[NFBOH-Cleveland] National Conference Call on a Philosophical Discussion on Sighted Privilege

Suzanne Turner smturner.234 at gmail.com
Fri Mar 27 21:33:19 UTC 2020

Please share this information with members; especially those who do not have


Tonight at 7:00 PM there will be a conference call on the below article. 


For those who do not have email, they can call the Cleveland’s voice box to
listen to the article at

641-715-3900 and input the code of:

Code: 582705


To join the discussion tonight, March 27, 2020 at 7:00 PM EST. call:

Conference Line: 

+1 669 900 9128 <tel:+1%20669%20900%209128>  US

Code: 595 506 6474 






Braille Monitor                          February 2020

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<https://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/bm20/bm2002/bm200207.htm> )

Sighted Privilege: Recognition of the Problem is the First Step Toward

by Justin Salisbury

>From the Editor: As a long-time reader and now the editor, I sometimes
receive material that makes me uncomfortable. I come to my job with a set of
values that have been influenced over a number of years by society, my
experience, and my opinions about right and wrong. If I really want to
understand somebody else, I have to start by suspending judgment while I
read or listen. I have to be careful not to start constructing arguments as
to how they are wrong before I actually hear what they have said. I have to
work hard at not using their time for speaking as my time for preparing an
answer that may agree or disagree with their statement.

Justin Salisbury sometimes presents me with articles that make me do a
double take. Usually I read them, shake my head in wonder, and then go back
to his email message to write a reply that usually says something like, “Did
you really mean to say that you believe this? Isn’t what you really mean a
little closer to what is commonly believed, and could you say it in a way
that will cause less defensiveness?” Sometimes he agrees, and we work on a
rewrite, but often his response is to suggest that I edit his remarks for
clarity but trust that he means what he says.

Justin sent this article in early July. I read it, but I was preoccupied
with convention planning, and I knew that it would certainly not make our
August/September convention issue and that it was likely not to make the
October one either, which is still predominantly convention-oriented. I
don’t think I responded to him immediately, feeling that we would again go
through our email negotiation. He has now gently reminded me that I have had
this article for about six months and that he is still interested in seeing
it published. This is an appreciated reminder. Having articles fall through
the cracks is not impossible, and though I have a system, it is far from
perfect. This time I am not going to try to talk him into changing what he
sent. I think that indeed he is articulating a concept that will make many
of us uncomfortable but one about which we should be aware. Sometimes I
enjoy privilege that I do not want, did not work on a way to get, and can’t
figure out how to nullify. When I find the end of the line at the airport
and an official from TSA or someone working at the check-in counter
immediately moves me to the front, what easy and respectable options do I
have beyond “no thank you?” How big a scene do I make if the “no thank you”
doesn’t work?

When I heard about the idea that I enjoyed white privilege, I took a
visceral dislike to it. Certainly there was discrimination against people of
other races, but white privilege got under my skin. I didn’t choose to be
white. I didn’t work at having white privilege. I put a good deal of energy
into seeing that everyone had the same privilege, and I felt that the term
was more a statement of blame and accusation than it was a comment about the
way things are. I wanted to reject white privilege as one of these newly
coined words created by sociologists or activists, and the sooner the
concept died away, the better I would feel about it. But concepts that have
merit don’t often fade away, and, at least in my case, negative emotional
reactions often do give way to rational consideration when one gets beyond
feeling he is being blamed for the way things are.

This is a rather long introduction to ask that you work hard at reading this
with an open mind. If you believe that something said here is wrong, send it
along. Let’s talk about it; let’s figure it out together. As he makes clear,
Justin intends this as a conversation starter and not the definitive word on
blind privilege. Here is his article:

Throughout the history of our movement, different terms or phrases have
evolved to describe phenomena faced by blind people. It appears to me that
some of these terms were coined intentionally, while others may have simply
been repeated because someone said something that resonated widely. For
example, we have the term “hierarchy of sight,” which is a formal term that
we often use in the Federation. We also have phrases like “don’t throw the
nickel,” which Dr. Jernigan probably never expected us to say as often as we
do. When Dr. Alan Dodds was writing the document that we now call “The
Nottingham Report,” I doubt that he expected that we would have eventually
branded our model of adjustment to blindness training with the words
“Structured Discovery.” After spending over a decade as a student of our
movement, I am going to attempt to encapsulate some of the themes which I
have heard in our movement in one intentional term. I expect that no single
person could produce a final and complete description of it at the time of
its introduction, but 50,000 blind people can do a pretty good job of it.
Thus, if people think that I have missed something, I beg you to fill in the
blanks because I want it and because we all need it. The term that I am
proposing is “sighted privilege.” The general theme is that being sighted
carries a type of privilege in our society. 

Often, people in a privileged population resist recognizing their own
privilege, and it will be important that I construct my writing in a way
that does not make sighted people feel attacked or threatened. I am
attempting to do this, so please forgive me if anything appears too harsh.
It is common in social situations for people to use examples of how
marginalized populations are mistreated in order to demonstrate that the
privileged group is not treated that way. Since this is the primary way of
highlighting privilege that we observe in our society, I will take this
approach, too. 

While there are parts of privilege which can be articulated, it is my belief
that privilege is one of those situations where the whole is greater than
the sum of its parts. Either that, or the parts form such a lengthy list
that it is too laborious to compile them. It is also common for members of a
privileged group to look at a situation of discrimination and write it off
as an isolated incident, proceeding to go about their lives as if they never
heard about it, while the member of the oppressed minority group may only
have enough time to take a half breath before encountering another symptom
of their lack of privilege, discrimination. Some people may deem it
appropriate to say that discrimination and privilege are like the yin and

I want to be sure that readers understand that I am not comparing sighted
privilege to male privilege, but I am going to touch on the topic of male
privilege in a way that hopefully helps this discussion. When I first heard
the concept of male privilege at the beginning of college, my knee-jerk
reflex was to reject it. I quickly thought of all the special opportunities
that were given to girls and women for which I was not eligible. I
remembered when my middle school class became an all-boys school once per
month for about six months because the girls were going off to some program
that was preparing them to go to college to study STEM fields. I remembered
wishing that I was a girl so that I could have that opportunity, plus we had
to go to class while they had field trips. I also remembered all of the
scholarship applications that I could not submit because I was not a girl. I
remembered how the girls would make $40 or $50 per hour babysitting during
high school while the boys could not achieve any kind of similar-paying
employment and were never hired to babysit. I felt like I could have been
fast-tracked through life with all those extra opportunities if only I had
been a girl. I have heard some sighted people say this about the special
programs designed to empower blind people. 

As I have grown older, however, I think I have come to understand the
concept of male privilege much better than I once did. During college, I did
a lot of community education work about sexual assault and domestic
violence. At the beginning, I was the only heterosexual male who would show
up. As time passed, other male students followed my lead, and we got a lot
of attention throughout the Southeast for that: men involved in sexual
assault programming. I learned that women did not often receive the same
kind of respect and credibility when speaking up about this topic, and many
of them would be shamed with accusations about their romantic habits using
words that I will not put in the Braille Monitor. If a woman said something
about sexual assault, far too many people—particularly men—would dismiss
every word of what they had said, but, if I said it, people would listen
just a little bit more, even if we said exactly the same thing. It shouldn’t
be that way, but it all too often is, and it is still that way as I continue
that activism today. This discussion only brushes on a small part of male
privilege, but I believe that the concept is widespread enough in our
society that people can find more information on that topic if they want it.
Let me now return to sighted privilege, which also has tons of literature
thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, but without that name used
for the idea at present. 

One night when I was in graduate school at Louisiana Tech University
preparing for a career as a teacher of the blind, I remember sitting in my
counseling ethics class and making a comment about how a certain counseling
theme applied to blindness. I do not remember what we were talking about,
but I remember what happened next. People in the class, including the
professor, started shifting their weight and feeling uncertain about what I
had said. I had the honor of going to graduate school with Joanne Gabias,
who was raised by two leaders in our movement and who happens to be sighted.
She understood what I was talking about and offered her endorsement of what
I had said, elaborating with her way of looking at it. Then, everyone
relaxed, they accepted the idea as valid, and the professor resumed with the
lecture. Afterward, Conrad Austen, who now teaches at the Louisiana Center
for the Blind, was talking to Joanne and me. He explained that the feeling
in the room was that it wasn’t really true until a sighted person (someone
with sighted privilege) said it, and, since we had a sighted person to
validate what the blind person had said, it became true. I hadn’t been able
to articulate that, but he did it well. For the record, I think very highly
of the faculty involved in the Louisiana Tech University programs preparing
teachers of the blind, and I have no anger toward those students who did not
understand. If any of them read this article, I would not want them to feel
bad about that simple scenario that night, but I would want them to
understand that sighted privilege is real. 

Now, I will attempt to highlight some of the major parts of sighted
privilege. For more information, have a look at any other publication of the
National Federation of the Blind. The term may not be used, but the ideas
are present. 

Assumption of Competence 

It is common for sighted people to be given the benefit of the doubt that
they are, by default, competent. Thus, they are assumed to be competent
unless proven otherwise. Certainly, a sighted person could have other
minority identities which disqualify them from the assumption of competence,
but it is not their sightedness that is tied to the low expectations. Blind
people are often assumed to be incompetent until we prove that we are
competent, as if we swim in parallel streams with currents flowing in
opposite directions. If I use a cane travel technique that makes me travel a
different path from what a sighted person might use, people often assume
that I am making a mistake related to my blindness and attempt to help me.
For example, if I am walking down a long hallway to go into the last door in
a place unfamiliar to me, I might walk to the very end and then come back to
the first one. An observer might conclude that I made a mistake and want to
tell me that I missed it, but I would still be fully on course as planned.
People do not come to this conclusion as a consequence of a traveler’s
sightedness. When a blind parent has his or her children taken away because
of the assumption of incompetence, the alternative treatment for those with
sighted privilege is that people do not default to assuming that sightedness
implies incompetence. The same assumption of competence applies to many
other areas of life, such as education and employment.

Curse, Shame, and Bad Luck

There are those who believe that blindness is caused by a curse, that blind
people carry bad luck, or that blindness is a source of shame. These factors
do not take effect for sightedness. People never think “because this person
is sighted, there must be bad energy around him or her.” I doubt that anyone
has ever been kicked out of a place of public accommodation or ostracized
from his or her family because of the fact that they were sighted, but it
has happened to many blind people because they were blind. This theme varies
culturally, but I am going to go out on a very short limb and say that
nobody has ever been treated this way because they were sighted. I have
never heard of a sighted person feeling ashamed to be sighted, but I have
heard of many blind people who were ashamed to be blind. When I get on a bus
and sit down in the middle of a group of people and they all scatter like
cockroaches to sit as far as possible from me, I cannot be sure that it is
my blindness, but I can be sure that it does not happen to sighted people
because of their sightedness. 

Equal Access

When things are not accessible to a blind person, this creates a barrier. We
generally do not have systems in our society set up in ways that are
inaccessible to sighted people. Even if everything currently only in print
existed only in Braille, sighted people could reasonably be expected to
learn Braille, but blind people cannot reasonably be expected to learn
print. When a blind person tries to apply for a job and finds that the
online application portal is inaccessible to the blind, that person is
forced to find other ways to submit the application. It could be done by
asking a sighted person to clear the accessibility hurdle for us, or it
could be a matter of contacting a human resources staff member to ask for an
alternative arrangement for us to submit our application. Any separate
arrangement places us in a segregated pool, and separate but equal has yet
to work in human civilization. As blind people we run into access barriers
on a daily basis. It may be something critically important, or it may be
something minor. Often we cannot tell if it is critically important until we
have access to it to know what it is. Even if we have developed ways to
problem-solve to get around that hurdle, it is still an adaptation that we
need to make that a sighted person would not encounter. These socially
constructed barriers limit our participation in education, employment, and
other mainstream channels of society. Those who benefit from sighted
privilege often fail to recognize the absence of these barriers that they do
not face. It is usually not something they requested, but it has been given
to them as a part of their favored status. 

Availability of Educational Opportunities

It is not difficult to find a teacher who knows how to teach print, but it
is quite a task in some places to find a teacher who knows how to teach
Braille. The same is true for other kinds of instruction that a blind person
may need versus that which a sighted person may need. If a sighted person
wants to become a medical doctor, nobody tells them that this might be
off-limits because of their sightedness. For many blind children,
unfortunately, the response is all too often that becoming a medical doctor
would be off-limits because of their blindness. Even if people involved in
their education never tell them that this doubt exists, the doubt erodes the
interactions with the blind student and the opportunities which that student
might have received. If the student is told, “You cannot study abroad
because there are no disability accommodations overseas,” that student is
missing out on opportunities to grow and develop as a meaningful contributor
to the world. A sighted person does not think about how nobody tells them
that they cannot do it because of their sightedness, which is part of the
first-class status that comes with sighted privilege. 

Confirmation Bias

When people have subscribed to the status quo idea of blindness, they have a
tendency to be more open to information that confirms their existing beliefs
than they are to information which challenges it. Thus, if we transcend the
person’s existing ideas of how a blind person should function or act, we are
all too often pushed to the back burner of that person’s mental clipboard,
especially if they are looking for a blind person specifically. For example,
if the coordinator of a conference on urban planning wants to invite a blind
person to come speak about how urban planners can help blind people, they
may already be hoping for a certain kind of blind person. They may want a
blind person who will tell them that we need all kinds of special design
features in our built environment. If a blind person tells them that for the
most part blind people can adapt to the built environment with little need
for modifications, that blind person’s words may not be fully embraced
because they do not confirm the existing stereotypes held by those with
sighted privilege. For another example, if a conference for teachers of the
blind wants to invite a blind person—sorry, a person with a visual
impairment—to come and address their membership, they are most likely to
want to invite one who will tell them how good a job they are doing and
reinforce their existing beliefs about blindness. A majority group does not
have to deal with the expectation of confirming stereotypes and
complimenting efforts toward integration which may be ineffective or
inappropriate. Even with good intentions, the privileged majority may have
its way of catering to the minority, which may not actually work well for
the minority. 

I have also noticed this phenomenon when it comes to government-appointed
councils that claim to speak for people with disabilities or oversee
disability service programs. With government-appointed councils, those
councils are beholden to the political leaders who appoint them; their
purpose is often to cement the status quo or whatever rhetoric might be the
most politically fashionable at the time. By contrast, the leaders in the
National Federation of the Blind are beholden to the members who elect us.
When it comes to overseeing disability services, consider a state
rehabilitation council in a state with a specialized commission for the
blind. This council will be made up of a representative of the client
assistance program, a community rehabilitation program, a few more specific
classifications, and a number of blind people from that state who have been
consumers of vocational rehabilitation at some point in time. If the state
rehabilitation council is selected by the governor or some other executive
branch leader, they are likely pre-screened by the leadership of the
vocational rehabilitation agency. If someone is well-known to hold that
agency accountable for its shortcomings, it is unlikely that the VR agency
leadership will endorse his or her nomination. The leadership will want
people who smile and tell everyone how great the agency is, perhaps just
falling in line with whatever they say. This may be influenced by whether
the agency is classified as a welfare agency or an education-related agency.
Welfare recipients are often told that beggars cannot be choosers and
criticized as ungrateful if they ask for anything different from the
prescribed service. Sighted people are not expected to confirm existing
beliefs about sightedness, but blind people are often expected to confirm
existing beliefs about blindness and affirm our service providers no matter
what. If we do not, we lose points in whatever processes are relevant at the

Biased Selection

People, such as employers or even someone looking for a romantic partner,
have an idea of what kind of person they’re seeking. In the general
population, it is not normal to expect that the ideal candidate happens to
be blind. They just assume that the person is sighted, thus “normal.” When a
blind person shows up for the interview, they are all of a sudden different
and require cognitive flexibility on behalf of the person who was not
expecting to hire a blind person. It may not require much actual work, but
open-mindedness is difficult for some people. Furthermore, a person might
think, “I would like to hire a blind person for job X.” While I do not at
all want to discourage anyone from hiring a blind person, I also think it
may be relevant to note that this particular statement demonstrates that a
job has already been pre-selected as a “good job for a blind person.” This
process of pre-selecting which types of jobs are specifically good for us
likely involve some filtering through a set of existing beliefs and
stereotypes about blindness. All too often, these jobs that are “good jobs
for blind people,” are low-paying jobs involving very low levels of
intellectual activity and often involve much repetition in a confined space.
If a sighted person says, “I would like to date a blind person,” without
someone particular in mind, that mindset can open a whole can of worms. I
will leave it up to the readers’ imagination what kinds of expectations and
stereotypes the sighted person may have about blind people. Sighted people
do not often receive that kind of biased selection filter. The only example
that comes to my mind is when a blind person hires a reader or driver; when
this happens, it is not done with the assumption that a sighted person is
confined to those limited functions to produce value in society because of

We who are blind have many allies who have sighted privilege and can use it
to help pull us forward. At any given time, it may be that one of them can
reach for an opportunity first and then use their new position to welcome in
the first wave of blind people to participate in that circle. For example,
there may be an employer who is only willing to hire a sighted person for a
given job, but then, if one of our allies gets that job, he or she can use
it to usher blind people into that setting if we want to be there. I will
avoid speculating about when this might have happened, but I am certain that
it has, even if the sighted ally might not have realized it at the time. I
have heard the story of a sighted woman who was operating an adjustment to
blindness training program. She was told by one of her sighted instructors
that she needed to stop giving the blind so much power because they would
eventually be running that program. She said she thought that would be
great, and, once she was promoted above the training program, she hired a
blind person to fill her old job. Some noteworthy allies in our quest for
empowerment most certainly include Merilynn Whittle, Mary Ellen Jernigan,
Lea Días, Joanne Gabias, Dick Davis, Doug Boone, Darick Williamson, Jim
Witte, and Floyd Matson to name a few.

My objective here is to introduce the concept of sighted privilege and
hopefully allow it to be useful in the narrative about blindness. Sighted
privilege is only one dimension of privilege that a person may have. Every
person has a race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic
status, religious affiliation, etc., all producing varying types of
privilege. It is possible for me to have male privilege or heterosexual
privilege but not have sighted privilege. 

I will also argue that sighted privilege is not perfectly binary, just like
male privilege is not perfectly binary. Just as a woman may be given greater
respect and promotion potential in the workplace if she exhibits more
masculine characteristics, such as a deeper voice or a louder footstep, a
blind person with more residual vision may also be given the same partial
credit. Some sighted people want to know that a blind person has some useful
residual vision as if it gives them more potential to contribute. Some blind
people with residual vision may be able to overcome certain access barriers,
like when I see a low-hanging tree branch and duck out of the way to avoid
hitting my head. Sighted people simply avoid that low-hanging tree branch
and think nothing of it most of the time. They surely do not think about how
a society constructed for their benefit does not prioritize the trimming of
those low-hanging tree branches. 

This is how privilege works. It requires no malice, and those who have it
did not ask for it. Society is constructed in a way that caters to the
majority groups. In the case of the blind, the majority group is the
sighted, and they regularly take their sighted privilege for granted. We who
are blind do not want to knock down the sighted and limit their ability to
enjoy full access to the mainstream channels of society, but we are working
together to try to gain that access for ourselves. Sighted privilege is
real, and the more society becomes aware of it, the more effectively we can
reach for first-class status and enjoy true participation and integration
with our sighted neighbors and colleagues. 

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