BLINDNESS--
A LEFT-HANDED DISSERTATION
                        by Kenneth Jernigan

 The National Federation of the Blind
        is not an organization speaking for the blind.
                It is the blind speaking for themselves.

 The National Federation of the Blind
                        1800 Johnson Street
                Baltimore, Maryland 21230
                        (410) 659-9314

 Everyone is familiar with the "revolution of rising
expectations " which has raised the consciousness of deprived"
and dependent populations the world over during the generation
since World War II. Abroad this trend has taken the form of
independence movements, the rise of new nations, and the
decline of the old colonial empires.  Within the United States
it has found famous expression in the civil rights movement of
the "black-brown-red-yellow" revolt; the feminist movement,
known AS women's liberation; the aggressive youth
counterculture of the sixties; and a variety of other self-
assertive and self-directing mobilizations--such as those
of the poor, the aged, and the sexually deviant.

 Whatever their ultimate validity or vitality, most of
these domestic movements and causes have been attended with
considerable fanfare and commotion.  They have captured the
imagination and stirred the understanding of the general
public.  Not so with the blind.  It is not that we have lacked
sympathy or goodwill or widespread support.  We have had
plenty of that.  Rather, it is that we have not (in present
day parlance) been perceived as a minority.  Yet, that is
exactly what we are--a minority, with all that the term
implies.

 As with other minorities, we contend with an
"establishment," which tries to put us down and keep us out
and which denies that we even exist as a legitimate and
cohesive group--with common problems, common aspirations, and
common interests.  Not only is our "establisbment" composed of
the general sighted public but, more particular of the network
of governmental and private social service agencies
specifically created to give us aid.  Principal among these
repressive agencies are the American Foundation for the Blind
and the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving
the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC).

 We have organized to take concerted action. In fact, the
National Federation of the Blind (established in 1940) pre-
dates most of the activist groups today.  We, too, have our
Uncle Toms.  We have tokenism; we have efforts to divide and
conquer; we have attempts to buy off the troublemakers; we
have threats and intimidations; we have professional-sounding
studies and reports; we have impressive meetings and
conferences; we have talk about positive and constructive
action; we have the force and prestige of tradition and
custom; and have a hundred other delays and obstacles.

 But underlying all of these things (and far more
complex) are our own problems of self-awareness and the need
for public education and public understanding.  We of the
National Federation of the Blind, for instance, affirm that
the ordinary blind person can compete terms of equality with
the ordinary sighted person, if he gets proper training and
opportunity.  We know that the average blind person can do
the average job in the average place business, and do it as
well as his sighted neighbor.  In other words the blind
person can be as happy and lead as full a life as anybody
else.

 Even so, blindness has its problems. Properly understood
and dealt with, it need not be the major tragedy which it has
always been considered.  It can be reduced to the level of a
mere physical nuisance, but it cannot be reduced below that
point.  Even if we were to contend (and we don't contend it,
as I will shortly indicate) that there is absolutely nothing
which can be done with sight which cannot be done just as
easily and just as well without it, blindness would still be
a nuisance, as the world is now constituted.  Why? Because the
world is planned and structured for the sighted.  This does
not mean that blindness need be a terrible tragedy or that the
blind are inferior or that they cannot compete on terms of
equality with the sighted.

 For an exact analogy, consider the situation of those who
are left-handed.  The world is planned and structured for the
right-handed.  Thus, left-handedness is a nuisance and is
recognized as such, especially by the left-handed.  Even so,
the left-handed can compete on terms of equality with the
right-handed since their handicap can be reduced to the level
of a mere physical nuisance.

 If you are not left-handed (I am not. I am a "nomal."),
you may not have thought of the problems.  A left-handed
person ordinarily wears his wristwatch on his right arm.  Not
to do so is awkward and causes problems.  But the watch is
made for the right-handed.  Therefore, when it is worn on the
right arm, the stem is toward the elbow, not the fingers.  The
watch is inconvenient to wind, a veritable nuisance.

 Then there are butter knives. Many of them are so
constructed that the lefthanded must either spread the butter
with the back of the knife, awkwardly use the right hand, or
turn the wrist in a most uncomfortable way--nuisances all.
But not of the sort to ruin one's psyche or cause nightmares,
just annoying.  The garden variety can opener (the one you
grip in your left hand and turn with your right--that is, if
you are "normal") is made for "normals." If you hold it in
your right hand and turn it with your  left  (as any
respectable left-hander is tempted to do), you must either
clumsily reach across it to get at the handle or turn it
upside down so that the handle is conveniently located, in
which case it won't work at all.  Likewise, steak knives are
usually serrated to favor the right-handed.  Scissors, egg
beaters, ice cream dippers, and other utensils are also made
for the same group.

 So are ordinary school-desk classroom chairs. How many
have you seen with the arms on the left side? Of course, a few
enlightened schools and colleges (with proper, present-day
concern for the well-being of minorities) have two or three
left-handed chairs in each of their classrooms, but this is
the exception rather than the rule.  It succeeds only in
earning the ill will of chauvinist right-handers, who must use
the desks when the room is full and the left-handed are
absent.  Of course, these occasional left-handed desks are the
most blatant form of tokenism, the groveling gratitude of
occasional left-handed Uncle Toms to the contrary
notwithstanding.

 In at least one case, it would seem, the problem of the
left-handed is not just a side effect of the fact that the
world is constructed for the right-handed but a real, inherent
weakness. When the left-handed person writes with ink (the
ballpoint pen was a blessing, indeed), his hand tends to smear
the ink as it drags over what he has written.  Of course, he
can hold his hand up as he writes, but this is an inferior
technique, not to mention being tiresome.  Upon closer
examination even this apparently inherent weakness is not
really inherent at all but simply another problem created by
society in its catering to the right-handed.  There is no real
reason why it is better to begin reading or writing at the
left side of the page and move to the right, except that it is
more efficient and comfortable for the majority, the right-
handed.  In fact, it would be just as easy to read or write
from the right to the left (more so for the left-handed), and
thus the shoe would be on the other foot-or, more precisely,
the pen would be in the other hand.

 The left-handed have always been considered inferior by
the right-handed.  Fomerly (in primitive times--twenty or
thirty years ago) parents tried to make their left-handed
children behave normally--that is, use their right hands.
Thereby, they often created trauma and psychiatric problems--
causing complexes, psychoses, and emotional disturbances.
Today (in the age of enlightenment) while parents do not
exactly say, "left is beautiful," they recognize the rights of
minorities and leave their lefthanded progeny to do their own
thing.

 (Parenthetically, I might say here that those who work
with the blind are not always so progressive.  Parents--and
especially educators--still try to make the blind child with
a little sight read large type, even when Braille would serve
him better and be more efficient. They put great stress on
reading in the normal" manner and not being "conspicuous."
They make him ashamed of his blindness and often cause
permanent damage.)

 But back to the left-handed. Regardless of the
enlightenment of parents and teachers, the ancient myth of the
inferiority of the  left-handed still lingers to bedevil the
lives of that unfortunate  minority.  To say that someone has
given you a "left-handed compliment" is not a compliment to
the left-handed.  It is usually the left hand that doesn't
know what the right hand is doing, rarely the other way
around; and it is the right hand that is raised, or placed on
the Bible, to take an oath.  Salutes and the Pledge of
Allegiance are given with the right hand.  Divine Scripture
tells us that the good and the evil shall be divided and that,
at the day of final judgment, the sheep shall be on the right
hand and the goats on the left, from whence they shall be cast
into hell and outer darkness forever and ever.  The guest of
honor sits on the right hand of the host, and in an argument
one always wants to be right.  No one ever wants to be behind.
Whether these uses of the words "left" and "right" are
subtleties of language--reinforcing the stereotype and
bespeaking deeply ingrained, subconscious prejudice--or
whether they are accidental, as the "normals" allege, who can
say? It may simply be that the lefthanded are supersensitive,
wearing chips on their shoulders and looking for insult where
none is intended.

 It is hard to make this case, however, when one considers
the word gauche.  The 1971 edition of Webster's Third New
International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged,
says: "gauche ... left, on the left, French ... lacking in
social graces or ease, tact, and familiarity with polite
usage; likely or inclined to commit social blunders especially
from lack of experience or training ... lacking finish or
exhibiting crudity (as of style, form, or technique) ... being
or designed for use with the left hand: LEFT-HANDED.  Synonym
see AWKWARD. gauchely, adverb: in a gauche manner: AWKWARDLY,
CLUMSILY, CRUDELY."

 Whatever else may be said, there is nothing subtle about
all of that; nor is there anything subtle about the term "bar
sinister," which comes from the Latin sinistral, meaning left-
handed.  The 1971 edition of Webster's Third New International
Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, says: "bar
sinister ... the fact or condition of being of illegitimate
birth ... an enduring stigma, stain, or reproach (as of
improper conduct or irregular status)." Supersensitive?
Quibbling? Not on your life.  Left-handers arise.  You have
nothing to lose but your chains.  They probably don't fit you
anyway, being made for the right-handed.  Look for the new
slogans any day: "Left is lovely," and "Get righty!"

 As with other oppressed minorities, the subtleties of
language and prejudice carry over into the job market.  I know
of a girl, for instance, who lives in Kansas and who sought
employment in a factory in that state.  She was interviewed
and passed every test with flying colors.  The prospective
employer terminatcd the interview by telling her, "You are in
every way qualified for the job, and I would hire you
immediately, except for your handicap." In outrage and
indignation she demanded to know what he meant.  "Why," he
said, "it's obvious! You are left-handed.  The machines on our
assembly line are made for the right-handed.  You would slow
down the entire operation." This is not fantasy but fact.  The
company makes greeting cards.  The girl did not get the job.

 If, in truth and in fact, the left-handed girl would have
slowed the assembly line, it is hard to see how the action of
the employer can be called discriminatory.  He could not be
expected to buy new machinery simply to give her a job, nor
could he be expected to redesign the entire factory.  The
"normal" person is right-handed, and it is reasonable for the
factory to be designed accordingly.

 Or does all of this miss the whole point? Is this not
exactly the way employers and the general public think and
talk about the blind? How did the employer know that the girl
would slow down the assembly line? How did he know she was
less efficient? Perhaps she had alternative techniques.
Perhaps, in fact, she could have done the job better than most
of the other people he had on the line.  He decided (based on
what he doubtless called "obvious" and "common sense"l
reasons) that she couldn't do the work.  Accordingly, she was
never even given the opportunity to try.  Beware the
"obvious," and look very carefully at so-called "common
sense. ""

 Do you still say there is no discrimination against the
left-handed? Probably you do--unless you begin to think about
it, unless you get the facts--and even then, some people will
say you are quibbling, that you are exaggerating.  How very
like the case of the blind.  How easy to make quick judgments
and have all of the answers, especially when you are not
confronted with the problem or compelled to look at reality.

 From all ofthis, you can see that the life of theleft-
hander is not easy.  Nevertheless, his infirmity can be
reduced to the level of a mere nuisance.  It need not mean
helplessness or inferiority. It does not necessarily cripple
him psychologically.  With reasonable opportunity he can
compete on terms of equality with his right-handed neighbor.
The average left-hander can do the average job in the average
place of business and do it as well as the average right-
hander.

 So far as I can tell, there is no inherent weakness in
left-handedness at all.  The problems arise from the fact that
society  is structured for the right-handed.  But these
problems (annoying though they be) do not keep the left-handed
from leading normal lives or competing with others.  They are
at the nuisance level.

 Therefore, even if blindness (like left-handedness) had
no inherent problems, it would still be a nuisance since
society is structured and planned for the sighted--sometimes
when it could be arranged more efficiently otherwise.  For
instance, most windows   in modern buildings are not there for
ventilation.  They are scaled.  They are there only so that
the sighted may look out of them.  The building loses heat in
winter and coolness in summer, but the sighted (the majority)
will have their windows.

 I think, however, that blindness is not exactly like
left-handedness.  I think there are some things that are
inherently easier to do with sight than without it.  For
instance, you can glance down the street and see who is
coming.  You can look across a crowded room and tell who is
there.

 But here, it seems to me, most people go astray. They
assume that, because you cannot look across the room and see
who is there or enjoy a sunset or look down the street and
recognize a friend, you are confronted with a major tragedy--
that you are psychologically crippled, sociologically
inferior, and economically unable to compete.  Regardless of
the words they use, they feel (deep down at the gut level)
that the blind are necessarily less fortunate than the
sighted.  They think that blindness means lack of ability.
Such views are held not only by most of the sighted but by
many of the blind as well.  They are also held by many, if not
most, of the professionals in the field of work with the
blind.  In the Journal of Rehabilitation for January-February
1966, an article appeared entitled: "Social Isolation of the
Blind: An Undertated Aspect of Disability and Dependency."
This article was written by none other than Dr. D. C.
MacFarland, Chief of the Office for the Blind, Social and
Rehabilitative Service, Department of Health, Education, and
Welfare.  Dr. MacFariand says:

 "Let me repeat a statement which I violently oppose.
There is a slowly evolving fiction which can be summed up in
the generalization, 'Blindness is a mere inconvenience.' I do
not agree with this, and I do not know what to call such
exaggeration in reverse.  I think it has done its share of
harm, throwing some very well-intentioned people off the track
about what blindness really amounts to in people's lives."

 It seems to me that Dr. MacFarland is as far off the
track as the person who would contend that blindness is not
even important enough to be considered a nuisance.  I think it
would be pleasant to look at a sunset.  I think it would be
helpful to look across a room and see who is there, or glance
down the street and recognize a friend.  But I know that these
things are peripheral to the major concerns of life. It is
true that it is sometimes a nuisance to devise alternative
techniques to get the same results I could have without effort
if I were sighted, but it is just that (a nuisance), not a
tragedy or a psychological crisis or an international
incident.

 It seems to me that many of the problems which are
regarded as inherent in blindness are more like those of the
left-handed--in other words, created as a natural side effect
of the structuring of society for the sighted.  It seems to me
that the remaining problems (those that are truly indigenous
to blindness) are usually vastly overrated and overdramatized.

 Blindness can, indeed, be a tragedy and a veritable hell,
but this is not because of the blindness or anything inherent
in it.  It is because of what people have thought about
blindness and because of the deprivations and the denials
which result. It is because of the destructive myths which
have existed from the time of the caveman--myths which have
equated eyesight with ability, and light with intelligence and
purity. It is because the blind, being part of the general
culture, have tended to accept the public attitudes and thus
have done much to make those attitudes reality.

 As far as I am concerned, all that I have been saying is
tied up with the why and wherefore of the National Federation
of the Blind.  If our principal problem is the physical fact
of blindness, I think there is little purpose in organizing.
However, the real problem is not the blindness but the
mistaken attitudes about it.  These attitudes can be changed,
and we are changing them.  The sighted can also change.  They
can be shown that we are in no way inferior to them and that
the old ideas were wrong--that we are able to compete with the
sighted, play with the sighted, work with the sighted, and
live with the sighted on terms of complete equality.  We the
blind can also come to recognize these truths, and we can live
by them.

 For all these reasons I say to you that the blind are
able to compete on terms of absolute equality with the
sighted, but I go on to say that blindness (even when properly
dealt with) is still a physical nuisance.  We must avoid the
sin and the fallacy of either extreme.  Blindness need not be
a tragic hell. It cannot be a total nullity, lacking all
inconvenience. It can, as we of the National Federation of the
Blind say at every opportunity, be reduced to the level of a
mere annoyance.  Right on! We the blind must neither cop out
by selling ourselves short with self-pity and myths of tragic
deprivation, nor lie to ourselves by denying the existence of
a problem.  We need your help; we seek your understanding; and
we want your partnership in changing our status in society.
There is no place in our movement for the philosophy of the
self-effacing Uncle Tom, but there is also no place for
unreasonable and unrealistic belligerence.  We are not out to
"get sighty." Will you work with us?
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