Picture of Dr. Marc Maurer

Language And The Future Of The Blind

by Dr. Marc Maurer

Copyright © 1989
National Federation of the Blind

          One of the most powerful instruments for determining the prospects of an individual, the future of a social movement, or the development of a culture is language the expression in writing or speech of human thought. However, there is at least one theory which maintains that language possesses its power because the relationship between thought and speech is very often misunderstood. According to this thesis these two (thought and speech) are not separate entities at all. They are one. Thoughts cannot occur without being verbalized (either physically or in the mind), and words cannot be spoken or imagined without expressing thought. The words and the thought are the same.

          The historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle once noted that language is not the garment of thought but the body of it. Modern anthropologists have advanced the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which declares that all of human culture is fabricated by language. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said that man was given speech, and speech created thought. Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed that language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests. Socrates asserted that language is the guiding spirit of all human endeavor. Such as thy words are, he said, such will thine affections be; and such as thine affections will be thy deeds; and such as thy deeds will be thy life. If the language is modified, the thought is also altered. If the thought is shifted, the deed cannot remain the same. Therefore, to change a pattern of behavior, we must change the habit of speech.

          If this theory is true, patterns of speech are at least as important to the future of the blind as the buildings possessed by the agencies, or the money appropriated for rehabilitation, or the gadgetry designed to lighten the burden of life for us. The policy statements, the laws, the public pronouncements in print and on television, the scholarly papers of those conducting so-called research into the nature of blindness, the thought processes of employers and the public-at-large (sometimes expressed in words but more often simply internalized without being uttered), and our own words and thoughts these will determine the future for the blind. If the language is positive, our prospects will be correspondingly bright. If the words used to describe the condition of the blind are dismal, we will find that our chances for equality are equally bleak. However, this is not a matter to be left to fate. For thousands of years false and downbeat words have been forced upon the blind words like wretched , purposeless , unfortunate . But we are no longer willing to abide such labels. We are not inarticulate. We will write our own story and use our own words. Our thoughts will be the dreams of tomorrow, and the language will say: success, independence, freedom!

          In 1940, as the National Federation of the Blind was brought into being, there was almost nothing in the language to combat the erroneous but generally accepted view that blindness meant ignorance and inability. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first President of the National Federation of the Blind, and the handful who worked with him to pioneer our movement had to commence the process of altering the patterns of thought by correcting the language. He and those others had to begin to create a literature of independence and freedom for the blind. In the 1950s Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, one of the most powerful writers ever to consider the subject of blindness, joined Dr. tenBroek in building a climate of understanding that would permit the blind to achieve equality. A new language began to appear with new adjectives for the blind. The words employed by Dr. tenBroek and Dr. Jernigan were upbeat, shot-through with vitality, and suffused with confidence. This new method of expression carried with it an innovative pattern of thought, and the altered mental process brought action. No longer were the old words permitted to stand alone. No longer were the limitations of those words accepted without challenge. We came to understand that it is with the blind as it has been with other minorities: the liberation of lives begins with the liberation of language.

          Today, at our forty-ninth convention, blindness does not mean what it did when the Federation was established. The word itself has changed because the thoughts associated with it have changed. In 1940 the dictionary definition was the only readily available explanation of blindness, and the dictionary was entirely negative. In 1989 there is a substantial body of literature which indicates that the dictionary is wrong. Blindness does not mean helplessness, lack of purpose, inferiority, or absence of intelligence. The dictionary definition will not stand close examination, and we are not willing to let it serve as the definitive statement of our hopes and aspirations. We are the blind, with our own story and our own words and we intend to speak for ourselves.

          Recently an advertisement appeared from the Carrollton Corporation, a manufacturer of mobile homes. Apparently the Carrollton Corporation was facing fierce competition from other mobile home builders, who were selling their products at a lower price. Consequently, the Carrollton Corporation wanted to show that its higher priced units were superior. In an attempt to convey this impression, the company depicted the blind as sloppy and incompetent. Its advertisement said in part: Some manufacturers put out low-end products. But they are either as ugly as three miles of bad road, or they have so many defects crumpled metal, dangling moldings, damaged carpet that they look like they were built at some school for the blind. What a description! There is the ugliness of three miles of bad road, or crumpled metal, dangling moldings, and damaged carpet. The slipshod work is all attributed to the incompetence of the blind. It is not a portrayal calculated to inspire confidence or likely to assist blind people to find employment. However, the work that we in the Federation are doing is paying dividends. When it was called to the attention of company executives that the advertisement was negative and harmful, they apologized for its publication and withdrew it. The manufacturer changed its public representation because of the protest of the organized blind movement.

          It is not hard to imagine why a manufacturing company might misunderstand the nature of blindness. Such companies do not have routine association with us. Although their misrepresentation of the abilities of blind people must be brought forcibly to their attention, it is reasonable to suppose that the ignorance they sometimes display stems from lack of information. The same cannot be said of agencies for the blind. They hold themselves out as knowledgeable about blindness and thoroughly familiar with every aspect of our lives and behavior. It is, therefore, ironic that some of the most false and damaging literature written about blindness comes directly from these agencies.

          The Delaware Center for Vision Rehabilitation distributes a brochure called Images . This flier leaves no doubt about the opinion of the Delaware Center regarding the ability of the blind. The grammatical construction is that of the agency. Here is a portion of the language used: The eyes and vision are priceless parts of every person, shaping their attitudes, experiences, expectations, and physical and mental capabilities. As I read this statement, I wondered if they could really believe it. Do our attitudes differ from those of the sighted? Do our physical and mental powers change with the loss of sight? If our mental capabilities are altered, do they get better or worse? The brochure from Delaware does not say, but the context leaves no doubt as to what they think.

          On the other hand, an article appearing in the Columbus [Ohio] Register about two years ago answers this question differently. The headline says: Nearsighted found to have higher IQs. The article goes on to say: While the nearsighted may need glasses, their lack of perfect vision could be a sign of high intelligence, say researchers who studied myopic Israeli teen-agers. Doctors tested 157,748 Israeli military recruits, ages 17 to 19, and discovered a link between nearsightedness and high IQs. `There can be no doubt about the reality of the correlation between myopia and intellectual performance,' wrote Drs. Mordechai Rosner and Michael Belkin. Still, they wrote, the `cause and effect relationship is not clear.'

          This is what the article says and of course, it does not go on to claim that the more restricted your vision becomes, the more intelligent you get until at total blindness you arrive at total genius. But it does suggest that there may be a correlation. Did the learned doctors construct a faulty test? Did they make a mistake in the way they administered it? Or did they simply fall victim to the ancient stereotype that the blind are peculiar and possessed of mysterious powers? Who knows and in a very real sense who cares? We who are blind are neither specially blessed nor specially cursed, and one misconception is as bad as the other. Regardless of that and the claims of the doctors, there has not been, so far as I know, a rush of employers to hire the blind because of our superior intelligence. Even if we were smarter than the sighted (and I don't believe for a minute that we are), the public attitudes about blindness would likely remain just about where they area lot of superstition, growing enlightenment, and a long pull ahead.

          A reporter from the Chicago Tribune recently said categorically and unequivocally that: A sighted person with the IQ of a genius would be hard-pressed to make tuna salad while blindfolded. In other words, even if those who are blind have greater intelligence, it doesn't really matter. Sight is essential. Those who lack it cannot even get around their kitchens to make tuna salad.

          The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently issued a tech brief on its newly developed Public-Facilities Locator for the Blind. This is a device intended to help the blind become more independent in daily travel. The document describing the new aid is suitably couched in technical terms. It says in part: A proposed coded infrared transmit/receive scheme would enable a blind person in a building to detect and locate specific `landmarks', such as elevators, water fountains, restrooms, and emergency exits. A synthesized voice would announce a landmark. Each landmark (the document continues) has a code. A pulse code modulation (PCM) scheme transmits each one, the code being the binary grey code (a one chip encode/one chip decode). The transmitter gives out a burst of two identifications; for example, `men's room men's room,' and repeats it continuously at an even cadence. That is what the tech brief says, and there is more of this high-flown technological jargon in the NASA report. Computer signals have been devised for the stairwell, the lady's bathroom, the escalator, and the telephone. When we tell these space technologists that their legerdemain is not only unnecessary but harmful to the blind, they will probably say that we are super-sensitive and that they are only trying to help. They will not understand that the presence of such gadgetry will encourage both the blind and the sighted to believe that we need complex adaptations of the environment for the simplest acts of our daily lives and that those who work in such modified buildings will be quietly and inevitably indoctrinated to the conclusion that blindness means abnormality and incompetence. Of course, there are dozens of ways in which technology can serve our needs. However, if it is truly to be useful to us, its designers must recognize the fundamental capacity of the blind for full integration into society on the basis of equality. Specialized aids and appliances must enhance independence, not stand as a declaration that the blind are so lacking in intelligence that we cannot even find the bathroom or the telephone. How often we have been told that one of the major problems of blindness is being able to find the bathroom.

          One thing is certain the mickey mouse contraptions and the prejudice against blindness that they represent must go! We will no longer permit the scientists and engineers to imply that we are somehow peculiar and strange. If necessary we will build the equipment we need for ourselves. We the blind are abroad in the land, and we will not remain silent while the technocrats combine antiquated fantasy and modern science to form a spurious portrait of the helpless blind. We have found our voice, and we know how to use it. They cannot tell us how it is for the blind. For we (as was said on another occasion) have been to the mountaintop, and we know how it is for the blind. The technologists can work with us if they will. But we know what we want and how to get it. And we intend to speak for ourselves.

          One of the oldest and tiredest jokes about the blind is that the Braille system works better on a date. Now, there is a company that has decided to try to capitalize on that sick so-called sense of humor. An outfit calling itself Valley Enterprises prints T-shirts with easily feelable raised dots. The name they give to this printing is so predictable as to be both inevitable and totally disgusting they call it Body Braille. There are six preprinted messages available on the back of their T-shirts or sweat shirts. They will also print them on the front, if you like. Blind people across the country have heard these messages over and over again. Here are the six: Out of Sight, Keep in Touch, Touch of Class, Hands on Experience, Feeling Good, and Handle with Care. According to the maker of these shirts, the purpose of the company is not merely to raise money for its owners. Instead, they say: `Body Braille' clothing is a unique means of communicating self-awareness and self-expression for individuals who are visually impaired, a means to raise the consciousness of the sighted public, and an avenue for all people to demonstrate their support of the visually impaired.

          To which I reply: Yuk and double yuk. Why is it that this company (and so many other people) feel that they have to offer a socially acceptable justification for poking fun at the blind? Blind people do not make a practice of feeling one another up, and we are unwilling for any other group to assume that we door, for that matter, that it would be all right if we did, or that it is all right for them to do so with us as an excuse. Furthermore, I, for one, am tired of the slightly off-colored humor that is so often claimed to be funny. The blind are like others. We will find the times and the places when intimacy is appropriate. Otherwise, leave it alone, and do not talk or act as if we (like the slaves of a bygone time) are generally available.

          There is a well-known theory which holds that all blind people require psychological counseling and adjustment. This bald proposition has been given sufficient credence by certain agencies for the blind that they have permanent psychologists on staff to minister to the needs of their clients. Blind people seeking assistance from these agencies are not asked whether they want psychological services. It is simply assumed that all who are blind need them. Often those who try to avoid the psychologist are informed that the ministrations of this specialist are part of the package if they want help in learning the skills of blindness (such as Braille and mobility), securing financial aid for college tuition, or gaining assistance in locating a job. If the blind hope to receive any service at all, they may have to endure the testing, the questioning, and the probing into every corner of daily life and personal behavior.

          Perhaps you imagine that this psychological review is of the standard sort. Don't you believe it. Some of the agencies (no doubt employing their years of experience and so-called research tools) have decided that the usual tests are insufficient. After all, the standard psychological examinations are designed for the sighted. The blind are different. They are blind. Therefore, an alternative series of tests (special tests just for the blind) has been designed and is now in use.

          The American Foundation for the Blind has produced a special psychological test called The Anxiety Scale for the Blind. Apparently the putative experts believe that there is a need to measure psychological stress in the blind and that no ordinary analysis will do. Here is a sample of what the test designers say: Although there are a number of general anxiety measures available, counselors and psychologists working with blind clients may question the use with the blind of instruments that have been constructed for the sighted. The purpose of research on the Anxiety Scale for the Blind (ASB) was, they go on to say, to provide a measure of manifest anxiety which could be standardized on populations of blind persons and which later could have wide applicability in the field of work for the blind. There you have it. It is necessary to test the anxieties of blind people, and this is no ordinary task. The anxiety felt by the blind is special. It is certainly not the same as the anxiety felt by the sighted. And these are the people who are charged with providing services to the blind. We have many hundreds of blind people meeting and enjoying themselves at this banquet tonight. Forget your good spirits for a moment, and ask yourself whether you have special anxiety. Do you feel it? Well, I don't either. And what kinds of services do you suppose will likely be offered with this anxiety scale as a background?

          The next revelation of these so-called experts (from the American Foundation for the Blind) is that they intend to test us all. Psychological examinations have traditionally been given in this country to select groups to achieve specific purposes. They have not been given to entire populations for nonspecific reasons. However, the designers of the Anxiety Scale for the Blind tell us that its use is to be much broader. Although the authors developed this test with students attending schools for the blind, they say: Local norms should be established for blind persons in various environmental settings such as the home, the sheltered workshop, and the competitive work situation. But this is not all. They go on to recommend that there be, in their words: a study of the effects of manifest anxiety on the academic achievement of blind students; a study of the effect of anxiety on learning mobility skills; a study of manifest anxiety in relation to social behavior in courtship and other social situations; a study of the effects of anxiety on success in the competitive work environment; and a study of manifest anxiety in leadership potential among blind persons.

          The environment of George Orwell's 1984 has, I am glad to say, not yet been fully imposed upon the general population, and we are not going to have it for the blind either. We don't need special testing beyond that given to others in our education, our jobs, or our social lives. If we have reasonable opportunity and a fair chance to compete for jobs on equal terms with others, we will hold our own as well as the next person. We are not freaks; we are not basket cases; and we are not so fragile that we will break. Our problems are more in the area of civil rights and vocational exclusion than maladjustment and the need for counseling and don't you forget it.

          But back to the testers and the anxiety scale. After informing us that there is virtually no aspect of the daily lives of blind people that should not be subjected to the rigors of this mental measuring stick, the testers list seventy-eight statements. The person being examined is expected either to agree or disagree. Here is a sample from the seventy-eight. As you consider these statements, ask yourself how much confidence is inspired by the language employed.

          Statement number two: I almost always trust the people who guide me.

          That statement assumes that the blind need guidance, that this need causes dependency, and that the lack of freedom of movement results in anxiety. The implication is that the blind person cannot function without the superior knowledge or judgment of somebody else and that a degree of decision-making power and control will necessarily be surrendered. All people require guidance from time to time. This is as true of the blind as it is of the sighted. However, hidden in this statement is the insinuation of an innate helplessness by the blind. If this is what they believe, they are not well acquainted with the energy, the resourcefulness, and the self-reliance of blind people. One is tempted to reply with an answer like this: I do almost always trust the people who guide me, except when the guidance comes from the people who designed this test. But back to the psychological examination. The statements go on. Here are some of the others. Ask yourself what is meant by each and how you might respond.

          Number six: I am uncomfortable when I must eat with sighted persons.

          Number ten: I would say that blindness has completely ruined my life.

          Number fifteen: I refuse to carry a cane because it makes me appear helpless.

          Number nineteen: I would say that in most cases blind people should marry other blind people.

          Number thirty: I don't worry about being blind.

          I interrupt to ask how could one help it when the psychologists are trying to ram it down our throats? But there is more to the test.

          Number thirty-one: I would not date a sighted person.

          Number thirty-seven: I would say that I often feel unwanted when with my blind friends.

          Number thirty-eight: Sighted people rarely make me feel useless.

          Number forty-one: I often find it difficult to express my ideas when in the company of sighted people.

          Number forty-nine: Frequently, when I am with sighted persons I have trouble with my words.

          Number fifty-one: In familiar surroundings, I sometimes have a feeling of being absolutely lost.

          Number fifty-five: I have about the same number or fewer fears than my blind friends.

          Number fifty-six: I have to be cautious in the company of sighted people.

          Number fifty-seven: Because I cannot see, life is a constant state of stress.

          Number sixty: I constantly think and often talk about being able to see well.

          Number sixty-four: I am more irritable when I am with sighted people than when I am with blind people.

          Number sixty-five: I frequently feel uneasy about competing with sighted people.

          Number sixty-eight: I am overly sensitive about my physical condition.

          Number seventy: Frequently, I feel that a familiar room has changed shape.

          Number seventy-three: I do not mind asking sighted people for help.

          Number seventy-four: I often worry about looking ridiculous to sighted people.

          Number seventy-five: Often I am not polite to sighted people.

          There is one statement among the seventy-eight which exemplifies the approach of the whole miserable examination. It reads: I often feel under strain because I must stay alert. Now, I ask you, why is it necessary for the blind to be more alert than others? Are blind people more likely to get into trouble? Are we more accident-prone? Is there something about the blind that makes us miss factual information if we do not concentrate more diligently than others? What could possibly be the need for this extraordinary vigilance? Have the testers really met the blind and worked with us on a daily basis? Can they truly understand our fundamental ability, our wishes, and our aspirations? There must have been some reason for including this novel suggestion. Perhaps the explanation is contained in statement twenty-nine. It says: I would say that blindness is a personal punishment. Did these psychological experts learn their scientific principles from ancient mythology or venerable lore? Blindness, a punishment? From whom does the retribution come? Such a statement, in a supposedly even-handed psychological test, puts one in mind of the old Middle Eastern proverb: When you see a blind man, kick him. Why should you be kinder to him than God has been?

          Dependence, rejection, uncertainty, frustration these are the words associated with the portrayal of the blind in this test. The Anxiety Scale for the Blind is certainly not a document that will engender peace of mind. The set of idiotic statements is well named. It will certainly cause anxiety in the blind, in those, at least, who are gullible, inexperienced, or beaten down enough to take it seriously. And it will also cause anxiety in the rest of us an anxiety to eradicate such misbegotten notions as those advocated by the test.

          The blind are not less secure or more sensitive than others. It is not reasonable to suppose that lack of sight indicates mental imbalance. The experience of tens of thousands of us shows that it is not so. This so-called scientific test is not really based on evidence at all. It is a sham dressed up in the jargon of science, and its image is harmful to the blind. Its symbolism is the archaic language of deprivation and fear. We reject this prejudicial, ridiculous document because it does not represent blindness as it is. We will not permit it to stultify our hopes and curtail our opportunities. Instead, we will build our own images and use our own words. The language will be ours, and we will say it like it is. For the blind there will be success, independence, freedom!

          So often those who consider the subject of blindness focus on the dining table. Everyone must eat, and the blind are no exception. One company, Liblan, Incorporated, of Wheeling, Illinois, has designed and patented a special dish and spoon for the blind. In a letter to me Liblan's president says that his company has developed a special Plastic food container and utensil construction designed for manipulation by the sense of touch only. I was asked to send letters of endorsement to major manufacturers so that they would produce this special bowl and spoon for the blind. I leave it to you to determine whether I did.

          A report in the Tulsa (Oklahoma) World states that a nonprofit organization called New View, Incorporated, has established a program to encourage awareness of blindness by inviting public officials to breakfast and insisting that they eat blindfolded. The results are predictable. All the misconceptions of blindness are enhanced and reinforced by the brief experience. Why are supposedly knowledgeable people willing to believe that blindness can be understood within half an hour? The alternative techniques required for a blind person to function (not to mention the philosophical implications of blindness) are far more complex than the skills required for perhaps a hundred other tasks. Nevertheless, it is assumed that blindfolding a group of public officials for an hour or less will teach them about blindness. These same public officials know that it takes longer than that to learn how to drive a car or shoe a horse. Still, they are urged to think that they know all about blindness with absolutely no training. Here is the way it appeared in the Tulsa World:

          If you want a lifetime appreciation of sight, try life without it for half an hour.

          A dinner fork becomes a spear when you can't see it coming toward your face. Rich foods make you thirsty, but you don't drink. A glass is a water tower. A reach through the darkness could be a spill and flood everyone's meal.

          Coffee is drunk with hesitation. A sip can become a gulp. A gulp can become a scald.

          You make a lot of noise with eating utensils when you're blind. You stick your fork heavily onto empty china, and with your increased sense of hearing, it sounds as if you're beating drums to everyone's annoyance.

          You don't talk as much during a meal when you're blind. The loss of one sense amplifies the others.

          You hear more, and restaurant background music becomes blaring. You think you're shouting just to speak above it.

          You eat less when you can't see. To hunt for food is to push it off your plate, onto the table, onto your lap. Scrambled eggs can burn like a brand.

          One napkin isn't enough when you're newly blind. You wipe food onto the napkin, then you wipe it back onto your face.

          You know you're blind and suspect you're bothersome.

          People who involuntarily lose their sight have a problem with sorrow about what they can't do. People who voluntarily lose it have trouble with guilt about what they can. When you're blind you no longer care that the Russians boycotted the Olympics.

          You can't even cut your food. Yet the real blind people shave and brush their teeth. You finally think more about their braveness and bravura than your own blindness.

          The newspaper reporter tells us that the blind are brave for shaving; that blind people cannot cut their food; that one napkin is not enough for the newly blinded; that blind people eat less, talk less, and make more noise than the sighted; that the loss of sight heightens the other senses; that the blind are full of grief, and the sighted full of guilt. All of this occurred because an agency for the blind wanted to impress (and doubtless get money from) public officials by frightening them into believing that it was dealing with a catastrophic situation. The inevitable result is that the agency will receive deference and (no doubt) more sympathy for its fund-raising efforts. But what will the blind receive? More public misconceptions to overcome; more difficulty in finding jobs; and more problems in having the opportunity to live normal, ordinary, everyday lives.

          If these misstatements, false notions, and devastating descriptions were not so serious, they might be downright funny. However, they have a dramatic impact on the lives of each of us. With this kind of public perception about blindness the job market is closed. The professors at educational institutions may not turn us away, but they will not regard us as serious students. Service in positions of responsibility in government or the private sector will not be available. However, the article in the Tulsa World , with its mistaken notions about blindness, is only one of the public utterances about the blind. There are many others. Our work in the Federation has continued for forty-nine years, and there are measurable changes.

          For a number of years one of the problems facing the blind was that we were banned from jury service because of blindness. Indeed, in some states the laws still specifically restrict us from being selected. However, the work of the Federation is bringing change. In many states the laws now say that the blind cannot be categorically excluded from jury service. One indicator of our progress is shown by a poll conducted recently by radio station WBZ in Boston. Ninety-five percent of those questioned said that blind people should be allowed to serve on juries. One word, one image, one symbol, one thought at a time we are changing what it means to be blind. One word, one image, one symbol, one thought at a time we are achieving independence, self-sufficiency, and equality. The day when the blind can no longer be excluded from jury service is not a dream for the distant future. It is within our reach. First, jury service. Then, other rights the right to employment on terms with others, the right to live peacefully in our homes without unwanted interference from government officials, the right to travel without harassment or intimidation the right to participate fully in all the activities of daily life.

          The psychological tests, the blindfolded public officials, the patented dishes and spoons for the blind all of these have an impact on our personal lives. Shortly after last year's convention I received a letter which describes eloquently in unadorned prose the problems we face. The Federationist who sent it knows disappointment and frustration first-hand. The letter contains an exceptional poignancy, more for what it does not say than for what it does. Here it is:

September 30, 1988

Dear President Maurer:

          Two years ago I decided to move back home for convenience reasons. In the past few months I have been treated worse by my mother than by airline personnel or a stranger on the street. Let me give you a few examples. I was asked to take a pot of coffee from the house to my father's machine shop, which was only about a four minute walk either by the road or through the trail in the woods. Well, by the time mother had the coffee ready, and I was ready to go, she changed her mind and said I might fall down with it and hurt myself. Mr. Maurer, I have never fallen down on my way from the house to the machine shop.

          Another incident: every time food is served at the table, whether it be spaghetti or hamburger meat, it comes to me in a bowl. Not only that, but with a spoon. I asked once, why the spoon? She replied, I thought you could handle it better that way.

          The other night was better than that. I was served soup with several sheets of newspaper under the bowl. I wanted to say something about this, but we would both just get mad and have a fight. I threw a spoon at her one time. And then, of course, I felt embarrassed and humiliated afterward.

          I am tired of my mother's negative remarks toward me as to what I can and can't do as a blind person. It seems like, after 37 years, she ought to know damn well what I can and cannot do. Just what can I do to change her attitude about blindness?

          Well, tonight for dinner fried fish was served with tartar sauce. Then, I noticed she was laying paper down before she served the plate. I asked my father, Where is your paper for your plate? He explained he didn't need paper. So, I just got up and walked away.

          What can I say to this Federationist? How can I answer his letter? It is bad enough that the agencies promote negative attitudes about us, that the advertisers belittle us in order to sell their products, and that the newspapers misunderstand and compound the problem. But it is even worse when the members of our own families (conditioned by the words and thoughts of society) do the same. It makes little difference that more often than not the members of our families put us down and treat us like children for motives of love. The tragedy, the pain, and the loss hurt no less for the lack of malice.

          Sometimes, in our humiliation and frustration, we may think the first best step is to leave the table hungry for a night but this is no answer, no remedy, no solution to the problem. There must be concerted action and coordinated effort to change public attitudes and improve the social climate. And we are taking those actions. We are making those efforts. The members of our families are part of the general public, and so are the agencies and their psychologists. For that matter, so are we.

          For thousands of years we who are blind have been regarded as incompetent, and for the most part we have accepted the legends we have been taught. But that time is at an end. It is true that some still tell us that we cannot perform in the factory or workshop; that we have an altered mentality; that we are unable to handle routine tasks in the kitchen; that we require extraordinary technological devices to help us find the bathroom; that we need raised dot T-shirts to enhance our self-awareness; that we suffer from special anxiety; that we cannot use ordinary tableware; that, when we finally get to the table, we will eat less, talk less, and make more noise than others; and that our lives are filled with grief.

          But it is equally true that these are not any longer the predominant elements of our lives. In 1940 we organized to speak for ourselves through the National Federation of the Blind, and in the intervening half century the blind have achieved more progress than ever before in all previous recorded history. We have replaced the ancient terms of negativism with a new language of hope, and society has increasingly come to accept us for what we are normal people with normal aspirations and normal abilities.

          More and more the words (and therefore, the thoughts and the deeds) of the work place and the home, the school and the church, the street and the playground reflect this new mood. And underlying it all, fueling the change and focusing the progress, is (as it has been for the past half century) the National Federation of the Blind. With all of the problems and all of the work we still have to do, we come to this meeting tonight with a feeling of hope and a mood of gladness. We come with a joy and a certainty of triumph. At long last we know who we are and what we must do. We are organized, confident, and prepared for what lies ahead and no force on earth can turn us back. Our words, our thoughts, and our dreams reach for a tomorrow which is bright with promise, and the heart of that promise is the individual determination of each of us and the unshakable power of our vehicle for collective action the National Federation of the Blind. The past has belonged to others, but the future belongs to us. Let us speak, think, and act in support of each other and we will make it all come true!

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