[Colorado-talk] Good Reading

Everett Gavel everett at everettgavel.com
Thu Apr 18 18:16:04 UTC 2013

Hello All,

I just read a message on my previous Affiliate's 
e-mail list, which I think is worth sharing. Eric 
Duffy, President of the Ohio Affiliate, was asked 
to suggest  something that would clearly outline 
the NFB philosophy. As he noted, 'there are many 
things out there.' But here is what he shared, 
which I share with you now, below. Please don't do 
what many people seem to do with Bible verses. 
They see the verse, recognize it, saying, "Oh 
yeah, I know that one" -- then skim over it rather 
than absorbing it anew. I'd love to hear your 
feedback, here, on what you actually, honestly 
think of what you now have the choice to read 
below, if you care to. ;-)

Blessings to You!

----- original message ----- 
From: Eric Duffy
To: "NFB of Ohio Announcement and Discussion List"
Subject: [Ohio-talk] Good Reading


by Kenneth Jernigan

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 a 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 

By definition a characteristic-any 
characteristic-is a limitation. A white house, for 
example, is a limited house; it cannot be green or 
blue or red; it is limited to being white. 
Likewise every characteristic-those we regard as 
strengths as well as those we regard as 
weaknesses-is a limitation. Each one freezes us to 
some extent into a mold; each restricts to some 
degree the range of possibility, of flexibility, 
and very often of opportunity as well.

Blindness is such a limitation. 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 up sides 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 

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 President. The moral is plain: any age carries 
its built-in limitations.

Let us take another unlikely handicap-not that of 
ignorance, but its exact opposite. Can it be said 
that education is ever a handicap? The answer is 
definitely yes. In the agency which I head I would 
not hire Albert Einstein under any circumstances 
if he were today alive and available. His fame 
(other people would continually flock to the 
agency and prevent us from doing our work) and his 
intelligence (he would be bored to madness by the 
routine of most of our jobs) would both be too 
severe as limitations.

Here is an actual case in point. Some time ago a 
vacancy occurred on the library staff at the Iowa 
Commission for the Blind. Someone was needed to 
perform certain clerical duties and take charge of 
shelving and checking talking book records. After 
all applicants had been screened, the final choice 
came down to two. Applicant A had a college 
degree, was seemingly alert, and clearly of more 
than average intelligence. Applicant B had a high 
school diploma (no college), was of average 
intelligence, and possessed only moderate 
initiative. I hired applicant B. Why? Because I 
suspected that applicant A would regard the work 
as beneath him, would soon become bored with its 
undemanding assignments, and would leave as soon 
as something better came along. I would then have 
to find and train another employee. On the other 
hand I felt that applicant B would consider the 
work interesting and even challenging, that he was 
thoroughly capable of handling the job, and that 
he would be not only an excellent but a permanent 
employee. In fact, he has worked out extremely 

In other words, in that situation the 
characteristic of education-the possession of a 
college degree-was a limitation and a handicap. 
Even above average intelligence was a limitation; 
and so was a high level of initiative. There is a 
familiar bureaucratic label for this unusual 
disadvantage: it is the term "overqualified". Even 
the overqualified, it appears, can be 

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!"

Others have said to me, "But I formerly had my 
sight, so I know what I am missing."

To which one might reply, "And I was formerly 
twenty, so I know what I am missing." Our 
characteristics are constantly changing, and we 
are forever acquiring new experiences, 
limitations, and assets. We do not compete against 
what we formerly were but against other people as 
they now are.

In a recent issue of a well-known professional 
journal in the field of work with the blind, a 
blinded veteran who is now a college professor, 
puts forward a notion of blindness radically 
different from this. He sets the limitations of 
blindness apart from all others and makes them 
unique. Having done this, he can say that all 
other human characteristics, strengths, and 
weaknesses, belong in one category-and that with 
regard to them the blind and the sighted 
individual are just about equal. But the blind 
person also has the additional and unique 
limitation of his blindness. Therefore, there is 
really nothing he can do quite as well as the 
sighted person, and he can continue to hold his 
job only because there are charity and goodness in 
the world.

What this blind professor does not observe is that 
the same distinction he has made regarding 
blindness could be made with equal plausibility 
with respect to any of a dozen-perhaps a 
hundred-other characteristics. For example, 
suppose we distinguish intelligence from all other 
traits as uniquely different. Then the man with 
above one hundred twenty-five IQ is just about the 
same as the man with below one hundred-twenty-five 
IQ-except for intelligence. Therefore, the college 
professor with less than one hundred twenty-five 
IQ cannot really do anything as well as the man 
with more than one hundred twenty-five IQ-and can 
continue to hold his job only because there are 
charity and goodness in the world.

"Are we going to assume," says this blind 
professor, "that all blind people are so wonderful 
in all other areas that they easily make up for 
any limitations imposed by loss of sight? I think 
not." But why, one asks, single out the particular 
characteristic of blindness? We might just as well 
specify some other. For instance, are we going to 
assume that all people with less than one hundred 
twenty-five IQ are so wonderful in all other areas 
that they easily make up for any limitations 
imposed by lack of intelligence? I think not.

This consideration brings us to the problem of 
terminology and semantics-and therewith to the 
heart of the matter of blindness as a handicap. 
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. Moreover, 
blindness is a conspicuously visible limitation; 
and there are not so many blind people around that 
there is any danger of becoming accustomed to it 
or taking it for granted. If all of those in our 
midst who possess an IQ under one hundred 
twenty-five exhibited, say, green stripes on their 
faces, I suspect that they would begin to be 
regarded as inferior to the non-striped-and that 
there would be immediate and tremendous 

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? Of course, 
the blind person must not wear a chip on his 
shoulder or allow himself to become angry or 
emotionally upset. He should be courteous, and he 
should accept the statement as the compliment it 
is meant to be. But he should understand that it 
is really not complimentary. In reality it says:

"It is normal for blind people to be inferior and 
limited, different and much less able than the 
rest of us. Of course, you are still a blind 
person and still much more limited than I, but you 
have compensated for it so well that I almost 
forget that you are inferior to me."

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 limitations a 

Several years ago Dr. Jacob Freid, at that time a 
young teacher of sociology and now head of the 
Jewish Braille Institute of America, performed an 
interesting experiment. He gave a test in 
photograph identification to Negro and white 
students at the university where he was teaching. 
There was one photograph of a Negro woman in a 
living room of a home of culture-well furnished 
with paintings, sculpture, books, and flowers. 
Asked to identify the person in the photograph, 
the students said she was a "cleaning woman," 
"housekeeper," "cook," "laundress," "servant," 
"domestic," and "mammy". The revealing insight is 
that the Negro students made the same 
identifications as the white students. The woman 
was Mary McLeod Bethune, the most famous Negro 
woman of her time, founder and president of 
Bethune-Cookman College, who held a top post 
during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, and 
a person of brilliance and prestige in the world 
of higher education. What this incident tells us 
is that education, like nature, abhors a vacuum, 
and that when members of a minority group do not 
have correct and complete information about 
themselves, they accept the stereotypes of the 
majority group even when they are false and 
unjust. Even today, in the midst of the great 
civil rights debate and protest, one wonders how 
many Negroes would make the traditional and 
stereotyped identification of the photograph.

Similarly with the blind the public image is 
everywhere dominant. This is the explanation for 
the attitude of those blind persons who are 
ashamed to cany 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 alternative 
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 
inferiority, and the alternative techniques 
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 interesting to consider 
the matter of flying. In comparison with the birds 
man begins at a disadvantage. 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 devise alternative 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 

This matter of our irrational images and 
stereotypes with regard to blindness was brought 
sharply home to me some time ago during the course 
of a rehabilitation conference in Little Rock, 
Arkansas. I found myself engaged in a discussion 
with a well-known leader in the field of work with 
the blind who holds quite different views from 
those I have been advancing. The error in my 
argument about blindness as a characteristic, he 
advised me, was that blindness is not in the range 
of "normal" characteristics; and, therefore, its 
limitations are radically different from those of 
other characteristics falling within the normal 
range. If a normal characteristic is simply one 
possessed by the majority in a group, then it is 
not normal to have a black skin in America or, for 
that matter, a white skin in the world at large.

It is not normal to have red hair or be over six 
feet tall. If, on the other hand, a normal 
characteristic is simply what this authority or 
someone else defines as being normal, then we have 
a circular argument-one that gets us nowhere.

In this same discussion I put forward the theory 
that a man who was sighted and of average means 
and who had all other characteristics in common 
with a blind man of considerable wealth would be 
less mobile than the blind man. I had been arguing 
that there were alternative techniques (not 
substitute) for doing those things which one would 
do with sight if he had normal vision. The 
authority I have already mentioned, as well as 
several others, had been contending that there was 
no real, adequate substitute for sight in 
traveling about. I told the story of a wealthy 
blind man I know who goes to Hawaii or some other 
place every year and who hires sighted attendants 
and is much more mobile than any sighted person I 
know of ordinary means. After all of the 
discussion and the fact that I thought I had 
conveyed some understanding of what I was saying, 
a participant in the conference said-as if he 
thought he was really making a telling point, 
"Wouldn't you admit that the wealthy man in 
question would be even more mobile if he had his 

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 content and 
destructive in effect.

3. Services aimed at teaching alternative 
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." At the Little Rock conference 
already mentioned the man who made this statement 
elaborated on the tragic metaphor by pointing out 
that "the eye is a sexual symbol" and that, 
accordingly, the man who has not eyes is not a 
"whole man." He cited the play Oedipus Rex as 
proof of his contention that the eye is a sexual 
symbol. I believe that this misses the whole point 
of the classic tragedy. Like many moderns, the 
Greeks considered the severest possible punishment 
to be the loss of sight. Oedipus committed a 
mortal sin (unknowingly he had killed his father 
and married his mother); therefore, his punishment 
must be correspondingly great. But that is just 
what his self-imposed blindness was-a punishment, 
not a sex symbol.

But this view not only misses the point of Oedipus 
Rex-it misses the point of blindness. And in so 
doing it misses the point of services intended to 
aid the blind. For according to this view what the 
blind person needs most desperately is the help of 
a psychiatrist-of the kind so prominently in 
evidence at several of the orientation and 
adjustment centers for the blind throughout the 
country. 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.

The two competing types of services for the 
blind-categories one and two on my list of four 
types-with their underlying conflict of philosophy 
may perhaps be clarified by a rather fanciful 
analogy. All of us recall the case of the Jews in 
Nazi Germany. Suddenly, in the 1930's, the German 
Jew was told by his society that he was a 
"handicapped" person-that he was inferior to other 
Germans simply by virtue of being a Jew. Given 
this social fact, what sort of adjustment services 
might we have offered to the victim of Jewishness? 
I suggest that there are two alternatives-matching 
categories one and two of my list of services.

First, since he has been a "normal" individual 
until quite recently, it is, of course, quite a 
shock (or "trauma," as modern lingo has it) for 
him to learn that he is permanently and 
constitutionally inferior to others and can engage 
only in a limited range of activities. He will, 
therefore, require a psychiatrist to give him 
counseling and therapy and to reconcile him to his 
lot. He must "adjust" to his handicap and "learn 
to live" with the fact that he is not a "whole 
man." If he is realistic, he may even manage to be 
happy. He can be taken to an adjustment center or 
put into a workshop, where he may learn a variety 
of simple crafts and curious occupations suitable 
to Jews. Again, it should be noted that all of 
this will be done in the name of teaching him how 
to live "independently" as a Jew. That is one form 
of adjustment training: category one of the four 
types of services outlined earlier.

On the other hand, if there are those around who 
reject the premise that Jewishness equals 
inferiority, another sort of "adjustment" service 
may be undertaken. We might begin by firing the 
psychiatrist. His services will be available in 
his own private office, for Jews as for other 
members of the public, whenever they develop 
emotional or mental troubles. We will not want the 
psychiatrist because the Nazi psychiatrist likely 
has the same misconceptions about Jews as the rest 
of his society. We might continue then by 
scrapping the "Jew trades"-the menial routines 
which offer no competition to the normal world 
outside. We will take the emphasis off of 
resignation or of fun and games. We will not work 
to make the Jew happy in his isolation and 
servitude, but rather to make him discontent with 
them. We will make of him not a conformist but a 

And so it is with the blind. There are vast 
differences in the services offered by various 
agencies and volunteer groups doing work with the 
blind throughout the country today. At the Little 
Rock conference this came up repeatedly. When a 
blind person comes to a training center, what kind 
of tests do you give him, and why? In Iowa and 
some other centers the contention is that he is a 
responsible individual and that the emphasis 
should be on his knowing what he can do. Some of 
the centers represented at the Little Rock 
conference contended that he needed psychiatric 
help and counseling (regardless of the 
circumstances and merely by virtue of his 
blindness) and that the emphasis should be on the 
center personnel's knowing what he can do. I asked 
them whether they thought services in a center 
were more like those given by a hospital or like 
those given by a law school. In a hospital the 
person is a "patient". (This is, by the way, a 
term coming to be used more and more in 
rehabilitation today.) The doctors decide whether 
the patient needs an operation and what medication 
he should have. In reality the "patient" makes few 
of his own decisions. Will the doctor "let" him do 
this or that? In a law school, on the other hand, 
the "student" assumes responsibility for getting 
to his own classes and organizing his own work. He 
plans his own career seeking advice to the extent 
that he feels the need for it. If he plans 
unwisely, he pays the price for it, but it is his 
life. This does not mean that he does not need the 
services of the law school. He probably will 
become friends with the professors and will 
discuss legal matters with them and socialize with 
them. From some he will seek counsel and advice 
concerning personal matters. More and more he will 
come to be treated as a colleague. Not so the 
"patient". What does he know of drugs and 
medications? Some of the centers represented at 
the Little Rock conference were shocked that we at 
the Iowa Commission for the Blind "socialize" with 
our students and have them to our homes. They 
believed that this threatened what they took to be 
the "professional relationship".

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

Throughout the world, but especially in this 
country, we are today 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 
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 important, we must examine ourselves to 
see that our own minds are free from prejudices 
and preconception.


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