Blindness: Discrimination, Hostility and Progress


By Kenneth Jernigan

During recent years no word in our language has been more used or misused than the term "discrimination." It has been the battle cry of oppressed minorities, the focus of the national conscience, the cloak of justification for mob violence, and the stimulus and touchstone for the re-evaluation of the traditions and concepts of the American dream. It has been at the center of the social turmoil, at once so promising and so ominous, which has been the principal characteristic of the past decade.

In its essential terms the word "discrimination" as used in connection with human rights and the repression of minorities means unreasonable and detrimental classification. It implies, of course, prejudice, denial of opportunity, unequal treatment, and exclusion from the main channels of economic and social life. But these are results, not causes-results of unreasonable and detrimental classification.

To be discriminatory the classification must have both elements-that is, it must be both unreasonable and detrimental. Otherwise, there is no discrimination. It is, for example, undoubtedly detrimental to the individual who has committed a crime to be classified as a prisoner; but it is not discriminatory, for the classification is reasonable. To be unreasonable, the classification must be made without relevance or logic. In other words unless the trait which is used as the basis for the classification is related to the purpose for the establishment of the classification and unless the purpose is socially desirable, the classification is unreasonable-therefore, discriminatory. To use once again the example of prisoners, it would be unreasonable to put all people over six feet tall into this classification. It would because there is no logical or socially desirable basis for the act. The trait of being six feet tall has no relevance or relationship to the purpose for which the classification of prisoner was created-namely, the protection of society from criminals.

Classifications which one generation may regard as reasonable may be regarded as unreasonable by the next. For the past few years the Federal courts have struggled agonizingly with this problem.

Obviously classification itself is not harmful but a necessity. To put it in the language of the lawyer, those similarly situated should be treated alike, and those not similarly situated should not be treated alike.

In recent years America (and, indeed, the world) has experienced a tremendous acceleration of cultural turmoil and upheaval, of shifting values, and new aspiration. The blind, no less than others, have felt the winds of social change. As they have moved toward the achievement of social and economic opportunity, the blind have become increasingly aware of and discontented with the ancient, detrimental, and unreasonable classifications which have held them in bondage. They have begun to insist with ever louder voice that these discriminations be abolished and to this end have organized themselves for concerted action. This action., though it has been and is in the best traditions of American democracy, has sometimes brought reaction and hostility. But under such circumstances even the hostility must be regarded as a sign of progress, for historically no group has ever gone from second-class citizenship to equal status in society without passing through a period of hostility.

The discriminations against the blind are often not recognized as such. They cloak themselves in many guises. Some are blatantly overt; others are insidiously subtle. Some are basic and fundamental; others are only peripheral and annoying.

One of the basic principles of our democracy is that there shall be no interference with the right of the individual to freedom of movement. A citizen may go where he will throughout the nation to accomplish any lawful purpose without hindrance or obstruction. This right is so fundamental that without it most other freedoms are lost, or are seriously curtailed.

In 1965 a blind Iowan, a graduate of our Orientation and Adjustment Center, went to the State of Georgia to accept employment. Trained in the skills of blindness and imbued with the idea that he ought to make his own way in the world, this man went independently, in the best American tradition, to the place where he could find the most satisfactory job.

Last December he received an emergency call from his sister. Both of his parents, living in Iowa, had been taken to the hospital in serious condition. He hurried to the railroad station to board a train for home. The ticket agent-but let the blind Iowan tell his own story. His letter of protest to the president of the Illinois Central Railroad reads in part:

On Sunday afternoon, December 5, 1965, I entered the railroad station in Columbus, Georgia, with plans to board the train leaving there at 3:25 p.m. for Des Moines, Iowa.

Upon talking with the ticket agent, I was advised, because of the fact that I am blind, that I could not purchase a ticket unless he definitely knew that I had someone traveling with me as a guide. The ticket agent stated that it was definitely a policy of the railroad that a blind person could not travel alone. He stated that the conductors would be furious at him were he to sell me a ticket, and because of this he refused to do business with me. This refusal to provide service to me produced a considerable amount of stress and concern. As a matter of fact, I was making the trip to Des Moines for emergency reasons. I had received word that both of my parents were admitted to the hospital, and it was necessary for me to get home as quickly as possible.

I told the ticket agent that since I was a stranger in Columbus, Georgia, and only there for the purpose of making my living, it would be impossible for me to suddenly come up with a guide, which I did not need, in order to satisfy his whims. I explained to him that I travel all over the United States alone and have never experienced difficulty. I pointed out that this is a clear-cut case of discrimination.

The ticket agent then asked the person behind me where she was going, and she stated that her destination was Chicago. He said that he would sell me a ticket as far as Chicago, provided this lady agreed to travel with me and assume responsibility for me. After some discussion she consented, and he grudgingly and angrily wrote me a ticket. As soon as we were out of his presence, the lady and I parted company, and I traveled alone without difficulty to Chicago and then to Des Moines.

As further proof of the insolent attitude of the ticket agent I found, upon my arrival in Des Moines, that I had been telephoned at the railroad depot in Columbus. The ticket agent angrily informed the caller that he didn't care what happened to me-that I had caused him enough trouble as it was.

Thus we have the story in the words of the man who experienced it. Along with small children and infants, he was placed by the ticket agent in the class of those unable to travel on trains alone and uncared for. What was he to do? He could have meekly turned away and failed to come to his parents, presumably remaining marooned in Columbus, Georgia, forever. Or, as he did, he could have insisted on his right to freedom of movement, thus earning the anger and displeasure of the ticket agent. In fact, the ticket agent very probably felt great kindness for the blind as a class until December 5, 1965. Today he probably regards them as an overly aggressive, unreasonable, and "pushy" lot.

The railroads, incidentally, and the Interstate Commerce Commission disavow any such policies of discrimination against the blind, and the ticket agent in question may very well have been reprimanded. Nevertheless, this is not an isolated or uncommon action. Last year a blind rehabilitation counselor employed by the Iowa Commission for the Blind had a similar experience. In the performance of his job he went to a small Iowa town to contact a blind person needing services. When he started to leave the town on the same railroad that had brought him there, he was refused permission to board the train. It took a good deal of argument and protest to reverse the decision. The home office of the railroad later disavowed the action and promised to take corrective steps.

Recently I talked with another blind person who had experienced a like situation. He is a very successful businessman, who ranks among the top earners of his company. In the course of his business he went to Denver, Colorado. When he went to the Denver train station to purchase his return ticket (accompanied, incidentally, by one of the local company executives), he was told in angry tones that blind people have no business traveling alone and that he could not board the train. Wishing to go to Omaha, and being a man of ingenuity, he got his ticket by subterfuge. He told the agent that his secretary would be joining him at the next station and that he would be riding alone for only a few miles. The agent was not easily satisfied, however, and asked the name of the secretary and where she was staying in the next town. The information was supplied, and the blind man boarded the train. I probably do not need to tell you that there was no secretary, and there was also no problem during the journey. This sort of experience is not limited to railroads. It happens on busses and planes as well. But it is becoming less common as the protests mount and more and more blind persons go about their business throughout the nation.

Unreasonable and detrimental classification of the blind is not limited to matters affecting their freedom of movement. It extends to almost every area of activity and endeavor. Consider, for example, the matter of insurance. Early in 1965 a blind resident of Des Moines wished to convert from a well-known group insurance policy to individual coverage. He was told by the insurance medical officer that, because of blindness, he did not meet their underwriting criteria and that accordingly he must (if he wished the coverage) pay extra premiums in the amount of about eighty dollars per year. The blind person in question is a successful businessman with a wife and family, and he wished the coverage-but not at the rate of eighty dollars a year in extra premiums.

He came to me for advice, and I wrote to the insurance medical officer under date of March 18, 1965, as follows:

From what Mr. Blank has told me and from the language of your letter, it would appear that you take the position that Mr. Blank cannot meet your underwriting criteria and, therefore, cannot receive individual insurance coverage because he is blind. If this is so, I would like to know on what facts the decision was based.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no actuarial evidence that blind people have more accidents or illnesses or that they die at an earlier age than sighted people. In fact, strange as it may seem, I believe there may be some evidence to indicate that blind people have fewer accidents than sighted people similarly situated. In any case, this should not be a matter of opinion, but of fact.

In other words we are trying to determine whether we have here a case of discrimination or of proper action based on fact. If a hotel clerk refuses to rent a room to a drunk man, he cannot properly be charged with discrimination. This is so because whether a man is drunk or sober has something to do with whether he is a desirable hotel guest. On the other hand, if the same hotel clerk refuses to rent a room to a Jew (or, for that matter, a blind person), then he is most definitely guilty of discrimination. This is so because the nature of one's religion or the degree of his visual acuity has no relationship whatever to his desirability as a hotel guest.

It does not lessen the discrimination if the hotel clerk is very sincere in his belief that Jews or blind people are really not as desirable as others as hotel guests. The matter must still be settled by fact and not by opinion.

Based on all the evidence we have been able to collect and on our own observations, we are inclined to think that the rejection of an insurance applicant solely on the basis of blindness is discrimination instead of a justifiable action. We are inclined to think that the decision springs from belief, emotion, and prejudice instead of evidence. It may be, however, that you are in possession of data which is not available to us. Therefore, I would like to request clarification and elaboration of the position which you have taken.

Very truly yours,

To this letter of inquiry the insurance medical officer answered in part:

Blindness is a physical defect, not related to any particular religion, and your comparing it to a Jew who may or may not be healthy, leaves me at a loss. As you well know, the causative factors in blindness are many-Trauma, Cataract, Glaucoma, Optic Atrophy, Syphilis, and a host of other conditions may result in this condition.

As I stated to Mr. Blank earlier .... we cannot issue the contract (at standard rates) if the applicant does not meet our minimum underwriting criteria. Sincerely,

What is one to say to such a letter! Indeed, some blind people are syphilitic. So are some farmers. But one does not, therefore, refuse to sell insurance to farmers at standard rates. Instead, one refuses to sell to syphilitics-farmers and non-farmers alike. Syphilitics are an identifiable class, and the trait of syphilis has some relationship to the establishment of differing insurance rate classifications-namely, probabilities of life expectancy, but there is no evidence that blindness has any such relationship. Therefore, the classification would seem to be unreasonable as well as detrimental, thus discriminatory.

Again, this case is by no means an isolated instance. A few years back I had the experience of being denied the right to purchase flight insurance in an Iowa airport. My argument that I was surely not a greater risk than others on the plane since I intended to ride as a passenger and not as the pilot availed me nothing. I was forced to board the plane uninsured. When I sent a letter of protest to the home office of the company, the local agent was reprimanded and ordered to issue insurance to the blind on equal terms with others. On my next trip to that airport I was greeted by the insurance agent with absolute rage and fury. In fact, his language was so abusive that I finally felt moved to say to him that from his actions one would think I had done him an injury instead of having been deprived by him of a right.

A blind person of my acquaintance recently bought a life insurance policy from a large company but was denied accidental death coverage. When he protested, the vice-president of the company wrote him a most revealing letter. It said in part:

Undoubtedly among a group of blind persons there will be some lives which will not be more accident prone than individuals having their sight. But as a group, we believe [note the word believe] that their accident rate is higher. Hence we have never issued accidental death coverage to blind persons... We think that as a group blind persons can be more subject to disabilities arising from injuries and further have some restriction at least as to the area of activities for gainful employment...

You go too far in suggesting that our position constitutes discrimination... We will frankly concede that we do not have the statistics for blind persons, either good or bad... Now if there were statistics that supported the point that the incidence of disability or accidents was no higher among blind persons and we then refused to recognize these statistics, we would indeed be guilty of discrimination... Certainly in the absence of statistics complete enough to be meaningful, this company's management has the right to exercise its judgment in the adoption of underwriting rules.

In replying to this letter the blind man said:

The central thesis of my argument is that unless concrete evidence is brought forth, my blindness should in no way interfere with my insurability...

Since your refusal to sell certain insurance coverage to blind persons is not based on evidence or statistics, I can only conclude it is based upon traditional misconceptions.

As to who bears the burden of proof, it is my contention that your company--as well as other companies-must bear the burden of responsibility since you insist upon establishing a relationship between blindness, accidents, and the frequency of other disabilities. Deeply rooted in the American heritage is the notion that the individual is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. An analogous doctrine should apply to denial of insurance coverage.

If, for instance, your company should suddenly decide that it would not issue insurance to Iowans or that it would charge them higher rates than the people of surrounding states because it believed they might be more accident prone than non-Iowans and if it frankly admitted that it had no evidence upon which to base its belief, how soon would it find itself in court for unreasonable and detrimental classification?

So, the blind man made his case, but he did not get the insurance. Once again the question arises as to what he and others involved in these insurance cases should have done. They might meekly have submitted to the payment of extra premiums and the denial of coverage, thus earning the ill will of no one. Or they might, as they have done, ask for equal treatment with others, thereby creating a certain amount of hostility. The choice is not an easy one.

As an indication of the whimsical and arbitrary nature of insurance practices respecting the blind, some companies charge a blind person extra rates for double indemnity coverage; some write it at standard rates; and some will not issue it at all. In view of these facts some of us recently requested the Insurance Commissioner for the State of Iowa to take action under the insurance anti-discrimination provisions of the Code of Iowa and to require that companies doing business in the State not classify blind persons as separate from others in the issuance of insurance policies without evidence to substantiate the classification. The matter is now under consideration, and I hope that we get a favorable ruling, even if it brings a certain amount of hostility.

Sometimes progress itself brings problems of detrimental and unreasonable classification. An illustration of this fact can be found in a recent occurrence involving a blind student at the University of Iowa. As our training programs have expanded, an increasing number of blind Iowans have been going to colleges and universities. Upon graduation they quite naturally hope to enter business or one of the professions.

Not long ago a young blind woman, a graduate of our Orientation Center, having finished her preliminary work at the University of Iowa, applied for permission to do student teaching. She was an elementary education major, and student teaching is one of the requirements for certification. There was a serious question raised on the part of the administration of the university as to whether she should be permitted to enroll for the course and make the attempt. They admitted that she was otherwise qualified and that if she were not blind she would undoubtedly be admitted to the course. This is how matters stood when I went before a university committee to plead her case. Even though I was able to point out to the professors that there are today at least a hundred blind persons throughout the country successfully teaching sighted children in regular elementary schools, they still expressed doubt and hesitation. They said that they were not certain that they could think of techniques by which a blind person could cope with certain situations which make up part of the daily routine of an elementary teacher. I pointed out that such considerations were, to say the least, somewhat academic and esoteric in the face of the fact that blind teachers are now doing these things on a regular basis. In other words, I argued, let the regular procedures apply. Judge her by the same standards as others. If she cannot do the work or pass the tests, then flunk her. But do not place an added obstruction in her path. Do not arbitrarily classify her as unable to teach without even giving her the opportunity to try. This would, indeed, be discrimination at its worst. I am happy to say that this situation was successfully resolved and that the woman in question was permitted to enroll for the course.

Incidentally a number of States (including California, New York, and Pennsylvania) have recently passed laws forbidding discrimination against blind persons (otherwise qualified) as teachers. Even in this progressive action, however, the ancient stereotype shows its power; for Pennsylvania in its law permitting physically disabled persons such as the blind to teach in the public schools could see no better way of accomplishing the purpose than by amending a section of the law dealing with mental disorders, communicable diseases, narcotic addicts, and immoral character. The law, as duly amended, now reads:

Section 1209. Disqualifications. No teacher's certificate shall be granted to any person who has not submitted.., a certificate from a physician.., setting forth that said applicant is neither mentally nor physically disqualified, by reason of tuberculosis or any other (chronic or acute defect), communicable disease or by reason of mental disorder from successful performance of the duties of a teacher; nor to any person who has not a good moral character, or who is in the habit of using opium or other narcotic drugs in any form, or any intoxicating drink as a beverage, or to any applicant who has a major physical disability or defect unless such person submits a certificate signed by an official of the college or university from which he was graduated or of an appropriate rehabilitation agency, certifying that in the opinion of such official the applikcant, by his work and activities, demonstrated that he is sufficiently adjusted, trained, and motivated to perform the duties of a teacher, notwithstanding his impediment. Note with what unusual weight the burden of proof falls upon the blind or physically disabled applicant. All who apply to teach require a medical clearance; but he alone requires a testimonial- a testimonial from his college or his rehabilitation counselor to the effect that he is “sufficiently adjusted, trained, and motivated”-and that he has proved all this by his “work and activities”-whatever that may mean. Not only is the burden of proof upon him; the full spotlight of suspicion is on him: the underlying assumption that he is ill-adjusted and unmotivated. The practice of lumping the blind with the criminals, the insane, the drug addicts, etc. and treating them all alike as a single class is not new. It is as old as the history of man. But from time to time it assumes new forms. Today, for instance, it is finding its way into the jargon of social science and is reflected in some of the college textbooks. As an example, consider the book significantly entitled Social Pathology, written by Professor Edwin M. Lembert of the University of California at Los Angeles. Pathology, as the dictionary tells us, is the scientific study of diseases and the diseased. What are the social diseases with which this author is concerned? They are the diseases listed in several chapters under the heading, “Part Two: Deviation and Deviants”-and they include the following: “Blindness and the Blind,” “Radicalism and Radicals,” “Prostitution and the Prostitute,” “Crime and the Criminal,” “Drunkeness and the Chronic Alcoholic,” and-finally and inevitably-“Mental Disorders.” These then are the deviations and deviants-the forms of social disease and the disease-carriers-which are taken to be the proper subject matter of a study in “social pathology.” This is the company which the blind find themselves keeping in a modern textbook of social science. It is, of course, exactly the company which the blind formerly kept in the asylum and the almshouse. We need only recall the American almshouse of half a century ago, whose inmates comprised (according to a classic description) the crippled and the sick; the insane; the blind;deaf mutes; feeble-minded and epileptic; people with all kinds of chronic diseases;… short term prisoners; theives, no longer physically capable of crime; worn out prostitutes, etc. In short, the almshouse was the place of last resort for all those marked indelibly by society as “deviants.” Over the years the blind have gradually made their escape from this Bedlam and its psychological stigma. After a summary account of two so-called “militant organizations of the blind,” the author concludes: All these facts create interesting speculation. While the actions of the two groups may be regarded as the group equivalent of tantrum behavior, they also raise a question as to what happens when the blind in a collective capacity desert their traditional roles of humility and agitate in an independent way like any other pressure group. To which one replies- what indeed! Under the circumstances it is not surprising that the author’s judgment of the general capabilities of the blind is contained in his observation that: “While most of the blind are immobilized because of illnesses or because of extreme dependency some blind mendicants are able to move fairly well through their environment.” Indeed! Indeed! Those of us who are blind are-need we say it once again—citizens as well. We wish to be treated as other citizens are treated, for all ordinary and general purposes. We wish special treatment and classification only for the purposes of meeting the needs or acquiring the skills and training required by our blindness. Most of all we wish to participate freely and to compete normally for our places In the economic and social community- but we hope that in preparing for that competition our chances may be equalized through the special services necessary for adequate training and opportunity. To achieve these objectives we have, in the best American tradition, organized for collective action and self-expression. The man who can refer to this as “the group equivalent of tantrum behavior” and who goes on to be troubled by “the question as to what happens when the blind in a collective capacity desert their traditional roles of humility and agitate in an independent way like any other pressure group” does, indeed, give us food for thought- but in a way which would probably surprise him. From the beginnings of recorded history the blind have been the victims of unreasonable and detrimental classification. Today these discriminations are being recognized for what they are, and the blind and their friends are insisting with growing success upon justice and equal treatment. No matter how moderately it may be done this resistance to discrimination will inevitably bring a certain amount of hostility. But under such circumstances even hostility is a hopeful sign and is, perhaps, one of the best indicators of our progress. In fact, the future looks increasingly bright for the blind. As more and more blind persons receive training and take their place in the regular economic and social life of the community, ancient stereotypes and misclassifications begin to diminish and lose their force. Although there are individual instances of hostility and resentment at the advancement of the blind, these are by no means predominant. The overwhelming sentiment of the public toward the blind is one of good will and encouragement. Likewise, although there are individual blind persons who are arrogant or overly aggressive, or who cling to their dependent status, the great majority wish only for equal opportunity and equal responsibility. In fact, it cannot be said too often that achievement is made of high hopes and hard work, of drudgerry and dreams. The blind of America are willing to work and work hard; but they also dare to dream.