“When the Dead Man splays his arms and legs, he is a kind of Medusa”
It’s axiomatic: the blind are fruitless dead people. I know about this as I was born blind and I had a twin brother born dead. His name was Bill. In Western religions it is assumed Bill can now see because Heaven offers sight without glasses. (The blind who are left behind offer living proof that something’s genuinely wrong with them—many things actually—blindness is imagined by the sighted as standing for dishonesty, unbridled temper, malfeasance, and various monstrosities.)
In other words, the blind get to be “popularly dead” and the dead get to throw away their glasses when they pass through the pearly gates.
I’ve worked among sighted people all my life. How else should it be? The sighted run planet Earth. As a blind employee I have been verbally disparaged, denied full access to events and to reasonable accommodations and have been humiliated for sticking up for myself and others. These experiences have been consistent no matter where I’ve been employed.
Because I regard myself as an imaginative being I invent scenarios wherein the events mentioned above turn out differently. For instance, the college president who, behind closed doors, told me he had a roommate as an undergrad who was a blind Olympic rower and that I wasn’t competitive enough—really this happened—I like to think of him taking a sudden warm interest in my life. After all, once upon a time the man must have taken a warm interest in “something” unfamiliar to him, his future wife perhaps, or a runny foreign cheese, Lord knows, so this exercise isn’t entirely impossible.
Instead of hitting me with his Olympic rower “inspiration porn” what if the prez had said: “I understand blindness isn’t an obstacle and that no two people experience it in the same way. What’s it like for you?”
One would think it’s simple, taking an interest in a blind man or woman or child but you see, they’re already dead. With luck they’ll be on life support, work in a sheltered workshop or in a place of sufferance where their difference won’t complicate a thing—they’ll answer the phone or sell you a magazine. In highly structured sighted people environments the blind are faulty, stiff, wholly problematic, like weird totem poles, which of course gets us back to deadness. What else is lack of sight but a figure for pre-death? “Those blind people sure do make me uncomfortable Larry!” “Yeah,” says Larry, an IT professional at Wiz University, “And they keep messing up our perfectly lovely websites by demanding access and shit.” And the first guy, “Norm” says, “You’d think there’s be a special college for them, you know like that school for the deaf in DC.”
Of course the Deaf, big D, little D, variegated “d” are not thought of as being dead. Let’s be clear: discrimination against the Deaf is relentless. Period. But discrimination against the blind is relentless because they’re already dead.
“How dead are you?”
“I’m so dead woodpeckers ignore me…”
Blindness is the number one metaphor for death. Number two is still blindness.
In Helsinki, Finland, during my childhood I first understood people can be ill tempered. I was a small boy and climbing stairs in the old apartment building near the harbor–holding my dad’s hand, climbing, the steps curved like inside a lighthouse, my blindness talking to my feet. You understand–this is an early memory, 1958 most likely. An old woman approached us coming down from above and seeing me said in blue blood Swedish (for she was a member of Finland’s small Swedish speaking minority): “Tsk, Tsk, barna blind…” Tsk, tisk needs no translation, even to a boy. I was a blind child, and there, on that stairwell, in the curving darkness, I received my brand–was branded. My father ignored her by shrugging and we kept climbing.
“Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.” The words are Gaston Bachelard’s and I’ve puzzled over them for years. My minor event, the naming of my blindness took place in the Scandinavian winter on a dark stairwell and I absorbed some very unrefined ideas about physical difference and human worth–knew them instantly–but how could this ever be a world event? As I see it after all these years there are two ways Bachelard can be right. The first is that the old woman’s contempt becomes a cathected and insupportable incitement, the seed of what Carl Jung would call a “complex” thereby draining my life of self-esteem, maybe even stealing my curiosity. The second is this small, nearly infinitesimal occasion turns me to making things. In both scenarios Bachelard is correct. In both cases a child’s world grows upward and outward and influences many people over a lifetime.
How else to be, but a Blind Medusa? If I’m so dead, I’ll freeze you too.
Or I can loan you some snakes for your own unconscious.
And I’m taking a warm interest in you sighted people.
What’s your dream life like, what’s it really like for you?