Picture of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek

Cross Of Blindness

by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek

Copyright © 1957
National Federation of the Blind

          In the short seventeen years since our founding of the National Federation of the Blind, we have grown from a handful of men and women scattered over seven states to a Federation of forty-three state affiliates. The first convention of the NFB in 1940 was attended by twelve or fifteen persons our convention last year had a registration of seven hundred and five from every corner of the Union.

          That is rapid organizational growth by any yardstick considering the total blind population of the country and the difficulties in organization. Who are these people of the National Federation of the Blind? What is the purpose that has led them to self-organization in such numbers and unites them now with such apparent dedication and enthusiasm?

          It is not enough, I think, to answer that the members of the NFB are drawn together by their common interest in the welfare of the blind; for many of the sighted share that, too. Nor is it sufficient to say that we are united only because we are blind; many who are affiliated with agencies for the blind have that characteristic also. It is fundamental to the uniqueness of our group that we are the only nationwide organization for the blind which is also of the blind. The composition of the NFB, indeed, is living testimony to the fact unfortunately not yet accepted by society as a whole that the blind are capable of self-organization: which is to say, of leading themselves, of directing their own destiny.

          Yet this is still only half the truth, only a part of the characteristic which defines our Federation and provides its reason for being. Our real distinction from other organizations in the field of blind welfare lies in the social precept and personal conviction which are the motive source of our activity and the wellspring of our faith. The belief that we who are blind are normal human beings sets us sharply apart from other groups designed to aid the blind. We have all the typical and ordinary range of talents and techniques, attitudes, and aspirations. Our underlying assumption is not as it is with some other groups the intrinsic helplessness and everlasting dependency of those who happen to lack sight, but rather their innate capacity to nullify and overrule this disability to find their place in the community with the same degree of success and failure to be found among the general population.

          Perhaps I can best document this thesis of the normality of the blind with a random sample of the occupations represented at our National Convention a year ago in San Francisco. Among the blind delegates in attendance, there were three blind physicists engaged in experimental work for the United States Government. There was one blind chemist also doing experimental work for the national government. There were two university instructors of the rank of full professor, a number of other college instructors of various ranks, and several blind teachers of sighted students in primary and secondary grades in the public schools. There were thirteen lawyers, most in private practice, two employed as attorneys by the United States Government, one serving as the chairman of a state public service commission, one serving as a clerk to a state chief justice. There were three chiropractors, one osteopath, ten secretaries, seventeen factory workers, one shoemaker, one cab dispatcher, one book mender, one appliance repairman, four telephone switchboard operators, numerous businessmen in various businesses, five musicians, thirty students, many directors and workers in programs for the blind, and sixty-one housewives.

          At any other convention there would be nothing at all remarkable about this broad cross section of achievement and ability; it is exactly what you would expect to find at a gathering of the American Legion or the Exalted Order of Elks, or at a town meeting in your community. Anywhere else, that is, but at a convention of the blind. It never ceases to surprise the public that a blind man may be able to hold his own in business, operate a farm successfully, argue a brief in a court of law, teach a class of sighted students, or conduct experiments in a chemistry lab. It comes as a shock to the average person to discover that the blind not only can but do perform as well as the next man in all the normal and varied callings of the community.

          But this shock of recognition, on the part of many people, too easily gives way to a mood of satisfaction and an attitude of complacency. After all, if the blind are so capable, so successful, and so independent, what is all the fuss about? Where is the need for all this organization and militant activity? Why can't the blind let well enough alone?

          These are reasonable questions, surely, and deserve a reasoned answer. I believe that the answer may best be given by reciting a list of sixteen specific events which have taken place recently in various parts of the country. The events are:

  1. A blind man (incidentally a distinguished educator and citizen of his community) was denied a room in a well-known YMCA in New York City not on the ground that his appearance betokened inability to pay, which it did not; not on the ground that he had an unsavory reputation, which he did not; not on the ground that his behavior was or was likely to be disorderly, which it was not but on the ground that he was blind.

  2. A blind man was rejected as a donor by the blood bank in his city not on the ground that his blood was not red; not on the ground that his blood was watery, defective in corpuscles, or diseased; not on the ground that he would be physically harmed by the loss of the blood but on the ground that he was blind.

  3. A blind man (in this case a successful lawyer with an established reputation in his community) was denied the rental of a safety-deposit box by his bank not on the ground that he was a well-known bank robber; not on the ground that he had nothing to put in it; not on the ground that he couldn't pay the rental price but on the ground that he was blind.

  4. A blind man was rejected for jury duty in a California city not on the ground of mental incompetence; not on the ground of moral irresponsibility; not on the ground that he would not weigh the evidence impartially and come to a just verdict but on the ground that he was blind.

  5. A blind college student majoring in education was denied permission to perform practice teaching by a state university not on the ground that her academic record was poor; not on the ground that she had not satisfied the prerequisites; not on the ground that she lacked the educational or personal qualifications but on the ground that she was blind.

  6. A blind applicant for public employment was denied consideration by a state civil service commission not on the ground that he lacked the education or experience specifications; not on the ground that he was not of good moral character; not on the ground that he lacked the residence or citizenship requirements but on the ground that he was blind.

  7. A blind woman was refused a plane ticket by an airline not on the ground that she couldn't pay for her ticket; not on the ground that her heart was weak and couldn't stand the excitement; not on the ground that she was a carrier of contagion but on the ground that she was blind.

  8. A blind machinist was declared ineligible for a position he had already held for five years. This declaration was the result of a routine medical examination. It came on the heels of his complete clearance and reinstatement on the job following a similar medical finding the year before. These determinations were made not on the ground of new medical evidence showing that he was blind, for that was known all along; not on the ground that he could not do the job which he had successfully performed for five years with high ratings; not on the ground of any factor related to his employment they were made on the ground that he was blind.

  9. A blind high school student who was a duly qualified candidate for student body president was removed from the list of candidates by authority of the principal and faculty of the school not on the ground that he was an outside infiltrator from some other school; not on the ground that he was on probation; not on the ground that he was not loyal to the principles of the United States Constitution but on the ground that he was blind.

  10. A well-known insurance company, in its standard policy issued to cover trips on railroads, expressly exempts the blind from coverage not on the ground that there is statistical or actuarial evidence that blind travelers are more prone to accident than sighted travelers are; not on the ground that suitcases or fellow passengers fall on them more often; not on the ground that trains carrying blind passengers are more likely to be wrecked unless it is the engineer who is blind but solely on the ground of blindness. Many, if not most, other insurance companies selling other forms of insurance either increase the premium or will not cover the blind.

  11. A blind man, who had been a successful justice court and police court judge in his community for eleven years, ran for the position of superior court judge in the general election of 1956. During the campaign his opponents did not argue that he was ignorant of the law and therefore incompetent; or that he had been guilty of bilking widows and orphans; or that he lacked the quality of mercy. Almost the only argument that they used against him was that he was blind. The voters, however, elected him handily. At the next session of the state legislature a bill was introduced disqualifying blind persons as judges. The organized blind of the state were able to modify this bill but not to defeat it.

  12. More than sixty blind men and women among them doctors, teachers, businessmen and members of various professions were recently ordered by the building and safety authority of a large city to move out of their hotel-type living quarters. This was not on the ground that they were pyromaniacs and likely to start fires; not on the ground that they were delinquent in their rent; not on the ground that they disturbed their neighbors with riotous living but on the ground that as blind people they were subject to the code provisions regarding the bed-ridden, ambulatory, and helpless, that anyone who is legally blind must live in an institution-type building with all the rooms on the ground floor, with no stairs at the end of halls, with hard, fire-proof furniture, with chairs and smoking-stands lined up along the wall so they won't fall over them.

  13. The education code of one of our states provides that deaf, dumb, and blind children may be sent at state expense to a school for the deaf, dumb, or blind outside of the state, if they possess the following qualifications: (1) they are free from offensive or contagious diseases; (2) they have no parent, relative, guardian, or nearest friend able to pay for their education; (3) that by reason of deafness, dumbness, or blindness, they are disqualified from being taught by the ordinary process of instruction or education.

  14. In a recent opinion the supreme court of one of the states held that a blind person who sought compensation for an injury due to an accident which he claimed arose out of and in the course of his employment by the state board of industries for the blind, was a ward of the state and therefore not entitled to compensation. The conception that blind shop workers are wards of the state was only overcome in another state by a recent legislative enactment.

  15. A blind person, duly convicted of a felony and sentenced to a state penitentiary, was denied parole when he became eligible therefore not on the ground that he had not served the required time; not on the ground that his prison behavior had been bad; not on the ground that he had not been rehabilitated but on the ground that he was blind.

  16. A blind man, incidentally a member of this organization, who sat down at a gambling table in Reno, where such things are legal, was denied an opportunity to play not on the ground that he didn't know the rules of the game; not on the ground that he might cheat the dealer or the other players; not on the ground that he didn't have any money to lose, which they proved, incidentally but on the ground that he was blind.

          These last two cases show that the blind are normal in every respect.

          What emerges from this set of events, is the age-old stereotype of blindness as witlessness and helplessness. By virtue of this pervasive impression, a blind man is held to be incapable of weighing the evidence presented at a trial or performing the duties of a teacher. He cannot take care of himself in a room of his own and is not to be trusted on a plane. A sightless person would not know what he has put into or removed from a safety deposit box; and he has no right to employment in the public service. He must not even be permitted to continue on a job he has performed successfully for years. Even his blood cannot be given voluntarily for the common cause.

          Contrast these two lists the one of the occupations represented at the NFB convention, the other of the discriminatory activities. The first is a list of accomplishments of what the blind have done and therefore can do; the second is a list of prohibitions of what the blind are thought incompetent to do and therefore are debarred from attempting. The first list refers to the physical disability of blindness. It demonstrates in graphic fashion how slight a disadvantage is the mere loss of sight to the mental capacity and vocational talent of the individual. The second list refers not to the disability but to the handicap which is imposed upon the blind by others. The origin of the disability is plainly inside the blind person. The origin and responsibility for the handicap are just as plainly outside him in the attitudes and preconceptions of the community.

          Let me be very clear about this. I have no wish to minimize the character and extent of blindness as a disability. It is for all of us a constant nuisance and a serious inconvenience. To overcome it requires effort and patience and initiative and guts. It is not compensated for, despite the fairy tales to the contrary, by the spontaneous emergence of a miraculous sixth sense or any other magical powers. It means nothing more or less than the loss of one of the five senses and a corresponding greater reliance upon the four that remain as well as upon the brain, the heart, and the spirit.

          It may be said that the discriminatory acts which I have cited, and others like them which are occurring all the time, simply do not reflect informed thought. They are occasional happenings, unpremeditated, irrational, or accidental. Surely no one would justify them; no one would say that they represent an accurate appraisal of the blind and of blindness.

          Well, let us see. Let us look at some pronouncements of presumably thoughtful and informed persons writing about the blind agency heads, educators, administrators, social workers, historians, psychologists, and public officials. What do they have to say about the potentialities of the blind in terms of intellectual capacity, vocational talent, and psychological condition? What do they report concerning the prospects for social integration on the basis of normality and economic advancement on the basis of talent?

          First, an educator. Here are the words of a prominent authority on the education of the blind, himself for thirty years a superintendent of a school for the blind. It is wrong to start with the school, this authority writes, and to teach there a number of occupations that the blind can do, but to teach them out of relation to their practical and relative values. This is equivalent to attempting to create trades for the blind and then more or less angrily to demand that the world recognize the work and buy the product, whether useful or useless. More than this, it is necessary to recognize the unfitness of the blind as a class for any sort of competition and therefore to afford them not only protection but monopoly wherever possible. Declaring that it must be unqualifiedly conceded that there is little in an industrial way that a blind person can do at all that cannot be done better and more expeditiously by people with sight, this expert considers that there are only two ways out, one being the extension of concessions and monopolies and the other the designation of certain preferred occupations for the blind leaving the battle of wits only to those select few that may be considered, and determined to be, specially fit.

          The conclusion that employment possibilities for the blind are confined, with only negligible exceptions, to the purview of sheltered workshops is contained in this set of facts about the blind which the same authority asserts are generally conceded by those who have given the subject much thought: that the handcrafts in which the blind can do first-class work are very limited in number, with basketry, weaving, knitting, broom and brush making, and chair caning as the most promising and most thoroughly tried out that in these crafts the blind cannot enter into direct competition with the seeing either in the quality of product or the amount turned out in a given time that the crafts pursued by the blind may best be carried on in special workshops under the charge of government officials or trained officers of certain benevolent associations that among the higher callings piano tuning and massage are, under favoring conditions such as prevail for masseurs in Japan, the fields offering the greatest chance of success, while the learned professions, including teaching, are on the whole only for those of very superior talent and, more particularly, very superior courage and determination to win at all costs.

          Second, an historian. The basis for this assessment, and its justification, have been presented in blunt and explicit language by a well-known historian of blindness and the blind in the United States. He says, [T]here exists in the community a body of men who, by reason of a physical defect, namely, the loss of sight, are disqualified from engaging in the regular pursuits of men and who are thus largely rendered incapable of providing for themselves independently. They are to be regarded as a disabled and infirm fraction of the people or, more specifically, as sighted men in a dark room. Rather than let them drift into absolute dependence and become a distinct burden, society is to lend an appropriate helping hand through the creation of sheltered, publicly subsidized employment.

          Third, administrators. That this pessimistic appraisal of the range of talent among the blind has not been limited to the school men and historians may be shown by two succinct statements from wartime pamphlets produced by the Civil Service Commission in an effort to broaden employment opportunities for the physically disabled. The blind, it was found, are especially proficient in manual occupations requiring a delicate sense of touch. They are well suited to jobs which are repetitious in nature. Again: The placement of persons who are blind presents various special problems. Small groups of positions in sheltered environment, involving repetitive work, were surveyed in government establishments and were found to have placement potentialities for the blind. Such findings as these were doubtless at the base of a remark of a certain public official who wrote that: Helping the blind has its strong appeal to the sensibilities of everyone; on the other hand, we should avoid making the public service an eleemosynary institution.

          Fourth, a blind agency head. The executive director of one of the largest private agencies for the blind justifies the failure of the philanthropic groups in these blunt terms: The fact that so few workers or organizations are doing anything appreciable to [improve the condition of the blind] cannot be explained entirely on the grounds that they are not in the vanguard of social thinking. It is rather because they are realistic enough to recognize that the rank and file of blind persons have neither the exceptional urge for independence nor the personal qualifications necessary to satisfactory adjustment in the sighted world.It is very difficult and exceptional for a blind person to be as productive as a sighted person.

          Fifth, a psychologist. Even plainer language as well as more impressive jargon has been used by another authority who is widely considered the pre-eminent expert in the field of blind psychology. Until recently, he writes, the blind and those interested in them have insisted that society revise and modify its attitude toward this specific group. Obviously, for many reasons, this is an impossibility, and effort spent on such a program is as futile as spitting into the wind it is extremely doubtful whether the degree of emotional maturity and social adaptability of the blind would long support and sustain any social change of attitude, if it were possible to achieve it. If this is not plain enough, the writer continues: A further confusion of attitude is found in educators and workers for the blind who try to propagandize society with the rational concept that the blind are normal individuals without vision. This desperate whistling in the dark does more damage than good. The blind perceive it as a hypocritical distortion of actual facts.It is dodging the issue to place the responsibility on the unbelieving and nonreceptive popular attitudes.The only true answer lies in the unfortunate circumstance that the blind share with other neurotics the nonaggressive personality and the inability to participate fully in society [Get this now, they are talking about you and me].There are two general directions for attacking such a problem, either to adjust the individual to his environment, or to rearrange the environment so that it ceases to be a difficulty to the individual. It is quite obvious that the latter program is not only inadvisable, but also impossible. However, it is the attack that nearly every frustrated, maladjusted person futilely attempts.

          Sixth, a social worker. This sweeping negation of all attempts to modify the prejudicial attitudes of society toward the blind, however eccentric and extreme it may sound, finds strong support in the field of social casework. In areas where such ideas remain steadfast, reads a typical report, it is the function of the social caseworker to assist the blind person to work within these preconceived ideas. Since handicapped persons are a minority group in society, there is greater possibility of bringing about a change in an individual within a stated length of time than there is in reversing accepted concepts within the culture. The well-adjusted blind person, it is argued, should be able to get along in this restrictive social setting, and the caseworker must concentrate on his personal adjustment since it is easier to reform the client than to reform society.

          Seventh, a blind philanthropist. Let me close my list of testimonials with one final citation. I think it must already be sufficiently obvious that, granting the assumptions contained in all these statements, the blind have no business organizing them-selves apart from sighted supervision; that a social movement of the blind and by the blind is doomed to futility, frustration, and failure. But just in case the point is not clear enough, I offer the considered opinion of a well-known figure in the history of blind philanthropy: It cannot, then, be through the all-blind society that the blind person finds adequate opportunity for the exercise of his leadership. The wise leader will know that the best interests of each blind person lie within the keeping of the nine hundred and ninety-nine sighted people who, with himself, make up each one thousand of any average population. He will know, further, that if he wishes to promote the interests of the blind, he must become a leader of the sighted upon whose understanding and patronage the fulfillment of these interests depends.There is no advantage accruing from membership in an all-blind organization which might not be acquired in greater measure through membership in a society of sighted people.

          What is the substance of all these damning commentaries? What are the common assumptions which underlie the attitudes of the leaders of blind philanthropy and the authorities on blind welfare? The fundamental concepts can, I think, be simply stated. First, the blind are by virtue of their defect emotionally immature if not psychologically abnormal; they are mentally inferior and narrowly circumscribed in the range of their ability and therefore inevitably doomed to vocational monotony, economic dependence, and social isolation. Second, even if their capabilities were different they are necessarily bound to the fixed status and subordinate role ordained by society, whose attitudes toward them are permanent and unalterable. Third, they must place their faith and trust, not in themselves and in their own organizations, but in the sighted public and most particularly in those who have appointed themselves the protectors and custodians of the blind.

          A few simple observations are in order. First, as to the immutability of social attitudes and discriminatory actions towards the blind, we know from intimate experience that the sighted public wishes well for the blind and that its misconceptions are rather the result of innocence and superstition than of deliberate cruelty and malice aforethought. There was a time, in the days of Rome, when blind infants were thrown to the wolves or sold into slavery. That time is no more. There was a time, in the Middle Ages, when blind beggars were the butts of amusement at country fairs, decked out in paper spectacles and donkeys' ears. That time is no more. There was a time, which still exists to a surprising extent, when the parents of a blind child regarded his disability as a divine judgment upon their own sins. But that time is now beginning to disappear, at least in the civilized world.

          The blind are no longer greeted by society with open hostility and frantic avoidance, but with compassion and sympathy. It is true that an open heart is no guarantee of an open mind. It is true that good intentions are not enough. It is true that tolerance is a far cry from brotherhood, and that protection and trusteeship are not the synonyms of equality and freedom. But the remarkable progress already made in the civilizing of brute impulses and the humanizing of social attitudes towards the blind is compelling evidence that there is nothing fixed or immutable about the social status quo for the blind and that, if the blind themselves are capable of independence and inter-dependence within society, society is capable of welcoming them.

          Our own experience as individuals and as members of the National Federation of the Blind gives support at short range to what long-range history already makes plain. We have observed and experienced the gradual breakdown of legal obstacles and prejudicial acts; we have participated in the expansion of opportunities for the blind in virtually every phase of social life and economic livelihood in federal, state, and local civil service; in teaching and other professions; in the addition of a constructive element to public welfare. Let anyone who thinks social attitudes cannot be changed read this statement contained in a recent pamphlet of the Federal Civil Service Commission:

          Sometimes a mistaken notion is held that the blind can do work only where keenness of vision is not important in the job. The truth appears to be that the blind can do work demanding different degrees of keenness of vision on the part of the sighted. If there is any difference in job proficiency related to a degree of keenness of vision required for the sighted, it is this: the blind appear to work with greater proficiency at jobs where the element is present to a noticeable extent in the sighted job than where vision is only generally useful.

          Second, are the blind mentally inferior, emotionally adolescent, and psychologically disturbed; or on the contrary, are they normal and capable of social and economic integration? The evidence that they are the latter can be drawn from many quarters: scientific, medical, historical, and theoretical. But the evidence which is most persuasive is that which I have already presented: it is the evidence displayed in the lives and performance of such average and ordinary blind men and women as those who attended our National Convention last summer. It is the evidence of their vocational accomplishments, their personal achievements, the plain normality of their daily lives. To me their record is more than an impressive demonstration: it is a clinching rebuttal.

          It would, of course, be a gross exaggeration to maintain that all blind persons have surmounted their physical disability and conquered their social handicap.

          It is not the education of the sighted only which is needed to establish the right of the blind to equality and integration. Just as necessary is the education of the blind themselves. For the process of their rehabilitation is not ended with physical and vocational training; it is complete only when they have driven the last vestige of the public stereotype of the blind from their own minds. In this sense, and to this extent only, is it true that the blind person must adjust to his handicap and to society. His adjustment need not indeed must not mean his submission to all prevailing social norms and values. His goal is not conformity but autonomy: not acquiescence, but self-determination and self-control.

          From all of this it should be clear that it is a long way yet from the blind alleys of dependency and segregation to the main thoroughfares of personal independence and social integration which we have set as our goal. And I believe it is equally plain that our progress toward that goal will demand the most forceful and skillful application of all the means at our command: that is, the means of education, persuasion, demonstration, and legislation.

          We need the means of education to bring the public and the blind themselves to a true recognition of the nature of blindness to tear away the fossil layers of mythology and prejudice. We need persuasion to induce employers to try us out and convince society to take us in. We need demonstration to prove our capacity and normality in every act of living and of making a living. And finally we need legislation to reform the statute books and obliterate the legal barriers which stand in the way of normal life and equal opportunity replacing them with laws which accurately reflect the accumulated knowledge of modern science and the ethics of democratic society.

          This final platform in our program of equality the platform of adequate legislation is in many respects the most crucial and pressing of all. For until the blind are guaranteed freedom of opportunity and endeavor within the law there can be little demonstration of their ability and little prospect of persuasion. What is needed is nothing less than a new spirit of the laws, which will uproot the discriminatory clauses and prejudicial assumptions that presently hinder the efforts of the blind toward self-advancement and self-support. The new philosophy requires that programs for the blind be founded upon the social conception of their normality and the social purpose of their reintegration into the community, with aids and services adjusted to these - conceptions.

          These then are the objectives of the self-organized blind; goals freely chosen for them by themselves. And this is the true significance of an organization of the blind, by the blind, for the blind. For the blind the age of charity, like that of chivalry, is dead; but this is not to say that there is no place for either of these virtues. In order to achieve the equality that is their right, in order to gain the opportunity that is their due, and in order to attain the position of full membership in the community that is their goal, the blind have continuing need for the understanding and sympathy and liberality of their sighted neighbors and fellow citizens. But their overriding need is first of all for recognition of themselves as normal and of their purposes as legitimate. The greatest hope of the blind is that they may be seen as they are, not as they have been portrayed; and since they are neither wards nor children, their hope is to be not only seen but also heard in their own accents and for whatever their cause may be worth.

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