Blindness:
                        Concepts And Misconceptions

                            by Kenneth Jernigan

         Copyright  1995 by the National Federation of the Blind.

             When an individual becomes blind, he faces two major
   problems: First, he must learn the skills and techniques which will
   enable him to carry on as a normal, productive citizen in the
   community; and second, he must become aware of and learn to cope with
   public attitudes and misconceptions about blindness attitudes and
   misconceptions which go to the very roots of our culture and permeate
   every aspect of social behavior and thinking.

             The first of these problems is far easier to solve than the
   second. For it is no longer theory but established fact that, with
   proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can do the
   average job in the average place of business and do it as well as his
   sighted neighbor. The blind can function as scientists, farmers,
   electricians, factory workers, and skilled technicians. They can
   perform as housewives, lawyers, teachers, or laborers. The skills of
   independent mobility, communication, and the activities of daily
   living are known, available, and acquirable. Likewise, the achievement
   of vocational competence poses no insurmountable barrier.

             In other words the real problem of blindness is not the
   blindness itself not the acquisition of skills or techniques or
   competence. The real problem is the lack of understanding and the
   misconceptions which exist. It is no accident that the word blind
   carries with it connotations of inferiority and helplessness. The
   concept undoubtedly goes back to primitive times when existence was at
   an extremely elemental level. Eyesight and the power to see were
   equated with light, and light (whether daylight or firelight) meant
   security and safety. Blindness was equated with darkness, and darkness
   meant danger and evil. The blind person could not hunt effectively or
   dodge a spear. In our day, society and social values have changed. In
   civilized countries there is now no great premium on dodging a spear,
   and hunting has dwindled to the status of an occasional pastime. The
   blind are able to compete on terms of equality in the full current of
   active life. The primitive conditions of jungle and cave are gone, but
   the primitive attitudes about blindness remain. The blind are thought
   to live in a world of darkness, and darkness is equated with evil,
   stupidity, sin, and inferiority.

             Do I exaggerate? I would that it were so. Consider the very
   definition of the word blind, the reflection of what it means in the
   language, its subtle shades and connotations. The 1962 printing of the
   World Publishing Company's college edition of Webster's New World
   Dictionary of the American Language defines blind as follows: without
   the power of sight; sightless; eyeless; lacking insight or
   understanding; done without adequate directions or knowledge; as,
   blind search. Reckless; unreasonable; not controlled by intelligence;
   as, blind destiny; insensible; drunk; illegible; indistinct. In
   architecture , false, walled up, as, a blind window. The 1960 edition
   of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary says: blind. Sightless. Lacking
   discernment; unable or unwilling to understand or judge; as, a blind
   choice. Apart from intelligent direction or control; as, blind chance.
   Insensible; as, a blind stupor; hence, drunk. For sightless persons;
   as, a blind asylum. Unintelligible; illegible; as, blind writing.

             There are a number of reasons why it is extremely difficult
   to change public attitudes about blindness. For one thing, despite the
   fact that many achievements are being made by the blind and that a
   good deal of constructive publicity is being given to these
   achievements, there are strong countercurrents of uninformed and
   regressive publicity and propaganda. It is hard to realize, for
   instance, that anyone still exists who actually believes the blind are
   especially gifted in music or that they are particularly suited to
   weaving or wickerwork. It is hard to realize that any well-educated
   person today believes that blind people are compensated for their loss
   of sight by special gifts and talents. Yet, I call your attention to a
   section on blindness appearing in a book on government and citizenship
   which is in current use in many public high schools throughout our
   country. Not in some bygone generation, but today, hundreds of
   thousands of ninth-grade students will study this passage:

   Caring for the Handicapped

             The blind, the deaf, the dumb, the crippled, and the insane
   and the feeble-minded are sometimes known collectively as the
   defective people who are lacking some normal faculty or power. Such
   people often need to be placed in some special institution in order to
   receive proper attention.

             Many blind, deaf, and crippled people can do a considerable
   amount of work. The blind have remarkable talent in piano tuning,
   weaving, wickerwork, and the like. The deaf and dumb are still less
   handicapped because they can engage in anything that does not require
   taking or giving orders by voice. 1

             I confess to being surprised when I learned that the book
   containing the foregoing passage was in general use. It occurred to me
   to wonder whether the text was unique or whether its enlightened views
   were held by other authors in the field. The results of my
   investigation were not reassuring. I call your attention to the
   selection on blindness appearing in another text in common use
   throughout the high schools of our nation.

             The blind may receive aid from the states and the federal
   government, if their families are not able to keep them from want.
   There are over one hundred institutions for the blind in the United
   States, many of which are supported wholly or partly by taxes.
   Sometimes it seems as if blind people are partly compensated for their
   misfortune by having some of their other talents developed with
   exceptional keenness. Blind people can play musical instruments as
   well as most of those who can see, and many activities where a keen
   touch of the fingers is needed can be done by blind people wonderfully
   well. Schools for the blind teach their pupils music and encourage
   them to take part in some of the outdoor sports that other pupils
   enjoy. 2

             If this is not enough to make the point, let me give you a
   quotation from still another high school text in current use:

   Kinds of Dependents

             There are many persons who do not take a regular part in
   community life and its affairs, either because they cannot or will
   not. Those who cannot may be divided into the following classes (1)
   The physically handicapped: the blind, the deaf, and the crippled; (2)
   the mentally handicapped : the feeble-minded and the insane; (3) the
   unemployed : those incapable of work, the misfits, and the victims of
   depression; and (4) the orphaned : those children left in the care of
   the state or in private institutions. The community should care for
   these people or help them to care for themselves as much as possible.

             Those who will not play their part in community life are the
   criminals. Schools have been established where the blind are taught to
   read by the use of raised letters called the Braille system. They are
   also taught to do other things such as to weave, make brushes, tune
   pianos, mend and repair furniture, and to play musical instruments. It
   is far better for the blind to attend these institutions than to
   remain at home because here they can learn to contribute to their own
   happiness. 3

             In attempting to change public attitudes, not only must we
   overcome the effects of Webster's dictionary and a host of textbooks,
   but we must take into account another factor as well. Several years
   ago the agency that I head was attempting to help a young woman find
   employment as a secretary. She was a good typist, could fill out
   forms, handle erasures, take dictation, and otherwise perform
   competently. She was neat in her person and could travel independently
   anywhere she wanted to go. She was also totally blind. I called the
   manager of a firm which I knew had a secretarial opening and asked him
   if he would consider interviewing the blind person in question. He
   told me that he knew of the wonderful work which blind persons were
   doing and that he was most sympathetic to our cause but that his
   particular setup would not be suitable. As he put it, Our work is very
   demanding. Carbons must be used and forms must be filled out. Speed is
   at a premium, and a great deal of work must be done each day. Then,
   there is the fact that our typewriters are quite a ways from the
   bathroom, and we cannot afford to use the time of another girl to take
   the blind person to the toilet.

             At this stage I interrupted to tell him that during the past
   few years new travel techniques had been developed and that the girl I
   had in mind was quite expert in getting about, that she was able to go
   anywhere she wished with ease and independence. He came back with an
   interruption of his own.

             Oh, I know what a wonderful job the blind do in traveling
   about and accomplishing things for themselves. You see I know a blind
   person. I know Miss X, and I know what a good traveler she is and how
   competent. I continued to try to persuade him, but I knew my case was
   lost. For, you see, I also know Miss X, and she is one of the poorest
   travelers and one of the most helpless blind people I have ever known.
   There is a common joke among many blind persons that she gets lost in
   her own bedroom, and I guess maybe she does.

             The man with whom I was talking was not being insincere; far
   from it. He thought that the ordinary blind person, by all reason and
   common sense, should be completely helpless and unable to travel at
   all. He thought that it was wonderful and remarkable that the woman he
   knew could do as well as she did. When compared with what he thought
   could normally be expected of the blind, her performance was
   outstanding. Therefore, when I told him that the person that I had in
   mind could travel independently, he thought that I meant the kind of
   travel he had seen from Miss X. We were using the same words, and we
   were both sincere, but our words meant different things to each of us.
   I tremble to think what he thought I meant by good typing and
   all-around competence.

             When I go into a community to speak to a group and someone
   says to me, Oh I know exactly what you mean; I know what blind people
   can do, because I know a blind person, I often cringe. I say to
   myself, And what kind of blind person do you know?

             This gives emphasis (if, indeed, emphasis is needed) to the
   constantly observed truth that all blind people are judged by one. If
   a person has known a blind man who is especially gifted as a musician,
   he is likely to believe that all of the blind are good at music. Many
   of us are living examples of the fallacy of that misconception. Some
   years ago I knew a man who had hired a blind person in his place of
   business. The blind man was, incidentally, fond of the bottle and was
   (after, no doubt, a great deal of soul searching on the part of the
   employer) fired. The employer still refuses to consider hiring another
   blind person. As he puts it, They simply drink too much.

             Once I was attending a national convention made up largely
   of blind people, and a waitress in the hotel dining room said to me, I
   just think it is wonderful how happy blind people are. I have been
   observing you folks, and you all seem to be having such a good time!

             I said to the waitress, But did you ever observe a group of
   sighted conventioneers! When they get away from their homes and the
   routine of daily life, they usually let their hair down and relax a
   bit. Blind people are about as happy and about as unhappy as anybody
   else.

             Not only is there a tendency to judge all blind people by
   one, but there is also a tendency to judge all blind people by the
   least effective and least competent members of the larger, sighted
   population. In other words, if it can't be done by a person with
   sight, a normal person, then, how can it possibly be done by a blind
   person? One of the best illustrations of this point that I have ever
   seen occurred some time ago when an attempt was being made to secure
   employment for a blind man in a corn oil factory. The job involved the
   operation of a press into which a large screw-type plunger fed corn.
   Occasionally the press would jam, and it was necessary for the
   operator to shut it off and clean it out before resuming the
   operation. The employer had tentatively agreed to hire the blind man,
   but when we showed up to finalize the arrangements, the deal was off.
   The employer explained that since our last visit, one of his sighted
   employees had got his hand caught in the press, and the press had
   chewed it off. It developed that the sighted employee had been
   careless. When the press had jammed, he had not shut it off, but had
   tried to clean it while it was still running. The employer said, This
   operation is dangerous! Why, even a sighted man got hurt doing it! I
   simply couldn't think of hiring a blind man in this position! It was
   to no avail that we urged and reasoned. We might have told him (but
   didn't) that if he intended to follow logic, perhaps he should have
   refused to hire any more sighted people on the operation. After all it
   wasn't a blind man who had made the mistake.

             There is still another factor which makes it difficult to
   change the public attitudes about blindness. All of us need to feel
   superior, and the problem is compounded by the fact that almost
   everyone secretly feels a good deal of insecurity and inadequacy a
   good deal of doubt regarding status and position. On more than one
   occasion people have come to the door of a blind man to collect for
   the heart fund, cancer research, or some other charity, and have then
   turned away in embarrassment when they have found they were dealing
   with a blind person. Their comment is usually to the effect, Oh, I am
   sorry! I didn't know! I couldn't take the money from a blind person!
   In many instances, I am happy to say, the blind person has insisted on
   making a contribution. The implication is clear and should not be
   allowed to go unchallenged. It is that the blind are unable to
   participate in regular community life, that they should not be
   expected to assume responsibilities, that they should receive but not
   give as others do.

             More than once I have seen confusion and embarrassment in a
   restaurant when it came the blind person's turn to treat for coffee or
   similar items. At the cash register there was an obvious feeling of
   inappropriateness and shame on the part of the sighted members of the
   group at having restaurant employees and others see a blind person pay
   for their food. Something turns, of course, on the question of means;
   and the blind person should certainly not pay all of the time; but he
   should do his part like any other member of the group.

             Recently I registered at a hotel, and the bellboy carried my
   bags to my room. When I started to tip him (and it was a fairly
   generous tip), he moved back out of the way with some embarrassment.
   He said, Oh, no, I couldn't! I am a gentleman! When I persisted he
   said, I am simply not that hard up!

             It is of significance to note that he had an amputated hand
   and that he was quite short of stature. What kind of salary he made I
   do not know, but I would doubt that it was comparatively very high.
   His manner and tone and the implication of his words said very
   clearly, I may be in a bad way and have it rough, but at least I am
   more fortunate than you. I am grateful that my situation is not worse
   than it is. There was certainly no ill intent. In fact, there were
   both charity and kindness. But charity and kindness are sometimes
   misplaced, and they are not always constructive forces.

             Let me now say something about the agencies and
   organizations doing work with the blind. Employees and administrators
   of such agencies are members of the public, too, and are conditioned
   by the same forces that affect other people in the total population.
   Some of them (in fact, many) are enlightened individuals who
   thoroughly understand the problems to be met and who work with vigor
   and imagination to erase the stereotypes and propagate a new way of
   thought concerning blindness and its problems; but some of them
   (unfortunately, far too many) have all the misconceptions and
   erroneous ideas which characterize the public at large. Regrettably
   there are still people who go into work with the blind because they
   cannot be dominant in their homes or social or business lives, and
   they feel (whether they verbalize it or not) that at least they can
   dominate and patronize the blind. This urge often expresses itself in
   charitable works and dedicated sincerity, but this does not mitigate
   its unhealthy nature or make it any less misguided or inappropriate.

             Such agencies are usually characterized by a great deal of
   talk about professionalism and by much high-flown jargon. They believe
   that blindness is more than the loss of eyesight; that it involves
   multiple and mysterious personality alterations. Many of them believe
   that the newly blinded person requires the assistance of a
   psychiatrist in making the adjustment to blindness, and, indeed, that
   the psychiatrist and psychotherapy should play an important part in
   the training programs for the blind. They believe that the blind are a
   dependent class and that the agencies must take care of them
   throughout their entire lives. But let some of these people speak for
   themselves. One agency administrator has said: After he is once
   trained and placed, the average disabled person can fend for himself.
   In the case of the blind, it has been found necessary to set up a
   special state service agency which will supply them not only
   rehabilitation training but other services for the rest of their
   lives. The agencies keep in constant contact with them as long as they
   live.

             This is not an isolated comment. An agency psychiatrist has
   this to say: All visible deformities require special study. Blindness
   is a visible deformity and all blind persons follow a pattern of
   dependency.

             Or consider this by the author of a well-known book on
   blindness: With many persons, there was an expectation in the
   establishment of the early schools that the blind in general would
   thereby be rendered capable of earning their own support a view that
   even at the present is shared in some quarters. It would have been
   much better if such a hope had never been entertained, or if it had
   existed in a greatly modified form. A limited acquaintance of a
   practical nature with the blind as a whole and their capabilities has
   usually been sufficient to demonstrate the weakness of this
   conception. 4

             It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the foregoing
   quotations represent individual instances and not the total judgment
   of the agencies and organizations doing work with the blind. Opinions
   and approaches vary as much with the agencies as with the general
   public. I would merely make the point here that being a professional
   worker in the field does not insure one against the false notions and
   erroneous stereotypes which characterize the public at large.

             For that matter, being a blind person is no passport to
   infallibility either. Public attitudes about the blind too often
   become the attitudes of the blind. The blind are part of the general
   public. They tend to see themselves as others see them. They too often
   accept the public view of their limitations and thus do much to make
   those limitations a reality. There is probably not a single blind
   person in the world today (present company included) who has not sold
   himself short at one time or another.

             At one time in my life I ran a furniture shop, making and
   selling the furniture myself. I designed and put together tables,
   smoke stands, lamps, and similar items. I sawed and planed, drilled
   and measured, fitted and sanded. I did every single operation except
   the final finish work, the staining and varnishing. After all, as I
   thought, one must be reasonable and realistic. If anyone had come to
   me at that time and said that I was selling myself short, that I
   should not automatically assume that a blind person could not do
   varnishing, I think I would have resented it very much. I think I
   would have said something to this effect: I have been blind all my
   life, and I think I know what a blind person can do; you have to use
   common sense. You can't expect a blind person to drive a truck, and
   you can't expect him to varnish furniture either.

             Later when I went to California to teach in the state's
   Orientation Center for the Blind, I saw blind people doing varnishing
   as a matter of course. By and by I did it myself. I can tell you that
   the experience caused me to do a great deal of serious thinking. It
   was not the fact that I had hired someone else to do the varnishing in
   those earlier days in my shop. Perhaps it would have been more
   efficient, under any circumstances, for me to have hired this
   particular operation done so that I could spend my time more
   profitably. It was the fact that I had automatically assumed that a
   blind person could not do the work, that I had sold myself short
   without realizing it, all the while believing myself to be a living
   exemplification of progressive faith in the competence of the blind a
   most deflating experience. It made me wonder then, as it does today:
   How many things that I take for granted as being beyond the competence
   of the blind are easily within reach? How many things that I now
   regard as requiring eyesight really require only insight, an insight
   which I do not possess because of the conditioning I have received
   from my culture, and because of the limitations of my imagination?

             There is also the temptation to have our cake and eat it
   too, the temptation to accept the special privileges or shirk the
   responsibility when it suits us and then to demand equal treatment
   when we want it.

             Some years ago when Boss Ed Crump was supreme in Memphis, an
   interesting event occurred each year. There was an annual football
   game, which was called the ball game for the blind. Incidentally, Mr.
   Crump also conducted an annual watermelon-slicing for the Negro. With
   respect to the ball game for the blind, Mr. Crump's friends went about
   contacting the general public and all of the businesses of the area
   soliciting donations and purchases of tickets. Probably a good deal of
   arm-twisting and shaming were done when necessary. The total take was
   truly impressive. In the neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars
   was raised each year. The money was then equally divided among all
   known blind persons in the county, and a check was sent to each. It
   usually amounted to about one hundred dollars and was known as the
   Christmas bonus for the blind.

             Most of the blind whom I knew from Shelby County gladly
   received these checks, and most of the rest of us in the state (either
   secretly or openly) envied them their great good fortune. How
   short-sighted we all were! The blind people of Memphis were not being
   done a favor! They were being robbed of a birthright. As they gave
   their money and bought their tickets, how many businessmen closed
   their minds (although without conscious thought) to the possibility of
   a blind employee? How many blind people traded equal status in the
   community, social and civic acceptance, and productive and
   remunerative employment for one hundred dollars a year? What a
   bargain!

             As I said in the beginning, the real problem of blindness is
   not the loss of eyesight but the misconceptions and misunderstandings
   which exist. The public (whether it be the general public, the
   agencies, or the blind themselves) has created the problem and must
   accept the responsibility for solving it. In fact, great strides are
   being made in this direction.

             First must come awareness, awareness on the part of the
   blind themselves, and a thorough consistency of philosophy and
   dedication of purpose; an increasing program of public education must
   be waged; vigilance must be maintained to see that the agencies for
   the blind are staffed with the right kind of people; with the right
   kind of philosophy; and the movement of self-organization of the blind
   must be encouraged and strengthened. This last is a cardinal point,
   for any disadvantaged group must be heard with its own voice, must
   lead in the achievement of its own salvation.

             Accomplishments are made of dreams and drudgeries, of hope
   and hard work. The blind of the nation are now moving toward a
   destiny, a destiny of full equality and full participation in
   community life.

             That destiny will be achieved when the day comes on which we
   can say with pleasure and satisfaction what we must now say with
   concern and consternation: Public attitudes about the blind become the
   attitudes of the blind. The blind see themselves as others see them.

   FOOTNOTE

   1. McCrocklin, James, Building Citizenship (1961, Allyn and Bacon,
   Inc., pub.; Boston), p. 244.

   2. Hughes, R. O., Good Citizenship (1949, Allyn and Bacon, pub.;
   Boston), p. 55.

   3. Blough, G. L., and David S. Switzer, and Jack T. Johnson,
   Fundamentals of Citizenship (Laidlow Brothers, pub.; Chicago), pp.
   164-167.

   4. From an address entitled Within the Grace of God by Professor
   Jacobus tenBroek, delivered at the 1956 convention of the National
   Federation of the Blind in San Francisco.
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