[Ohio-talk] Good Reading

Eric Duffy eduffy at deltav.org
Thu Apr 18 12:41:25 UTC 2013

I was asked by my Friend Cheryl Fields to suggest  something that would
clearly outline the NFB philosophy. There are many things out there, but
here is what I have for now. I have also attached it as a word doc.


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
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 met.
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 "handicapped".
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 well.
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 underprivileged.
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
Others have said to me, "But I formerly had my sight, so I know what I am
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
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 discrimination.
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 reality.
Several years ago Dr. Jacob Friend, 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
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 use.
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
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 sight?"
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
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
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
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 rebel.
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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