[nabs-l] Blindness vs. Other Minority Groups

Arielle Silverman arielle71 at gmail.com
Fri Nov 4 22:47:34 UTC 2011

Hi all,
These are all great points. Thanks for humoring me with this
discussion. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks it important.
As some of you may know, there was a time not too long ago when
African Americans were perceived to be less intelligent than white
Americans. In fact, there was a brief scientific movement called "race
science" to try and quantify this intelligence difference and link it
to racial differences in brain structure. Of course, this belief has
been heavily challenged and is no longer popular. Additionally,
psychologists have identified specific factors in the social
environment that can lead to racial differences in performance on
standardized tests that were once mistaken for differences in
intelligence. For example, questions on IQ tests are sometimes worded
in a biased fashion to favor people from white American backgrounds,
and sometimes fears about being stereotyped can cause people to
perform worse on tests than they are actually capable of. Because
African Americans were stereotyped as less intelligent, this
stereotype itself can lead to poor test performance.
As we all know, there are lots of beliefs out there, among the sighted
public, blindness professionals and blind people ourselves, about the
inferiority of blindness and the many deficits and lack of ability we
have. We know that a big part of our inequality comes from the social
environment-parents and teachers who have low expectations, lack of
instruction in Braille and other blindness skills, and lack of
accessibility-and only a small part of it comes directly from the
condition of blindness. I dream that in time, hopefully in our
lifetime, this will become the widely accepted view, and the majority
of the sighted public will understand that we can be equally
successful as our sighted counterparts under the right social
conditions, just like most people (at least most educated people) now
understand that African Americans are just as intellectually capable
as whites if the social environment supports their success.
We definitely have a long way to go in this regard and it will be
difficult to drive this point home. As others have said, some sighted
people just don't know what our capabilities are. I think that in our
culture there is a lot of focus on vision as a major sense, and people
assume that vision loss is invariably a deficit. It explains why
literature geared toward parents of blind children often highlights
the fact that 80% of what sighted children learn is learned visually,
and it explains why blindness professionals are often so unwilling to
teach Braille and prefer to focus on vision-based literacy. People
have trouble believing that all the other senses combined plus some
mental effort can make up for loss of vision. People's beliefs about
the primacy of vision for functioning are powerful, often unconscious,
and are rarely challenged-because we are a minority, and because these
beliefs are difficult to challenge. Truly understanding how blind
people function requires some creative thinking and mental
flexibility-something I frankly don't think some people possess or are
willing to engage. And unfortunately, it is hard to get people on
board for the environmental modifications we need to be
equal-accessibility etc.-unless they truly believe that these changes
will give us equal opportunity.
Jedi, you make some interesting points about how we should start
standing up to the sighted. I agree that we are often conditioned to
accept treatment we shouldn't be accepting, and that the errant
behavior of the sighted so often goes unchallenged. The problem is
that I fear that attempts to stand up for ourselves will be
misinterpreted. The treatment we get differs from treatment to other
minority groups in that we are rarely treated with violence or
outright hostility, but so often discriminated against under an
illusion of kindness. Too often, an honest response to this kindness
is simply shrugged off as rudeness or ingratitude instead of really
being given proper attention. For example, when I was a teenager, I
often refused offers of "help" from people I didn't know well and
would let people know I didn't like it when they grabbed or manhandled
me around. I am told that several of my schoolmates thought of me as a
b**. I don't think they ever actually thought about changing their
behavior toward me, but just wrote me off as a rude person. So I
definitely think we should make an effort to communicate frankly and
directly with the sighted, but I'm unsure of how to do it in a way
that is accepted in dialogue rather than just dismissed. I would be
interested in learning more about the dialogue strategies you mention.

On 11/4/11, Jedi <loneblindjedi at samobile.net> wrote:
> David,
> With all due respect, I think that's exactly the logic that rewards us
> for keeping our mouths shut thus maintaining the status quo. When we
> say to ourselves "Sighted people don't mean to be malicious," we
> somehow send ourselves, and each other, the second half of the message
> which ultimately says "So lay off," "No need to worry about it," or
> ""It's no big deal." If that works for you, great. But what about those
> of us whom such logic doesn't work for?
> I tried to soothe myself with the notion that the sighted just don't
> know better. And for me, that made the problem all the worse because I
> started to think that there was something wrong with me for feeling
> upset by what the sighted person had said or done to begin with. I
> started questioning the validity of my own experience as the person to
> whom ignorant comments are made and ignorant actions are pressed upon.
> Like I said in a previous post, I had to rearrange my thinking or else
> go nuts. *grin*
> Yes, the sighted don't intend to be malicious, but the fact is that
> what they say and do is still harmful. Humans never meant to be
> malicious toward Earth, but our actions over the last hundred years or
> so have badly depleted our natural resources and will continue to do so
> until we realize that, despite our lack of bad intensions, we're
> harming something that's as much a part of ourselves as anything. I
> hope the analogy is not too remote.
> My bottom line is this. I think it's time to stop excusing the sighted
> when they treat us in ways that they themselves would never wish to be
> treated. I think it's time we start alerting ourselves and the rest of
> the world to the fact that our interpersonal relationships with the
> sighted public haven't changed as much as we would like them to, and
> that these interpersonal (and intercultural) relationships are, to a
> large extent, a huge part of why we have such a high unemployment rate,
> why we experience discrimination in our recreational and personal
> lives, and why the public still largely considers us a non-entity in a
> lot of ways (I think internet accessibility is a great example of this).
> Yes, what i'm suggesting is, i suppose, quite radical. But I think we
> can have our cake and eat it, too. I think it's possible to develop
> excellent interpersonal and intercultural relations with the sighted
> thereby getting our basic societal needs met. But the first step is
> realizing that nothing is going to change unless we intend that change
> to happen and take the steps to start it.
> Here's what I think we could do to get the ball rolling. I think we
> need to start publishing another round of Kernel books. I realize we
> still have a bunch left over from the last set we did, but they are out
> of date in that they don't address some of the newer issues that have
> cropped up in the last ten years or so. And frankly, we need fresher
> faces in these stories. we need more stories from the current
> generation because that's who will be reading these stories on the
> sighted end of things. I'm willing to write for the kernel books.
> anyone with me?
> The second thing we need to do is to formally teach ourselves how to
> communicate more effectively with the sighted. Last time, i talked
> about educating through dialogue rather than dialoguing through
> education. How is that done, anyway? Well, there are a few ways of
> going about it and there are some amazing groups and institutions who
> specialize in teaching people how to communicate based on their
> experience. I immediately think of the Swil Kanim Foundation, the
> Institute of Cultural Affairs, and the Center for studies of the
> Person. All of these entities have trained facilitators who can help
> groups of us learn how to communicate our experiences more effectively;
> we could potentially hold encounter groups during our next NFB
> convention in Dallas. The groups would be small to start out with;
> maybe twenty to fifty in each. But it's a start. Alternatively, the
> Federation could start a project wherein some of us volunteer to train
> as facilitators through one of these entities and then go around from
> affiliate to affiliate, chapter to chapter, and have these encounter
> groups locally. What would come out of either approach is a group of
> people who are more willing to be truthful with the sighted and can do
> so in a way that's honoring to everyone concerned.
> Anyway, these are some thoughts I've been playing with for some time,
> and I'm willing to participate in a project like this, but i'm going to
> need some help.I've said it before, but I'm interested in hearing from
> anyone who's also interested in this kind of thing and who think we
> could come up with some crazy way to get it going.
> Respectfully,
> Jedi
> Original message:
>> Arielle:
>> I think that it is in part that we are a small minority, but the
>> biggest factor is people's ignorance about the capabilities of the
>> blind.  When someone shuts their eyes, they don't see how they could
>> do anything, (pun partially intended.)  Without training -- which
>> they don't have, they can't imagine how we get around etc.
>> I don't think their statements are malicious, just ignorant!
>> Dave
>> At 10:09 PM 10/31/2011, you wrote:
>>> Warning-this topic has the potential to start a heated debate, but I
>>> also think it is an interesting and important topic for us as blind
>>> people to think about.
>>> Lately I have been thinking a lot about how the problems faced by the
>>> blind are similar to or different from those faced by other minority
>>> groups in this country historically and in the present. More than
>>> that, I have been thinking about how the general public sees us as a
>>> group in comparison to how they view other minority groups. It has
>>> struck me that oftentimes members of the general public treat us in
>>> discriminatory ways or stereotype us without even considering that
>>> this kind of treatment resembles stereotyping and discrimination
>>> against other minority groups.
>>> Let me give a concrete example. In his book Freedom for the Blind, Jim
>>> Omvig writes of a time when he was directing a training center and a
>>> female staff member at the center commented, "You do your job so well,
>>> sometimes I forget you're blind!" Seeing the teachable moment, Mr.
>>> Omvig brought up this incident to his students during a philosophy
>>> class, and to illustrate his point he said to the woman, "You are such
>>> a good teacher, sometimes I forget you're a woman!" From what I
>>> recall, the staff member got a bit upset and insisted that "no, what I
>>> said about you being blind was very different from what you said about
>>> my being a woman. I was just trying to give you a compliment!"
>>> Now, as blind people most of us understand the problem with her
>>> comment-the implication that being blind must not be very good, so
>>> someone who does a good job isn't like other blind people. To me this
>>> sounds like the same problem as making the analogous comment to a
>>> woman-but she didn't see it that way. Why not? Is there a difference
>>> here?
>>> I have often been quite frustrated when people I know and
>>> trust-friends or family members, who have very liberal views about
>>> race, would never utter a racial slur or support discrimination
>>> against racial minorities, women, gays etc. who nonetheless have no
>>> qualms about saying negative things about blindness. Like saying blind
>>> people are all worse than the sighted at something, or that blind
>>> people are more dependent or less successful than the sighted, etc.
>>> They will sometimes say these things to my face and don't understand
>>> why I don't like to hear these things. Sometimes family members will
>>> make comments comparing me favorably to other blind people. They think
>>> they are giving me compliments, and fail to understand that I don't
>>> want to hear negative things spoken about the blind as a collective.
>>> Yet these same people would never tell an African American that they
>>> are "smart for a black person" etc. I remember during the protests
>>> against the Blindness film in 2008, I was perplexed by how many people
>>> just didn't get it, and didn't see what harm the film could do-and yet
>>> an analogous film where everyone developed black skin or female
>>> anatomy with such dire consequences would never be accepted in our
>>> modern society. And finally, in my research, I have observed that the
>>> college students in my experiments have no problem saying on a survey
>>> that the blind are much less competent than the sighted, yet would
>>> never say such things directly about another minority group-in fact,
>>> lots of fancy indirect measures have been developed to tap those
>>> attitudes because people nowadays are so unwilling to admit their
>>> prejudices, unless it's toward the blind.
>>> So, what's up? Are stereotypes about the blind somehow more accurate
>>> than stereotypes about ethnic minorities? Is discrimination against
>>> the blind somehow more justified? Or is it just that we are such a
>>> small group that we haven't developed the same history, had the same
>>> scale of civil rights activism, etc. to raise people's awareness? Do
>>> you guys think we deserve the same considerations as other minorities
>>> in this country? If not, am I missing something? If so, how do we get
>>> members of the public to see this?
>>> Also, as an aside, I'm curious to hear from those of you who are "dual
>>> minorities" being both blind and a member of a minority group in this
>>> country (ethnicity-wise, or a different group like GLBT, uncommon
>>> religious beliefs etc.) How do you think your two identities are
>>> similar? Different? Do you feel they interact with one another?
>>> I look forward to the discussion.
>>> Best,
>>> Arielle
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