[nfbmi-talk] Why Do We Fear the Blind

Fred Wurtzel f.wurtzel at att.net
Mon Jan 6 23:30:52 UTC 2014


Very cool article.  Thank you.

Warmest Regards, (no pun intended)


-----Original Message-----
From: nfbmi-talk [mailto:nfbmi-talk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of Mary
Ann Robinson
Sent: Monday, January 06, 2014 6:12 PM
To: NFB of Michigan List
Subject: [nfbmi-talk] Why Do We Fear the Blind

I received a linkto the article below on another list.  When I read it, I
thought it was worth sharing. 

The article triggered memories of experiences that I had with

sighted professionals in 2010.  It confirms once again that there is still
much work for the organized blind to do. I am thankful for and committed to
my NFB family as we strive unceasingly

to achieve independence, equality and opportunity for blind people
throughout the world.

Why Do We Fear the Blind?

Skip Sterling


Published: January 4, 2014

BRISTOL, R.I. -    Mary Ann

A FEW years ago, when I mentioned to a woman I met at a party that I was
teaching in a school for the blind, she seemed confused. "Can I just ask you
one question?" she said. "How do you talk

 to your students?"

I explained that the students were blind, not deaf. Raising the palms of her
hands at me, as if to stem further misunderstanding, she said: "Yes, I know
they're not

deaf. But what I really mean is, how do you actually

talk to them?"

I knew, because I had been asked this question before by reasonably
intelligent people,

that the woman didn't know exactly what she meant. All she knew was that in
her mind

there existed a substantial intellectual barrier between the blind and the

The blind could hear, yes. But could they properly understand?

Throughout history and across cultures the blind have been traduced by a
host of

mythologies such as this. They have variously been perceived as pitiable
idiots incapable

of learning, as artful masters of deception or as mystics possessed of

powers. One of the most persistent misconceptions about blindness is that it
is a

curse from God for misdeeds perpetrated in a past life, which cloaks the
blind person

in spiritual darkness and makes him not just dangerous but evil.

A majority of my blind students

at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Trivandrum,
India, a branch

of Braille Without Borders, came from the developing world: Madagascar,

Tibet, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal and India. One of my students, the

Sahr, lost most of his eyesight to measles when he was a child. (Like many

in rural West Africa, Sahr had not been vaccinated.) The residents of Sahr's

were certain that his blindness - surely the result of witchcraft or immoral

on his family's part - would adversely affect the entire village. They

his house and shouted threats and abuse. They confiscated a considerable

of his parents' land. Eventually, the elders decreed that Sahr's father must

the child out to the bush, "where the demons live," and abandon him there.
The parents

refused and fled the village with their son.

Many of my students had similar experiences. Marco's parents, devout
Colombian Catholics,

begged a priest to say a Mass so that their blind infant son would die
before his

existence brought shame and hardship on their household. The villagers in

remote Tibetan village insisted that she, her two blind brothers and their

father should all just commit suicide because they were nothing but a burden
to the

sighted members of the family. When, as a child in Sierra Leone, James began
to see

objects upside down because of an ocular disease, the villagers were certain

he was possessed by demons.

In these places, schools for blind children were deemed a preposterous waste
of resources

and effort. Teachers in regular schools refused to educate them. Sighted

ridiculed them, tricked them, spat at them and threw stones at them. And
when they

reached working age, no one would hire them. During a visit to the Braille

Borders training center in Tibet, I met blind children who had been beaten,

they were idiots, locked in rooms for years on end and abandoned by their

These stories, which would have been commonplace in the Dark Ages, took
place in

the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. They are taking place now. Nine out of 10 blind

in the developing world still have no access to education, many for no other

than that they are blind.

The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual impairment in the

and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical afflictions. Even
in this

country, the blind are perceived as a people apart.

Aversion toward the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices

lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a powerful generator of fear. And fear
slides easily

into aggression and contempt. Anyone who has not spent more than five
minutes with

a blind person might be forgiven for believing - like the woman I met at the

- that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and them.

For most of us, sight is the primary way we interpret the world. How can we

begin to conceive of a meaningful connection with a person who cannot see?

I began living and working among blind people, I, too, wondered this.
Whenever I

saw a blind person on the street I would stare, transfixed, hoping, out of a

and visceral discomfort, that I wouldn't have to engage with him. In his
1930 book

"The World of the Blind," Pierre Villey, a blind French professor of

summarized the lurid carnival of prejudices and superstitions about the
blind that

were passed down the centuries. "The sighted person judges the blind not for

they are but by the fear blindness inspires. ... The revolt of his
sensibility in

the face of 'the most atrocious of maladies' fills a sighted person with

and gives rise to a thousand legends." The blind author Georgina Kleege, a

at the University of California at Berkeley, more tersely wrote, "The blind
are either


supernatural or subhuman, alien or animal."

(Page 2 of 2)

WE take our eyesight so much for granted, cling to it so slavishly and are
so overwhelmed

by its superficial data, that even the most brilliant sighted person can
take a stupidly

long time to recognize the obvious: There is usually a perfectly healthy,

and normal human mind behind that pair of unseeing eyes.

Christopher Hitchens called blindness "one of the oldest and most tragic

known to man." How horribly excluded and bereft we would feel to lose the
world and

the way of life that sight brings us. Blindness can happen to any one of us.

I used to be certain I'd rather die than be blind; I could not imagine how I

have the strength to go on in the face of such a loss.

And yet people do. In 1749, the French philosopher Denis Diderot published
an essay,

"Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See," in which he
described a visit

he and a friend made to the house of a blind man, the son of a professor of

at the University of Paris. The blind man was married, had a son, had many

was versed in chemistry and botany, could read and write with an alphabet of

type and made his living distilling liqueurs. Diderot wrote with wonder of
the man's

"good solid sense," of his tidiness, of his "surprising memory for sounds"
and voices,

of his ability to tell the weight of any object and the capacity of any
vessel just

by holding them in his hands, of his ability to dismantle and reassemble
small machines,

of his musical acuity and of his extreme sensitivity to atmospheric change.

The blind man, perhaps weary of being interrogated by Diderot and his friend
as if

he were a circus animal, eventually asked them a question of his own. "I

gentlemen, that you are not blind. You are astonished at what I do, and why
not as

much at my speaking?" More than any of his sensory skills, it was the blind

self-esteem that surprised Diderot most. "This blind man," he wrote, "values

as much as, and perhaps more than, we who see."

I've learned from my blind friends and colleagues that blindness doesn't
have to

remain tragic. For those who can adapt to it, blindness becomes a path to an

and equally rich way of living.

One of the many misconceptions about the blind is that they have greater

sense of smell and sense of touch than sighted people. This is not strictly

Their blindness simply forces them to recognize gifts they always had but
had heretofore

largely ignored.

A few years ago, I allowed myself to be blindfolded and led through the
streets of

Lhasa by two blind Tibetan teenage girls, students at Braille Without
Borders. The

girls had not grown up in the city, and yet they traversed it with ease,

stumbling or getting lost. They had a specific destination in mind, and each

they announced, "Now we turn left" or "Now we turn right," I was compelled
to ask

them how they knew this. Their answers startled me, chiefly because the
clues they

were following - the sound of many televisions in an electronics shop, the

of leather in a shoe shop, the feel of cobblestones suddenly underfoot -
though out

in the open for anyone to perceive, were virtually hidden from me.

For the first time in my life, I realized how little notice I paid to
sounds, to

smells, indeed to the entire world that lay beyond my ability to see.

The French writer Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his sight at the age of 8,

that those of us who have sight are, in some ways, deprived by it. "In
return for

all the benefits that sight brings we are forced to give up others whose

we don't even suspect."

I do not intend to suggest there is something wonderful about blindness.
There is

only something wonderful about human resilience, adaptability and daring.
The blind

are no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or
deceitful than

the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked them in these

garments. When Helen Keller wrote, "It is more difficult to teach ignorance
to think

than to teach an intelligent blind man to see the grandeur of Niagara," she
was speaking,

obviously, of the uplifting and equalizing value of knowledge.

Rosemary Mahoney is the author of the forthcoming book "For the Benefit of
Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind."
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