Over the weekend, two pieces of media came to my attention looking at the dialogue between the blind and the sighted. One, was the New York times op ed, “Why Do We Fear The Blind?” by Rosemary Mahoney. The second, is a video that has been shared both by disabled friends (with distaste) and able bodied friends (with approval). It is a video, without audio description (of course) and it shows a woman “fixing” a sign made by a blind homeless man. Initially it reads “Help me, I’m blind” but is changed into “It’s a Beautiful Day, but I can’t see it.” (Video here)
Both of these items reinforce stereotypes about blindness, with the op ed certainly not meaning to.
Both of them reinforce the concept that the blind cannot speak for themselves. I appreciate Ms. Mahoney’s intent, but am troubled by the presentation. Rather than quoting currently alive and successful blind people to illustrate her point that the blind are capable, she uses the words of a man from the 1700s. Rather than letting her colleagues and students speak first, she speaks for them. It always bothers me when sighted people speak for the blind, because while they can empathize through things like blindfolding, they cannot actually live the lives we live. There is still always a bit of fear, people are always going to wonder what you can and cannot do, and test it. Furthermore, Ms. Mahoney couches her statements about the blind in negatives.
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.
The choice to refer to blindness as being tragic to begin with reinforces the need to consider blindness – and disability, as something we should consider lacking. I’ve never thought of my life as tragic, I’ve thought of it as immensely challenging sometimes, but tragedy is not in my blood. It just is. I’m blind – that’s who I am. It is certainly different for those who are blinded later in life, I’m sure, but for those of us born without sight, I’m not sure we could classify our lives as tragic. We learn how to communicate and experience the world on our own.
Much like the video, the words are not chosen by the blind.
In the video it is yet another demonstration of how the blind need sighted help. Despite the acknowledgement that people who are blind can write (Me, Helen Keller, Georgina Kleege – just to name three) – apparently blind people aren’t smart enough to know how to use the right words – and furthermore, the only way a blind person can get help, is through pity.
In both of these articles it is a sighted person who helps the blind – but the blind are not given the right to say these things for themselves. Quoting Helen Keller and Georgina Kleege in the same article is also a bit of a problem, given that Ms. Kleege wrote a book about how frustrated she is with the use of Helen Keller as the paragon for the blind. The inspiration porn in both of these pieces demonstrates that we haven’t quite gotten past the need to consider the blind “the other” even though the author of the op ed, certainly seems to think she has exited that stage of consideration.
Let’s review some basic facts – blindness is not a static condition, blind people have access to lots of technology which allows them to interact with the world in ways that sighted people do. We use guide dogs, and canes to navigate a world not designed to work for us. We can play video games, we can see or hear movies, we can read books with braille, or e readers, or with audiobooks. We can take photos, do theater, cook and bake. We can date (both able bodied and disabled people) and we can break up with them. We can get married, we can have children. We can hold jobs, we can take public transit, and we can speak for ourselves.
So, I submit that while the video is nothing but pure shlock, the New York Times should know better. Nothing about us, without us. Next time you want to have an opinion editorial about blindness, call someone who is actually blind. I’d love to write for you, and tell you what it’s like to live in New York City. I’d love to tell people about what it’s like to LIVE with blindness, not what it’s like to interact with the blind. The more interesting story is going to come from the people who experience it.