Braille Monitor                                             October 2015

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The Nature of Blindness

An Address Delivered by
Marc Maurer, Immediate Past President
At the Convention of the
National Federation of the Blind
July 10, 2015

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: We spend a lot of time at conventions critiquing our progress and planning for the future we intend to make for ourselves and those who follow. But sometimes we ask ourselves difficult questions, ones the world may think have already been answered, but which, with a bit of analysis, prove to be superficial and unimaginative. “Blindness, Handicap or Characteristic,” seemed an absurd title to many of us who saw it for the first time, but a quick read through revealed that there was more to know about this topic than we had thought, and a second and third reading revealed some of the wisdom contained in Kenneth Jernigan’s life altering article. What follows is another speech that may well change how people come to feel about blindness, and it is obvious that our former president has not stopped thinking about or exploring all of the ramifications, real or imagined, that are associated with it. Here is what he says:

What is the nature of blindness? When a person becomes blind, how does that person change? Inasmuch as blind people and sighted people do not have identical characteristics, how are blind people different from the sighted? After seventy-five years of work in the National Federation of the Blind, it may seem that these questions must already have been answered. We must already know everything there is to tell.

This speculation comes to mind because Gary Wunder, editor of the Braille Monitor, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, a former board member of the National Federation of the Blind, and a man who has been a very good friend of mine for a quarter of a century, sent me an email that he had received from Sabra Ewing dated April 29, 2014. A portion of the text in that email says:

I think someone should write an article about the advantages of being blind. You might be thinking that articles like this already exist, but the ones I have found are about people who use their blindness to avoid lines and do inappropriate things, which even if viewed as advantages, are a result of the way society views blindness rather than blindness itself.

Lots of people who were born blind, including me, want to remain that way even if given the choice to become sighted. We still want to be blind even though society sends lots of messages that this attitude isn't okay. Why do we still want to be blind even knowing that we could fit into society so much better as sighted people? In my case I don't know why I want to stay blind, but I know it doesn't have to do with fear, and it's not a coping mechanism like some sighted people would suggest. That must mean there are lots of advantages to being blind. I think it would also be good for sighted people to read the article so they can learn to avoid insulting people who are happy with their blindness.

In responding to this email, Gary Wunder said in part: You seem to hold that it [blindness] is a blessing, an unexplored territory that offers a great deal to those of us who are blind if only we would take the time to reflect upon it.

When I encountered this correspondence, I thought: fair enough—an interesting point of view, and one which suggests certain lines of thought. Maybe, Sabra, I wondered, you want to remain blind because you know quite well how to manage your life as a blind person. Maybe you are identifiably and interestingly different from people who are sighted. Maybe the thought of change, of becoming a sighted person, is challenging to you. But just maybe, being blind carries with it enough advantages to make it attractive to you.

A brief look at the internet tells us that the Yahoo company believes the three major advantages of being blind are: enhanced senses of smell and touch, an increased confidence, and a heightened capacity for sensuality. Although this list has a certain charm, I suspect that the reporter for Yahoo was not thoroughly informed. On the other hand, my own experience indicates that advantages do exist.

In 1940 Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, said that blind people are normal, useful, and self-respecting. However, he did not attribute these characteristics to the blindness itself.

In 1963 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who later served as the second long-term president of the National Federation of the Blind, delivered an address to the banquet of the national convention of the Federation entitled “Blindness: Handicap or Characteristic.” He said that blindness is a characteristic but that it is not a handicap unless certain conditions make it one. Furthermore, other characteristics can also, under certain circumstances, become handicaps.

Dr. Jernigan pointed out that every characteristic is a limitation. He stated that ignorance and poverty are limiting, but he also asserted that the opposite of ignorance, intelligence, is itself a limitation. My daughter faced this limitation when she was urgently seeking work. When she applied to become a barista, she was refused the position because she had graduated from college. The owner of the coffee shop said that college graduates do not become baristas for very long, and she (the owner) wanted a permanent employee.

Because all characteristics are limitations, blindness is also a limitation. However, it is only a disadvantage if the activity being pursued by the person who is blind is one that requires sight. If the activity being pursued does not require sight, blindness may become an advantage. Furthermore, most activities of life do not require sight—even though many sighted people use vision to perform them. Thus, blindness, though a limitation, is not more limiting than many other characteristics.

However, we are here considering not the limitations of blindness but its advantages. What do blind people get that others do not? Blind people are free of the requirement to do things visually. I, a totally blind person, can read in the dark or perform other tasks without worrying about light. When I was working as a lawyer for the Civil Aeronautics Board, several of us visited the flight facility operated by the Federal Aviation Administration in Oklahoma. We were examining what is involved in emergency evacuations of aircraft. In one of the demonstrations, an official filled the fuselage of an airplane with nontoxic but very dense smoke. My colleagues were disoriented, but I was not. They were worried about my safety, and they offered me a great deal of advice about what to do to avoid collisions with obstacles. I had no problem finding my way, but they felt that I must be disoriented because they were.

All of the systems designed to provide illumination or present images are almost entirely irrelevant to me except when I am helping out my sighted friends. I do not need a computer monitor, a flashlight, or a candle except when the candle is being used as a votive offering or a dish warmer. Because I do not use visual mechanisms, my mind takes advantage of alternative methods of knowing about the world in which I live. When we were working on the construction of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, many of my sighted colleagues learned of the nature of planned construction by means of drawings. However, I often found myself making revisions to the plans with mental images instead of relying on paper.

This brings to mind the consideration of imagination. Inventive genius is often highly regarded. Inventions benefiting society have come into being (at least in part) to serve the blind. Thomas Edison wrote in his application for a patent on the phonograph that this product could be used to create talking books for the blind. Decades later, the long-play phonograph record was invented for the Talking Book program. The recording industry quickly adopted the long-play record which brought profound change in the music business.

Inventive genius intended to benefit the blind has been dramatically enhanced when the blind themselves have been involved. A good many of us, as blind students, invented symbols for writing concepts in Braille which had not previously existed. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek invented a shorthand system for legal writing in Braille that he used to keep notes on disability law and constitutional matters. The shorthand he devised is recognizable to me though the one I used in law school is much different.

Dr. Abraham Nemeth invented a symbol set for writing mathematical and scientific notation. The symbol set was big enough to be called a code, and Dr. Nemeth fought fiercely to ensure that it was adopted within the field of work with the blind.

When Dr. Raymond Kurzweil was inventing the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the Blind, we asked him to include blind engineers in the inventive process. Dr. Kurzweil told me later that this request was among the most beneficial he received. Having blind people work on the reading machine was useful because those who were building it could incorporate within the design the characteristics they wanted it to have.

To build a proper reading machine, Dr. Kurzweil had to invent a scanner, which came to be a necessary product for offices throughout the world. Scanning information, capturing it electronically, and making it capable of transmission by computer benefited the blind, but it also brought enormous benefit to the sighted. The reading machine for the blind changed substantially the possibilities for sighted people working in offices to gain access to information.

Those who possess disabilities know that the systems customarily used by others are not always readily available to them without adaptation. Consequently, using such systems often demands ingenuity. The necessity for imaginative thought becomes a pattern of behavior in many disabled people, and invention of systems, techniques, or products accompanies this imaginative thought. Invention is a necessity for disabled people who want to participate in society.

Can blind children play tag? Many people would think not. However, one small blind child in a schoolyard thought the answer should be otherwise. He altered the rules of the game slightly. He brought a small can to school which contained a stone. He required those who played tag and who were “it” to hold the can and to shake it as they ran. With this minor alteration, invented by a child in kindergarten, the game of tag was modified so that the blind and the sighted could play it together.

At the Louisiana Center for the Blind, Jerry Whittle and some of his colleagues invented a modified version of football that can be played by the blind. I learned of this when he asked me for some funds to obtain uniforms for the team. He told me that when you run out onto the field, smash into opposing team members, and knock your opponent base over apex, this is fun. Simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage for the blind came into being. We can now play football, but we also know that a bunch of big ornery blind people are looking forward to smashing us into oblivion.

A common misunderstanding is that blind people have a perpetual experience of darkness, but I do not. The world I encounter contains light, shadow, and color along with occasional elements of darkness. These visual images come from my imagination, but language and literature tell me that these characteristics are essential—the world cannot be constructed without them. Therefore, the image that I project may be different from the image that a sighted person has, but I never touch anything without ascribing to it a color.

Many people fear darkness, but I do not. When I work at it, I can identify the difference between light and darkness, and I can speculate about the alterations that come with the change from one to the other. But most of the time the worry about darkness is unimportant. I do the things that I do without looking, and I regard this as natural. Perhaps this accounts for the Yahoo assertion that we who are blind have increased confidence.

Occasionally this pattern leads to unfortunate accidents. One time I invited a man into my office, a room without windows, for a meeting. Somebody had shut off the lights in my office to save money on electricity. My custom is to turn them on in the morning and to leave them that way. As I am totally blind, I did not know they were shut off. I closed the door to my office, and I discussed the business at hand. My companion seemed very tentative, but I did not know until the meeting was over that we were having our conference in the dark. Although the man with whom I was having the meeting had wanted to sell me some products, he never came back. Maybe he was afraid of the dark.

Numerous articles have been written about the plasticity of the brain. The visual cortex in blind people is not idle, they say. What are these people doing with their visual cortex? Are they thinking with it? I do not believe that blind people are noticeably more thoughtful or more intelligent than the sighted people I know, but I have never tested the hypothesis. On the other hand, I have found many thousands of blind people prepared to contemplate with equanimity altered patterns of understanding from those frequently encountered. These altered patterns of understanding provide a greater perspective than would otherwise exist, which necessarily requires a degree of imaginative work. I believe that the willingness to engage in this kind of mental exercise builds comprehension. I have also speculated that blind people, who must face challenges often not encountered by others, may be less fearful than some who have not faced such challenges. Independence for the blind demands a measure of rebellion, and rebellion cannot occur without mental effort.

One of the elements of the rebellion involves the insistence that we who are blind have the right to participate fully in our society on equal terms with others. We have demanded that systems for providing access to information be constructed such that they can be used either visually or non-visually. We have been told that this insistence limits creativity and stifles invention on the part of companies providing information. However, a senior official of one of the premier technology companies of the world expressed the exact opposite to me. He said that requiring his company’s systems to have multiple mechanisms for presentation of information helped his engineers to assure that internal mismatches between his company’s programs had disappeared. He considered that our demand for equal access to information was a significant assistance to his inventors in creating a more thoroughly integrated and manageable system of presenting information to any of the populations he serves.

Mr. Frank Kurt Cylke, the former director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, told me that blind library patrons read more books than sighted borrowers. Many blind people listen to computer voices or recorded material at several hundred words a minute, faster than most sighted people can comprehend.
A good many blind people have devised mechanisms for ensuring that their socks match and that their items of apparel present a coordinated appearance without being able to look at the colors. Invention, rebellion, creativity, planning—these are words that I associate with the successful blind people I know.

What are the other advantages that come with blindness? We who read Braille can deliver speeches with the documents under our hands, which lets us “look” at the audience, but of course having your hands in one place does cut down on the gestures. We can read notes stashed in a briefcase or pocket without other people (at least most of the time) knowing we are doing so.

We are not troubled by visual appearance. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan liked very sweet bananas, and he was not discouraged from eating them by the color. When bananas are very ripe, they lose the yellow which is characteristic of them becoming brown or black. He was attracted by the taste but not deterred by the appearance. I am told that human beings who are pretty, slender, and white get more promotions than others. These characteristics, which are primarily visual, have generally not been a part of the decisions I have made. I suspect that discrimination based on visual appearance occurs less often with blind people than it does with others.

This offers a notion about some of the advantages of blindness, but undoubtedly there are others. Because some people believe that the absence of our vision causes other senses to be heightened, they suggest that we be placed in certain professions. A proposal made forty years ago recommended that blind people be employed as perfume testers because the absence of vision increased the olfactory capacity. Wine tasting has also been recommended because the taste buds of the blind are superior to those of the sighted. An article from a Hawaii newspaper offers the observation that our heightened sense of touch makes the blind better at kissing than the sighted. Could Yahoo be right after all about our sensuality? I can’t be sure, but it might be interesting to find out.

I do not really believe that blind people have enhanced senses, but I do think that blind people often concentrate on the use of some of them more assiduously than sighted people. Consequently, the experience of identifying objects by touch is probably more thoroughly developed in blind people than it is in the sighted.

How much would you pay to get your sight? The answer to this question is often a million dollars or more. When I have thought about the question, I know that I would not pay a million. The debt load I would have to carry would be just too great. If the price tag were smaller, I might think that trading the advantages I currently have as a blind person for those I would have as a sighted person would be worthwhile. However, becoming sighted would demand work. I do not know how to read print. If I became sighted, people would expect me to know this. I would also have to master all of the other things that sighted people do with sight. I believe that observing things visually is a learned experience, and all learning requires effort.

One of my good friends (unfortunately now deceased) was Ray McGeorge. He had been a blind person, and he gained his sight. He bought a car for himself, and I rode in it while he drove. One of the things he liked to do very much was read the advertising on boxes and bottles in the grocery store. The wide variety of what was available had not previously occurred to him. When he became blind again, he felt discouragement and depression, but the teachings and the experience he had obtained in the National Federation of the Blind got him through. Both in becoming sighted and becoming blind, he had no real serious problems in regaining his equilibrium.

I believe that the world is a more interesting place with disabled people in it than it would be without us. Although we in the National Federation of the Blind have emphasized how similar blind people are to sighted people—how our talents, our aspirations, and our capacity to function have not been diminished by our blindness—we are in certain ways different from sighted people, and the difference is sometimes a disadvantage and sometimes an advantage. As you know, I am not a broken sighted person; rather, I am a blind person. This expression indicates that I believe each of us has value, blind or sighted, and I believe that the value that each of us represents should be cherished.

Therefore, Sabra, when somebody wonders what there is about blindness that makes you think it is worthwhile, let your inquisitor know that the advantages are abundant. Blindness helps to teach me to know the world by touch, to read extensively in environments where others cannot, to imagine a world of possibilities that others have not attempted, to invent, to plan, to face the challenges that come, and to approach the world without the ancient fear of the dark. Let your questioner know that ours is not a restricted life but a liberated one. In the autumn when the leaves begin to fall, you may observe us chasing the pigskin. Furthermore, those of us who are blind never have to spend our hours hunting for a parking spot; well, anyway, not yet. This too is a place that will require our further thought and invention.

Those who believe that we live in a constant experience of darkness and despair do not know the joy that we have found, the excitement we have created, but we will tell them. The voice of the National Federation of the Blind rises in a thunderous declaration to proclaim what we know to be true. We will determine the destiny that must and will be ours. We will imagine the future as we want it to be. We will invent the techniques, the devices, and the programs that we need. We will use the advantages, the intellect, the energy, and the spirit within us to build a life of participation, equality, and joy for the blind—and nothing on earth can stop us. Our hearts are filled with gladness; we feel the power that rises within us. When we are together, the future is ours!

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