness. Here is the text:

The idea that blindness and joy may be contemplated at the same moment is strange to our society. Nevertheless, contemplating these thoughts simultaneously is a fundamental element of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. It isn’t that we believe that blindness should bring joy—we haven’t lost our minds. However, we know that blind people can have joy and that, properly understood, the lives of blind people can generate joy for others.

A community is thought to be an aggregation of human beings who share similar interests. Many communities are being created in the United States identified by characteristics such as race, educational attainments, political standing, heritage, sex, and economic possessions. How valuable is it to be a member of a community; what is required to be accepted as a part of it; what is lost to an individual from joining a community; and how are communities created? Answering these questions is part of what I do as president of the National Federation of the Blind, the largest organization of blind people in the United States.

In the past discrimination meant discernment—a positive characteristic. “Discrimination” is a term that today signifies arbitrary, improper, and illegal classifications of human beings. Our community is composed of blind people and their friends who want to foster independence for the blind and who reject as unfounded mythology—the mythology of discrimination—the assumption that blind people have less ability than that possessed by the sighted. Challenging established norms is controversial, and one identifying characteristic of any group challenging discriminatory practices is that it will become controversial. So much for the oft-repeated argument that in matters dealing with blindness there can be no rancor. Many people have told me that I should get along with the people who disagree with the assessments of the National Federation of the Blind, as if peace were the ultimate objective. In the past we had all the peace we could tolerate along with massive discrimination. One way to interpret the demand that we have peace is to recognize that others wish to tell us that we should give up some of the fundamental beliefs that make us what we are. This we cannot do. For somebody else to tell me that I should prefer peace to participation is to assert that they know more about my business than I do—that they know what is good for me.

Disability denominates a physical or mental characteristic that prevents a person from performing tasks that others regard as among the customary features of human interaction. The legal definition says that disability interferes with a “major life activity.” In the past disability meant a legal or ecclesiastical prohibition. In the second half of the twentieth century, the two terms, “disability” and “discrimination,” came together. The legal system of the United States recognized disability as a characteristic often unreasonably employed to prohibit disabled individuals from participation in otherwise lawful activities.

The change in legal thinking was no accident. Blind people, led by a constitutional scholar, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, who was blind himself, joined in a struggle to demonstrate that most prohibitions based solely upon blindness or other disability are fundamentally unsound. Dr. tenBroek and his colleagues created a civil rights movement for the blind and for others with disabilities. To accomplish an alteration in thought and in law, a community was required. A group of people needed to come together who shared a point of view and a set of goals. This group is known as the National Federation of the Blind, and this organization began the process of creating the civil rights movement for the disabled. The Federation is not the only organization that has stood forth in battle to combat the prejudicial stereotypes of incapacity that have bedeviled the lives of the blind, but it was the leading contingent in the struggle for equality, with its leaders and members walking the halls of Congress and the state legislatures as early as the 1940s.

Blindness is an isolating condition. The frequently expressed assumptions about blind people are that the blind will not participate except in limited circumstances and that blind people have very little to contribute. Even when no intent to limit participation by the blind exists, these assumptions effectively limit participation.

Blind people need more time to complete assignments than their sighted peers, it is said. In school blind students need additional time to complete homework, or the amount of the homework should be limited. If sighted students are assigned fifty questions, it is acceptable to assign only twenty-five to the blind. Blind people cannot participate effectively in sports. Blind people are ineffective as public speakers because they cannot gain eye contact with the audience. Blind people cannot be effective lawyers because they cannot observe the expressions on the faces of the jury. Blind people cannot be effective teachers because they cannot react to the nonverbal communication of their students. The often repeated customary belief is that vision is essential for learning, life, and love. The stimulating significance of the passionate glance is recorded in song and story and described in poetic imagery around the world. Although such arguments are incomplete or incorrect, they are a part of the current coin of the language, and the effects are inescapable.

Blind people are now teaching classes; appearing in court on behalf of clients; engaging in sporting activities, including Olympic events; doing their homework; performing assignments in school and on the job completely and speedily; climbing mountains; riding horses; water-skiing; and even giving public speeches. The portrayal often made of us is false, but it persists. Is the false portrayal deliberate misrepresentation, or does it arise from ignorance?

In 1829 the first school for the blind in the United States came into being. For the first time educators believed that blind people could learn. However, students did not leave the school to accept employment. Employers did not want blind workers. Consequently, fairly soon after the establishment of schools for the blind, sheltered workshops for the blind came into being. They supplied an outlet for blind graduates seeking work, and they were frequently a source of revenue for the schools.

Most of the work in the workshops was simple and repetitive. Rug weaving, broom making, and chair caning are examples. Of course much of the work in workshops for the sighted during the nineteenth century was also simple and repetitive. However, the tasks in workshops for the blind have not progressed much. When I myself attended a school for the blind in the 1950s and early 1960s, I learned chair caning. I was told that this form of employment was likely to be my future. Of course I had no basis upon which to challenge the assertions of my teachers, but I hoped fervently that they were wrong. I left the school for the blind before I learned to make brooms, but I imagine that I still remember how to cane chairs.

As I have observed, because of the difficulty in finding employment for blind workers, workshops specifically oriented to work for the blind were created. In 1938 the Congress adopted legislation supporting these workshops through a system requiring government agencies to purchase commodities produced in them. These commodities frequently bore the symbol, “Blind Made.” More than eighty of these workshops currently operate for the blind in the United States. Although workers in these shops are often paid at rates above the federally established minimum, no minimum wage protection exists for these workers. Sheltered workshops for people with disabilities other than blindness have also been established.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of government contracts run through these sheltered workshops each year. The executives of the workshops (most of them not disabled) receive very substantial rewards for serving as the primary officials in them.

Despite the segregated conditions of these workshops and despite the inequities built into the employment relationship, these workshops have served a very useful purpose. Not only do they represent the assertion that disabled workers have value, but they have served as a gathering place. Blind people and other workers with disabilities could come together to share ideas, to inspire one another, to plan for the future, and to hope to build opportunities greater than had ever been available to them before they knew each other. In other words, they were establishments in which a community of like-minded people might be formed—most of the time without the knowledge of management and without consent.

Today the schools for the blind are largely anachronistic, and the workshops are waiting their turn. Most blind students attend the public schools, in accordance with the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Blind students are mainstreamed. Because blindness is a low-incidence disability, the concentration of resources at the school for the blind, such as Braille maps, Braille texts, machines for producing Braille, optical scanning equipment, and other material, is in many cases no longer available. The public schools are overwhelmed by the multiplicity of needs of both disabled and nondisabled students. In many cases they can’t or won’t provide adequate education to blind students. They have few teachers who know how to read and write Braille, they have fewer teachers who know how to teach blind people to travel with a cane, and they have precious little experience or background in the specialized techniques for teaching the blind. This summation signifies that quality education for blind students is almost unattainable. Furthermore, the parents of these students are very often isolated from one another. They do not know what expectations are reasonable for their children, and in the name of privacy the public schools refrain from telling parents about others who are similarly situated. The community of those with similar interests is restricted.

Education in schools for the blind was segregated from instruction for the sighted. Employment in sheltered workshops was segregated from employment for the nondisabled. The administrators of the specialized schools and shops argued that activities in these establishments could be conducted in no other way. At the time these institutions were first created, this proposition was probably true. Public opinion would probably not have accepted widespread education of the blind in the public schools, and widespread employment of the blind is still a goal to be attained. The unemployment rate for blind people is estimated at 70 percent or greater. Although this rate is tremendously high and although it has remained high in spite of government programs directed at employment, the rate in the 1950s was estimated at 95 percent or above, and the rate in the 1940s was estimated at 98 percent or above.

At the beginning of education for blind people, all blind students (or all students who were identified as blind) were taught at schools for the blind, were educated at home, or remained uneducated. At the beginning of sheltered employment, almost all blind workers gained employment in sheltered workshops. Although several thousand blind people still work in them, many, many more blind people have jobs outside of the sheltered industries. The valuable benefit of assisting with the creation of a community of interest in these institutions has also diminished—almost disappeared. However, the need for this community is as great today as it has ever been.

High expectations are central to achievement; and without a sounding board, without a reflection of hope, without a support structure to reinforce the faith of a blind person seeking to attain success, the accomplishments that may be expected are diminished. What did the administrators of schools for the blind want their students to do and what were the aspirations of the bosses in the workshops for their employees? Did they glory in the creation of a community of independence-minded blind people? Were they supportive of dreams bigger, more aggressive, and more startling than they had tried to instill? Did they actively challenge those in their programs to exceed the possibilities that they had imagined?

In the 1950s the National Federation of the Blind, which had been formed in 1940, created a form of rehabilitation training previously unknown. This form of training, led by the most imaginative teacher of the blind of the twentieth century, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and incorporating the philosophical underpinnings of the National Federation of the Blind, expected of blind people that full participation in society—in schools, in work, in social activities, in politics, and in almost all other pursuits—is practical if the specialized skills used by the blind for participation are mastered and if opportunity to use them can be created. One of the elements of this specialized training is a grounding in the comprehension of disability. What does it mean to be disabled, and what are the myths and the false assumptions surrounding the idea? What is reasonable to expect from a disabled person, and what alterations in the pattern of activity are required to permit disabled people to make contributions? Blindness is a characteristic of those who have it rather than a severe limitation.

Probably the most misunderstood and controversial statement about blindness current today is: “The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.” This statement is controversial because some have charged those who have said it with believing that blindness is a minor matter. Blind people who have faced severe isolation and discrimination have vociferated that their blindness is no small hindrance. Officials who have believed that they are responsible for the blind have taken this statement to mean that their jobs are unimportant and their service to blind people negligible.

Blindness can be devastating, but with proper training and with opportunity it need not be. Misunderstanding and lack of information are endemic to the customary thinking about blindness. With misunderstanding comes prejudice. This is the common experience faced by the blind. However, being misunderstood is not the total experience of blind people.

The founding president of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, was a lawyer, a professor, and a constitutional scholar, as well as being blind. In 1955 he asserted that constitutional principles apply to the blind and otherwise disabled. He said that civil rights for the blind are an essential part of the legal structure of our nation and that laws must be established to assure that the blind and otherwise disabled have the same protections as are available to others. Furthermore, he recognized that the laws are not self-executing—they must be enforced. The National Federation of the Blind was challenging assumptions about employment possibilities for blind people. It was demanding that rehabilitation agencies assist blind people to find employment outside sheltered workshops. It was insisting that blind people had the right to speak on their own behalf. It was denying the authority of agencies for the blind to tell legislatures, members of the public, and entities in government (as well as blind people themselves) what blind people wanted or needed. It was saying that agency officials could work with the blind but could not speak for the blind.

In 1957 so much controversy had been created, so many blind people had lost their jobs for speaking out, so many blind people had been denied the right to rehabilitation services that a bill to protect the right of blind people to join an organization of their own choice was introduced by Senator John F. Kennedy in the Senate of the United States. The Right to Organize bill brought into stark focus the reality that agencies for the blind fight to protect their own interests, not the interests of the blind. They want to preserve and expand their own turf. If they can do this while advancing the interests of the blind, everybody benefits. If they believe that their best interest is served by diminishing the aspirations of blind people, they will take this course. By 1957 the battle between the blind and the agencies for the blind had been joined. It lasted into the 1980s. Vestiges of it still exist, but today most of the picket lines are gone.

These things occurred half a century ago. One argument asserts that, because blind people are different from the sighted, differences in treatment are appropriate. If blind people are, in some essential way, different from the sighted, differences in treatment are not only useful but necessary. However, if the fundamentals of the blind and the sighted are the same, differences in expectation or responsibility or performance or remuneration or involvement must be classified as inappropriate or discriminatory or otherwise improper. We believe that blind people are normal—or as normal as anybody else. The obvious difference is that sighted people have sight and blind people do not. This demands that blind people approach the task of performing jobs that sighted people would do with their eyes from a different point of view.

The techniques used by the blind are not always the same as those used by the sighted. But the expectations for blind people should be no less dramatic, no less fulfilling, and no less rewarding than those for the sighted. For example, many of us use Braille to read and write. Louis Braille invented the system early in the nineteenth century. His teachers at the school for the blind in Paris were not amused. They looked upon this new reading and writing system with suspicion and annoyance. Blind kids could pass notes that the teachers couldn’t read. Braille, the reading and writing system for the blind that has become known worldwide, was not adopted in France, the home of Louis Braille, until after Louis Braille’s death.

Although Braille had been used in the United States as early as the 1860s, and although its use has opened career opportunities to hundreds of thousands of blind people, in most public schools Braille is not taught to blind students, and the right to learn Braille was not codified in federal statutes of the United States until 1998. Two thousand nine is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. His reading and writing system for the blind is the most important invention ever created for blind people; it has brought opportunity and joy to the hearts of millions. The National Federation of the Blind has declared this year the year of Braille literacy—the year of Braille Readers are Leaders. We want to double the Braille literacy rate for the blind of the nation, and we have received support for our aspirations from many quarters. The United States Mint has been instructed by Congress to strike a commemorative silver dollar with readable, properly-made Braille embossed upon it. If our society believes that blind people have something to contribute, then we will believe in the tools used by the blind, and Braille is one of the most important.

Much of what I have had to say so far is a reflection of conditions for the blind in the past. How are we faring today? In 1997 José Saramago published a book entitled Blindness. The story line is that a society of human beings is afflicted by a mysterious disease that suddenly and unexpectedly causes blindness. The disease is communicable, and most people are susceptible. Those who become blind are quarantined in an abandoned facility, where they are forcibly detained. The society established by the blind inhabitants of this facility is brutal, licentious, chaotic, and filthy. Blind people are depicted as having virtually no ability to establish an orderly and decent mode of existence or to care for themselves or their companions. However, some of the internees find the capacity to create gangs in order to prey upon the others, controlling the food supply and exacting sexual favors. Apparently Saramago did not notice the inconsistency. If blindness signifies complete lack of ability, it should also eliminate the possibility of organizing for the purpose of engaging in criminal behavior.

A movie was made from this book that was released in theaters in October 2008. Protest demonstrations conducted by the National Federation of the Blind occurred throughout the United States, challenging the content of the movie as an evil and false depiction of the blind. José Saramago complained about these demonstrations, saying that the movie was an allegorical portrayal of society as it currently is, not intended to depict blind people as we are. He said that we should recognize allegory when we encounter it and refrain from making complaints. The movie is not meant to be taken literally, and we should have enough good humor and self-possession to go along without a fuss. In other words, he can say whatever he pleases about us, but we are not to respond. Such an attitude boggles the mind. It tempts a human being to reply to the argument with short, sharp phrases. Freedom of speech is as much a right for us as it is for Saramago, and it will be exercised. We are not playing blind people; we are blind people. To portray us as immoral and unclean is to add to the isolation that is all too often a part of our reality. We reject the role of being somebody else’s metaphor.

On December 13, 2008, Saturday Night Live broadcast a skit featuring an actor playing the role of Governor David Paterson of New York. Governor Paterson is blind. He assumed the office of governor when Eliot Spitzer resigned in the midst of scandal. The actor portraying the governor behaved as if he were disoriented and unaware of his surroundings. In one scene during the skit he held a statistical chart on display with the chart upside down. The language of the skit (a purported interview with the governor) indicates that the governor cannot be expected to perform adequately in office because, after all, he has used cocaine and he is blind. Equating blindness with drug addiction is just part of the fun. The point of the skit was that blind people are incapable of participation in the activities that others manage with ease and grace. Saturday Night Live made fun of the governor because of his blindness.

Once again protests of this depiction of blind people occurred. A number of individuals responded to these protests by telling blind people that we should be willing to laugh at ourselves—that we should have a sense of humor. Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” In other words, laugh at the people you want to despise. Find a way to make them the butt of your jokes.

Saturday Night Live broadcast more David Paterson blindness so-called humor in January of 2009. How am I as the leader of the organized blind movement in the United States to respond? What choices have I? I do not believe in belittling my neighbors, and I do not intend to let them belittle me.

Blind people are not humorless, touchy malcontents. Finding the humor in life provides relief from the emotional pressure that often surrounds us, and humor lifts the spirit and frequently offers perspective. If, however, the humor is intended to belittle—to express superiority for the sake of domination—its value is eclipsed by the damage it causes. However, humor has other aspects. It can be employed to bring a group together to express a common spirit. It is one tool in the arsenal for creating a community.

A persistent theory about the capacity of blind people is that our hearing, taste, smell, and touch are superior to those of the sighted. When one of our senses is lost, the brain uses its mental agility to increase the intensity of the others, we are told. The mental ability which had been assigned to five senses is now spread over four.

While you ponder this supposedly scientifically based assertion about the talent and abilities of the blind, consider some others that have intrigued or bemused. When I was a student, I was told that one of the best professions for blind people is perfume tester. Our senses of smell are supposedly superior to those possessed by sighted people. Consequently it would be easier for us to select the best perfumes. A description of the HBO movie Blind Justice declares that the hero, a blind gunfighter, shoots by the sense of hearing and by the sense of smell. Apparently the bandits in his town don’t bathe all that often. On the other hand, I was informed a number of years ago that blind people do not smoke because smoking is largely a visual experience. Then we are told that our sense of touch is superior to that of the sighted in part because of brain plasticity and in part because we are not distracted by the sense of sight. Our increased acuteness in the sense of touch means that we are better at kissing than the sighted. I leave this thought with the hope that interest in blind people will increase but that crazy notions will diminish.

What makes a community? Individuals with similarity of purpose come together to achieve common goals. However, something else may also be occurring. Those who have been isolated meet others possessing the same characteristics that they have, and they interact. These individuals challenge one another, and they come through common, shared experience to inspire one another. In the process of challenge and inspiration, they create an identity. They identify who they are, what they want, what possibilities exist for them, and what limitations are reasonable. They formulate the expectations that will be sought and the program to reach them.

For the blind our community was once circumscribed by the school for the blind. Later it was expanded to the sheltered workshop. Later still it became the statewide organization of independent blind people who had the courage and the energy to believe in each other and to set about the complex task of altering the legal system to protect the rights of the blind. In 1940 seven of these statewide organizations came together to form the National Federation of the Blind, a nationwide organization that also works with others internationally.

One hundred and fifty years ago Irish immigrants to the United States were frequently unwelcome. Signs were posted on places of employment bearing the legend, “No Irish Need Apply.” Today Americans with Irish ancestors are not shunned. Rather they are regarded with honor and respect. The respect is not diminished even though the humor about Irish Americans is a broad subclass of the jokes in circulation.

One element of building a community is the acquisition of political ability. The Irish have certainly managed that. From political action comes recognition within the legal structure of the nation. However, legal rights do not equal participation. Integration and social acceptance are far more complicated than any legal structure. A fundamental step in the process of integration is the creation of identity for the individuals who seek to be integrated. This demands the formation of a community.

Joining a community imposes limitations on an individual. The necessity to think about and plan for the wishes of the other members of the community diminishes freedom of choice and restricts individuality. Participation within the community requires diplomacy and the application of political skill. Even the most benign communities can be threatening as well as welcoming. However, mastering the disadvantages of being a part of a community offers benefits. The power that can result from collective, concentrated action and combining resources creates opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

Those who complain that the blind have created a community do so because they do not want to face combined, collected power or because they wish that they had the power. The blind do not object to having other people possess power, but we also want to share in the community, which demands that we find a mechanism for obtaining this commodity. We do not believe that our participation will diminish anybody else. Rather we believe that our possession of power will enhance the opportunities available to others. We represent a resource that has often been written off—been declared to be unusable and undesirable. We reject this assessment no matter who makes it, and we insist upon our right to join with others in building the world to be the kind of place that we all want to share. We are serious about this, but we are also fun-loving. Blindness and sorrow are very often found together, but increasingly, in the hearts of blind people throughout the nation, you will find joy and a spirit of adventure.


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