[nfb-talk] The Word Blind

peggy elliott delliott at pcpartner.net
Mon Feb 23 02:47:09 UTC 2009

            We in the Federation have held two fundamental beliefs: that 
most blind people misunderstand the word blindness and its significance to 
our self-image and that the public equally misunderstands the term. We have 
vigorously set ourselves the task of changing both our own understanding of 
the word and that of the public.

            I liken the Federation to walking a path. No one can walk that 
path for another person, but thousands can help any blind person make 
progress along the path. As Jim Omvig describes in his January Monitor 
article, the first steps on the path involve coming to understand what 
blindness really is as opposed to what the public or we used to think, 
coming to understand that it is merely a characteristic rather than a 
devastating and complete change and diminution of who we are. Every blind 
person who wants to change and grow as advocated by the Federation simply 
has to start there or those diminishing attitudes remain a part of the 
person's self-image and hold the person back from achieving freedom. Getting 
used to and re-understanding the word blind is a key initial part of that 

            I remember Dr. Jernigan routinely asking people how long they 
had been blind with the purpose of getting people to start re-thinking the 
term. He fully intended to help with the re-thinking, and he profoundly 
understood the reaction that he got from most people who rejected the term 
and argued with him that they were not blind. He kept at it, believing that 
helping the person understand their reaction to the term would help them 
begin the process of change and growth.

            Each of us can play the same role, each with our own personality 
and way of saying things, by helping fellow blind people begin to change and 
grow. But we can't do it by dropping the term blind off the table or by 
soft-soaping it to such a degree that we sort of never get around to it. 
Apparently some people reading Jim Omvig's article achieved the exact 
misunderstanding he warned against and have concluded that use of the word 
blind should be downplayed and softened.

            I don't agree, and I am sure Jim does not either since he talks 
so feelingly of his fourteen wasted years during which he did everything he 
could do to avoid the word and was also stuck on his front porch until 
someone got him to grapple with his misunderstandings. Until he could 
confront the word blind, Jim could not walk off that front porch and start 
to walk the path. Once he did, he did, and thousands helped him.

            What we Federationists can offer our fellow blind men and women 
is the chance to walk that path with friends and supporters. If we choose 
instead never to make the offer and accept that people losing vision are 
sensitive about the word blind as an excuse never quite to bring up the 
subject, then we have abandoned the task of helping others walk the path. 
The task is not an easy one, and not everybody thanks us for making the 
offer. But I've had experience after experience  over the years of people 
initially rejecting the offer only to come back later and say that, without 
it, they never would have gotten started. The first person I ever 
encountered who had such an experience was me, and I've known hundreds, 
maybe thousands since then. It all starts with confronting the attitudes 
behind the word, and it can never start without that.

            If we decide it is our job to decide who is ready to admit they 
are blind and who is not, then we run the risk of withholding from others 
the gift we were given. I think the gift of the Federation is only effective 
when given on to others, and I don't think I should assign myself the job of 
deciding who is ready and who is not. Maybe agency professionals think that 
way, but I don't, believing instead that every blind person is entitled to 
the gift of understanding. Everyone will walk the path and achieve the 
understanding at his or her own rate. But, saying that we should not use the 
word blind with people losing their sight  because their understanding about 
blindness is not at all at our level because they are still coming to grips 
with losing their vision contains for me a fundamental flaw. To me, that's 
taking an agency approach, the specific context Jim Omvig mentions, setting 
up the possessor of understanding as the judge of when the newly-blind 
person is ready to receive that understanding. I liken this flaw to an 
approach to literacy. We don't let kids who don't want to read to opt out of 
learning, though we use different approaches with different kids. In the 
same way, we should be giving the gift of understanding to every blind 
person and not waiting to decide when the gift might be accepted. For every 
person losing vision who rejects the gift, another embraces it and skips 
years of living in limbo. For every person who isn't given the gift as soon 
as possible, we are delaying that person's opportunity to start the 
re-thinking process. I spent four years in that limbo, knowing I couldn't 
see but not wanting to confront it. I know people who lived there much 
longer and, though they may have initially rejected the concept, would have 
come much quicker to understand and appreciate their talents if someone had 
given them straight information. I sure don't want to be the cause of 
someone living extra years in limbo just because I think their understanding 
isn't "on my level."

This is why I believe  that our Federation approach is the right one. 
Perhaps people serving in agencies think they need to take a different 
approach though I don't agree with that, either. I hope the Federation never 

            Likewise, we in the Federation have never been daunted by the 
fact that the world around us looks at the term blind differently from the 
way we do. Take that old saying about the blind men and the elephant. Hasn't 
it always irritated you? Think about it for a minute. Here's a bunch of 
blind guys, each with their hand on a different part of the elephant, each 
verbalizing that the animal he grasps is this or that or the other thing. 
Now, think again. Do these guys never converse? Do they never move around 
and check out different parts of the animal? Do they never pool knowledge 
and figure out there are places they can't touch but that the details come 
together to identify an elephant? Only if they are not Federationists, 
unused to working together and too afraid to move about independently. May 
we never be those blind guys.

            Instead, I hope we continue to be determined to change the 
meaning of the term blind in the minds of the public. No one ever said it 
was an easy task we have set ourselves, pitched as it is against the 
intuition of helplessness without sight and the power of centuries of 
literature. In fact, we can draw on Dr. Jernigan again here to balance the 
scale in his speeches about history and literature and in his lifetime 
determination to change in the mind of the public the meaning of the word. I 
don't like people assuming I don't know where I'm going or can't understand 
simple concepts or need to be shouted at or need a hand-out any more than 
Dr. Jernigan did, and I agree with him that the only way to change that kind 
of treatment is to change what people think of when they think of the term 
blind. Or, as he used to say, until all of us are free, then none of us is 
free, meaning to me that so long as one of us is assumed to be incompetent, 
then that same assumption can be applied to us all

So, I don't agree that Jim Omvig advocates leaving the word blind behind and 
I don't agree that we need to do that to interest people in the Federation 
and I don't agree that we should abandon the effort to change what it means 
when people say the word blind and I most emphatically wish we could replace 
that stupid story about the helpless blind men with the story of the blind 
guys who teamed up, figured out in 42 seconds that it was an elephant, and 
then set about figuring out how to ride it to freedom.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Michael D. Barber" <m.barber at mchsi.com>
To: <mabullis at hotmail.com>; "NFB Talk Mailing List" <nfb-talk at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Sunday, February 22, 2009 4:14 PM
Subject: Re: [nfb-talk] The Word Blind

> Hi Mike:  I like what you say.  I also like what Mr. Omvig had to say in 
> the January Monitor about using the word "blind" to those who are losing 
> their sight.  Their understanding about blindness is not at all at our 
> level because they are still coming to grips with losing their vision. 
> Unfortunately, I've heard some of our members (as well as me, long ago) 
> come down on people who are newly blind, telling them, "you're blind," 
> when in fact, they're not yet ready to admit that.
> Michael Barber
> ----- Original Message ----- 
> From: "Michael Bullis" <mabullis at hotmail.com>
> To: "'NFB Talk Mailing List'" <nfb-talk at nfbnet.org>
> Sent: Sunday, February 22, 2009 6:08 AM
> Subject: [nfb-talk] The Word Blind
>>I read a NY Times article this morning with the following sentence---"that
>> would be like the blind men trying to describe the elephant when each one
>> focuses on a single part."
>> It reminded me that from society's viewpoint, the word blind means 
>> totally
>> blind.  We draw distinctions legally and in our own community, but, the 
>> word
>> blind means the inability to see anything.  Period.
>> It reminded me that when people lose vision, they don't just avoid the 
>> word
>> blind because it's not the way they want to see themselves.  They avoid 
>> the
>> word because it's not what they've always defined blind as.  When people 
>> say
>> "blind sided", "blind to the truth", Etc.  they are thinking of not 
>> seeing
>> at all.  So, I remind myself that when we remind people that blind 
>> doesn't
>> mean totally blind, we are going against the grain of language usage 
>> formed
>> for tens of thousands of years.
>> So, I reminded myself to lighten up on society and on those losing vision
>> when they aren't aware of our subtle nuances of language.  They're doing
>> what comes natural.  Perhaps we ought to strive for an understanding and
>> exceptance of blindness rather than the propper language always, and in
>> every case.
>> Mike
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