For years now I’ve been trying to convince people the world over that blindness is really nothing more than any other embodied thing like left handedness or shoe size. The obstacles to succeeding are many. The chief one is panic. People with sight imagine blindness to be 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. The question supposes vision loss renders one a walking victim. The assumption is sight is a defense mechanism. People devoured by bears are not saved by their vision nor are pedestrians who are struck by cars while texting, Seeing is not a guarantor of welfare.
Once on Fifth Avenue in New York City I asked two young men for directions to a nearby restaurant. I knew I was close. After telling me 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.
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. They think the blind live in a mineral blank. Not seeing is thought to be like living inside a stone.
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 but wish to add that there’s something in the ophthalmic connection to the spinal column that connects seeing to falsifiable ideas about self preservation which in turn stand at the root fear of the sighted. This becomes: “can’t see, can’t think”—moreover not seeing is the inability move safely, a physical hijacking.
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 segregated 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 sighted need to pay attention. The blind don’t live inside rocks and we think just as well as anyone else. It’s amazing to still be saying this in the 21st century.
Back to the dog. She follows my instructions. Her job is to evaluate whether my commands are 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.