The arrival of Chen Guangcheng in the United States is significant on many levels but perhaps, lost in the narratives of triumph and political bravery is the fact that his blindness does not define him. This has been easy to overlook given dominant headlines characterizing him as “the blind human rights activist” or “the blind lawyer”. These are designations that sell stories but (as any successful blind person will tell you) probably have almost nothing to do with Chen Guangcheng’s life. Blindness is no more a defining marker of experience than hair color or height: it is a physical condition that ceases to be an impediment when you have the proper tools.
We romanticize blindness by making it a larger obstacle than it really is. We let symbolism return us to an earlier time, an age when vision loss was considered a calamity equivalent to contracting tuberculosis. In the 19th century, both in Britain and the United States, blindness meant incarceration, segregation, poverty, and marginal schooling. Understood via this history, blindness lingers in the public’s imagination as steep and forbidding, and the capabilities of real blind people are thought to be profoundly limited.
When Chen Guangcheng climbed a fence eluding his captors he was brave. But he simply did what all athletic blind people know how to do: he navigated. Blindness in no way inhibited his character, his skills, his ambition, or his intellect. He was heroic because he insisted on human rights.
Blindness in our time is a problem of perception. The National Federation of the Blind, one of the largest advocacy organizations for visually impaired people in the U.S. has long argued that: “The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance.”
I am wishing Chen Guangcheng a life of simple physical nuisance, a life where his bravery is understood as human courage, democratic courage, not blind courage. I wish him the proper tools for study at New York University: full access to computers and websites, speedy and professional accommodations. Most of all I wish him deliverance from outmoded perceptions about his disability so he can go about the urgent business of being a leader without a 19th century ghost on his shoulder.