Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986


The New Breed

(This article is reprinted from the December, 1985, Newsletter of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille.)

A short, rather plump man stood behind the podium and waited for the audience to stop applauding. I noticed immediately that he wore three dark objects about his neck. Being an English major, I thought of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who had to wear an albatross around his neck. This man had three of them. However, I soon discovered that the three albatrosses were actually visual aids of some type; for the man turned on a very bright lamp just above his left shoulder, stooped over until his nose seemed to be touching the podium, and began to peer almost painfully through a binocular-type device in order to see his notes.

He began his speech by telling the audience that he was the Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted. His Center specialized in fitting visually impaired people with the proper visual aids to help them live independent lives. Squinting through his binoculars, which he seemed to fidget with endlessly, he said: "We who still have some residual sight remaining (I have 20/200 in my best corrected eye) do not have to be shackled with thinking of ourselves as poor little blind people. We should not have to be forced to read an almost obsolete system like Braille if we do not want to. We have other options at our disposal, and this is the purpose for founding the Center for the Nearly Sighted. For example, I achieve total independence through the use of seventeen different visual aids, which I use interchangeably as the environment dictates. I even have a three-pound device which I use under different lighting conditions out in the car," he boasted. "Those of us who can use the smallest particle of residual sight remaining are no longer blind. Because of the new technology, we are merely visually impaired." The hot lamp above him seemed about to burn his balding pate as he straightened up and removed the binocular from his face as if to emphasize his point. "Because of the new technology, we are free from the stigma of blindness. We have a new terminology for those of us who are only legally blind. We can now use the terms visually impaired or partially sighted, and within these classifications, we have low partials and high partials." Being an English major, I immediately thought of George Orwell's Newspeak. "Here comes more jargon," I thought. "Let's see: Low partials could be shortened to Lopies and high partials to Hypies." I was amusing myself with my own form of Newspeak until I was jolted out of my thoughts by the words of the stooping man at the podium.

He said, "With my seventeen visual aids, not only am I free from having to laboriously study and use Braille, but I also do not need to use a white cane. The cane is becoming obsolete as fast as the Braille. You can use a cane if you want to, but it is not for me--not when I can use all my visual aids for achieving independence."

I observed that the young blind man sitting next to me had a white cane beneath his chair. I could also sense that he seemed very disturbed at the remarks of the Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted, and he wrote something quickly on a Braille writing instrument which he held in his hand. The Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted continued to speak: "Braille is fine for those who have no sight, the totally blind, or for those blind people who cannot use visual aids even though they have some light perception, the functionally blind. However, for those of us who have some usable partial sight, the new technology has freed us from the need for Braille. Technology will cure all of our ills. Braille will some day be studied in the same way we study eunieform or ancient hieroglyphics. Furthermore, I can foresee a day (and it is not too far away) when we will be able to walk into a grocery store and punch a button on a bottle of ketchup, and it will announce in a computer voice how much it weighs, how much it costs, and what kind it is; but until that glorious day arrives, we must continue to perfect our magnifiers and our other visual aids.

"Those of you out there can go ahead and learn to use Braille if you want to, but I will take the freedom of my seventeen visual aids and my four high intensity lamps any time. I say let the blind and the functionally blind read Braille until something better comes along. The rest of us can use the Center for the Nearly Sighted to cure our ills and to beat the rap of being thought of as blind. Stop thinking of yourselves as blind. A new day has dawned. We are the new breed. We no longer have to think of ourselves as poor little blind boys and girls, who have to be sent away to some dark and dreary residential school to learn Braille and the use of the cane. We can now .attend the Center for the Nearly Sighted and learn the use of the magnifier and the principles of the refracting telescope. Viva Galileo. Armed with our magnifiers, binoculars, monoculars, and good lighting, we can now show the world that we are not blind. We just don't see well."

The Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted raised himself once again from his hunched-back position and poised the heavy binocular jauntily near his right cheek. He beamed magnanimously and said with even greater gusto: "I can see a day when centers like mine will dot the countryside. We have only begun to spread the good news about aids for the visually impaired. I am not in this for the money. I am totally dedicated to the principle that technology is the panacea for every ill among us. The day will come when blindness will no longer exist, and if you will give generously to help build one of our centers in your fine state, we can beat the rap of thinking of ourselves as blind. I can see a day coming when we can burn those musty old Braille books. New and advanced technology is the answer for the partially sighted, and even for the blind. The high partials can lead the low partials, and we will find some way really to help the blind one of these days. Join us in our quest for a brighter tomorrow."

The Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted again straightened and mopped the sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, for the high-intensity lamp seemed to be blistering his pale face. Some of the people in the audience applauded the speaker vigorously, but I noticed that the young blind man next to me did not applaud so vigorously. In fact, he seemed deeply troubled by what he had just heard. Curiosity getting the best of me, I leaned over and asked him, "What did you think of the speech?"

He placed his Braille writing instruments in his pocket, shook his head sadly, and answered: "I am deeply troubled by what he said."

"Why?" I asked.

"First of all, his whole attitude toward blind people is one of condescension, and he has no right to feel that way. I can read and write Braille faster than he can ever read and write with all of his seventeen visual aids, but the really sad thing is that he could use Braille and a cane much more effectively than he can use his aids."

"Are you saying that you oppose the use of visual aids?" I asked.

"Not at all. I think visual aids can be used by those who can benefit from them to supplement Braille skills, but I definitely think that Braille should be learned by every blind person, including him," the blind man answered.

"Then you consider him to be blind, not merely visually impaired?" I was intrigued by the difference in their philosophies.

"I think he has found seventeen different defense mechanisms to try to deny that he is blind, but everyone here today could see that he is blind. There is nothing wrong with being blind or in using the word. What really scares me is that his sort of attitude about blindness may become an albatross around the necks of all of us who are trying to dispel the myths about Braille and about blindness. He is not helping the blind to convince the sighted community that we can function normally with Braille and cane skills, because they will attribute everyting he does to the fact that he still has some sight remaining; but I can tell you that he is not as independent as he could be. He is hiding fromthe truth, and I am afraid that he will become a kind of hero to all of those people who are ashamed to admit that they are blind and who are too scared or too lazy to learn to read Braille. He will give too many blind people a kind of false hope at the expense of all of the blind."

"I think I understand some of what you are saying, but I don't know enough about the subject to accept either side of the issue," I said.

"Well," the blind man retorted, "you are among a large segment of this country, both blind and sighted, who cannot make up their minds which way to choose ; so don't feel alone. You will know the true philosophy by the kind of fruit it bears. In other words, which side produces truly independent and efficient blind persons? The choice is yours." I watched the young blind man walk away. He moved his cane deftly in front of him as he left the large room. When he had disappeared out the door, I turned and watched the Director of the Center for the Nearly Sighted as he was led away by his sighted wife. As she led him up the aisle, he peered all about him through the use of one of the three visual aids about his neck.