Handicap Or Characteristic?

                            by Kenneth Jernigan

         Copyright  1995 by the National Federation of the Blind.

             It has been wisely observed that philosophy bakes no bread.
   It has, with equal wisdom, been observed that without a philosophy no
   bread is baked. Let me talk to you, then of philosophy my philosophy
   concerning blindness and, in a broader sense, my philosophy concerning
   handicaps in general.

             One prominent authority recently said, Loss of sight is a
   dying. When, in the full current of his sighted life, blindness comes
   on a man, it is the end, the death, of that sighted life. It is
   superficial, if not naive, to think of blindness as a blow to the eyes
   only, to sight only. It is a destructive blow to the self-image of a
   man a blow almost to his being itself!

             This is one view, a view held by a substantial number of
   people in the world today. But it is not the only view. In my opinion
   it is not the correct view. What is blindness? Is it a dying?

             No one is likely to disagree with me if I say that
   blindness, first of all, is a characteristic. But a great many people
   will disagree when I go on to say that blindness is only a
   characteristic. It is nothing more or less than that. It is nothing
   more special, or more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests.
   When we understand the nature of blindness as a characteristic a
   normal characteristic like hundreds of others with which each of us
   must live we shall better understand the real need to be met by
   services to the blind, as well as the false needs which should not be

             By definition a characteristic any characteristic is a
   limitation. A white house, for example, is a limited house; it cannot
   be green or blue or red; it is limited to being white. Likewise every
   characteristic those we regard as strengths as well as those we regard
   as weaknesses is a limitation. Each one freezes us to some extent into
   a mold; each restricts to some degree the range of possibility, of
   flexibility, and very often of opportunity as well.

             Blindness is such a limitation. Are blind people more
   limited than others?

             Let us make a simple comparison. Take a sighted person with
   an average mind (something not too hard to locate); take a blind
   person with a superior mind (something not impossible to locate) and
   then make all the other characteristics of these two persons equal
   (something which certainly is impossible). Now, which of the two is
   more limited? It depends, of course, entirely on what you wish them to
   do. If you are choosing up sides for baseball, then the blind man is
   more limited that is, he is handicapped. If you are hiring someone to
   teach history or science or to figure out your income tax, then the
   sighted person is more limited or handicapped.

             Many human characteristics are obvious limitations; others
   are not so obvious. Poverty (the lack of material means) is one of the
   most obvious. Ignorance (the lack of knowledge or education) is
   another. Old age (the lack of youth and vigor) is yet another.
   Blindness (the lack of eyesight) is still another. In all these cases
   the limitations are apparent, or seem to be. But let us look at some
   other common characteristics which do not seem limiting. Take the very
   opposite of old age youth. Is age a limitation in the case of a youth
   of twenty? Indeed it is, for a person who is twenty will not be
   considered for most responsible positions, especially supervisory and
   leadership positions. He may be entirely mature, fully capable, in
   every way the best qualified applicant for the job. Even so, his age
   will bar him from employment; he will be classified as too green and
   immature to handle the responsibility. And even if he were to land the
   position, others on the job would almost certainly resent being
   supervised by one so young. The characteristic of being twenty is
   definitely a limitation.

             The same holds true for any other age. Take age fifty, which
   many regard as the prime of life. The man of fifty does not have the
   physical vigor he possessed at twenty; and, indeed, most companies
   will not start a new employee at that age. The Bell Telephone System,
   for example, has a general prohibition against hiring anyone over the
   age of thirty-five. But it is interesting to note that the United
   States Constitution has a prohibition against having anyone under
   thirty-five running for President. The moral is plain: any age carries
   its built-in limitations.

             Let us take another unlikely handicap not that of ignorance,
   but its exact opposite. Can it be said that education is ever a
   handicap? The answer is definitely yes. In the agency which I head I
   would not hire Albert Einstein under any circumstances if he were
   today alive and available. His fame (other people would continually
   flock to the agency and prevent us from doing our work) and his
   intelligence (he would be bored to madness by the routine of most of
   our jobs) would both be too severe as limitations.

             Here is an actual case in point. Some time ago a vacancy
   occurred on the library staff at the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
   Someone was needed to perform certain clerical duties and take charge
   of shelving and checking talking book records. After all applicants
   had been screened, the final choice came down to two. Applicant A had
   a college degree, was seemingly alert, and clearly of more than
   average intelligence. Applicant B had a high school diploma (no
   college), was of average intelligence, and possessed only moderate
   initiative. I hired applicant B. Why? Because I suspected that
   applicant A would regard the work as beneath him, would soon become
   bored with its undemanding assignments, and would leave as soon as
   something better came along. I would then have to find and train
   another employee. On the other hand I felt that applicant B would
   consider the work interesting and even challenging, that he was
   thoroughly capable of handling the job, and that he would be not only
   an excellent but a permanent employee. In fact, he has worked out
   extremely well.

             In other words, in that situation the characteristic of
   education the possession of a college degree was a limitation and a
   handicap. Even above-average intelligence was a limitation; and so was
   a high level of initiative. There is a familiar bureaucratic label for
   this unusual disadvantage: it is the term overqualified. Even the
   overqualified, it appears, can be underprivileged.

             This should be enough to make the point which is that if
   blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the
   same way as innumerable other characteristics to which human flesh is
   heir. I believe that blindness has no more importance than any of a
   hundred other characteristics and that the average blind person is
   able to perform the average job in the average career or calling,
   provided (and it is a large proviso) he is given training and

             Often when I have advanced this proposition, I have been met
   with the response, But you can't look at it that way. Just consider
   what you might have done if you had been sighted and still had all the
   other capacities you now possess.

             Not so, I reply. We do not compete against what we might
   have been, but only against other people as they are, with their
   combinations of strengths and weaknesses, handicaps and limitations.
   If we are going down that track, why not ask me what I might have done
   if I had been born with Rockefeller's money, the brains of Einstein,
   the physique of the young Joe Louis, and the persuasive abilities of
   Franklin Roosevelt? (And do I need to remind anyone, in passing, that
   FDR was severely handicapped physically?) I wonder if anyone ever said
   to him:

             Mr. President, just consider what you might have done if you
   had not had polio!

             Others have said to me, But I formerly had my sight, so I
   know what I am missing.

             To which one might reply, And I was formerly twenty, so I
   know what I am missing. Our characteristics are constantly changing,
   and we are forever acquiring new experiences, limitations, and assets.
   We do not compete against what we formerly were but against other
   people as they now are.

             In a recent issue of a well-known professional journal in
   the field of work with the blind, a blinded veteran who is now a
   college professor, puts forward a notion of blindness radically
   different from this. He sets the limitations of blindness apart from
   all others and makes them unique. Having done this, he can say that
   all other human characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, belong in
   one category and that with regard to them the blind and the sighted
   individual are just about equal. But the blind person also has the
   additional and unique limitation of his blindness. Therefore, there is
   really nothing he can do quite as well as the sighted person, and he
   can continue to hold his job only because there are charity and
   goodness in the world.

             What this blind professor does not observe is that the same
   distinction he has made regarding blindness could be made with equal
   plausibility with respect to any of a dozen perhaps a hundred other
   characteristics. For example, suppose we distinguish intelligence from
   all other traits as uniquely different. Then the man with above one
   hundred twenty-five IQ is just about the same as the man with below
   one hundred twenty-five IQ except for intelligence. Therefore, the
   college professor with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ cannot
   really do anything as well as the man with more than one hundred
   twenty-five IQ and can continue to hold his job only because there are
   charity and goodness in the world.

             Are we going to assume, says this blind professor, that all
   blind people are so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make
   up for any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think not. But why,
   one asks, single out the particular characteristic of blindness? We
   might just as well specify some other. For instance, are we going to
   assume that all people with less than one hundred twenty-five IQ are
   so wonderful in all other areas that they easily make up for any
   limitations imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

             This consideration brings us to the problem of terminology
   and semantics and therewith to the heart of the matter of blindness as
   a handicap. The assumption that the limitation of blindness is so much
   more severe than others that it warrants being singled out for special
   definition is built into the very warp and woof of our language and
   psychology. Blindness conjures up a condition of unrelieved disaster
   something much more terrible and dramatic than other limitations.
   Moreover, blindness is a conspicuously visible limitation; and there
   are not so many blind people around that there is any danger of
   becoming accustomed to it or taking it for granted. If all of those in
   our midst who possess an IQ under one hundred twenty-five exhibited,
   say, green stripes on their faces, I suspect that they would begin to
   be regarded as inferior to the non-striped and that there would be
   immediate and tremendous discrimination.

             When someone says to a blind person, You do things so well
   that I forget you are blind I simply think of you as being like
   anybody else, is that really a compliment? Suppose one of us went to
   France, and someone said: You do things so well that I forget you are
   an American and simply think of you as being like anyone else would it
   be a compliment? Of course, the blind person must not wear a chip on
   his shoulder or allow himself to become angry or emotionally upset. He
   should be courteous, and he should accept the statement as the
   compliment it is meant to be. But he should understand that it is
   really not complimentary. In reality it says: It is normal for blind
   people to be inferior and limited, different and much less able than
   the rest of us. Of course, you are still a blind person and still much
   more limited than I, but you have compensated for it so well that I
   almost forget that you are inferior to me.

             The social attitudes about blindness are all pervasive. Not
   only do they affect the sighted but also the blind as well. This is
   one of the most troublesome problems which we have to face. Public
   attitudes about the blind too often become the attitudes of the blind.
   The blind tend to see themselves as others see them. They too often
   accept the public view of their limitations and thereby do much to
   make those limitations a reality.

             Several years ago Dr. Jacob Freid, at that time a young
   teacher of sociology and now head of the Jewish Braille Institute of
   America, performed an interesting experiment. He gave a test in
   photograph identification to Negro and white students at the
   university where he was teaching. There was one photograph of a Negro
   woman in a living room of a home of culture well furnished with
   paintings, sculpture, books, and flowers. Asked to identify the person
   in the photograph, the students said she was a cleaning woman,
   housekeeper, cook, laundress, servant, domestic, and mammy. The
   revealing insight is that the Negro students made the same
   identifications as the white students. The woman was Mary McLeod
   Bethune, the most famous Negro woman of her time, founder and
   president of Bethune- Cookman College, who held a top post during
   Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, and a person of brilliance and
   prestige in the world of higher education. What this incident tells us
   is that education, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and that when members
   of a minority group do not have correct and complete information about
   themselves, they accept the stereotypes of the majority group even
   when they are false and unjust. Even today, in the midst of the great
   civil rights debate and protest, one wonders how many Negroes would
   make the traditional and stereotyped identification of the photograph.

             Similarly with the blind the public image is everywhere
   dominant. This is the explanation for the attitude of those blind
   persons who are ashamed to carry a white cane or who try to bluff
   sight which they do not possess. Although great progress is now being
   made, there are still many people (sighted as well as blind) who
   believe that blindness is not altogether respectable.

             The blind person must devise alternative techniques to do
   many things which he would do with sight if he had normal vision. It
   will be observed that I say alternative not substitute techniques, for
   the word substitute connotes inferiority, and the alternative
   techniques employed by the blind person need not be inferior to visual
   techniques. In fact, some are superior. Of course, some are inferior,
   and some are equal.

             In this connection it is interesting to consider the matter
   of flying. In comparison with the birds, man begins at a disadvantage.
   He cannot fly. He has no wings. He is handicapped. But he sees the
   birds flying, and he longs to do likewise. He cannot use the normal,
   bird-like method, so he begins to devise alternative techniques. In
   his jet airplanes he now flies higher, farther, and faster than any
   bird which has ever existed. If he had possessed wings, the airplane
   would probably never have been devised, and the inferior wing-flapping
   method would still be in general use.

             This matter of our irrational images and stereotypes with
   regard to blindness was brought sharply home to me some time ago
   during the course of a rehabilitation conference in Little Rock,
   Arkansas. I found myself engaged in a discussion with a well-known
   leader in the field of work with the blind who holds quite different
   views from those I have been advancing. The error in my argument about
   blindness as a characteristic, he advised me, was that blindness is
   not in the range of normal characteristics; and, therefore, its
   limitations are radically different from those of other
   characteristics falling within the normal range. If a normal
   characteristic is simply one possessed by the majority in a group,
   then it is not normal to have a black skin in America or, for that
   matter, white skin in the world at large.

             It is not normal to have red hair or be over six feet tall.
   If, on the other hand, a normal characteristic is simply what this
   authority or someone else defines as being normal, then we have a
   circular argument one that gets us nowhere.

             In this same discussion I put forward the theory that a man
   who was sighted and of average means and who had all other
   characteristics in common with a blind man of considerable wealth
   would be less mobile than the blind man. I had been arguing that there
   were alternative techniques (not substitute) for doing those things
   which one would do with sight if he had normal vision. The authority I
   have already mentioned, as well as several others, had been contending
   that there was no real, adequate substitute for sight in traveling
   about. I told the story of a wealthy blind man I know who goes to
   Hawaii or some other place every year and who hires sighted attendants
   and is much more mobile than any sighted person I know of ordinary
   means. After all of the discussion and the fact that I thought I had
   conveyed some understanding of what I was saying, a participant in the
   conference said as if he thought he was really making a telling point,
   Wouldn't you admit that the wealthy man in question would be even more
   mobile if he had his sight?

             Which brings us to the subject of services to the blind and
   more exactly of their proper scope and direction. There are, as I see
   it, four basic types of services now being provided for blind persons
   by public and private agencies and volunteer groups in this country
   today. They are:

    1. Services based on the theory that blindness is uniquely different
       from other characteristics and that it carries with it permanent
       inferiority and severe limitations upon activity.
    2. Services aimed at teaching the blind person a new and constructive
       set of attitudes about blindness based on the premise that the
       prevailing social attitudes, assimilated voluntarily by the blind
       person, are mistaken in content and destructive in effect.
    3. Services aimed at teaching alternative techniques and skills
       related to blindness.
    4. Services not specifically related to blindness but to other
       characteristics (such as old age and lack of education), which are
       nevertheless labeled as services to the blind and included under
       the generous umbrella of the service program.

             An illustration of the assumptions underlying the first of
   these four types of services is the statement quoted earlier which
   begins, Loss of sight is a dying. At the Little Rock conference
   already mentioned the man who made this statement elaborated on the
   tragic metaphor by pointing out that the eye is a sexual symbol and
   that, accordingly, the man who has not eyes is not a whole man. He
   cited the play Oedipus Rex as proof of his contention that the eye is
   a sexual symbol. I believe that this misses the whole point of the
   classic tragedy. Like many moderns, the Greeks considered the severest
   possible punishment to be the loss of sight. Oedipus committed a
   mortal sin (unknowingly he had killed his father and married his
   mother); therefore, his punishment must be correspondingly great. But
   that is just what his self-imposed blindness was a punishment, not a
   sexual symbol.

             But this view not only misses the point of Oedipus Rex it
   misses the point of blindness. And in so doing it misses the point of
   services intended to aid the blind. For according to this view what
   the blind person needs most desperately is the help of a psychiatrist
   of the kind so prominently in evidence at several of the orientation
   and adjustment centers for the blind throughout the country. According
   to this view what the blind person needs most is not travel training
   but therapy. He will be taught to accept his limitations as
   insurmountable and his difference from others as unbridgeable. He will
   be encouraged to adjust to his painful station as a second-class
   citizen and discouraged from any thought of breaking and entering the
   first-class compartment. Moreover, all of this will be done in the
   name of teaching him independence and a realistic approach to his

             The two competing types of services for the blind categories
   one and two on my list of four types with their underlying conflict of
   philosophy may perhaps be clarified by a rather fanciful analogy. All
   of us recall the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Suddenly, in the
   1930s, the German Jew was told by his society that he was a
   handicapped person that he was inferior to other Germans simply by
   virtue of being a Jew. Given this social fact, what sort of adjustment
   services might we have offered to the victim of Jewishness? I suggest
   that there are two alternatives matching categories one and two on my
   list of services.

             First, since he has been a normal individual until quite
   recently, it is, of course, quite a shock (or trauma, as modern lingo
   has it) for him to learn that he is permanently and constitutionally
   inferior to others and can engage only in a limited range of
   activities. He will, therefore, require a psychiatrist to give him
   counseling and therapy and to reconcile him to his lot. He must adjust
   to his handicap and learn to live with the fact that he is not a whole
   man. If he is realistic, he may even manage to be happy. He can be
   taken to an adjustment center or put into a workshop, where he may
   learn a variety of simple crafts and curious occupations suitable to
   Jews. Again, it should be noted that all of this will be done in the
   name of teaching him how to live independently as a Jew. That is one
   form of adjustment training: category one of the four types of
   services outlined earlier.

             On the other hand, if there are those around who reject the
   premise that Jewishness equals inferiority, another sort of adjustment
   service may be undertaken. We might begin by firing the psychiatrist.
   His services will be available in his own private office, for Jews as
   for other members of the public, whenever they develop emotional or
   mental troubles. We will not want the psychiatrist because the Nazi
   psychiatrist likely has the same misconceptions about Jews as the rest
   of his society. We might continue then by scrapping the Jew trades the
   menial routines which offer no competition to the normal world
   outside. We will take the emphasis off of resignation or of fun and
   games. We will not work to make the Jew happy in his isolation and
   servitude, but rather to make him discontent with them. We will make
   of him not a conformist but a rebel.

             And so it is with the blind. There are vast differences in
   the services offered by various agencies and volunteer groups doing
   work with the blind throughout the country today. At the Little Rock
   conference this came up repeatedly. When a blind person comes to a
   training center, what kind of tests do you give him, and why? In Iowa
   and some other centers the contention is that he is a responsible
   individual and that the emphasis should be on his knowing what he can
   do. Some of the centers represented at the Little Rock conference
   contended that he needed psychiatric help and counseling (regardless
   of the circumstances and merely by virtue of his blindness) and that
   the emphasis should be on the center personnel's knowing what he can
   do. I asked them whether they thought services in a center were more
   like those given by a hospital or like those given by a law school. In
   a hospital the person is a patient. (This is, by the way, a term
   coming to be used more and more in rehabilitation today.) The doctors
   decide whether the patient needs an operation and what medication he
   should have. In reality the patient makes few of his own decisions.
   Will the doctor let him do this or that? In a law school, on the other
   hand, the student assumes responsibility for getting to his own
   classes and organizing his own work. He plans his own career, seeking
   advice to the extent that he feels the need for it. If he plans
   unwisely, he pays the price for it, but it is his life. This does not
   mean that he does not need the services of the law school. He probably
   will become friends with the professors and will discuss legal matters
   with them and socialize with them. From some he will seek counsel and
   advice concerning personal matters. More and more he will come to be
   treated as a colleague. Not so the patient. What does he know of drugs
   and medications? Some of the centers represented at the Little Rock
   conference were shocked that we at the Iowa Commission for the Blind
   socialize with our students and have them to our homes. They believed
   that this threatened what they took to be the professional

             Our society has so steeped itself in false notions
   concerning blindness that it is most difficult for people to
   understand the concept of blindness as a characteristic and for them
   to understand the services needed by the blind. As a matter of fact,
   in one way or another, the whole point of all I have been saying is
   just this: Blindness is neither a dying nor a psychological crippling
   it need not cause a disintegration of personality and the stereotype
   which underlies this view is no less destructive when it presents
   itself in the garb of modern science than it was when it appeared in
   the ancient raiment of superstition and witchcraft.

             Throughout the world, but especially in this country, we are
   today in the midst of a vast transition with respect to our attitudes
   about blindness and the whole concept of what handicaps are. We are
   reassessing and reshaping our ideas. In this process the professionals
   in the field cannot play a lone hand. It is a cardinal principle of
   our free society that the citizen public will hold the balance of
   decision. In my opinion, it is fortunate that this is so, for
   professionals can become limited in their thinking and committed to
   outworn programs and ideas. The general public must be the balance
   staff, the ultimate weigher of values and setter of standards. In
   order that the public may perform this function with reason and
   wisdom, it is the duty of each of us to see that the new ideas receive
   the broadest possible dissemination. But even more important, we must
   examine ourselves to see that our own minds are free from prejudices
   and preconception.
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