Blindness—Handicap or Characteristic

By Kenneth Jernigan

It has been wisely observed that philosophy bakes no bread. It has, with equal wisdom, been observed that without a philosophy no bread is baked. Let me talk to you, then of philosophy—my philosophy concerning blindness—and, in a broader sense, my philosophy concerning handicaps in general.

One prominent authority recently said, Loss of sight is a dying. When, in the full current of his sighted life, blindness comes on a man, it is the end, the death, of that sighted life... It is superficial, if not naive, to think of blindness as a blow to the eyes only, to sight only. It is a destructive blow to the self-image of a man... a blow almost to his being itself.

This is one view, a view held by a substantial number of people in the world today. But it is not the only view. In my opinion it is not the correct view. What is blindness? Is it a "dying"?

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.

By definition a characteristic—any characteristic—is a limitation. A white house, for example, is a limited house; it cannot be green or blue or red; it is limited to being white. Likewise every characteristic—those we regard as strengths as well as those we regard as weaknesses—is a limitation. Each one freezes us to some extent into a mold; each restricts to some degree the range of possibility, of flexibility, and very often of opportunity as well.

Blindness is such a limitation. Are blind people more limited than others?

Let us make a simple comparison. Take a sighted person with an average mind (something not too hard to locate); take a blind person with a superior mind (something not impossible to locate)--and then make all the other characteristics of these two persons equal (something which certainly is impossible). Now, which of the two is more limited? It depends, of course, entirely on what you wish them to do. If you are choosing up sides for baseball, then the blind man is more limited--that is, he is "handicapped". If you are seeking someone to teach history or science or to figure out your income tax, then the sighted person is more limited or "handicapped".

Many human characteristics are obvious limitations; others are not so obvious. Poverty (the lack of material means) is one of the most obvious. Ignorance (the lack of knowledge or education) is another. Old age (the lack of youth and vigor) is yet another. Blindness (the lack of eyesight) is still another. In all these cases the limitations are apparent, or seem to be. But let us look at some other common characteristics which do not seem limiting. Take the very opposite of old age—youth. Is age a limitation in the case of a youth of twenty? Indeed it is, for a person who is twenty will not be considered for most responsible positions, especially supervisory and leadership positions. He may be entirely mature, fully capable, in every way the best qualified applicant for the job. Even so, his age will bar him from employment; he will be classified as too green and immature to handle the responsibility. And even if he were to land the position, others on the job would almost certainly resent being supervised by one so young. The characteristic of being twenty is definitely a limitation.

The same holds true for any other age. Take age fifty, which many regard as the prime of life. The man of fifty does not have the physical vigor he possessed at twenty; and, indeed, most companies will not start a new employee at that age. The Bell Telephone System, for example, has a general prohibition against hiring anyone over the age of thirty-five. But it is interesting to note that the United States Constitution has a prohibition against having anyone under thirty-five running for President. The moral is plain: any age carries its built-in limitations.

Let us take another unlikely handicap—not that of ignorance, but its exact opposite. Can it be said that education is ever a handicap? The answer is definitely yes. In the agency which I head I would not hire Albert Einstein under any circumstances if he were today alive and available. His fame (other people would continually flock to the agency and prevent us from doing our work) and his intelligence (he would be bored to madness by the routine of most of our jobs) would both be too severe as limitations.

Here is an actual case in point. Some time ago a vacancy occurred on the library staff at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Someone was needed to perform certain clerical duties and take charge of shelving and checking talking book records. After all applicants had been screened, the final choice came down to two. Applicant A had a college degree, was seemingly alert, and clearly of more than average intelligence. Applicant B had a high school diploma (no college), was of average intelligence, and possessed only moderate initiative. I hired applicant B. Why? Because I suspected that applicant A would regard the work as beneath him, would soon become bored with its undemanding assignments, and would leave as soon as something better came along. I would then have to find and train another employee. On the other hand I felt that applicant B would consider the work interesting and even challenging, that he was thoroughly capable of handling the job, and that he would be not only an excellent but a permanent employee. In fact, he has worked out extremely well.

In other words, in that situation the characteristic of education—the possession of a college degree—was a limitation and a handicap. Even above average intelligence was a limitation; and so was a high level of initiative. There is a familiar bureaucratic label for this unusual disadvantage: it is the term "overqualified". Even the overqualified, it appears, can be underprivileged.

This should be enough to make the point—which is that if blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the same way as innumerable other characteristics which human flesh is heir to. I believe that blindness has no more importance than any of a hundred other characteristics and that the average blind person is able to perform the average job in the average career or calling, provided (and it is a large proviso) he is given training and opportunity.

Often when I have advanced this proposition, I have been met with the response, "But you can't look at it that way. Just consider what you might have done if you had been sighted and still had all the other capacities you now possess."

"Not so," I reply. "We do not compete against what we might have been, but only against other people as they are, with their combinations of strengths and weaknesses, handicaps and limitations." If we are going down that track, why not ask me what I might have done if I had been born with Rockefeller's money, the brains of Einstein, the physique of the young Joe Louis, and the persuasive abilities of Franklin Roosevelt? (And do I need to remind anyone, in passing, that FDR was severely handicapped physically?) I wonder if anyone ever said to him:

"Mr. President, just consider what you might have done if you had not had polio!"

Others have said to me, "But I formerly had my sight, so I know what I am missing."

To which one might reply, "And I was formerly twenty, so I know what I am missing." Our characteristics are constantly changing, and we are forever acquiring new experiences, limitations, and assets. We do not compete against what we formerly were but against other people as they now are.

In a recent issue of a well-known professional journal in the field of work with the blind, a blinded veteran who is now a college professor, puts forward a notion of blindness radically different from this. He sets the limitations of blindness apart from all others and makes them unique. Having done this, he can say that all other human characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, belong in one category--and that with regard to them the blind and the sighted individual are just about equal. But the blind person also has the additional and unique limitation of his blindness. Therefore, there is really nothing he can do quite as well as the sighted person, and he can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

What this blind professor does not observe is that the same distinction he has made regarding blindness could be made with equal plausibility with respect to any of a dozen—perhaps a hundred—other characteristics. For example, suppose we distinguish intelligence from all other traits as uniquely different. Then the man with above one hundred twenty-five IQ is just about the same as the man with below one hundred twenty-five IQ—except for intelligence. Therefore, the college professor with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ cannot really do anything as well as the man with more than one hundred twenty-five IQ—and can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and goodness in the world.

"Are we going to assume," says this blind professor, "that all blind people are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think not." But why, one asks, single out the particular characteristic of blindness? We might just as well specify some other. For instance, are we going to assume that all people with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any limitations imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

This consideration brings us to the problem of terminology and semantics—and therewith to the heart of the matter of blindness as a handicap. The assumption that the limitation of blindness is so much more severe than others that it warrants being singled out for special definition is built into the very warp and woof of our language and psychology. Blindness conjures up a condition of unrelieved disaster-something much more terrible and dramatic than other limitations. Moreover, blindness is a conspicuously visible limitation; and there are not so many blind people around that there is any danger of becoming accustomed to it or taking it for granted. If all of those in our midst who possess an IQ under one hundred twenty-five exhibited, say, green stripes on their faces, I suspect that they would begin to be regarded as inferior to the non-striped-and that there would be immediate and tremendous discrimination.

When someone says to a blind person, "You do things so well that I forget you are blind--I simply think of you as being like anybody else," is that really a compliment? Suppose one of us went to France, and someone said:

"You do things so well that I forget you are an American and simply think of you as being like anyone else"—would it be a compliment? Of course, the blind person must not wear a chip on his shoulder or allow himself to become angry or emotionally upset. He should be courteous, and he should accept the statement as the compliment it is meant to be. But he should understand that it is really not complimentary. In reality it says:

"It is normal for blind people to be inferior and limited, different and much less able than the rest of us. Of course, you are still a blind person and still much more limited than I, but you have compensated for it so well that I almost forget that you are inferior to me."

The social attitudes about blindness are all pervasive. Not only do they affect the sighted but also the blind as well. This is one of the most troublesome problems which we have to face. Public attitudes about the blind too often become the attitudes of the blind. The blind tend to see themselves as others see them. They too often accept the public view of their limitations and thereby do much to make those limitations a reality.

Several years ago Dr. Jacob Freid, at that time a young teacher of sociology and now head of the Jewish Braille Institute of America, performed an interesting experiment. He gave a test in photograph identification to Negro and white students at the university where he was teaching. There was one photograph of a Negro woman in a living room of a home of culture—well furnished with paintings, sculpture, books, and flowers. Asked to identify the person in the photograph, the students said she was a "cleaning woman," "housekeeper," "cook," "laundress," "servant," "domestic," and "mammy". The revealing insight is that the Negro students made the same identifications as the white students. The woman was Mary McLeod Bethune, the most famous Negro woman of her time, founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College, who held a top post during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, and a person of brilliance and prestige in the world of higher education. What this incident tells us is that education, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and that when members of a minority group do not have correct and complete information about themselves, they accept the stereotypes of the majority group even when they are false and unjust. Even today, in the midst of the great civil rights debate and protest, one wonders how many Negroes would make the traditional and stereotyped identification of the photograph.

Similarly with the blind the public image is everywhere dominant. This is the explanation for the attitude of those blind persons who are ashamed to carry a white cane or who try to bluff sight which they do not possess. Although great progress is now being made, there are still many people (sighted as well as blind) who believe that blindness is not altogether respectable.

The blind person must devise alternative techniques to do many things which he would do with sight if he had normal vision. It will be observed that I say alternative not substitute techniques, for the word substitute connotes inferiority, and the alternative techniques employed by the blind person need not be inferior to visual techniques. In fact, some are superior. Of course, some are inferior, and some are equal.

In this connection it is interesting to consider the matter of flying. In comparison with the birds man begins at a disadvantage. He cannot fly. He has no wings. He is "handicapped." But he sees the birds flying, and he longs to do likewise. He cannot use the "normal," bird-like method, so he begins to devise alternative techniques. In his jet airplanes he now flies higher, farther, and faster than any bird which has ever existed. If he had possessed wings, the airplane would probably never have been devised, and the inferior wing-flapping method would still be in general use.

This matter of our irrational images and stereotypes with regard to blindness was brought sharply home to me some time ago during the course of a rehabilitation conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. I found myself engaged in a discussion with a well-known leader in the field of work with the blind who holds quite different views from those I have been advancing. The error in my argument about blindness as a characteristic, he advised me, was that blindness is not in the range of "normal" characteristics; and, therefore, its limitations are radically different from those of other characteristics falling within the normal range. If a normal characteristic is simply one possessed by the majority in a group, then it is not normal to have a black skin in America or, for that matter, a white skin in the world at large.

It is not normal to have red hair or be over six feet tall. If, on the other hand, a normal characteristic is simply what this authority or someone else defines as being normal, then we have a circular argument—one that gets us nowhere.

In this same discussion I put forward the theory that a man who was sighted and of average means and who had all other characteristics in common with a blind man of considerable wealth would be less mobile than the blind man. I had been arguing that there were alternative techniques (not substitute) for doing those things which one would do with sight if he had normal vision. The authority I have already mentioned, as well as several others, had been contending that there was no real, adequate substitute for sight in traveling about. I told the story of a wealthy blind man I know who goes to Hawaii or some other place every year and who hires sighted attendants and is much more mobile than any sighted person I know of ordinary means. After all of the discussion and the fact that I thought I had conveyed some understanding of what I was saying, a participant in the conference said—as if he thought he was really making a telling point, "Wouldn't you admit that the wealthy man in question would be even more mobile if he had his sight?"

Which brings us to the subject of services to the blind and more exactly of their proper scope and direction. There are, as I see it, four basic types of services now being provided for blind persons by public and private agencies and volunteer groups in this country today. They are:

1. Services based on the theory that blindness is uniquely different from other characteristics and that it carries with it permanent inferiority and severe limitations upon activity.

2. Services aimed at teaching the blind person a new and constructive set of attitudes about blindness—based on the premise that the prevailing social attitudes, assimilated involuntarily by the blind person, are mistaken in content and destructive in effect.

3. Services aimed at teaching alternative techniques and skills related to blindness.

4. Services not specifically related to blindness but to other characteristics (such as old age and lack of education), which are nevertheless labeled as "services to the blind" and included under the "generous umbrella of the service" program.

An illustration of the assumptions underlying the first of these four types of services is the statement quoted earlier which begins, "Loss of sight is a dying." At the Little Rock conference already mentioned the man who made this statement elaborated on the tragic metaphor by pointing out that "the eye is a sexual symbol" AND that, accordingly, the man who has not eyes is not a "whole man." He cited the play Oedipus Rex as proof of his contention that the eye is a sexual symbol. I believe that this misses the whole point of the classic tragedy. Like many moderns, the Greeks considered the severest possible punishment to be the loss of sight. Oedipus committed a mortal sin (unknowingly he had killed his father and married his mother); therefore, his punishment must be correspondingly great. But that is just what his self- imposed blindness was—a punishment, not a sex symbol.

But this view not only misses the point of Oedipus Rex—it misses the point of blindness. And in so doing it misses the point of services intended to aid the blind. For according to this view what the blind person needs most desperately is the help of a psychiatrist—of the kind so prominently in evidence at several of the orientation and adjustment centers for the blind throughout the country. According to this view what the blind person needs most is not travel training but therapy. He will be taught to accept his limitations as insurmountable and his difference from others as unbridgeable. He will be encouraged to adjust to his painful station as a second-class citizen—and discouraged from any thought of breaking and entering the first-class compartment. Moreover, all of this will be done in the name of teaching him "independence" and a "realistic" approach to his blindness.

The two competing types of services for the blind—categories one and two on my list of four types—with their underlying conflict of philosophy may perhaps be clarified by a rather fanciful analogy. All of us recall the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Suddenly, in the 1930's, the German Jew was told by his society that he was a "handicapped" person—that he was inferior to other Germans simply by virtue of being a Jew. Given this social fact, what sort of adjustment services might we have offered to the victim of Jewishness? I suggest that there are two alternatives—matching categories one and two of my list of services.

First, since he has been a "normal" individual until quite recently, it is, of course, quite a shock (or "trauma," as modern lingo has it) for him to learn that he is permanently and constitutionally inferior to others and can engage only in a limited range of activities. He will, therefore, require a psychiatrist to give him counseling and therapy and to reconcile him to his lot. He must "adjust" to his handicap and "learn to live" with the fact that he is not a "whole man." If he is realistic, he may even manage to be happy. He can be taken to an adjustment center or put into a workshop, where he may learn a variety of simple crafts and curious occupations suitable to Jews. Again, it should be noted that all of this will be done in the name of teaching him how to live "independently" as a Jew. That is one form of adjustment training: category one of the four types of services outlined earlier.

On the other hand, if there are those around who reject the premise that Jewishness equals inferiority, another sort of "adjustment" service may be undertaken. We might begin by firing the psychiatrist. His services will be available in his own private office, for Jews as for other members of the public, whenever they develop emotional or mental troubles. We will not want the psychiatrist because the Nazi psychiatrist likely has the same misconceptions about Jews as the rest of his society. We might continue then by scrapping the "Jew trades"—the menial routines which offer no competition to the normal world outside. We will take the emphasis off of resignation or of fun and games. We will not work to make the Jew happy in his isolation and servitude, but rather to make him discontent with them. We will make of him not a conformist but a rebel.

And so it is with the blind. There are vast differences in the services offered by various agencies and volunteer groups doing work with the blind throughout the country today. At the Little Rock conference this came up repeatedly. When a blind person comes to a training center, what kind of tests do you give him, and why? In Iowa and some other centers the contention is that he is a responsible individual and that the emphasis should be on his knowing what he can do. Some of the centers represented at the Little Rock conference contended that he needed psychiatric help and counseling (regardless of the circumstances and merely by virtue of his blindness) and that the emphasis should be on the center personnel's knowing what he can do. I asked them whether they thought services in a center were more like those given by a hospital or like those given by a law school. In a hospital the person is a "patient". (This is, by the way, a term coming to be used more and more in rehabilitation today.) The doctors decide whether the patient needs an operation and what medication he should have. In reality the "patient" makes few of his own decisions. Will the doctor "let" him do this or that? In a law school, on the other hand, the "student" assumes responsibility for getting to his own classes and organizing his own work. He plans his own career seeking advice to the extent that he feels the need for it. If he plans unwisely, he pays the price for it, but it is his life. This does not mean that he does not need the services of the law school. He probably will become friends with the professors and will discuss legal matters with them and socialize with them. From some he will seek counsel and advice concerning personal matters. More and more he will come to be treated as a colleague. Not so the "patient". What does he know of drugs and medications? Some of the centers represented at the Little Rock conference were shocked that we at the Iowa Commission for the Blind "socialize" with our students and have them to our homes. They believed that this threatened what they took to be the "professional relationship".

Our society has so steeped itself in false notions concerning blindness that it is most difficult for people to understand the concept of blindness as a characteristic and for them to understand the services needed by the blind. As a matter of fact, in one way or another, the whole point of all I have been saying is just this: blindness is neither a dying nor a psychological crippling—it need not cause a disintegration of personality—and the stereotype which underlies this view is no less destructive when it presents itself in the garb of modern science than it was when it appeared in the ancient raiment of superstition and witchcraft.

Throughout the world, but especially in this country, we are today in the midst of a vast transition with respect to our attitudes about blindness and the whole concept of what handicaps are. We are reassessing and reshaping our ideas. In this process the professionals in the field cannot play a lone hand. It is a cardinal principle of our free society that the citizen public will hold the balance of decision. In my opinion, it is fortunate that this is so, for professionals can become limited in their thinking and committed to outworn programs and ideas. The general public must be the balance staff, the ultimate weigher of values and setter of standards. In order that the public may perform this function with reason and wisdom, it is the duty of each of us to see that the new ideas receive the broadest possible dissemination. But even more important, we must examine ourselves to see that our own minds are free from prejudices and preconception.

The National Federation of the Blind is not an organization speaking for the blind. It is the blind speaking for themselves.

National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314

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