BLINDLESS a sighted world

The first blind person I met was Col. Hawkins, a retired army officer and family acquaintance who had a full time attendant. My mother portrayed him as a helpless object of pity - an image of blind people that persists in our culture.

At that time there were many blind beggars, one of whom I often encountered in downtown San Antonio near the Texas Theater, with his guide dog and tin cup of pencils for sale. He read aloud from his huge Braille bible and was reputed to be wealthy from donated coins. A few wayward youths stole pencils.

Sixty years later I am close to blind people who are psychologist, engineer, geologist, lawyer, mathematician. I have acquired the attitudes that pervade this work. I learned that the sighted people who outlawed begging have taken over the tin cups, stolen the pencils, and told the blind folks that those gold coins they heard hitting the bottom of the cup were nickels and dimes.

As I learned that "out of sight, out of mind" and "seeing is believing" aren't the best "watchwords" in our language, I began to understand ("see?") why it is not a fact that "clothes make the man." I can't deny that "first impressions last" but I have learned to institute a "semantic pause" before embracing such concepts, and hope I have become blindless instead of just sighted.

If you want to find out how it feels to be blind you could restrict or eliminate vision temporarily with blindfolds or special distorting eyeglasses. A few people even had their eyelids sutured closed! These things may let you lose eyesight but they won't let you know what it's like to be blind. It takes more than loss of vision to experience blindness. I won't propose having your eyes removed to join the blind subculture.

People who became blind after living with eyesight (euphemistically called "adventitiously blind") typically "mourn" a few years before learning to use long cane, guide dog, or Braille. They often exhibit denial symptoms, even taking falls rather than learning mobility skills. There are cases of people who were born blind due to cataracts, learned to live "in the world of darkness" and after their "vision was restored" through surgery became so depressed during the process of learning to see that they went mad and longed for a return to blindness.

The disadvantages of being blind are not so profound as what "sighties" fear. One cliche, "if I went blind, I'd kill myself!" is a threat seldom pursued. Most people learn to be very effective after becoming blind late in life. A friend walking to his job was asked by a religious zealot (who splashed strawberry scented water on my pal's forehead), "don't you want to see again, brother?" The immediate rejoinder, "not if it's gonna make me late for work!"


Strange as it may seem to most sighted people there are disadvantages to depending on eyesight for everything. Sleight-of-hand can defraud you in a lot of ways, not just amuse you in a performance setting. For many, "seeing," "sight," "vision," etc. are thought of as active functions, e.g. to "look at" something, "eye contact," and such imply that vision is some kind of ray put out by the eyeball, although physics makes it clear that light activates retinas, not the other way around. In fact vision takes place at a higher level of the brain than the retina or optic nerve bundle. This is even truer of "in-," "fore-," "hindsight" and "seeing" as "understanding."

One of the most familiar mistakes the sighted make is to have faith in "seeing is believing." Although beauty may very well be in the eye of the beholder, "what you see" isn't "what you get" and how you say things really shouldn't be as important as what you say in most situations.

As I read about Styles in Desktop Publishing I am struck by the importance placed on "visual" effects, and try as I might to ignore all that fancy stuff I know that putting a little DYNAMITE in the message works to catch the reader's attention.

Because delusion is promoted through the long term brainwashing of "medium is message" technology we (unfortunately?) tend to communicate with illustrations, icons, color, type faces and other beguiling devices. Perhaps reading skills are suffering because the teaching of reading has been taken from McGuffey and given to Disney.

The allegory of The Emperor's Clothes shows we can control the "attention" function. We often don't "notice" something because our attention was elsewhere. Visual distraction is so commonplace that some of our most cherished activities, playing music and making love, are often done with closed eyes. We "space out" even with "eyes wide open" so as to be unaware of things happening "right in front of our eyes."

Stage magic is an example of how our eye gets tricked. Trompe l'oeille (French for "fool the eye") is the name of an art form wherein a painting tries to make the viewer think she is not looking at a picture but at what the picture is of.

Gaining control of one's focus can make the illusory less "real." In some senses there is no "magic" for the magician because he sees through an illusion to how things really are. Although at first this seems like the loss of something precious, the increased awareness of not being fooled can provide pleasure for the knowledgeable. The attitude of being "blindless" instead of "sighted" helped me to avoid always "going for the okeydoke."

Illusions are precursors of delusion and history is full of trickery by ideologues, demagogues and fashion engineers who control our minds through our eyes. We buy a new model automobile every year, but the driving feel doesn't change; last year's ally is our new enemy as war flips from Hell to Noble Cause with a few "sincere" speeches by leaders.

These manipulations utilize enough nonvisual factors to fool many blind folks, but: if you drop your "blind faith" in "seeing is believing" you may fool the foolers.

So far this is all fairly obvious, though perhaps not too familiar, but so what? I guess it's being written for us sighties, so it must be that I found something useful to learn about us from bats. After I met a great many competent blind guys I became less awed by their abilities as hero super detectives, and more motivated to attack some factors in the environment that, if repaired, would enable them to become more at ease, while easing my own creeping senility.

As I did this I found that many of us who make our living off "help the blind" projects have a vested interest in keeping blind people out of the decision-making as to what should be done with the funds that are raised in the name of blindness.

The first inkling that much of our drive for privilege focused on exclusivity drove me to share a concept: privileges are at least as rewarding when they are not exclusive as they are when you are in some kind of elite.

People who seek fame and fortune often suffer severe regrets when they get too much - their lives are no longer their own and this is often quite painful. Be careful what you wish for: you may get it!


So how is it around blind guys? First I was uncomfortable, wondering if it was unfeeling to make all the usual "mistakes," like "it's the blue one" or "right over there." Is it OK to say "see you later," should I feel embarrassed by these things? Blind people hear these many times a day all their lives and more often have to deal with dealing with it than with it.

The next step was a sort of hero worship: isn't it amazing how they can feed themselves without sticking a fork in their lip. Finally it became clear that blind people are firstly people within a subcategory: blind.

Blind guys make a point of using "see you" to put sighties at ease, although after what they are so often put through by us, I wonder why they should care about our little discomforts.

For blind people, a major annoyance is being grabbed by the arm and pushed around instead of being offered an elbow and letting the guide's movements serve as silent clues. Most people don't need "here's a step" when they can feel you up- or down-ing.

There is a rule prohibiting long canes on some airlines, and a decree that blind people are incompetent to sit in exit row seats. Unless obesity, panic proclivity or slow reactions are also considered this is obvious discrimination.

Most of my blind friends have been blind almost from birth - those who ever had vision are in the same boat after a few years' "lights out" blindness. As in the Afro-American subculture there is sometimes a certain stratification within blindworld about "high partials," "low vision" and "legally blind." People who are aware of being discriminated against are still able to have prejudices.

Even the visual impairment brought on by age brings reduced competence, but total blindness brings a vulnerability that over a long period profoundly affects personality. Blind people learn that survival depends on accepting dependence with as much dignity as is allowed without endangerment.

Blind people expect bad information about "left/right" but they dread being shoved into bad situations. They trust long canes or dog guides for mobility aid more than they do many people. A major problem is constant disorientation and its consequence: dependence on an often incompetent sighted population; once a blind person learns that many sighties don't know right from left it becomes less demeaning that one doesn't know North from South - but it is hard to forgive someone who sends you into traffic by describing the condition of a traffic signal that is 90 degrees from the safe path.

To be a good sighted guide, give just enough cues to enable your companion to move about with confidence. Your body language tells if you are going to step up or go through a narrow place. Instead of the unnecessaries, you should give information that your friend could not get because of visual impairment.

Some people like to hear all the signs read. Many people are interested in stuff that seems strictly visual; when color and pattern say something of interest, a description is often welcome.

Most of us are embarrassed when a fellow sightie tries to communicate around our blind companion with visual gestures. I am not above turning this around by translating: "he's signifying with his eyebrows that..." It may trouble the person who was trying to give you a fraternal communication but it's like telling a waiter who talks loud to a blind person "she hears OK it's her eyes that don't work." Often when you are asked "what does she want for dessert?" and you ask "what do you want for dessert" the waiter doesn't even get it. It may seem rude to say "why don't you just ask her?" but it may be instructive to the waiter as well as amusing to you and your friend.

There are some cliches that turn off people in some cultures: "Some of my best friends are...", "I really admire Joe Louis", and "you people are so good at..." It's not hard to be The Ugly American when you trample through somebody's garden. Find out something about protocol and manners before you go to a Bar Mitzvah.

One of the dilemmas I waffle on is whether to face bigotry with "women drivers are actually less likely to have wrecks" or "I'd rather you didn't say 'nigger' - my mother is African-American." On the one hand there's the "do as the Romans" aspect, on the other you would like to let people know about inappropriate behavior.

When I flame about social inequities some people argue that "honey attracts, vinegar repels"; but "squeaking wheel gets oil." I don't think there would be curb cuts if wheel chair users hadn't chained their vehicles to inaccessible transportation systems. You must rock the boat to send an S.O.S.

It's obviously vain for me to speak for blind folks but I think it's OK to address some of these issues in my role as an "honorary blink" as long as I point out that I really don't know what I'm talking about. I do discuss these things with my pals and try to make some kind of sense. The main thing I want to get across is that there is a lot being missed by our society because we tend to forget what deSaint-Exupery said in The Little Prince: "What the eye can perceive isn't worth seeing."