Blindness: Concepts and Misconceptions

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.


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.