Do we fear the blind?

January 10, 2014 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, Uncategorized by

A New York Times article called Why Do We Fear the Blind? quotes everyone from the 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot to modern essayist Christopher Hitchens to try to explain why Blindness is the most feared and misunderstood of all disabilities. Well, from a journalistic point of view, I’d say the piece was too long, and I think the headline is not representative of the story. Because the story really describes why sighted people fear blindness — not people with blindness.

I mean, let’s be real. People are afraid of blindness because, well, being blind is scary. Maybe seeing someone like me, who is blind, serves as a reminder: this could happen to you, too.

Odds aren’t great, though. Only 1.3 million people in the United States are legally blind. That’s not many. We human beings tend to be fearful of things we don’t know, though, and with so few of us out here, your chances of getting to know a person who is blind is rare. The woman who wrote the New York Times article put on a blindfold to try to understand what it’s like to traverse city streets when you can’t see. I’m afraid all that does is make her readers more afraid. And grateful that they are not blind. But she can go away proud that she was sensitive enough to try walking around with a blindfold in an effort to simulate being blind.

People who are blind can’t take the blindfold off and then talk about how scary it is. We spend miserably difficult months with remarkably dedicated orientation and mobility trainers learning how to do simple things, like walk outside and mail a letter.

I started losing my eyesight in 1984, when I was 25 years old. Before then, I had a job advising college students who wanted to study overseas. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits. I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see. My boss, however, was equally sure I could not. I tried proving her wrong. At first I didn’t use a white cane or a dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to work with a walking cane (Mike and I happened to have bought one as a souvenir during our honeymoon in Scotland months before, when I could still see perfectly well).

As my eyesight got worse, I started making mistakes in the office. One morning I spilled grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I sat inches away from my computer screen to see the words. I ran into tabletops. At one point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues that year. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said.

Those were scary times.

By the end of that year, I had lost my sight completely. The Americans with Disabilities Act had not been passed yet. My contract was terminated. My confidence was shattered. How could I have been so naive? Did I really think I was worth hiring? Why would anyone employ someone who couldn’t see?

I considered pursuing a Master’s degree in blind rehabilitation then, reasoning that if you work helping blind people, being blind would be an advantage, and I might get a job. After some soul-searching, though, I realized that with my personality I might be able to do more for the blind community by getting outside of it. I’m not shy, and demonstrating to people who might not come across a blind person in their daily lives that a person without sight can live a full, creative, and pleasurable life might show them that we’re nothing to be afraid of.

Which is not to condemn the writer of that New York Times article for trying. I just think, with this article, she failed.

Robin On January 10, 2014 at 8:57 am

agreed, I read that and thought the same thing.

bethfinke On January 10, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Thanks, Robin. Good to hear I’m not alone.

glivingstonGretchen On January 10, 2014 at 9:19 am

I was waiting for just that response after reading the NYT piece! Well done Beth.

bethfinke On January 10, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Aw, shucks. Thanks, Gretchen.

Lauren On January 10, 2014 at 9:45 am

I still need to read the NYT piece, but thanks for posting this. I suspect you’re right about the source of the fear being blindness itself rather than the blind people, but the fear is very real and often translates as fear of the people. There is a great deal of patronizing, prejudice, and ignorance regarding what blind people live with, what they can and can’t be expected to do, and what it takes to put that brave face forward. Journalists love to point to people like you and Tom and talk about overcoming obstacles and so forth. And not to diminish that nice idea, but even those blind people who successfully live and work among the sighted (a frighteningly small percentage) face ignorance, patronizing attitudes, and pure bigotry. Toooooo often!!

Lauren On January 10, 2014 at 10:09 am

I love the last paragraph of the op-ed piece, which I’m quoting here from the NYT site:

I do not intend to suggest there is something wonderful about blindness. There is only something wonderful about human resilience, adaptability and daring. The blind are no more or less otherworldly, 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.

[me again] Knowledge is a great equalizer, and I think the piece clearly shows the need to educate–beginning here at home.

bethfinke On January 10, 2014 at 5:59 pm

I understand what you’re saying Lauren. But here’s the part I don’t get: if this writer sincerely believes that The blind (and those are her words, calling us “the blind”) “are “no more or less otherworldly, stupid, evil, gloomy, pitiable or deceitful than the rest of us,” than why would she write this article and think the New York Times would be interested in publishing it?

Zen On January 10, 2014 at 10:21 am

I can’t stop admiring you Beth, as a person, regardless. You’re one of a kind!

bethfinke On January 10, 2014 at 6:00 pm

It takes one to know one. Thanks, Zennie — you’re one of a kind, too.

adventuresinlowvision On January 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Will you be writing a letter to the newspaper in response to the article?

bethfinke On January 10, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Wasn’t going to. Think I should?

adventuresinlowvision On January 10, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Yes. It would be a great platform, a way to educate some people who are interested in learning, to demystify blindness. Sleep on it. 🙂

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:49 am

Ah, that platform thing again!!!

The Empty Pen On January 12, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I agree with Adventures. Disclaimer, I haven’t read the original article but based on your passionate post and all the comments you’ve received, a response to the paper itself makes sense.

adventuresinlowvision On January 10, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Oh. Ms. Mahoney’s book, For the Benefit of Those Who See, comes out this month. This article was in addition to other press she got (publisher’s weekly, Kirkus, O magazine, etc) so we will be hearing a lot more I bet as others talk about her book.

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

I wonder if we really *will* be hearing a lot about this book — the NY Times article rubbed a lot of people the wrong way — at least the people I heard from about it.

Nancy B On January 10, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Interesting that she feels qualified to write “dispatches from the world of the blind”. Why didn’t she encourage her students to write?

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:53 am

Uh-oh. I wonder if people wil say the same thing when I come out with a book about the memoir writing classes I lead?!Oh, but wait: I *do* encourage them to write books themselves. Hanna and Wanda have books published alreadyI am getting permission from students to use excerpts from their essays inthe book I’m working on, too.phew! …

Nancy B On January 10, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Another bone I have to pick with her is about this sentence
” 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 them”
Really I don’t think that is such a “forgivable” thing. I mean really, is there anyone with any emotional intelligence who doesn’t try to forge a connection with anyone you come across? Maybe they speak Farsi or have ALS and talk with a computer or they have a pink mohawk or they are a soccer hooligan or anything/age/color/religion that you are not……but you still try, right?

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:54 am


guidepooch On January 10, 2014 at 11:48 pm

I haven’t read the article but these simulation-type pieces annoy me. A journalist slapped on a blindfold and walked around Vancouver, BC last January for 2 hours and then wrote about her experience in the Globe and Mail. These pieces about “The Blind” are all written in the same tone – intersperse it with some Helen Keller quotes and sprinkle with seemingly deep thoughts about blindness and you’re done. These simulations fail to recognize the embodied, complex interactions of disability to the individual. The person with a disability is so intimately intertwined with their mind and body that to suggest we can separate out the medicalized “problem” (i.e. blindness) and slap it on to a sighted person is far too simplistic. I’m going to go read it now and cringe.

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:56 am

So well put, and I so agree. The only credit I’ll give this writer is that at least she wore the blindfold and went out with two people who couldn’t see, an attempt to learn how it was they navigate. But still…

Mike On January 11, 2014 at 10:57 am

FWIW, I think this piece mixes up too many ideas and cultures and quotations and fails to flesh out any single idea in a way that is satisfying. She needed an editor, and I’m probably more annoyed at the Times than her for not filling that need. There’s something here worthy of investigation–in my own experience, Beth’s before-dog and after-dog experience come to mind. When she used a cane folks would flea to get out of her way. They wouldn’t say hello or identify themselves. After the dog, it’s the opposite. (I’ve also detected what I believe are differences in the way that blind women and men are received but no space here.) Now, there’s a lot to talk about there, including how it could also have something to do with Beth’s confidence–which went up measurably after she had a canine partner. The thing is, I’m not sure I put sighted people’s behavior down to fear so much as surprise and awkwardness and yes, ignorance. Besides that, the tone of this piece is what irritates me. It’s got that deadly more-progressive-than-thou tone. And what bugs me the most is the way she writes about it seems to accentuate the “otherly” quality about people who are blind that she purports to dispel. Finally, she and her experience seem to be at the center of things, not her subjects. Which makes the thing feel dishonest. To me, anyway.

Mike On January 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm

make that “flee”–the dog reference must’ve tripped me up:)))

Deborah Darsie On February 2, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Mike, you pointed the finger (flea-ridden???) at the lack of editing support. When I read the title of the article in Beth’s post I literally spoke out loud “WTH?!” followed by a few sarcastic remarks…fortunately my cat is used to that from me.

Beth’s alternative spin on the title would have suited the piece better.

So many people fear ‘difference’ – color, religion, abilitydisability and so on without trying to learn about the difference. I point the finger at all the ‘don’t stare’ (point, say anything, etc) that was so common while I was growing up.

I love reading your blog – and Mike’s contributions as well. Keep it up!

bethfinke On February 3, 2014 at 7:11 am

Thanks for the confirmation — very much appreciated!

Nancy Fischer Stewart On January 13, 2014 at 8:23 pm

What is so great about you is that once you could see. That is a great base. I also don’t think being scared for you – could last too long. You are such a strong force – there was no way to keep Beth down! You adapted and made the best. That is the success.
I have enjoyed being on your blog – thanks for keeping it up.
Fancy Nischer.

bethfinke On January 22, 2014 at 10:57 am

Fancy, I get a smile on my face every time I hear that play on your name – thanks for leaving comments here!-

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