Blindness—Milestones and Millstones

By Kenneth Jernigan

Twenty-eight is an awkward age in the life of a man or a movement. It is in between the more impressive signposts of a quarter-century and a full generation. But for members of the National Federation of the Blind, the number twenty-eight is a landmark; and the year 1968 will be long remembered as a milestone.

This year is a time of mourning, and a time of dedication. It is a time to look back, not in anger but in sorrow; and it is a time to look forward, not in complacency but in confidence. It is a time for continuity, and a time for change.

With the death of our beloved President, Dr. tenBroek, we have lost a leader—but we have not lost direction. We mourn the passing of a man, but not the end of a movement. On the contrary: he has shown us the way; he has set our feet on the path; he has fired our minds and fueled our resolution. He has passed the torch to us: let us march with it, and hold it high.

In this year of decision, then, as we reasses our movement and our course, what major problems and challenges loom before us? What mountains must we now move? What rivers must we cross? What trails must we blaze?

Of all the stumbling-blocks which (as the Bible reminds us) are forever placed in the path of the blind, there is one which I believe to be more formidable and fundamental than any of the rest. Indeed, it is more than just a stumbling block—it is the very cornerstone of the whole vast structure of laws and institutions, customs and practices, which have kept the blind from time immemorial in sheltered custody and confinement.

That cornerstone—which is also a millstone around the necks of those without sight—is the complex of social attitudes traditionally held toward blindness and the blind. It is these attitudes which are most damning and damaging to our hopes for opportunity and equality, for integration and independence. It is concepts—to be specific—such as this, taken from the letter of an insurance company official to an employer about to hire a trained and qualified machinist who happened to be blind:

Duane, your letter states that there are two or three production jobs available for a person having this particular handicap. I think it is good that anyone would hire handicapped people—however, I think that extreme good judgment should be used in hiring a person who is totally blind, especially for a manufacturing plant.

I cannot imagine that this person would be put on a job where there is machinery having moving parts where this person might possibly get their hands involved. Neither can I imagine them hiring a person and placing him on a job where he would have to walk through the plant, with the possibility of him running into machinery or stepping off into areas where he could be severely injured. However, a manufacturing plant has many areas which are hazardous. One important point of safety is to always be alert and watching for the unexpected. I would assume that this person would be guided when entering or leaving the plant so that he would not run into something.

What an exemplary attitude!—exemplary in its ignorance and blighting consequences. Today there are literally thousands of blind persons successfully at work on power machines of all types (by the way, did you ever see any machinery without moving parts?); and their safety record, as insurance men, above all, ought to know, is superior to that of their fellow-workers. And yet the old attitudes and assumptions—the damning image of the helpless blind man—drive all sense and reason from the head of this insurance executive, and threaten to drive a perfectly good machinist out of a job and very possibly out of a career.

It provides an illustration of a tendency, long familiar in welfare and charity work, to make moral and behavioral demands upon blind persons of a kind not imposed upon the general populace. Some years ago I asked a publisher of technical books for permission to have a volume of his transcribed into Braille for the use of a particular blind student. This is how his lawyer replied to me:

We suggest that you give us the name of the blind student and her age, and let us know whether you consider her character and integrity to be above reproach. Assuming a favorable reply, we would prepare a letter of agreement for the blind student to sign, in which she would promise and agree to keep the work confidential to herself and her teacher, and not to sell it or reproduce it in any manner.
This is how I replied:

The young lady in question is a blind person receiving services from our agency. Whether she will be able to become self-supporting may well depend upon the training and help we can give her and upon her background preparation to take advantage of opportunities when they become available.

For these reasons we have felt it quite vital that we have the book in question in Braille for her. Even so, there are certain ethical principles which we feel we cannot violate. Personal information about this young lady is, and ought to be, strictly confidential. Whether she is a model of purity and virtue or an utter wretch has nothing to do, so far as we are concerned, with whether she ought to have the right to earn her daily bread. In fact, if one wants to be philosophical about the matter, there might be more justification for making her earn her own living if she were a 'bad' girl than if she were a 'good' girl. Therefore, your request that we give you information about her character seems singularly irrelevant.

It is attitudes such as this which dog our footsteps as we move out of the sheltered past, out of the long night of custodialism and dependency, into the future of equality. And attitudes like this—from the manager of a factory in Iowa, rejecting the request of students at the Iowa Orientation and Adjustment Center to make a tour of his mill:

We are certainly sorry (he wrote) to hear that you feel you have been discriminated against by not being granted permission to tour the mill. Our only concern was for your safety, for which we would be solely responsible during the tour. We certainly would not want any individual in your group to risk the possibility of a fall or getting too close to any mill machinery.... The refusal of the tour perhaps sounded unfair to you, but if you will reconsider and put yourselves in our position, you know we would have been severely criticized if anyone in your group would have been injured during such a tour. We are sure that if you will give this matter fair reconsideration you will find no discrimination, only thoughtful consideration, on our part.

There is a fair and considerate attitude—courteous, helpful, wishing only to be of service. How often have blind persons been stopped cold in their progress by the classic phrase: "Our only concern was for your safety." Our milestones of progress have been reached despite such millstones of concern placed around our necks.

The answer to that attitude of the mill manager is twofold: first, blind student groups had actually toured his mill twice before, without a mishap; the presumption ought to be that they could tour it again with the same safety. Second, discrimination is almost never a matter of intention or motive; it is a matter of action and the consequences of action. If a drunk is refused admittance to a restaurant on the grounds of drunkenness, that does not constitute discrimination; for he meets the standard test of an undesirable customer. If a blind man is refused admittance to a restaurant on the grounds of blindness, that does constitute discrimination; for blindness does not relate to any reasonable standard of discrimination. When the blind students of a training center—all of them, by the way, well-schooled in the use of machinery and in plant safety measures—are turned away at the door of the mill, it would serve the manager right if they staged a mill-in!

It might be added as a kind of happy ending to this episode, that all such discriminatory exclusions and rejections are hopefully at an end in Iowa—with the passage by the State legislature in 1967 of the model white cane law. Unfortunately, such attitudes of misconception and discrimination are not limited to the public at large.

The crippling and defeating assumptions which even today keep the blind down and keep them out are to be found, not one bit less frequently or less shockingly, among the very professionals upon whom falls the responsibility for the education of the blind and the enlightenment of the public.

An agency professional once raised with me the question of how best to give counsel to a mother with a newborn blind child. My response was that I might send a blind girl of college age, who had been without sight since childhood and who therefore could demonstrate to the woman that blindness is not the end of the road. Or, I said, I might send along a blind mother, with a child or two of her own, who could present a contrasting but equally successful case of adjustment.

To all this my agency friend shook his head in disagreement and disbelief. It wouldn't do, he said, to assign a blind person to the case—whether a mother, a college girl, or any one else—because she would not be able to perceive the visual cues revealing whether the woman was embracing the blind child or giving it affection. In fact, he lectured me at some length concerning the tendency of parents to resent and reject their blind infants, and not pet or caress them. Therefore, he argued, a sighted professional was called for who could observe visually the facial expressions of resentment and rejection, and provide appropriate therapy for the mother.

My reply to this line of reasoning was that the surest way to create and reinforce such negative attitudes on the part of the parent would be to dispatch his type of professional worker, bent on discovering hostility and dispensing therapy at all costs. Where there is no hostility to begin with, such a worker is likely to create it—and where hostility already exists, she is likely to reinforce it. On the other hand, the well-djusted blind mother or college girl is a living demonstration of how to get along with blindness regarding it as a mere inconvenience, not as a tragedy. Such a blind person has many ways of observing the attitudes and behavior of the new mother; but more important, after a few hours with her, the mother is likely to see blindness in a new light and her normal maternal instincts will do the rest. In other words, the problem raised by my professional friend was not with the mother but with his own misconceptions about blindness.

Indeed, these false notions are to be detected among the very experts who took part in a workshop on "Attitudes and Blindness", a four-day seminar conducted expressly to educate the staff of the Office for the Blind of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare—a meeting held not ten years ago, or five years ago, but in 1967.

Listen to the views of a rehabilitation specialist employed by the American Foundation for the Blind, as he explains to the assembled professionals what blind people are like:

"Many of the blind", he says, "look at the seeing as people from whom to get something. Just because they're sighted, they owe blind people something." Is that an accurate diagnosis of common attitudes among the blind? What is the basis for such a sweeping and belittling generalization? And what is likely to be the reaction of a newly hired sighted staff worker to this characterization of the blind people with whom he is preparing to work?

In this connection I would ask you to remember that this specialist is speaking to professional workers at a conference called for the express purpose of dealing with attitudes—attitudes of the blind toward the sighted and of the professional worker toward the blind client. There is hardly an effort made to disguise the condescension and contempt which he feels. The fact that this "specialist" happens to be blind himself does nothing to mitigate the tone of his remarks, and perhaps tells us more about his own personal inadequacies and cynical motivations than about the subject under discussion.

But let us hear him out. He goes on to state that one of the best examples of exploitation of the sighted by the blind "is using them purely for their vision in volunteer activities serving the blind. I know of one organization," he says, "where blind people join as regular, full participating members. But there is another class of membership known as associate membership; this classification is set up only for sighted people. Associate members do not have the right to vote, do not have the right to hold office (except for the Office of Treasurer, of course, which requires sight)—blind treasurers, take note!—and may not serve on committees except the entertainment, hospitality and refreshment committees. I'm afraid this attitude even pervades the individual thinking of some blind people to a great degree," he says, as he quotes the thinking of an imaginary blind person thus: "You'd better be just nice enough to them so that you can use them when you want to use them, and deal with them when you want to deal with them, and call on them when you can get something from them for nothing." Our rehab specialist then concludes: "I've seen this attitude over the years, and I've not seen it change much."

The first response one is tempted to make is: If that is the attitude he has seen over the years, he must truly be blind—blind to the presence of other and better relationships, of other and better motives. But there is more to it than that. The speaker is also attacking organizations of the blind—such as the National Federation of the Blind and the State affiliates—attacking them on the one hand as exclusive and on the other hand as exploitative. To be more blunt about it, he is saying that we are prejudiced and discriminatory: we judge ourselves to be superior to the poor nonblind population, and let them into our society only as second-class citizens, unable to vote or hold office.

Then we compound the felony by treating them as a minority class of servants and social inferiors, fit only to perform the menial chores of washing up, dishing out the food, and keeping the books. What a picture of snobbery, condescension, and exploitation—and also, what a falsehood!

We are, to be sure, organizations of the blind—not organizations of workers for the blind, or friends of the blind, or of persons charitably disposed toward the blind. Our chief distinction and reason for being is that we are blind people who have come together to solve common problems, to make our own decisions and to speak for ourselves. It follows that while we are happy to have seeing people join with us, we would surely abandon our distinctive identity if we should turn authority and decision-making over to them.

Therefore, just as other clubs and lodges have their auxiliaries, so our federations of the blind make a place for interested persons who are not blind. To make something prejudicial out of this—let alone to concoct a sinister declaration of hostility and contempt toward the seeing—is simply nonsense. Again, one wonders what effect this kind of attribution of motives to blind people must have upon the agency staff worker who is preparing to work with the blind.

But let us move on. We have not yet done with this distinguished "specialist" from the AmericanFoundation for the Blind, whose contribution to the workshop discussion on attitudes is much too rich with meaning to put aside lightly. Listen to this:

"Conversely," he says, "there are blind people who look at sighted people as competitors. 'I, as a blind person,' they say, `must compete with this individual, not because of any spirit of sportsmanship, or not because of any drive to improve my personal position, but to prove myself as a blind person. I must prove not only that I can do it, but that I can do it better.'" He goes on: "A friend of mine out in the Midwest, totally blind, lives in a very lovely community on a rather large tract of land, and every morning, winter or summer, he goes out and runs around the block, just to prove to his neighbors that he is physically fit. This same individual also has a bicycle, and he rides this around the yard, particularly when his neighbors are coming home from work. He's got to prove himself."

What an aggressive ogre is that midwestern blind man, sitting there on his tract of land, morning after evening, winter and summer, waiting for his neighbors to come out so that he can ride his bicycle noisily about the yard, or perhaps trot around the block a few times "just to prove that he is physically fit." In order to get at the true character of this analysis of motives, let us suppose a different scene. Let us suppose that the midwestern blind man does not ride a bicycle at all, or run around the block, or do any other outdoor exercise—but simply sits quietly inside his house, encountering no one except his professional friend from the East. What then would be the analysis? May it not be that this would strike our expert on attitudes as a sad situation indeed? Can you not hear him, or someone like him, lamenting the "social isolation" and morbid withdrawal of this poor fellow?

No?—Then consider this piece of jargon: "There are innumerable things one could say about the isolating factors which directly arise from blindness and what can be done about them. First, to a blind person the social use of the eye is impossible ... But we believe nonetheless that we have some of the essentials to prevent isolation. One of the most important is the impetus we have lately given to mobility training. It has been estimated that ninety per cent of the blind population is essentially immobile. That alone tells us how isolating blindness can be."

That is not the same rehabilitation specialist I have been quoting, but it is one very much like him. It is the voice of the Chief of Services to the Blind of the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Administration. And the gist of his commentary is that the common condition of the blind is that of social isolation—from which they can to some extent be rescued by means of increased mobility: such as, getting out into the world, riding bicycles, and going around the block.

This flat contradiction between the testimony of two eminent experts in rehabilitation of the blind is a good example of what we might call the "false dilemma" logic all too often encountered in this field. To put it bluntly: the blind are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. In the present instance, our midwestern blind man finds himself damned by one specialist if he stays indoors in "social isolation"—and damned by another if he ventures outside for a bit of healthy exercise—which somehow gets converted into unhealthy exhibitionism.

That point, by the way, is worth considering for a moment. If a blind man takes to running around the block, or riding a bicycle, or doing any of the little behavioral things that normal people do all the time, must he be doing them for some deep, dark impulse of competition, or of "proving himself"—rather than just improving himself? Why is it that other people's behavior can be taken at face value, but the behavior of blind persons cannot—even where it is the same? Instead, it must be subjected to intricate investigation in psychiatric depth. Does not this devious and suspicious approach to the attitudes and motives of the blind reveal much about the attitudes of the investigators themselves? Does it not betray a remarkable lack of faith in the rationality, responsibility, and simple normality of their blind clients? Much is made of the fact that the blind midwesterner waits to ride his bicycle until his neighbors come home from work. It apparently never occurs to the rehabilitation expert that the reason for this timing might be that the blind man also works and so returns home at about the same time as others in the neighborhood. One is tempted to exclaim: counselor, heal thine own attitudes!

Before leaving this informative workshop conference of rehabilitation experts, let us turn to another illustration of the point we are making. Here is another expert from the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Administration, remarking on the curious and morbid characteristic of many blind persons that they like to get together with others who are blind. "The more the individual has a sense of inferiority as a blind person," he says, "the more he is likely to enjoy the company of other people purely and simply because they are blind. I do not mean that there is anything wrong with two blind people enjoying each other's company, but the tendency to group together, in clubs or organizations, in social groups, is partially based on the desire for equality."

In other words, there is nothing wrong with this socializing and organizing on the part of the blind people; but on the other hand, there is. If we look closely at it, all kinds of subterranean and vaguely disreputable motives become apparent; it is all a matter of inferiority, or some sort of urge to be equal when one is not, or something else discovered by Freud or by Freudian social workers. It cannot be because blind persons are people, and people like each other's company. It cannot be because blind persons wish to join hands to solve common problems, and find voluntary association the natural and democratic way of going about it. No! These are the normal, healthy, and obvious motives of ordinary people; they will not do for a professional analysis of the sub-ordinary and subordinate.

So much for that publication on attitudes about blindness, the result of a conference of specialists on rehabilitation. Let us consider another publication circulated by a different group of specialists getting ready to hold a rehabilitation conference of their own. What we have here is a questionnaire sent out across the country to instructors working in orientation and training centers for the blind, who were invited to participate in a three-day national workshop on personal management services, under the sponsorship of the American Foundation for the Blind with the collaboration of the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The questionnaire asked each instructor to state whether he had or had not developed "a specific organized method or technique" for the teaching of grooming and living activities to blind people—and, furthermore, whether the instructor found it necessary "to frequently make changes," or only "rarely make changes," in these specific organized techniques. Now, here are some of the activities for which it was expected that instructors would have specific organized techniques and methods: brushing hair, combing hair, tying shoes, lacing shoes, tying necktie, putting dentifrice on brush, brushing teeth, tweezing eyebrows, bathing with soap, using deodorants, shaking hands, asking for help, refusing help, using the telephone—and, under the heading "Art of Attraction," flirting and dating. (One is forced to wonder what "specific organized method or technique" the agency professionals reported in that field of personal activity!)

What is to be thought of this high—level national conference of rehabilitation experts and its preoccupation with such earthshaking matters as these? Surely the first thought that comes to one's mind is: have they nothing more serious to do? Is this the kind of problem that should be occupying the collective attention of the nation's specialists on blindness—problems like how (in a specific organized way) to put the toothpaste on the brush, the necktie on the neck, the soap on the body, or the shoe on the foot? Perhaps the shoe should be on the other foot; perhaps blind people ought to get together in a conference of their own and work out specific organized techniques or methods for instructing specialists in rehabilitation on such urgent matters of personal hygiene as clearing cobwebs from the mind, stringing serious thoughts together, and (under the heading of "Mental Attraction") flirting with new ideas!

What a commentary on the attitudes toward the blind held by the very people assigned to improving and educating the attitudes of the blind. Certainly if a blind person is defective mentally, or disturbed emotionally, or handicapped multiply, there may be need for attention to such elementary and superficial learning tasks. But if not, then not! How many real and serious problems of social relationship and participation go untreated and unattended while these people play their frivolous and superfluous games.

We could go on—and on and on—with still more examples of demeaning and destructive attitudes on the part of professional workers and administrators in the vineyards of blind welfare and rehabilitation. Their name is legion; their sins are manifest; their mischief is widespread. But there is one more thing to say about them: they no longer hold the field alone. Their attitudes, their teachings, their prejudices, their arrogance—all are being challenged by a new generation of professionals, a new spirit among the blind, a new understanding on the part of the public at large, and a new philosophy of rehabilitation.

The name of the new professionals is not "workers for the blind" but "workers with the blind." Many of them, in steadily growing numbers, are blind themselves. But, blind or sighted, they base their entire approach on an assumption of responsibility and an attitude of respect toward the people with whom they work. Their injunction to the blind trainee or client is not "you cannot do it," but "do it!" Their doctrine, to borrow from the field of economics, is that of laissez-faire—let the blind person be—let him become—let him go!

One of the basic principles of a democracy is the notion that the balance of power shall be held by the non—professional, by the public at large. In this connection, the blind are fortunate for the professionals in the field (weighed down by vested interest and accumulated doctrine) who have often been slower to accept the new ideas than the well-informed man-in-the-street. When faced with the evidence of blind people living and working as normal human beings, the average citizen has usually been able to accept the fact for what it is without looking for hidden meanings or Freudian explanations. The professionals are sometimes not so flexible in their thinking.

The very symbol and substance of the new ideas, and the challenge to the old attitudes, can be found in the organized blind movement. We are determined to speak for ourselves, and with our own voice. The time is now, and the responsibility is ours. No one will give it to us. We must take it for ourselves. And take it we will!

In this time of transition, in this changing of the guard in the affairs of the blind, we might articulate our prospect and our vision by paraphrasing some words from the inaugural address of a recent President of the United States:

Let the word go out from this place and this moment that the torch has been passed to a new generation of blind Americans, a generation born in this century and fully belonging to it, a generation committed to the belief that all men (seeing or blind) are capable of independence and self—direction, of attaining equality and pursuing happiness in their own way, of serving each other and helping themselves—of walking alone and marching together.

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