Some of you may remember the story Will Rogers liked to tell about his early career as a comedian in vaudeville. I used to play a song called `Casey Jones' on the harmonica with one hand, he said, and spin a rope with the other, and then whine into the old empty rain barrel and then in between the verses I used to tell jokes about the Senate of the United States. If I needed any new jokes that night, I used to just get the late afternoon papers and read what Congress had done that day, and the audience would die laughing.
This story reminds me of my own activities over the past twenty years. I have gone all over the country as the guest of blind groups and civic associations; and, like Will Rogers, I tell stories about the Government of the United States particularly the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the other professionals doing work with the blind. And when I need any new jokes, I just get the latest reports from the agencies and foundations and read what they have been doing recently and the audience dies laughing. Unless, of course, there are people in the audience who are blind, or friends of the blind and they die crying.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that much of what goes on in the journals and laboratories and workshops of the agencies for the blind these days is a cruel joke. It is a mockery of social science and a travesty on social service. Far from advancing the welfare and well-being of blind people, it sets our cause back and does us harm.
The blind, along with some other groups in our society, have become the victims of a malady known as R and D that is, Research and Demonstration. The R and D projects are largely financed by the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and account for an ever-increasing chunk of its budget. The whole tone and direction of programs for the blind in the country rehabilitation, education, social services, and the rest have been altered as a result. The art of writing grant applications, the tens of millions of dollars available to fund the approved R and D projects, the resulting build-up of staff in universities and agencies for the blind, the need to produce some sort of seemingly scientific results in the form of books and pamphlets to justify the staff salaries and the field trips and conferences, and the wish for so-called professional status have all had their effect. Blind people have become the objects of research and the subjects of demonstration. They are quizzed, queried, and quantified; they are diagnosed, defined, and dissected; and when the R and D people get through with them, there is nothing left at all at any rate, nothing of dignity or rationality or responsibility. Despite all of their talk about improving the quality of services to blind people (and there is a lot of such talk these days), the research and demonstration people see the blind as inferiors. They see us as infantile, dependent wards. The signs of this creeping condescension of this misapplied science, this false notion of what blind people are, and of what blindness means are all about us. Some things are big, and some are little; but the pattern is conclusive and the trend unmistakable.
Consider, for instance, what has happened to the talking book. From the very beginning of the service from the Library of Congress back in the 1930s, the first side of each talking-book record has concluded with these words: This book is continued on the other side of this record. The flip side has always ended with: This book is continued on the next record. Surely no one can have any serious quarrel with this language. It serves a purpose. The reader, absorbed in the narrative, may well not remember whether he is on the first or second side of a record, and the reminder is useful and saves time.
In the last three or four years, however, something new has been added. After the familiar This book is continued on the next record, the statement now appears: Please replace this record in its envelope and container. That one, I must confess, crept up on me gradually. Although from the very beginning I found the statement annoying, it took some time for its full significance to hit me.
Here I was, let us say, reading a learned treatise on French history a book on Gallic statesmanship one which presupposes a certain amount of understanding and mental competence. The narrative is interrupted by a voice saying Please replace this record in its envelope and container. Then it strikes me: These are the words one addresses to a moron or a lazy lout. These words do not appear on records intended for the use of sighted library borrowers. They are intended for the blind. To be sure, they are not an overwhelming or unbearable insult. They are only one more small evidence of the new custodialism, the additional input of contempt for the blind recipient of services which is in the air these days.
I have heard that the words were added at the request of some of the regional librarians because certain blind borrowers were careless with the records. Are sighted people never careless with books or records? Are such words at the end of the record really likely to make the slob less slobby? The ordinary, normal human being (blind or sighted) will, as a matter of course, put the record back into the envelope and container. What else, one wonders, would he do with it?
Regardless of all this, one thing is fairly certain: My remarks on the subject will undoubtedly bring forth angry comments from library officials and others that I am quibbling and grasping at straws, that I am reading meanings that aren't there into innocent words. To which I reply: I am sure that no harm was meant and that the author of the words did not sit down to reason out their significance, but all of this is beside the point. We have reasoned out the significance, and we are no longer willing for our road to hell to be paved with other people's good intentions, their failure to comprehend, or their insistence that we not quibble.
Here is another illustration again, a slight and almost trivial affair. I had occasion recently to visit a public school where there was a resource class for blind and partially seeing children. The teacher moved about with me among the students. This little girl can read print, she said. This little girl has to read Braille. Now, that language is not oppressively bad. Its prejudice is a subtle thing. But just imagine, if you will, a teacher saying of a pair of children: This little girl can read Braille; this little girl has to read print. The supposition is that the child possessing some sight, no matter how little, is closer to being a normal and full-fledged human being; the one without sight can't cut it and has to make do with inferior substitutes.
Confront that teacher with her words, and she will be hurt. She will say, But that is not how I meant it. It was simply the way I said it. It is true that she was not consciously aware of the significance of her statement and that she did not mean to say what she said; but she said exactly what she meant, and how she felt. And her students, as well as visitors to her classroom, will be conditioned accordingly. I don't wish to make too much of the teacher's terminology, or the words on the talking-book record. Neither exemplifies any great cruelty or tragedy. They are, however, straws in the wind; and either of them could be the final straw the straw that breaks the blind man's back, or spirit. Far too many backs and spirits have been broken in that way, and the breaking must stop.
As I have said, some of the recent incidents in our field are small, and some are big; but they fit together to make a pattern, and the pattern is conclusive. During the past decade, for instance, the vocational employment objective of rehabilitation has steadily receded before the advancing tide of social services and research and development, and the Division for the Blind in the Federal Rehabilitation Service has diminished accordingly in prominence and importance. By 1967 rehabilitation had taken such a back seat that it became submerged in a comprehensive pot of Mulligan stew set up by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare called Social and Rehabilitation Service, with the emphasis clearly on the social. A new public-information brochure turned out by HEW, listing all the department's branches and programs, placed rehabilitation where do you suppose? dead last.
As far as the blind were concerned, the ultimate blow fell late last year. Federal Register document 70-17447, dated December 28, 1970, announced the abolition of the Division for the Blind altogether, and its inclusion in the new Division of Special Populations! And who are these special populations ? They include, and I quote, alcoholics, drug addicts, arthritics, epileptics, the blind, heart, cancer, and stroke victims, those suffering communication disorders, et cetera. (I leave the specifics of that et cetera to your imagination.) Therefore, half a century after the establishment of the federal vocational rehabilitation program, and almost as long after the development of a special division of services for the blind (and still longer since the creation of separate agencies or commissions for the blind in most of the states) the blind of America were to lose their identity and return to the almshouse for the sick and indigent.
This was too much, and every major national organization and agency (both of and for the blind) combined to resist it. By February of 197l the HEW officials had made a strategic withdrawal. They announced that they had never intended to downgrade or de-emphasize services to the blind; but that in order to clear up any possible misunderstanding they were establishing a new Office for the Blind, to be on a par with the Division of Special Populations, and in no way connected with it. Thus (for the moment) the tide was reversed and the power of united action demonstrated; but the tide is still the tide, and the trend is still the trend.
It is not difficult to find the evidence. For example, under date of February 4, 1971, the Federal Rehabilitation Services Administration issued an information memorandum entitled Subminimum Wage Certificates for Handicapped Workers. The document is self-explanatory; it is damning; and it is all too indicative of what is happening to the blind in America today. A recent revision to the wage and hour regulations, the memorandum begins, broadens State vocational rehabilitation agencies' certification responsibility with respect to employment of handicapped workers at subminimum wages. The responsibility was previously limited by regulation to certain categories of handicapped persons employed by sheltered workshops.
The revision to the wage and hour regulations, effective February 4, 197l, the memorandum continues, authorizes State rehabilitation agencies to certify certain disabled persons for work in competitive employment at less than fifty percent of the statutory minimum wage but not less than twenty- five percent.
So said HEW in February of this year! No longer must the pay be even fifty percent of the minimum wage! No longer is it limited to the sheltered shop! It may now be extended to private industry, to so-called competitive employment! And this, we are told, is rehabilitation . We are not to quibble. We are not to read meanings into things which are not there. We are not to find patterns or trends or hidden significance. No! We are to take our twenty-five percent competitive employment, and be grateful for it. That is what we are expected to do, but I doubt that we will do it.
I have already spoken about R and D the so-called research and demonstration financed ever more heavily and lovingly by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. I have at hand a typical product of R and D a comprehensive 239-page publication of the American Foundation for the Blind, entitled A Step-by-Step Guide to Personal Management for Blind Persons .1 I invite you now to accompany me on a step-by-step guided tour through its pages and mazes. But let me warn you: It may be a bad trip.
One of the areas, we are told at the outset of this guidebook, where independence is valued most highly by a broad spectrum of blind persons is personal management. I myself would put that a little differently. I would say that the blind person should, and commonly does, take for granted that independence begins at home that self-care comes before self-support but that what he values most highly in life is not his ability to master the simple rituals of daily living, such as are detailed in this manual. It is not his ability to wash his face, take a shower, clean his nails, brush his hair, sit down on a chair, rise from a chair, stand upright, wash his socks, light a cigarette, shake hands, nod his head yes, shake his head no, and so on and so on through two hundred-plus pages of instruction. No, these are not the supreme attainments and values in the life of the blind person, or of any other civilized person. They are merely the elementary motor and mechanical skills which represent the foundation on which more meaningful and significant achievements rest. The skills of personal management are rudimentary, not remarkable.
However, the American Foundation's guide to personal management for blind persons does not put the matter in such modest perspective. Rather, it is blown up to majestic proportions, as if it were not the beginning but the end of self-realization and independence. Most of all, it is presented as a very difficult and complicated subject this business of grooming and shaving, bathing and dressing virtually as the source of a new science. Much is made of the need for an organized body of realistic and practical personal management techniques. The American Foundation, out of a deep sense of professional obligation and the excitement of pioneering on new scientific horizons, agreed as long ago as 1965 (in its own words) to undertake the responsibility for developing, over a period of years, workable personal management techniques for blind persons. To begin with, an AFB staff specialist was assigned to coordinate the project, and he proceeded immediately to carry out a massive survey of agencies throughout this country and Canada on such life-and-death questions and critical issues as how to teach blind persons to shake hands correctly and put the right sock on the right foot.
But surveys at a distance, no matter how thorough and scientific, were not good enough for such profound subject matter. No. What was needed was (to quote the report) the pooled thinking and experience of a fairly large number of persons from diverse backgrounds and programs. In short, what was needed was a conference, or better yet, a series of conferences in big hotels in major cities, complete with workshops, round-tables, lunches, dinners, social hours, and sensitivity sessions. In the words of the report: For three years, 1967, 1968, and 1969, national meetings were held in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans at which key personnel from representative agencies met both to develop techniques and methods and to refine and improve already existing ones.
Here, to illustrate, is a typical technique developed and refined over the years in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, representing the distilled wisdom (if that is the proper expression) of key personnel from diverse backgrounds and specialized programs. Here, under the broad classification Bathing, is the sixteen-step procedure for the Sponge Bath. I quote in full:
Orientation : Discuss how equipment can be most efficiently used when taking a sponge bath.
Equipment : Water, two containers, soap, cloth, towel, bath mat.
Immediately following this highly developed and refined technique the product of five years of national conferences and international surveys is the step-by-step guide to taking a tub bath. I feel that you will want to know that this affair of the tub represents a more advanced and elaborate enterprise in personal management. The greater complexity is evident at the outset. You will recall that the first step in the sponge bath technique was: Disrobe. But the first step in the tub bath exercise is: Disrobe and place clothing where it will not get wet. That is, of course, a substantial increase in subtlety over the sponge bath.
Let us pause here for a moment and contemplate the significance of that instruction:
Disrobe and place clothing where it will not get wet. What does it tell us about the intelligence the presumed intelligence of the blind person under instruction? It tells us that he has not the sense to come in out of the rain; or, more exactly, that he has not the sense to bring his clothes in out of the shower. He is presumed to be either a mental case or a recent immigrant from the jungle, who has never taken a bath before. This latter possibility is given additional credence by instruction number fifteen: As towel gets damp, shift to a dry section. If the trainee has ever bathed before, he will know about that. Only if he is a babbling idiot or Bomba, the Jungle Boy, does he need to be given that extraordinary advice. This presumption of incompetence or newborn innocence on the part of the blind person is, indeed, pervasive of the entire 239-page guidebook.
What else can it mean to say, with regard to the technique for shaking hands: If desired, the hands may be moved in an up and down motion? What else can it mean to say, with regard to the technique for nodding the head: The head is held facing the person to whom you wish to communicate. With the head held in this position, move the chin down towards the floor about two inches then raise it again to the original position. Make this movement twice in quick succession.
One last quotation, before we leave this magisterial work of applied domestic science. Under the general heading of Hand Gestures, we find, the technique for Applauding. It goes like this:
a. With elbows close to the body, raise both hands until the forearms are approximately parallel to the floor.
b. Move each hand towards the other so that they come in contact with one another towards the center of the body.
c. The thumb of both hands is held slightly apart from the other four fingers which are held straight and close together.
d. The fingers of the right hand point slightly toward the ceiling and the fingers of the left hand slightly toward the floor so that when the hands come in contact with each other the palms touch but the fingers do not.
e. The thumb of the right hand rests on the knuckle of the left thumb, the fingers of the right hand being above the fingers of the left hand.
f. The hands are brought back to a position about eight to twelve inches apart then brought together in a quick slapping motion.
g. Polite applause would require slapping the hands together about twice each second. More feeling would be expressed by the rapidity, rather than the volume or loudness of the individual's applause.
2. Hands Inactive: When the hands are not being used for some specific purpose, the most common position is resting the hands in the lap. For example, the back of the left hand might rest on the left or right leg, or in between, with the palm turned up; the right hand with the palm turned down over the left hand and the fingers of each hand slightly curled around each other.
I cannot leave this great book and its truly vital subject without reading to you the Foreword as written by Mr. M. Robert Barnett, executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind: We would like to take this opportunity, he writes, to express our appreciation to the many persons professionally involved in work for the blind across the country whose five years of hard work, creativity, and experience have made A Step- by-Step Guide to Personal Management for Blind Persons a reality. For many years, countless persons have expressed a need for such a manual and we hope that this publication will help to fill that need.
I would like to know who those countless persons are who have expressed a need for such a manual, wouldn't you? Are they blind persons and if so have they been waiting all these years without being able to test the water, clap the hands, lift the bale, tote the barge, nod, shake, shimmy, rattle, and roll? How have they managed their lives all these years without this personal guide from the American Foundation and its cohorts?
But maybe they are not the ones who have expressed a need for such a manual. Perhaps it is not the blind at all but as the Foundation puts it those professionally involved in work for the blind to whom this definitive guidebook is addressed. Not our blind brothers, but our blind brothers' keepers. Presumably they are the ones who are to conduct the orientation sessions which precede each of the various procedures and techniques such as: Discuss types of ties and materials from which ties are made (silk, linen, leather, knit, synthetic, and wool). And: Discuss reasons for brushing hair regularly and the suitability of different types of brushes (scrub brushes, toothbrushes, horse brushes, sagebrushes, brushes with the law, et cetera). Well, admittedly, I added the last part of that sentence myself; but I maintain that it is no different in character, and no more foolish, than the trivial and vacuous material set forth in most of the 239 pages.
Indeed, the very triviality and vacuity of this misguided guidebook may deceive some readers into dismissing it as an unfortunate exception, not characteristic of the main body of work turned out today by serious scholars and professionals in the field of work with the blind. Let me emphasize, therefore, as strongly as I can, the typical and conventional character of this manual. It is not the exception. Its name is legion; its approach, its philosophy, and its superficial contents have been duplicated many times over in the research and demonstration projects of the American Foundation for the Blind, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the college institutes, and the State agencies caught up in the profitable cycle of grants, surveys, tests, and questionnaires.
There is another potential objection to dispose of. That is the supposition that this set of instructions, simple-minded as it is, is not really intended for the ordinary, capable blind person but only for a minority. Moreover, it is true that the book itself makes a verbal nod in this direction, admitting modestly that its techniques are not the only ones possible and that there may be other ways to approach the same goals. But the book also contains an opposite disclaimer, to the effect that the proposed techniques may be too complicated and advanced for some blind persons to - handle without preliminary instruction. However that may be, it is clear that this lengthy five-year report is meant to be circulated generally to agencies and schools, to parents and counselors, to guides and custodians, without reservation or qualification.
The best evidence of how this book is intended to be read is to be found in its title. It does not say that it is a step-by-step guide to personal management for mentally retarded or extremely backward blind persons. It does not say it is a guide for tiny children. It says what it means, and means what it says namely, that it is A Step-by-Step Guide to Personal Management for Blind Persons.
And we can do no less than that ourselves; we must also say what we mean. As long as such insulting drivel about us continues to be issued in the name of science by agencies doing work with the blind as long as federal money continues to be available to support it as long as the climate of general public opinion continues to tolerate it as long as blind persons continue to be found who can be coaxed or hoodwinked into participating in it then, for just so long must we of the National Federation of the Blind raise our voices to resist it, denounce it, and expose it for the pseudoscience and the fraud which it is.
The federal research and demonstration projects, the wording on the talking-book records, the attempt to abolish the Division for the Blind in federal rehabilitation, the payment of subminimum wages in sheltered shops and private industry, and the guidebooks to tell us how to run our daily lives are all straws in the wind, signs of the times. But there are other, more hopeful signs. Though the Library of Congress tells us to replace our records in the envelopes and containers, its book selection policies have been refreshingly updated. More and better books are now available to the blind than ever before, including bestsellers and popular magazines. Likewise, though the Division for the Blind was abolished at the federal level, the move was successfully resisted and reversed. And although teachers still talk of blind people who have to read Braille and can't read print, although subminimum wages are still allowed in sheltered shops and private industry, and although the Foundation's guidebook is still distributed by the hundreds and thousands to slow our progress, we (the organized blind) are abroad in the land in growing numbers aware of the peril and prepared to fight it. It is just that simple: We are prepared to fight, and we will fight. We don't want conflict or trouble with anyone; we don't want to quibble or be aggressive or militant; we don't want strife or dissension; but the time is absolutely at an end when we will passively tolerate second-class citizenship and custodial treatment. We are free men, and we intend to act like it. We are free men, and we intend to stay that way. We are free men, and we intend to defend ourselves. Let those who truly have the best interests of the blind at heart join with us as we move into the new era of equality and integration. Let those who call our conduct negative or destructive make the most of it!
I want to say a few words now to those agencies doing work with the blind who march with us in the cause of freedom, who are glad to see the blind emancipated, and who work with us as human beings not as statistics or case histories or inferior wards. To such agencies I say this: You have nothing to fear from the organized blind movement. Your battles are our battles. Your cause is our cause. Your friends are our friends. Your enemies are our enemies. We will go with you to the legislatures and the federal government to secure funds for your operation. We will urge the public to contribute to your support. We will defend you from attack and work with you in a partnership of progress.
Now, let me say something to those agencies who still look back to yesterday, who condescend to the blind, who custodialize and patronize. To them I say this: Your days are numbered. Once men have tasted freedom, they will not willingly or easily return to bondage. You have told us as blind people and you have told the community at large that we are not capable of managing our own affairs, that you are responsible for our lives and our destinies, that we as blind people must be sheltered and segregated and that even then, we are not capable of earning our own keep. You have told us that we as blind people do not really have anything in common and that we, therefore do not need an organization that there is no such thing as an organized blind movement. But you have not spoken the truth.
If you tell us that you are important and necessary to our lives, we reply: It is true. But tear down every agency for the blind in the nation, destroy every workshop, and burn every professional journal; and we can build them all back if they are needed. But take away the blind, and your journals will go dusty on the shelves. Your counselors will walk the streets for work, and your broomcorn will mold and rot in your sheltered shops. Yes, we need you; but you need us, too. We intend to have a voice in your operation and your decisions since what you do affects our lives. We intend to have representation on your boards, and we intend for you to recognize our organizations and treat us as equals. We are not your wards, and there is no way for you to make us your wards. The only question left to be settled is whether you will accept the new conditions and work with us in peace and partnership or whether we must drag you kicking and screaming into the new era. But enter the new era you will, like it or not.
Next, I want to say something to those blind persons who are aware of our movement and who have had an opportunity to join it but who have not seen fit to do so. In this category I also place those blind persons who are among us but not really of us, who (technically speaking) hold membership in the Federation but are not really part of the movement. The non-Federation and the noncommitted blind are a strange phenomenon. Some of them are successful in business or the professions. I have heard them say, I really don't need the Federation. Of course, if I could do anything to help you people, I would be glad to do it, but I am independent. I have made it on my own. I have heard them say: You really can't expect me to go down to that local meeting of the blind. Nobody goes there except a few old people, who sit around and drink coffee and plan Christmas parties. I am a successful lawyer, or businessman, or judge; and I am busy. Besides, they never get anything done. They just talk and argue. I have heard them say: I don't know that I necessarily have anything in common with other blind people just because I'm blind. Almost all my friends are sighted. My life is busy with bowling, hiking, reading, or my business or profession. I have heard them say: You people in the Federation are too aggressive. You are always in a fight with somebody, or bickering among yourselves. I am an individualist and never was much of a joiner.
I have heard some of them say: I am an employee of a governmental or private agency doing work with the blind, and I think it would destroy my professional relationship with my clients if I were to work actively in the Federation. Anyway, we all have a common concern, the betterment of blind people; so I'll make my contribution by working as a `professional' in the field. Besides, not all blind people agree with you or want to join your organization, and as a `professional' I have to represent and work with all blind people.
I have heard them say all of these things, and to such blind persons I say this: You are patsies! Not only that but you are also deceiving yourselves and failing to act in your own best interest. Further, you are profiting from the labor and sacrifice, and are riding on the backs of the blind who have joined the movement and worked to make it possible for you to have what you have. Some of you feel superior to many of the blind who belong to the Federation (especially those who work in the sheltered shops or draw welfare), but your feelings of superiority are misplaced; for collectively these people have clothed you and fed you. They have made it possible for you to have such equality in society and such opportunity as you now enjoy. Resent what I say if you will, but it is the truth, whether you like it or not and whether you admit it or not. It is true for those of you who work in the agencies as well as for those of you who work in private endeavor.
If you think this movement should be better or that it should be of higher caliber, then join us and help make it that way. If you think the local meetings or the state conventions are dull or uninspiring, then do your part to make them different. Even animals in the jungle have sense enough to hunt in packs. The blind ought to be at least as intelligent.
We need you, and we want you as active participants in the movement; but until you will join, we must do the best we can without you. We must carry you on our backs and do your work for you, and we will do it. The fact that we say you are patsies does not mean that we resent you. Far from it. You are our brothers, and we will continue to look upon you as such, regardless of how irresponsibly you behave. We are trying to get you to think about the implications of your actions. We are trying to get you to join with us to help make things better for other blind people and for yourselves. We are trying to get you to stop being patsies.
Finally, I want to address myself to the active members of the NFB to the blind, and to our sighted brothers who have made our cause their cause. To the active Federationists I say this: We are not helpless, and we are not children. We know our problems, and we know how to solve them. The challenge which faces us is clear, and the means of meeting that challenge are equally clear. If we fail in courage or nerve or dedication, we have only ourselves to blame.
But, of course, we will not fail. The stakes are too high and the need too great to permit it. To paraphrase the Biblical statement: Upon the rock of Federationism we have built our movement, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! Since 1969 we have talked a great deal about joining each other on the barricades. If there was ever a time, that time is now. What we in the Federation do during the next decade may well determine the fate of the blind for a hundred years to come. To win through to success will require all that we have in the way of purpose, dedication, loyalty, good sense, and guts. Above all, we need front-line soldiers, who are willing to make sacrifices and work for the cause. Therefore, I ask you again today (as I did last year and the year before): Will you join me on the barricades?
1. American Foundation for the Blind, A Step-by-Step Guide to Personal Management for Blind Persons, New York, New York, 1970.
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