Why I am Choosing Blindness:
Personal Reflections on the Need for a Functional Definition
by Scott Feldman

Reprinted from the February, 1997, issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind.

From the Braille Monitor Editor

One of the most annoying misconceptions about the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind is the notion that committed Federationists are proud of their blindness and, if given a chance, would choose it over returned vision. Those who have heard and believed such statements are enraged, I think, because they consider it needlessly cruel to encourage the development of neurotic and twisted ideas in people who are already facing vision loss. Federationists, on the other hand, are frustrated when we are accused of holding such notions because, in fact, we don't.

Learning to be unapologetic and to resist feelings of inferiority because of blindness is very different from being proud of the characteristic. It is as absurd to be proud of blindness as it is to take pride in being six feet four, having size five feet, or demonstrating an IQ of 145. One may be comfortable or not with any of these characteristics, but one can certainly claim no credit for possessing them.

A person might well take pride in developing his or her artistic ability, athletic skill, intellectual powers, or expertise in the alternative skills of blindness, but that is very different from claiming personal credit for a God-given characteristic. Of course, being only human (and therefore often a little ridiculous), people frequently take pride in their naturally wavy hair, quick reflexes, or green eyes. It isn't surprising, then, that, in the process of evolving a healthy identity as a competent blind person, some of us act for a while as though taking pride in blindness were the goal rather than achieving self-confidence and effectiveness as a blind person.

Debunking the second half of the misconception is more complex. I don't think I know a single blind person who would actually choose blindness above fully functioning sight, if the exchange were an actual option. In a world structured for and largely dependent on sight, it is obviously more efficient to use sight to get things done. But such a choice is virtually never an option. Most people with a little residual vision are faced with the dilemma of either depending on very restricted visual data for doing tasks or mastering alternative techniques for getting the job done. The pragmatic question these people face in situation after situation is which strategy would be more efficient. The emotional freight that such decisions carry can be heavy indeed. If one has never learned effective alternative techniques and if one has always depended on vision, then vision—even very poor or painful vision—often seems the easier choice. Family and friends reinforce this tendency every time they urge the person not to "act blind" because, after all, he or she can still see something.

Recognizing these pressures, experienced members of the Federation understand the importance of encouraging those with vision problems to get to know able blind people who are comfortable using the alternative skills of blindness. It isn't that we prefer blindness; we just prefer efficiency, confidence, comfort, and success. For almost everyone with less than 10 percent of normal vision, this means using some combination of blindness skills and remaining, genuinely usable vision. Working out the combination is time-consuming and often emotionally demanding. One man who has given this struggle a lot of thought in the past few months is Scott Feldman, a graduate student in clinical psychology and a member of the Chicago Chapter. This is what he has to say about his journey into self-understanding:

"But that's not you—you're only print-impaired." It was my best friend Amy speaking, and she was clearly concerned about me. Until recently I suppose that I thought of myself in this way as well. My visual problems first manifested themselves after extended periods of reading, and reading print was the first activity that I eventually had to relinquish, in my early twenties. Even today, several years later, I could force myself to read a small amount of print in an emergency, but I would pay the price with accommodative spasms. When I try to see things at near distance, my eyes lock, as in a muscle cramp, and later double vision and a throbbing headache set in as my eyes struggle to relax. I do not like pain, nor do I like setting myself up for failure. Since 1990 I have listened to my books instead, and I write with a speech-adapted computer.

Last year I began to learn Braille because in many situations speech is an inadequate substitute for print, such as when I have to give a lecture or presentation from notes. Braille is coming slowly, and materials in any accessible format are hard to come by. Only five percent of printed material published each year is converted to speech or Braille. So I most certainly do feel print-impaired.

This might have been the end of the story, except for one, well two little problems. To begin with, there are many other things besides print that can get too close for my comfort: people's faces, a kitchen counter or dining room table, or a Rembrandt, to name a few. I suppose that you could say that I am face-impaired, food-impaired, and art-impaired as well. Better, let's say that I am functionally blind at near distance and leave it at that. This is where I was several months ago, after much kicking and screaming—not to mention a year-long depression that nearly sapped my will to live.

Life is not fair, nor is it simple. At present I get around without the assistance of a cane or dog. Walking outside is one of the activities recommended to me by my visual therapists because it allows me to gaze into the distance and relax my focusing system. (A world-renowned neuro-ophthalmologist who first diagnosed my condition as severe accommodative and convergence insufficiency suggested that I become a forest ranger. When I said that I wanted to be a scholar, he asked me if I would mind if he prayed for me. I did not.)

If you are sighted, you may be aware of relaxing your eyes, particularly when you are walking along, lost in thought. Your eyes do not fixate on anything in particular but take in the general environment. You perceive gross forms, color, and most definitely movement. You do not crash into things. This is how I have gotten around for the past six years. It works, except for the fact that I cannot make out street signs or other such niceties of modern travel. To be precise, if I squint through the various overlapping images, I can sometimes make out street signs, but then I get back into that same painful cycle that I described earlier.

So traveling is the second little problem. I was not aware of it while in Los Angeles for graduate school, where my range of independent travel was effectively limited by my busy campus schedule and inability to drive. Nor was it a problem when I returned to Chicago on a leave of absence since I know the city very well, having spent the latter part of my childhood and my adolescence there.

But this past October I traveled with my family to London and Paris. It was a lovely trip, especially because of the English theater. During a side trip to Stratford on Avon, I scalped a ticket to the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of Macbeth. I sat next to a delightful old woman who had been coming to Stratford for decades. She recalled the glorious days when the likes of Richard Burton were members of the company. The lights went out, and we fell silent, expectant. At the end of the performance, she asked me whether I had enjoyed it, not being able to make out the individual actors. As it turned out, I had enjoyed the performance more than she because I had been able to focus on the poetry, while she had difficulty getting beyond her aggravation at the inauthenticity of the costumes and stage set. (At one point, to her horror, the gate keeper lit a cigarette.)

It was walking around on my own in London that made me realize how compromised my ability to navigate new places visually has become. The first day I went out I squinted at the street signs painted on the sides of buildings to make out where I was. I did not enjoy the theater that evening or the following afternoon because my eyes reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that I had mistreated them. A couple of days later I wanted to venture north to visit the Folk Institute because I am very fond of Irish music. My parents said that it would be no trouble to go with me, but I felt that it was important to figure out how to travel there independently. The influence of the National Federation of the Blind was in full evidence here. With the help of an excellent map--and my parents' eyes—I familiarized myself with the general layout of central London and with the specific route I planned to take. Then I set off for the Kensington underground station, our local base of operations. To make a long story short, after a few wrong turns and requests for directions from a couple of polite Londoners (they are so polite), I found the place. Happily, I returned to the subway with four new CD's in hand, the result of a thoughtful introduction to the institute's collection by another extremely polite Londoner.

My travels the following few days were much the same. Instead of asking my eyes what street I was on, I asked someone more reliable. As you might suspect, this strategy failed miserably after we took the newly constructed tunnel under the English Channel to Paris. Being a native English-speaker and a sometimes Spanish-speaker, I couldn't even begin to formulate the appropriate question, let alone understand the response. To the extent that I walked around on my own, such as when my parents indulged in a visit to a museum, I traced large circles around prominent landmarks.

As I sit here in my new apartment in Minneapolis, staring out into an impossibly early snowfall, the little question of how to navigate an unfamiliar city blossoms into a preoccupation. Besides the question of how to map out the city, pinpointing the places that hold special interest for me (such as a folk music club or dim-sum restaurant), I wonder how I will shop for necessities. Twice now my refrigerator has gone empty before I asked a neighbor with whom I am acquainted for assistance shopping. Of course, I could walk into the grocery store and ask for customer service, but I am not blind, right?

Actually, Amy, I suspect that you and I are wrong. It is true that I do not meet legal criteria for blindness, which are based on simple indices of acuity and field of vision. I am not a low-vision candidate—I have plenty of it. It just doesn't seem to be working for me.

True, many people have strong negative stereotypes about blind people, into which they will try to lock me if I identify myself as blind in public by using a long white cane, for example. They will see me only as a blind person. But I have seen much more in many of the people I have met through the National Federation of the Blind. When I am in their company, rather than feeling ashamed of who I have become, I feel empowered to work to create a more positive image of blindness. I am starting here.