[nfb-talk] What People Fear About Blindness:
kenneth.chrane at verizon.net
Wed Jan 29 07:31:25 UTC 2014
I am way behind with email, but that is nothing new. Just To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;
Subject: [Stitchers] OT why people fear the blind
Why Do We Fear The Blind?
This is an article taken from the New York Times.
BRISTOL, R. I. - 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
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
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
was that in her mind there existed a substantial intellectual barrier
between the blind and the sighted. The blind could hear, yes. But could they
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 supernatural 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
ntrepreneurs in Trivandrum, India, a branch of Braille Without Borders,
came from the developing world: Madagascar, Colombia, Tibet, Liberia, Ghana,
Kenya, Nepal and India. One of my students, the 27-year-old Sahr, lost most
of his eyesight to measles when he was a child. (Like many children in
rural West Africa, Sahr had not been vaccinated.) The residents of Sahr's
village were certain that his blindness - surely the result of witchcraft or
immoral actions on his family's part - would adversely affect the entire
They surrounded his house and shouted threats and abuse. They confiscated a
considerable portion of his parents' land. Eventually, the elders decreed
that Sahr's father must take the child out to the bush, "where the demons
live," and abandon him there. The parents refused and fled the village with
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 Kyile's remote Tibetan village insisted
that she, her two blind brothers and their blind 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 that 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
Sighted children ridiculed them, tricked them, spat at them and threw stones
at them. And when they reached working age, no one would hire them.
a visit to the Braille Without Borders training center in Tibet, I met blind
children who had been beaten, told they were idiots, locked in rooms for
years on end and abandoned by their parents. These stories, which would have
been commonplace in the Dark Ages, took place in the 1980s, 1990s and
are taking place now. Nine out of 10 blind children in the developing world
still have no access to education, many for no other reason than that they
The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual impairment in the
world, and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical
Even in this country, the blind are perceived as a people apart. Aversion
toward the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices exist:
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 party - that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and
For most of us, sight is the primary way we interpret the world. How can we
even begin to conceive of a meaningful connection with a person who cannot
see? Before 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 vague 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 literature, 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 what 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 prejudice and gives
rise to a thousand legends." The blind author Georgina Kleege, a lecturer
at the University of California at Berkeley, more tersely wrote, "The blind
are either supernatural or subhuman, alien or animal."
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, active and normal human mind behind that pair
of unseeing eyes.
Christopher Hitchens called blindness "one of the oldest and most tragic
disorders 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. Myself, I used to be certain I'd rather die than
be blind; I could not imagine how I would 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 philosophy at the University of Paris. The blind man
was married, had a son, had many acquaintances, was versed in chemistry and
botany, could read and write with an alphabet of raised 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 perceive, 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 man's self-esteem that surprised Diderot most.
"This blind man," he wrote, "values himself 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 alternative and equally rich way of living.
One of the many misconceptions about the blind is that they have greater
hearing, sense of smell and sense of touch than sighted people. This is not
strictly true. 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, without stumbling or getting lost. They had a
specific destination in mind, and each time 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 smell
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
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
The French writer Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his sight at the age of 8,
understood that those of us who have sight are, in some ways, deprived by
"In return for all the benefits that sight brings we are forced to give up
others whose existence 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
The blind are no more or less other worldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable
or deceitful than the rest of us. It is only our ignorance that has cloaked
them in these ridiculous 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.
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