Braille Monitor                                                                  December 1985


She Doesn't Have to Turn the Burgers

A Review of If Blindness Strikes: Don't Strike Out
by Margaret M. Smith

Reviewed by Anthony Cobb

(Mr. Cobb is the Assistant Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind.)

Margaret Smith is no doubt a perfectly charming individual, if we are to judge by the winning personality which emerges from her prose. One would probably find her witty, personable, and bright. Those characteristics notwithstanding, the image of blindness she conveys in If Blindness Strikes: Don't Strike Out (Charles Thomas, 1984) suggests the old story of good intentions defeated by reversion to harmful stereotypes, so that the potential heralded by the author's clear rejection of such obvious fallacies as the "blind personality" and "sixth sense" in her early chapters is never realized in later pages. At least three recurrent patterns emerge from this book to frustrate the reader who holds the National Federation of the Blind's view about blindness.

First, Smith never really gets beyond the idea that blindness is something with which one must simply cope in a physical and emotional sense along with the implicit assumption that a blind person really cannot expect to compete as an equal in this society. In fact, she admonishes, "Nothing will turn off other people quicker [ sic ] than the attitude of total independence, of being always able to do it yourself." Since Smith sees blindness as "a serious, sometimes grave, disability that is surmountable most of the time," (emphasis mine) it is perfectly all right, for example, to ask your grocery store's manager to assign store clerks to you as a blind shopper since everybody knows the clerks are happier helping blind people than doing their pricing and stocking anyway. Never mind that this may reinforce people's belief that the blind need so many special concessions that they really can't be expected to compete on the basis of equality.

For similar reasons, one assumes, Smith sees nothing wrong with free fishing licenses for the blind, with two-for-one bus fares, or reduced Amtrak fares for the blind. She finds no fault with the airlines' contention that the blind cannot be allowed to sit by emergency exits "since it's unlikely that a blind passenger would lead the way out in an emergency landing." She takes for granted surrender of canes on airplanes because turbulent weather might turn them into projectiles (presumably along with serving trays, briefcases, eyeglasses, books, or anything else which may be present when the plane hits turbulence). We can even abandon any expectation that blind persons master the inordinately difficult task of cutting meat in restaurants since it is always possible to say to the waitress, "I'm blind, would you please have my meat cut in the kitchen?" As for cafeterias--well, unless you can see, you are better off in Smith's view to let someone else go through the line for you. What a picture of blindness emerges from these negative assumptions! One wonders what to Smith actually constitutes "striking out" in the adjustment to blindness.

To reiterate, Margaret Smith does not seem to be a mean person and clearly is not ignorant--judging from some of her random observations--of the potential for the blind to achieve a measure of success, though it appears she envisions only limited success and certainly not much real equality. Old notions and inhibitions simply won't disappear for her. For example, she avers that "Jostling throngs are no place for a blind person"; therefore, the blind are encouraged to do their Christmas shopping early. Smith seems to assume that the blind will find great difficulty with even the simplest tasks, for example pulling our refrigerator and oven shelves and putting them back. A blind person simply cannot be expected to read through all of her (she is blind) personal papers thoroughly and, perhaps, not at all. It is "hard to plan and execute a system for sorting and reading mail, filing personal records, and maintaining phone numbers and addresses." Safe travel for the blind is so complex that it required the development of "the art and science of orientation and mobility." (Smith offers no explanation for how thousands of blind persons have bypassed the complexity and simply learned to go where they wish.) In summary, Smith's commentary says clearly that the only salvation lies in admitting how seriously impaired one really is as a blind person and making concessions to that impairment in order to be well-adjusted and reasonably happy--or, at least, cheerfully resigned to one's permanent ineptitude.

In the process of adjusting, the author suggests it is all right to rely on others to do the really heavy stuff like earning the family living. She cites the story of Tom, for example, who took early retirement because his low vision could not meet the demands of his mechanical engineering job "without many accommodations. " He and his wife chose to reverse roles because "she was anxious to resume her nursing career." Smith reports with apparent approval that many of her blind students have become the homemakers so that their spouses could enter the work force. Anyone who has worked with blind students will, of course, recognize why this sort of thing occurs and point out that it has nothing to do with the blind person's wishing to reverse roles for variety or out of consideration for a partner 's career. Both the blind and sighted spouses, in fact, believe the blind person probably can't make the family's living and that the sighted one will have to do it.

There is a lot of room in Smith's notes of what it means to be blind for leaning on others to the point of dependence in dealing with emotional and actual needs as a blind person. The blind student, for example, is encouraged to depend upon the college office for disabled students with the admonition that one really shouldn't believe he can handle school work all by himself. (That's basic school work, not the larger struggle for equal opportunity.) The author's entire tack on this aspect of blindness is the second disturbing pattern in this book, for it waxes almost condescending in places. The adult blind person needs, apparently without exception, to have explained the most rudimentary things about organizing one's personal affairs and paying bills. There is throughout the book a tone suggesting that, despite her brave protestations early in the work, Smith does not really believe the blind are competent enough to succeed in competition with the sighted, even though she is herself very likely a competent blind person.

Another dead giveaway of Smith's real attitude is the telltale distinction between the totally blind and those with partial vision. Some partially sighted can shop by themselves, for example, while presumably the totally blind cannot. Elsewhere she writes with respect to handling liquids: "Even partially sighted people suffer their share of puddles or scolds." The implication is as clear as that in her admonition about allowing for cooking disasters as a blind person: "Blindness probably isn't to blame in these instances. People with normal sight have tried and failed." The author is clearly unaware of her implicit assignment of superiority to sighted techniques on the basis of their being inherently more efficient and thus less likely to produce accidents, but it recurs and results in her expressions of willingness to consign the blind to resignation and defeat in simple tasks for want of a little exploration and ingenuity. She tells, for example, the following story in the midst of advice on coping in the kitchen:

"A partially sighted housewife named Mary was proud she had given up frying food altogether. Broiling and baking meat, poultry, and fish all began when she lost her sight and didn't know for sure when pork chops or fish filets became brown. She even makes hamburgers for her hungry five-member family by arranging them in a shallow pan and baking them for twenty-five minutes at 325 degrees. She doesn't have to turn the burgers."

Now, if Mary and her family simply like baked burgers better than fried, this is a salutary development, but that is clearly not the thrust of the story. The point is painfully clear. They bake the burgers because she is blind, not because they like them.

That Smith's work is largely a "cookbook" of techniques is hardly surprising, given these underlying philosophical weaknesses. The real problems of blindness are, of course, not to be addressed through providing catalogs of techniques since they result from exactly the sort of misconceptions and stereotypes which permeate the author's writing. According to Smith, the blind must be satisfied with merely trying to hold their own against despair; they must feel free to take advantage of the sighted public's willingness to provide all sorts of concessions to blindness, even though the price paid for them is a perpetual image of inferiority; and, of course, there is no acknowledged role for collective action--these are the motifs which frustrate and irritate the informed reader of this book.

The third major pattern is, in a sense, the most disappointing. Smith fails to see that the real remedy for feeling miserable about one's blindness lies in breaking out of the cycle of pity and the feelings of inferiority she seems only too willing--albeit unintentionally--to perpetuate. One must come to feel at a visceral level that it is respectable to be blind, not merely mouth the right words about blindness as a characteristic, as does this author. This book serves to keep alive some of the worst stereotypes, misconceptions, and myths about blindness and thus reinforces, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, the notion that to be blind is to be inferior. Margaret Smith's heart may be in the right place; however, she obviously needs exposure to and belief in a truly positive and realistic approach to her subject, without which one suspects she will forever mislead her clients. To profit from learning alternative techniques of blindness, one must believe there is a reason to learn them. He must believe that he can earn a living, participate in politics, live a full social life, and otherwise achieve first-class citizenship. Margaret Smith provides nothing in this book to foster that belief.