For years now I’ve been trying to convince people the world over that blindness is really nothing more than any other embodied characteristic like left handedness or shoe size. The obstacles to succeeding in this quest are many. The chief one is what I like to call “neuro-superstition” a panic rooted in our collective nervous systems. People with sight imagine blindness is a vast helplessness. As a guide dog traveler the number one question I’m asked by strangers—especially in airports—is: “will your dog protect you when you’re attacked?”
I’ll return to the dog in a moment but let’s think about this. The question supposes not being able to see renders one a walking victim. The assumption is that sight is a defense mechanism and the world is wildly dangerous. (People devoured by bears are not saved by their vision nor are pedestrians who are struck by cars while texting,) Seeing is believed to be a get out of jail free card, a talisman, the guarantor of welfare.
Once while walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City I asked two young men for directions to a nearby restaurant. I knew I was close. After they told me where it was one of them said: “How can you go anywhere? I’d stay home if I was blind.” The other wanted to know if the dog does all the thinking for me.
And there it is in a nutshell, the neuro-superstition. Once you’re blind you’re a victim. You’ll probably get eaten like a silly camper in a sleeping bag.
Sighted people think seeing is more than believing they imagine it’s thought itself. When someone asks if the dog does my thinking they’re convinced that without sight I can’t possibly process the world. In other words they think the blind live in a mineral blank. Not seeing is imagined to be like living inside a stone. Except of course we can be eaten. The sighted have a number of mixed metaphors about my kind.
In her excellent book “For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind.” Rosemary Mahoney writes: “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.”
I agree with her but want to suggest that there’s something in the ophthalmic connection to the spinal column that connects seeing to self preservation which in turn stands at the root fear of the sighted. This flips quickly to: “can’t see, can’t think” which is interesting because it’s a fear based figure: not seeing is to be unable to move or move safely therefore it’s a physical hijacking and an abandonment of all reason.
Mahoney does a great job in her book of showing how real blind people successfully navigate the world using their other senses and critical thinking skills.
Americans fear blindness more than almost anything including hearing loss, heart disease and cancer.
Not long ago while traveling with the US State Department I spoke with blind children in Kazakstan. We were in a special school for the blind. I said what you’d expect, that the blind can achieve their dreams, that there’s nothing we can’t do in today’s world. Afterwards I wept. One boy’s mother said to me, “how will my son ever get out of this school? People are afraid to be near him.”
The blind persist. The sighted need to pay attention. We don’t live inside rocks and we think just as well as anyone else. It’s amazing to still be saying this in 2021.
Back to the dog. She follows my instructions. Her job is to evaluate whether they’re safe. She has a capacity for what the guide dog schools call “intelligent disobedience” which means she won’t step into harm’s way. I look after her, she looks after me. Which gets me to my final point. Blindness is never solitude in the frightful way the sighted imagine. We have friends canine and human. We live successfully in the world. If you shake my hand you won’t go blind. If you talk to me you might learn a few things about the art of listening.