Blindness - Handicap or characteristic?

Highlights of a speech by Kenneth Jernigan, past president and Executive Director of 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 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 met.

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 upsides for baseball,then the blind man is more limited – that is, he is `handicapped”. If you are seeking 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 Presi¬dent. The moral is plain: any age carries its built-in limitations.

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 which human flesh is heir to. 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 opportunity.

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!”

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.

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?

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 limita¬tions a reality.

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 alterative 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 inferior¬ity, and the alterative tech¬niques 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 inter¬esting to consider the matter of flying. In comparison with the birds man begins at a dis¬advantage. 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 de-vise alterative 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.

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 involuntarily by the blind person, are mistaken in con-tent and destructive in effect.

3. Services aimed at teaching alterative 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.”

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 blindness.

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 modem science than it was when it appeared in the ancient raiment of superstition and witchcraft.

Throughout the Judy San world, but especially in this country, we are today in the midst Congress’ 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 a third 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 im¬portant, we must examine our-selves to see that our own minds are free from prejudices and preconception.