Why the Times Gets Blindness Wrong

Last week the New York Times published an article about blindness with the inestimable title, “The Worst That Could Happen? Going Blind, People Say” —and here I’m using “inestimable” in the province of unfathomable, as the damage caused by such a headline is nearly limitless. Let me put my cards on the table: I side with the National Federation of the Blind, one of America’s leading blindness advocacy organizations, who attest “that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.”

Low expectations indeed. The Times article by Jane E. Brody takes a purely medicalized approach to blindness and confuses vision loss with life itself, a model of living we tend not to believe if we’re talking about hair loss, foot pain, or even cancer. I include cancer because it’s been forty years since Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor first made its appearance. Didn’t we learn that a woman isn’t her diagnosis? Haven’t we discovered that fear of disablement is simply fear? That it gets in the way of living?

Of course we did. But you’d never know it according to the perfervid ophthalmologists quoted in Brody’s piece who hold that blindness as a calamity. Blindness is at most an inconvenience, but it’s manageable. The Times’ failure, and it’s a considerable one, is to hint that the public’s perception of vision loss has merit. There’s nothing awful about blindness. Fear is easy where disability is concerned. Few imagine disablement as a preferred condition. But you see, it doesn’t matter what one thinks of it, the reality is always different, and in the case of disability, when met with education, life is better than any supposition.