Blindness: New Insights on Old Outlooks

By Kenneth Jernigan

We are accustomed, in our day, to talk and hear about revolutions: revolutions past and revolutions present; revolutions violent and revolutions nonviolent; revolutions political, economic, technological, racial, social, cultural, and generational. They are of many varieties, these revolutions; but they have at least one thing in common—namely, their historical reality. Either they happened in the past, or they have happened in our own time.

I wish to speak to you, however, about a revolution that has. just begun to happen—a revolution of the future as well as of the present. This revolution is one that should have run its course already; and it is one that will, irresistibly, come to fruition and make good its promise in the years ahead. Moreover, it is a revolution which I intend to stir, foment, and agitate; and I hope to solicit your active support in fanning the flames. In fact, if we can get enough people to join us on the barricades, we will not only have set the revolution on its course, but we will have won it.

For the revolution that has just begun to happen is a revolution in the public mind—in the minds of us all—a revolution in our attitudes and assumptions, our deepest premises and prejudices, concerning blindness. It is a revolution to replace old outlooks with new insights.

In a world of many revolutions—of constant novelty and change, of experiment and originality, of new thoughts and fresh ideas—in such a world it is astonishing that we can still be ruled, in any sphere, by superstitions that date to the caveman and images more appropriate to the ice age than the space age. Yet that is still in simple fact the state of our thinking (and, therefore, of our teaching, planning, and programming) about the blind.

This is not to say that there has been no progress. On the contrary, the revolution is well begun; it is on the right track; and it is steadily gathering force and gaining ground. Ever since the National Federation of the Blind came on the scene a generation ago, bringing with it the nerve of independence and the shock of recognition, there has been a shaking of the foundations throughout the field of work with the blind—and in the world beyond. But in view of the immensity of the task before us—even in its preliminary phase of ground-breaking, mind-clearing, and institutional renewal—it is clear that the revolution has barely been launched. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is not yet the beginning of the end; it is not even the end of the beginning; but it is the beginning of the beginning. Our revolution is under way. It cannot now be stopped or pacified until it has achieved its goal of overthrowing the graven image which looms as a stumbling block in the path of the blind—that image of their nature and limitations which is graven in stone upon the public mind, stamped upon the yellowing pages of the statute books, and nestled in the dusty corners of custodial institutions.

What then are the outlines and features of this graven image? First, it is an image of helplessness—not. just of visual disability but of total inability. Second, it is an image of abnormality—not just loss of sight but loss of mental and emotional stability. (The blind man, in short, is thought to be not just affected in the eyes but touched in the head.) Third, it is a "broken image"—an image of impairment, of imbalance, and disharmony rather than of wholeness and symmetry—an image that calls attention to what is missing rather than what is present, to lacks and losses rather than strengths and talents. Helplessness, abnormality, incompleteness: these are the essential ingredients of a bitter and explosive brew—thoroughly aged and definitely sour—which flows like bile through the veins and capillaries of the body politic.

It is no surprise to find the old stereotype, the graven image of blindness, surviving among the ignorant and innocent. It is another matter to find it flourishing in the gardens of supposed enlightenment and knowledge, among the very people who pride themselves upon their liberal minds and generous hearts—such people, for instance, as those who run the Peace Corps and the VISTA program of the War on Poverty. I would remind you that the poverty program came into existence proclaiming itself to be in the very forefront of progressive thought and modern sophistication. It talked, and talks, of such advanced ideas as "maximum feasible participation" on the part of its clients, the poor. It will be well to bear in mind those protestations and pretensions, in light of the tale I am about to unfold.

Listen now to a true adventure, or misadventure, involving both the Peace Corps and VISTA, which occurred to one of our own active members of the National Federation of the Blind, a leader in her state affiliate. Let me say first that this woman, besides her prominent role in the Federation, has made her living as a physical fitness instructor for fifteen years, has served two terms as president of a state-wide public speaking group, and during a recent political campaign covered some fifty precincts by herself, much of the time on foot.

Now on with the story. It began with her application to join the Peace Corps as a Volunteer—an application which was turned down, two years after its submission, on the ground that a blind person could not conceivably get along alone in a foreign country (this despite the fact which was duly noted in her application, that she had twice wandered the length and breadth of Mexico unaccompanied). The Peace Corps asked no further questions, made no other inquiry, sought no additional data. She was blind; that was enough to bury the application and kill the dream.

Then came VISTA—which launched a recruiting drive in her home town. Again she applied. Her references were promptly investigated; a physical examination followed, and soon there came a two-page telegram stating, "You are considered for immediate placement ... Wire us collect ... Phone us collect." She wired that she was instantly available, and sat back to await further instructions. It was a long wait. Nearly a full year later she received a lengthy questionnaire from VISTA—one which is so remarkable in its method and assumptions that it deserves detailed attention.

Under the heading of "Mobility", the questionnaire sets forth the following queries: "Do you use a wheel chair?" ("No," she replied.) "How far can you wheel?" ("Not more than ten miles between coffee breaks", was her answer.)

"Can you move alone from wheel chair to car? Can you move alone from wheel chair to bed? Can you move alone from wheel chair to seat? Can you move alone from wheel chair to bath? Can you move alone from wheel chair to toilet? Do you use crutches?" (Her answers were: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—and no.)

"Do you climb steps?" (Yes.)

"Do you use public transportation?" (Yes.)

"Do you open and close doors in getting around?" (Yes.)

"To what extent can you get around in ice, snow, rain, mud, heat, and other weather conditions?" (She answered: "To any extent necessary.")

All of this appeared on the form under the heading of "Mobility". The second category of questions bore the title "Self Care", and included the following: "Have you ever lived alone, away from home before?" (Answer: "Yes: my home is where I make it; I have lived alone for thirty years.")

Then: "Are you able to live alone?" "Would you prefer to live alone?" "Do you dress yourself alone?" "Do you handle your own toileting?" "Can you prepare your own meals?" "Do you feed yourself?" (To this last, instead of merely repeating her standard "yes" answer, our Federationist replied: "I have never suffered from malnutrition from inability to find my mouth.")

The questions continue: "Do you go around unaccompanied to work?" "Do you go around unaccompanied to meetings?" "Do you go around unaccompanied to shop?" And then this: "What daily living situations are difficult for you to handle?" (Her answer: "Dealing with people who ask questions like these.")

Nestled among the forest of questions, by the way—lest it be supposed that our Federationist had somehow received the wrong application form—was this: "Do you use a seeing eye dog?" She answered "No".

Under the heading of "Special Care", the question was asked: "What physical therapy will you continue while in VISTA service?" (Her reply was: "Swimming, judo and weight-lifting, if possible—they are not essential.")

Under the category "Use of Special Services", there were three questions—to which the respondent made three answers befitting a true Federationist. The dialogue went as follows:

Question: "Have you received physical therapy?" Answer: "During some fifteen years of instructing others in physical fitness, I have had to take much of my own advice."

Question: "Have you received speech therapy?" Answer: "I have been vice-president and program director of Republican Speakerettes, a public speaking group."

Question: "What contacts have you had with your Vocational Rehabilitation Division, or State Department of Education?" (Please explain in detail.) Answer: "Poor: it would seem that I remain un-rehabilitated:"

Thus ended the encounter of the blind Federationist with the forward-looking, people-serving, modern-minded agencies of VISTA and the Peace Corps. Of course she never heard again from VISTA. If she had, and if somehow she had been accepted as a "Volunteer in Service to America", her response would have been predictable; for in her letter to me, she concluded the narrative of her misadventure with this sentence: "Of course all this is merely a matter of curiosity, since I no longer have the slightest interest in VISTA or anything remotely connected with it."

What then of "maximum feasible participation" in the Poverty Program? Here is an agency, self-proclaimed as the most progressive in the land, dedicated to ending prejudice and bringing equality, dignity, and full participation to all who are socially deprived or disadvantaged. What "vistas" does it open for the blind? How much respect does it confer upon the vigorous and enterprising blind applicant? The answer is self-evident. The questionnaire speaks grossly for itself—and I think all of us read and reject its message loud and clear. In only one small corner, tucked away at the very end of the three-page document, is there any effort to determine the skills or abilities of the candidate. That effort is contained in a single question—one out of a total of thirty-eight!

It is not as if the Peace Corps or VISTA had never had experience with a blind applicant since in a few scattered instances blind persons have actually been accepted for service both here and abroad—service well-performed, incidentally, by all accounts and records. It is, rather, that these successes were apparently dismissed as isolated instances, and that the image of the helpless, hopeless blind man remained intact with all of its defeatist presumptions and insulting implications.

So much, then, for the new and modern agencies of social conscience and enlightenment. Let us turn to the older, more experienced institutions of public service. Can it be that the blind fare better here? Is the graven image of the helpless blind man more, or is it less, apparent among such stalwart public institutions as, for example, the city fire department?

For an insight into this question, consider an incident which occurred recently in a midwestern city of moderate size. In that city is a rooming house in which there happen to reside, among others, a number of persons who are blind. One day the owner of the rooming house was startled to observe a number of firemen on her front lawn in the act, apparently, of putting up a large illuminated sign of some kind. Asked what they were doing, and why, the men replied that they were, indeed, installing a sign—one that bore the single luminous letter "I". That letter, they told the landlady, stands for "invalid", and therefore would serve to notify all and sundry that the rooming house harbored invalids—an item of information presumably of value in case of fire or other disaster, since "invalids" (in this case, blind people) are helpless and would need assistance in time of peril. Moreover, said the firemen, when they had finished installing the sign on the lawn, they intended to come inside and affix smaller signs, also bearing the luminous letter "I", upon the doors of each and every one of the blind tenants.

(It is not clear, incidentally, whether the insignia on the doors, and at the entrance of the rooming house, were to be scarlet letters. But surely they would carry much the same stigma, contempt, and condemnation as the famous scarlet letter—"A" for adultery—which was forcibly worn by the ill-fated Hester Prynne of Hawthorne's novel.)

Understandably, the landlady was distressed at the prospect of an illuminated sign at the front of her house, advertising the presence of "invalids" within. She called upon the firemen to cease and desist; and eventually, after some threat and bluster, these public servants did back down. But only part way. They still insisted upon fastening the "I" signs on the doors of the rooms occupied by blind tenants. Indeed, they gained the reluctant permission of the landlady to do so; and the conspicuous little plaques with the single glittering letter would doubtless be there today, were it not for the staunch resistance of the blind tenants—who showed themselves ready to stand in the doorway if necessary in order to protect their rooms and their characters from being thus marked and maligned.

I am pleased to report that the blind residents won the day, and preserved their integrity unmarked, but it is noteworthy that the firemen gave way not because they were converted or persuaded—not because they saw the error of their ways—but only because they were effectively resisted. No doubt the fire chief and his minions in that city (as in many others) still believe that blindness is equivalent to helplessness, and that blind persons are immobilized incompetents, unable to fend for themselves in the event of fire, crisis, or calamity.

This story again illustrates the tendency, as common among public officials as among the public at large, to attribute incompetence (both physical and mental) to persons who are blind. To the firemen in question the blind person is literally a dead weight, a burden to be carried like a piece of furniture from the scene of danger. To the Peace Corps and the Poverty Program, he is at best chair-borne and at worst bed-ridden.

If these two sets of public institutions, national and municipal, are thus dominated by the graven image of blindness, where can we turn for more realistic, reasonable, and respectable assumptions? Surely, one might suppose, there is at least one safe place, one institution secure from prejudice and ignorance, and immunized against the subtle poisons of condescension and contempt—namely, the institutions and agencies actually concerned with the education and rehabilitation of blind persons and with the dissemination of the facts about blindness to the public. There at least, it would seem certain, we should find a new image of the blind man and of his true needs and abilities—one that does not strain at gnats or suffer foolishness gladly, one that rises above the trivial and superficial in order to concentrate upon the paramount problems that block the way to full equality and independence for all blind people.

Let us see. Here is a promising professional publication, produced by the Institute of Blind Rehabilitation of Western Michigan University, at Kalamazoo, in cooperation with the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Do we find, here, the sense of importance and the urgency of commitment that are lacking elsewhere, along with recognition of the intellectual and physical capability—the plain normality—of the blind person?

The title of this exhaustive ten-page treatise is Techniques for Eating—A Guide for Blind Persons.1 These are the opening words of the preface: "After a cursory glance at the title of this manual, many people would dismiss it as relatively unimportant, or surely as something that does not present problems to blind persons. Nothing could be further from the truth." Methinks the authors do protest too much; as the Biblical admonition has it, the wicked flee when no man pursueth. For at the very outset the tone is so defensive as to suggest a lack of confidence in the topic.

However that may be, the next words betray a striking lack of belief in the general capacities of blind persons; for it develops that these authors are not addressing the blind person at all, but rather the people around him (families, counselors, guides, and other nursemaids) who are there to take care of him and be responsible to him.

"This manual does not pretend to have all the solutions to the problems presented to the blind individual when eating. At best, it is only intended to serve as guidelines for those who will be working with the blind individual in this specific area. It should be helpful to families or rehabilitation personnel who are in direct contact with the blind individual. Above all, it must be remembered that the acquisition of these skills and techniques require constant practice under close supervision ...... (I must interrupt here to say—as an old-time grammarian—that the subject-verb disagreement in the foregoing sentence comes from the treatise, not from me!)

What are these intricate "skills and techniques" which require such constant practice under such close supervision? The table of contents tells us, under the general heading of "Techniques:"

"To Approach Table Exploration of Place Setting Orientation to Contents of Plate
To Cut Meat With Fork
To Cut Meat With Knife ...
To Butter Bread or Roll ...
To Pour Salt and/or Pepper
To Put Sugar Into Beverage . . .
To Pour Cream . . .
To Pass Foods . . . (and)
To Eat on Tray."

Here are some examples of the intricacy and complexity of the problems dealt with in this scientific exposition by the authors—both of them, as we are told, experts in education and rehabilitation of the blind:

"During the course of eating, it is advisable to bend the trunk forward, bringing the face above the plate, should something fall from the fork ...

"In the process of eating, foods may be picked up by the 'stab' method which involves inserting the tines of the fork into the food and lifting. This is used for—such solids as string beans, fruit salad, etc.; or foods may be picked up by the 'scoop' method, which involves dipping the forward part of the fork down into the food, leveling the fork, and then bringing it up."

"In situations where it is difficult to pick up the food, a 'pusher' may be used. This might be a piece of bread or roll, or another utensil. such as a spoon or a knife, which holds the food in position to be picked up with the fork."

Now for some concrete techniques, skills, and scientific methods:

"To approach table: (1) Place one hand on back of chair; (2) With free hand, scan arms and/or seat of chair to ascertain shape and whether or not the chair is occupied." (One wonders, in the context of all this frivolous nonsense, whether the authors would also advocate, should the chair be occupied, scanning the occupant to ascertain shape.)

Under the heading "Exploration of place setting," we find the following:

"To locate plate, with flexed arms and curled fingers, lift hands to top edge of table and move gently toward center of table until contact is made." And a little later on: "With arms flexed, and fingers curled, follow right edge of plate, and extending arm and fingers gradually, angle to the right to locate tea cup and/or glass."

Here is an especially complicated maneuver, apparently modeled after jungle-warfare instructions in an army field manual:

"Using edge of plate as point of reference, approach contents of plate from above with tines of fork in perpendicular position. Insert fork into food at positions of 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock, 12 o'clock, and 3 o'clock, identifying food by texture and/or taste. (Fork may be brought to mouth as desired.)"

In the detailed discussion of how "to butter bread or roll," consisting of seven steps or operational phases, there is one I find particularly fascinating. It is "Number 4. Break the roll."

Let me quote just three more specific techniques which appear in the course of these illuminating instructions:

"To eat pie, begin at the tip and, either stabbing or scooping, work toward the back of the pie."
"To take a roll or cookie, locate edge of plate and gently move in to find item." And finally:
"Sensation of hot and cold indicates where hot and cold foods are located." I was glad to learn that; aren't you?

Something of the condescension of this pompous parade of the obvious and the trivial may be observed in the quotation which serves as frontispiece to the publication. It is attributed to Emil Javal, and reads as follows: "Meals being for the blind, the pleasantest moments of life, it is very important for him to train himself to eat properly, so that he may feel in a position to accept an invitation out."

Now, why are meals "the pleasantest moments of life" for the blind? Can it be because (as some people appear to believe) the blind, in their helpless condition, knowing themselves to be incompetent and irrelevant if not quite immaterial, can have few joys other than eating? "What is a man," asked Hamlet, "if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more."

And what about that crack about being in "a position to accept an invitation out." Out of what—the almshouse? Solitary confinement? Why must the blind person wait for "an invitation out", unless he is in truth not capable of sallying forth on his own or of "inviting people in?" Such an archaic attitude might have been suitable in, say, 1905; but we are far removed today from the conditions of social isolation and enforced idleness which this quotation conjures up. The real value of the quotation is the very opposite of that intended by the authors of this tiresome treatise on table topography, this god-awful guide to gracious gourmandering, this moronic manual on meal-time mastication, this oddball odyssey for outlandish oenologists, this poor man's primer on polite pantry protocol and perpendicular pie-pushing. The frontispiece quotation, and indeed the whole sad tract, is graphically illustrative of the demeaning and dispiriting image of blindness and the blind which still controls the thoughts of far too many agency professionals, and so controls the lives of the blind.

And what does all of this mean? What is the significance of these acts and attitudes on the part of government officials and workers with the blind? It is not merely that these several isolated incidents occurred. It is not even that they are symptomatic of a broader pattern of thought and deed, and therefore not isolated at all. It is rather that they bespeak the dominant theme of public and official opinion which everywhere characterizes the image of blindness.

That is the dark and threatening significance of the events which I have laid before you. But such events as these, however common, however destructive, no longer stand alone. Of still greater significance is the positive fact that we have come to recognize these sordid myths and misconceptions for the lies which they are; that we have organized; that we have mobilized ourselves into a powerful movement to change the total landscape of the country of the blind; that we have not only won friends and influenced people in our cause but have won battles and influenced the course of public policy.

It is significant, too, that more and more professionals in the field of work with the blind—in the private agencies, in government, in the foundations and universities—are receiving our message and rallying to our cause. It is significant that more and more blind persons are employed, in better and better careers. It is significant, most of all, that despite the heritage of old outlooks, despite the deep hold of the graven image upon their minds, the general public is beginning to show itself ready to listen, to learn, and to understand.

The challenge is ours, and the time is now. Our revolution will not wait, and it will succeed—but only if we take the lead and take the risks. It is for us to persuade, to participate, to persevere—and to prevail—and prevail we will!

The words of Abraham Lincoln, spoken a hundred years ago, are no less applicable to us today: "We cannot escape history. No personal significance or insignificance will spare one or another of us. This fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility."

The time is now, and the challenge is real. I ask you, with all that the question implies: will you join me on the barricades?


1. Techniques for Eating: A Guide for Blind Persons. Prepared by Lloyd C. Widerberg and Ruth Kaarlela. Published by School of Graduate Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49001.

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