When the orange-billed seagull scares from my shadow and flees from my pass, I look up and see the sun laughing a smile on the water.
When mothers and fathers shout and hit their children for discipline, I look up and see the sun lure transient clouds to cover her face.
And when the blind man, dogless, loses his homeward path, I have seen the stranger straighten his solo way while the sun sets.
I have wondered: Is there a land where the birds are unafraid, where the little children are uncried, and the blind people see.
Where the sun won't laugh at the seagulls and hide from the children and leave when the blind man is lonely.
That poem which appears on the wall of a California coffee house portrays to a remarkable degree (even if only in microcosm) both the best and the worst traits of humanity: compassion, bigotry, sensitivity, obtuseness, concern, arrogance, perceptive awareness, and a total lack of understanding. Certainly with respect to blindness it exemplifies every misconception of the darkest Middle Ages. When the blind man (dogless or otherwise) is lonelier than others when he has it so bad that the sun itself must flee from his plight, it is not the blindness which should be mourned but the social attitudes and the cultural heritage the root causes of the broken spirit and the blighted soul. Second-class status and deep despair come not from lack of sight but from lack of opportunity, lack of acceptance, lack of equal treatment under the law, and (above all) lack of understanding.
Not only does the coffee house poet speak about blindness but also (doubtless without knowing it) he speaks about our reason for organizing; for if the principal problem we face is the blindness itself (the physical loss of sight and its alleged inherent limitations) there is little purpose in collective action. If, as the poem puts it, the only solution is, a land where the birds are unafraid, where the little children are uncried, and the blind people see, we had better pack it in and leave it to the experts. And even then, there will be no real solution; for, (with present knowledge and foreseeable technology) most of us who are blind today are going to stay that way, and that is that. If this is truly the way of it, let us take such comfort as we can from the doctor, the preacher, and the psychiatrist and let us square our shoulders and take it alone, not seeking the company of others with similar affliction, who (at the very best) can only remind us of what we are not, and what we can never become.
But, of course, this is not the way of it not at all. Everything in us rejects it. All of our experience denies it. We know that with training and opportunity we can compete on terms of absolute equality with the sighted, and we also know that the sighted (with education and correct information) can come to accept us for what we are ordinary human beings, neither especially blessed nor especially cursed able to make our own way and pay our own tab.
This is why the National Federation of the Blind came into being. In 1940 a small band of blind people from seven states met at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to begin the movement. At first it was mostly faith and dreams, but that was over a generation ago. Today (with more than 50,000 members) we are a nationwide crusade with local chapters in every state and the District of Columbia. At an accelerating pace we have become aware of our needs, our potential, and our identity. An increasing number of the sighted have also become aware and now march with us; but the mass of the public, a majority of the media, and most of the social service agencies still think in pre-Federation terms.
Deep down (at the gut level) they regard us as inferior, incompetent, unable to lead an everyday life of joy and sorrow, and necessarily less fortunate than they. In the past we have tended to see ourselves as others have seen us. We have accepted the public view of our limitations and, thus, have done much to make those limitations a reality. But no more! That day is at an end.
Our problem is so different from what most people imagine, that it is hard for them even to comprehend its existence. It is not the blindness, nor is it that we have lacked sympathy or goodwill or widespread charity and kindness. We have had plenty of that too much, in fact.
Rather, it is that we have not (in present day parlance) been perceived as a minority. Yet, that is exactly what we are a minority, with all that the term implies.
Do I exaggerate? In the summer of 1972 the National Federation of the Blind held its convention in Chicago. A local television station sent a black reporter to do coverage. She went directly to the exhibit room and used most of her film on various mechanical aids and gadgets. To round out her story, she came to me and asked that I comment on the value and benefit of it all.
I responded obliquely, asking her how she would feel if she were at a national meeting of the NAACP or the Urban League and a reporter came and said he was there to film the shoe shining and the watermelon eating contest. She said she wouldn't like it. Well, I said, suppose the reporter took another tack. Suppose he wanted to spend all of his time and film on an exhibit of gadgets and devices incidentally on display as a sidelight of the meeting, ignoring the real problems which brought the group together in the first place. She said she wouldn't like that either. In fact, she said, it would be worse since the question about the shoe shining and the watermelons could be easily discredited, while the other approach was just as bad but far less apparent and, therefore, probably more restrictive.
I then told her about a reporter who came to one of our meetings and said, I'd like to get pictures of blind persons bowling and of some of the members with their dogs. I tried to explain to him that such a story would be a distortion that we were there to discuss refusal by employers to let us work, refusal by airlines to let us ride, refusal by hotels to let us stay, refusal by society to let us in, and refusal by social service agencies to let us out. He said he was glad I had told him and that it had been very helpful and enlightening. Then he added, Now, could I see the dogs and the bowlers? I am in quite a rush.
As I told this story, the black reporter was obviously uncomfortable. She seemed truly to understand, but when I asked her if she still intended to feature the exhibits and the gadgets, she stuck to her guns. In the first place, she said, I've already used all of my film. In the second place my editor told me to do it, so that's the way it has to be. The television coverage appeared on schedule usual image, usual distortion. There is nothing wrong with bowling or dogs or canes or exhibits, but it was a bad scene.
A year later (in June of 1973) the blind were again in Chicago this time for a different reason. The National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC) was meeting, and the blind were demonstrating and picketing. Formed in the mid-1960s by the American Foundation for the Blind, NAC symbolized (as it still does) everything odious and repulsive in our long and painful tradition custodialism by governmental and private social service agencies, ward status, vested interest, intimidation, exclusion, and second-class citizenship. Our attempts to gain representation on NAC's Board were answered by double-talk and tokenism, by Uncle Toms representing nobody but themselves and their masters, and by threats and reprisals. Finally, we had had enough.
So when (without warning and in violation of its own bylaws and policies) NAC tried to hide from us by changing its meeting from Cleveland, Ohio, to an out-of-the-way motel in Chicago (a motel in the midst of construction and remodeling), we came to confront them. And not just a few of us, but the blind of the nation. It was short notice and difficult doing, but we came hundreds of us, from all over the country: California, New England, the deep South, and the Midwest.
It was a day of dramatic importance. It was the first time in history that the blind as a people (not just a local group or a given segment but the blind as a people) had mobilized to take to the streets for collective action. There were state delegations, placards and signs, marches in downtown Chicago, and a rally at Civic Center Plaza. Was it newsworthy? By every test known to journalism, the answer would have to be yes.
Yet, the Chicago Tribune for Thursday, June 21, 1973, carried not a single line about the demonstrations. It was not that the Tribune forgot us. Far from it. There was not just one, but two stories about the blind. And what were these stories that were of such importance as to be more newsworthy than the first national demonstration by the blind in history? One was headlined Busy blind man finds time to help children. The other was captioned Blind, he directs music in city school.
What a commentary! It was all there. The blind are especially talented in music. They are also burdened and deprived. Therefore, when one of them (instead of just doing the normal thing and receiving) turns it around and gives to others (particularly, children), it has human interest and news value. What would have happened if Martin Luther King had been leading the first black demonstrations in Chicago and the papers had ignored it printing, instead, Busy black man finds time to help children and Black, he directs music in city school ? I think you know what would have happened, and so do I. There would have been a furor of massive proportions. Yet, the incidents I have related passed without notice or ripple, almost as a matter of routine.
What I have said must be seen in perspective. The Tribune writers and the other members of the Chicago press were not trying to put us down or conspire against us. They were calling it as they saw it, writing what tradition had taught them to write. Like any other cross section of society, they doubtless were (and are) people of integrity and goodwill. It was not a matter of morals or motives, but of comprehension. It was all tied up with their notions about blindness. Pathos, compensatory talents, musical ability, inspiration, bravery against odds, world of darkness, heartrending tragedy these they (and even their editors) could understand: run-of-the-mill, good human interest, no sweat. But the blind as a minority? Discrimination? Marches? Confrontation with the social service agencies, the very people who were trying to help the blind? Ridiculous! The reporters couldn't understand it, and (at least, at the emotional level) they didn't believe it. So how could they write it? And even if they did, how could their editors approve it, or the public buy it? Forget it. Don't think about it. Let it alone.
Of course, the attitudes of the press are representative of the broader society, and the situation is certainly not unique. It is exactly the way the blacks were treated 50 years ago. They were lumped together and seen as a single caricature good natured, irresponsible, rhythmic, shiftless, and a mite dishonest, second-class all the way. A black person was never shown in a straight role on the stage or in the movies but only as a foot-shuffling, jolly simpleton. It was Amos and Andy and Uncle Remus and Aunt Jemima; and not only the blacks but all of us will bear the scars for generations to come because of the failure to understand, the lack of concern to care, and the absence of the courage to act. Fifty years ago it was the blacks. Today it is the blind. But we are organized, and we are on the move. We want no strife or confrontation, but we will do what we have to do. We are simply no longer willing to be second-class citizens. They tell us that there is no discrimination that the blind are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
Lest you think I am picking on Chicago, let me say that New York was about the same. In July of 1973 (only a month after the NAC demonstration in Chicago) the largest group of blind people ever to assemble anywhere in the world up to that time met in New York. For almost a week we discussed our hopes and our problems planned and dreamed. Some 2,000 of us marched on NAC headquarters. There was a considerable amount of local radio and television coverage, and a little in the papers. Nationally there was hardly a ripple. I can only explain it as before.
It was not conspiracy or deliberate put-down. In some ways it was worse, for an individual can be made ashamed of prejudice and repression but rarely of charity and kindness. They didn't understand it; they didn't believe it; and (above all) they didn't know how to write it. It didn't fit the image and the preconception.
Sometime back a local student chapter of the National Federation of the Blind undertook to analyze advertisements mentioning blindness. An ad to help people stop smoking came to their attention and resulted in the following correspondence:
Division of Purex Corporation Limited
At our April meeting, we read part of an advertisement from your University Plan to Help People Stop Smoking . The reading states in part: Try smoking with your eyes closed and see how much of smoking is visual. Blind people rarely smoke, not only because of fire danger, but because they are not influenced by these visual aspects of smoking. Since blind people do smoke as much and as often as their sighted friends, and since blind and sighted alike have little conscious concern for the fire hazard involved, we found your advertisement of BANTRON both inaccurate and annoying.
We hope that you will reread your information concerning BANTRON, and see the misconceptions about blindness in it so they may be corrected.
Thank you very much.
A courteous letter not unreasonable or belligerent or full of recrimination. Back came the reply, loud and clear saying, perhaps, more than its author intended or realized:
Thank you for your letter of April 29. Your comments about the sweeping generalizations of blind people not smoking are well-taken, and did indeed cause me to study the package directions for Bantron. Although I have yet to know a blind person who did smoke, I will concede the point on the basis that (a) you are more expert on the subject than anyone here, and (b) any such generalization such as blind people fearing fire, left-handed people being awkward, black people being shiftless, Italians gangsters, Jews cunning, Germans warlike, or Iowans as corngrowers is by nature indefensible and inaccurate.
Unfortunately, Bantron is not a high-volume product and it may be some time before package directions are next redesigned, and some time after that before the new directions achieve distribution. In fact, it may be years before your suggestions bear tangible fruit. But they have been considered and will be acted upon when the time finally arrives.
A casual (one might almost say a cavalier) response. A rather glib admission that the statements about blindness in the ad were probably false and that nobody around the office had any real information on the subject or, for that matter, cared to have any, one way or another. No recognition that lives might have been damaged or opportunities lost. Only the godlike statement that it may be years before your suggestions bear tangible fruit. But they have been considered and will be acted upon when the time finally arrives. What insensitivity! What contempt! What arrogance!
What irrefutable proof of the absolute necessity for the National Federation of the Blind! Yet, they tell us that there is no discrimination that we are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
Not only must we deal with the ad writers and the working press but also with Mr. Magoo lovable Mr. Magoo. Because he is almost blind he bumbles and blunders through a series of bloopers walking into telephone poles and apologizing to them because he thinks they are people, patting the tops of fire plugs and speaking to them as children, and walking up half-finished sky-scrapers to the brink of disaster and ruin. It's funny because he can't see and makes such stupid goof-ups. Never mind that blindness isn't like that and that no blind person in the world is so incompetent or stupid as to hit a telephone pole and believe it's a human or think the top of a fire plug feels like the head of a child or wander up the girders of an open building. It fits the stereotype, so it's hilariously comical.
But what does it do to blind people to our public image and our private lives? A few weeks back I received a call from a blind woman in Indianapolis. She said, The other day I was at the home of a friend, who is also blind, and her four-year-old son was watching Mr. Magoo on television. He turned to his mother in hurt and bewilderment and said, `Mother, why are they making fun of you?' My caller went on to tell me that later that same week she was walking down the street when a small child spit on her and said, You're old Mr. Magoo. She was so shaken by the two incidents coming together that she called to ask what the Federation could do about it.
Of course, this negative behavior is not surprising from small children, or even from the public at large; but surely we have the right to expect better from the social service agencies, the very people who are supposedly knowledgeable and established to help us. Yet, an outfit in Seattle calling itself Community Services for the Blind (ultra respectable and approved by the United Way) decided this spring to make Mr. Magoo the principal focus of its pubic relations and funding. The leaders of our Washington affiliate protested, but to no avail. A blind man on the Community Services board (Uncle Toms are, indeed, pathetic; and we have our full quota) thought it was funny, and even constructive. But the board's sighted president put it all in perspective:
The advertising message [he said in a letter to one of our members] is especially directed at people who are responsible for the blind not the blind themselves. We don't feel the blind person will tend to identify himself with Mr. Magoo, necessarily; in fact, many may not even know who he is. If there is any kind of a negative aspect in the fact that Mr. Magoo has poor eyesight, it is all the more effective, just as a crippled child on a muscular dystrophy poster is more effective than a normal child. [Emphasis added.]
What a damning self-indictment! What an ironic commentary on the end of an era and the death of a system. Yet, they tell us that there is no discrimination that the blind are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
To round out the picture of the public mind, consider the following recent examples: A man wrote to me a few months ago saying that he would like to buy a cat or dog for every blind person in Colorado Springs. I saw a young blind boy, he said, with a white cane and a puppy dog. He seemed so happy. If you think it would help I would be glad to see every blind person in Colorado Springs has a pet. Cat or dog.
A dental hygiene student wrote to me from Fresno, California: I am working on a research paper, she said, concerning the special needs of visually handicapped or blind people with regard to dental care. I hope to determine: (1) how the dental procedure needs to be altered to accommodate them, and (2) special dental problems of these patients.
Recently a blind woman was in the hospital for gall bladder surgery. A tape on the foot of her bed was inscribed in large letters: Patient is blind but self-sufficient. It's all tied up in the word but . Am I quibbling? Not really. Is it subtle? Not very.
An expert on penology and social reform wrote to me to say that, in his opinion, the blind (regardless of their misdeeds) should not be put in the penitentiary. If the seriousness of their offense merits incarceration, he said, they should be dealt with in a special manner. In other words, even in the big house we should be second-class and segregated.
The author of a book on the teaching of medical transcribing wanted her work put into Braille. I wrote you, she said, because I have watched the teaching of this subject to the blind over a period of years and it is unnecessarily painful and lengthy. They do make first-rate transcribers and always seem so pathetically grateful for a chance to learn.
A religious organization circulates a card called Courtesies of Gentleness for the Sighted in Contacts with the Blind. It says:
A handshake to a blind person is like a smile to a sighted person. So shake hands on greeting and on leaving your blind acquaintance. Never fill to the brim a cup given to a blind person; it is too hard to keep on an even keel. Give him a refill instead. Don't express sympathy for a blind person in front of him. In motoring, guard against slamming the car door on the blind person's hands. Also see that he doesn't extend his arm or hand outside the car. Never force an approaching blind person to give you the right-of-way, for every time he has to deviate from his course, he loses his bearings.
In other words the blind can't plan or do for themselves. Do it for them, and think for them, too. And don't express pity for them at least, not to their faces. Gentle and courteous all of the way.
Incidentally, the Federationist who sent me this card said: I find it demeaning and offensive.
A doctor at the Mayo Clinic wrote: I am sorry to say she is blind and cannot be helped. Anything you can do to make her life easier would he greatly appreciated.
From Pennsylvania comes this:
Today I was advised by the Department of Labor Inspections Division that under the new life safety measures, which will emanate from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, it will not be possible to allow a blind person to live on the second floor of a boarding house having more than three guests unless the building totally conforms with the federal specifications and - standards.
Southern College, located in Orlando, Florida, announces: Tuition for all students is basically $417 per quarter. There is an additional quarterly fee of $125 for visually-impaired students.
In 1972, James Reston, the well-known syndicated columnist, commented on Senator Eagleton's forced withdrawal from the Democratic vice-presidential nomination: This is not primarily Eagleton's fault, Reston said, but the system's. That system is very compassionate to human beings whose age and health interfere with the efficient execution of their work. It tolerates Supreme Court justices who are in serious ill health or who are even almost blind. 1
The key word (as I am sure I don't have to tell you) is even. That even is at the center of our problem as blind people. It takes for granted (as an obvious commonplace, needing no argument) that the blind are unable to perform competently as Supreme Court justices; in fact, that it is ridiculous even to assume that they might; and that any system which tolerates such manifest irrationality can only be explained on the basis of compassion.
Compassion, indeed! The compassion is often misplaced. Recently, for instance, we held a luncheon for employers so that they could get acquainted with blind job applicants, and the East Moline, Illinois, Metal Products Company saw no reason to come.
Because of the type of business we are in, their letter said, metal stampings and weldments involving punch presses, shears, brakes, and welders, we feel that we have nothing to offer the blind inasmuch as we have nothing in a counting or packaging type of work.
The irony is that one of the people attending the luncheon (totally blind from childhood) works every day shearing steel and operating presses. He has done it for 15 years and is considered the best in the plant.
In Michigan in 1970 Tom Munn (a blind man) took a State Civil Service examination for the position of mechanic. He passed with a score of 96, and his name was placed on the register. He was not offered employment; others (with lower scores) were hired. In 1972 the Civil Service Commission created a separate list for the handicapped. Munn's name was transferred from the open register to the separate list, and his score was reduced from 96 to 70 which (regardless of performance) was the grade to be given to all so-called successful future blind applicants. Munn requested that his performance be evaluated. The request was refused. In 1974 (acting on his own) he secured a work trial evaluation with the Motor Transport Division of the Department of Management and Budget. He did the job without difficulty. The results were ignored. In 1975 (his patience finally exhausted) he contemplated a lawsuit. Officials of the state agency for the blind (the very people charged by law with the duty to help him) allegedly tried to coerce him into silence. Tom Munn and the National Federation of the Blind have now brought action in the federal courts against both the state agency and the Civil Service Commission. Yet, they call it compassion and say we are incompetent. They tell us that there is no discrimination that the blind are not a minority. But we know who we are, and we will never go back.
Surely all of this is sufficient, but it is only illustrative. Southern Illinois University plans to make a study of the dating and mating selection patterns of the blind; the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School plans a course in sex education and wants specialized materials and techniques; and the National Enquirer puts it all together in a November 11, 1973, article entitled Finds Blindness Upsets Sexual Functioning.
The sex drives of the blind, [the article says] are upset by their inability to see light, states a West German researcher. Dr. H. J. von Schumann, of Dusseldorfs, said he found that irregular menstrual cycles in blind women and loss of sexual ability in blind men seem related to their inability to see light. The hormone-producing system controlled by the pituitary gland appears to need stimulation by light if sex hormones it produces are to be kept at adequate levels.
Hardened as I am to ignorance and superstition, I still find it difficult to know exactly what to do with that one. I confess that I was reluctant even to bring it to you at all for fear some of the sighted (lacking firsthand experience) might be tempted to believe it. The demands of modesty and the wish to be seemly would seem to rule out any attempted refutation by personal laboratory performance, and the customs and laws of the day make it inadvisable to stage mass exhibitions to place the matter in perspective. So I guess the best I can do is this: Pick any random hundred of us, and put them alongside any random hundred of them; and I believe we will acquit ourselves with credit and pleasure probably with volunteers to spare. Ask the sighted with the background to know.
What a dreary picture! We are dogless and lonely; we can't enjoy smoking; we are Mr. Magoo; we need pets to keep us company; we have different dental needs; we must be segregated, even in the penitentiary; we should be pitied, but not to our faces; we cannot live on the second floor of a boarding house; our college tuition is higher; we cannot shear steel or operate presses; we cannot compete in the Civil Service but must be content with a separate list and a score of 70; and, finally, we are even inadequate for the joys of sex. It would seem that all that is left is to pack it in; and even that is taken care of in an article on the right to death by choice appearing in the January, 1974, Atlantic : I do not wish, the author says, to survive any accident or disease resulting in vision too impaired to see or read. A world without beauty seen is no world for me. A life without freedom and movement is no life for me. If age and illness deny me these, I choose death. 2
So where does all of this leave us? In the first place it leaves us with the need for perspective; for as the saying goes, we have never had it so good. Despite the exclusions and the denials, we are better off now than we have ever been. It is not that conditions are worse today than they were ten or twenty years ago, but only that we are more aware of them. In the past we wouldn't have known of their existence, and even if we had, we wouldn't have been able to do anything about it.
Today we are organized, and actively in the field. The sound in the land is the march of the blind to freedom. The song is a song of gladness. Yes, there are discriminations and misconceptions; but there are also joy and promise. The old is dying, and the new is at hand.
It is true that not all sighted people have goodwill toward us, but most do. As we begin to move toward first-class citizenship (especially, as we insist upon our rights), we will inevitably provoke hostility; but we will also inspire understanding and respect.
If we simply go forth with chips on our shoulders and bitterness in our hearts, we will lose. We must have greater flexibility and more positive belief in ourselves than that. There is a time to fight and a time to refrain from fighting; a time to persuade; a time to take legal action; a time to make speeches; a time to educate; a time to be humble; a time to examine ourselves to root out arrogance, self-deception, and phony excuses for failure; a time to comfort our fellow blind; and a time to stand unflinchingly and uncompromisingly with the fury of hell against impossible odds. Above all, we must understand ourselves and have compassion in our hearts, for the sighted as well as for our fellow blind and, yes, even for ourselves. We must have perspective and patience and the long view; and we must have the ability and the willingness to make sacrifice, and the courage to refuse to wait.
We must destroy a system which has kept us in bondage, but we must not have hatred in our souls for that system or that bondage for the bitterness will destroy, not our enemies but us. We must recognize that the system was an indispensable element in making us what we are, and, therefore, that its chains (properly seen) are part of our emerging freedom not to be hated or despised but to be put aside as outdated and no longer to be borne.
As we look ahead, the world holds more hope than gloom for us and, best of all, the future is in our own hands. For the first time in history we can be our own masters and do with our lives what we will; and the sighted (as they learn who we are and what we are) can and will work with us as equals and partners. In other words we are capable of full membership in society, and the sighted are capable of accepting us as such and, for the most part, they want to.
We want no Uncle Toms no sellouts, no apologists, no rationalizers; but we also want no militant hellraisers or unbudging radicals. One will hurt our cause as much as the other. We must win true equality in society, but we must not dehumanize ourselves in the process; and we must not forget the graces and amenities, the compassions and courtesies which comprise civilization itself and distinguish people from animals and life from existence.
Let people call us what they will and say what they please about our motives and our movement. There is only one way for the blind to achieve first-class citizenship and true equality. It must be done through collective action and concerted effort; and that means the National Federation of the Blind. There is no other way, and those who say otherwise are either uninformed or unwilling to face the facts. We are the strongest force in the affairs of the blind today, and we are only at the threshold. We must operate from a base of power yes; but we must also recognize the responsibilities of power and the fact that we must build a world that is worth living in when the war is over and, for that matter, while we are fighting it. In short, we must use both love and a club, and we must have sense enough to know when to do which long on compassion, short on hatred; and, above all, not using our philosophy as a cop out for cowardice or inaction or rationalization. We know who we are and what we must do and we will never go back. The public is not against us. Our determination proclaims it; our gains confirm it; our humanity demands it. My brothers and my sisters, the future is ours. Come! Join me on the barricades, and we will make it come true.
[ General Information
| A Philosophy Of Blindness
| Alternative Techniques ]
[ Civil Rights | Resources | Education | Rehabilitation | Employment ]
[ Products For The Blind | The Blind Who Lead The Blind ]
[ Organizations OF and FOR The Blind | Home Page ]
[ Site Text Map | Our Awards | Support Blind Net ]
Send your questions or comments .
Copyright © 1995, 2010, all rights reserved.
This web site is hosted
at Web Hosting Pad