No one really represents the “blind” just as no one speaks for all cab drivers in the United States. There might be good reasons for a national taxi union but even if you could launch it in the face of the Teamsters’ and the 14th amendment, you’d have trouble getting word out to real cabbies, even in the age of Twitter.
The “blind” are just as complex and busy as any other group. Like cab drivers they’re everywhere–indeed the “blind” hail from every ethnic, racial, and social group. You can’t get the “blind” to agree about anything. I happen to like this fact.
There are blind people who believe the only dignified way to walk is with a tall white cane in hand. I believe that’s their right. There are blind people who feel that working with a guide dog is the best way to travel. I belong to that group. A guide dog is trained in a procedure called “intelligent disobedience” which means if you make a bad street crossing decision, the dog will prevent you from walking into a car.
Some of the “cane people” are really quite militant in their disdain for the dog people, and vice versa. This dispute has always reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s description of the nation in “Gulliver’s Travels” that was still fighting a 100 year civil war over the issue “which end of the egg do you crack–the big or the small?”
In New York City cabbies are divided according to their origins and shared languages. They have their own networks and publications. I suspect they fight among themselves. That’s how it is when the commercial stakes are high and the resources are small.
The problem with fights between rival blindness factions is that their disputes can do great harm to individuals who already have a hard time managing their lives. Roughly 70% of the blind remain unemployed in the US, a number that reflects larger unemployment figures for all people with disabilities. One would thing blindness organizations would work together to affirm every avenue of success for blind people trying to get ahead. But such was not the case in Iowa when a young woman with a guide dog tried to take a computer class and was told by the “cane people” that her dog wasn’t welcome in class. Here is my original blog post about this from 2009:
Blind Woman and Guide Dog Suffer Setback in Iowa That is Incomprehensible
If you’re looking for a story that’s so far fetched it makes Edgar Poe’s Cask of Amontillado seem like a plot from Leave It to Beaver then you can read the following story at The Des Moines Register. Some days I need a crazy story for the sheer giggling asphyxia of the thing and there’s no help for it: I just have to read about the raw, dark, nay, even pre-historic antics of people who I had quietly supposed were our civilized neighbors. I make this mistake about civilization rather often so there’s no dearth of outlandish stories in circulation but this one is surprising for its evident extremism about blindness by an agency funded by the state of Iowa that’s supposed to help blind people–and that’s just the opening fork’s worth of apalling meat. The larger mouthful is that state money was spent to fight The Americans with Disabilities Act in a time when every nickel of public aid is desperately needed to help people but I digress. I’m having a problem with my oxygen. This story is just too disgraceful for my customary sensibilities.
Here is a brief excerpt from the Des Moines Register’s article that’s linked above:
Woman’s Bid To Take Dog To Classes Rejected
(Des Moines Register)
February 20, 2008
DES MOINES, IOWA– [Excerpt] “Stephanie Dohmen’s six-year fight to take a guide dog to training classes at the Iowa Department for the Blind suffered a setback Thursday in Polk County District Court.
Jurors rejected the Des Moines woman’s discrimination lawsuit and sided with a department policy that bans the use of visual aids, including seeing-eye dogs, in the program.
Dohmen and her dog, Lilly, were caught in a decades-old argument that has divided blind Americans into distinct camps: those who prefer guide dogs and those who consider the animals a poor substitute for learning to function with only a directional cane.
Supporters of the state program who testified at Dohmen’s trial praised the verdict and defended the ban on guide dogs.”
Reader’s note: the excerpt above was provided by Dave Reynolds who produces the disability rights information site called Inclusion Daily Express.
Now back to my own bosky musings, eh?
If you are from a foreign country and you’re not aware of the matter there is indeed a group of blind advocates who believe that using a white cane as a means of navigating sidewalks and streets is a superior method of mobility than traveling with a professionally trained guide dog. Several of these cane only people work at the Iowa Department for the Blind.
One wonders if there’s a department within the Iowa Department for the Blind that’s in charge of humiliation and impoverishment, but I digress. Sometimes I can’t help it. Preternatural and projective intolerance does this to me every time.
The real issue is that the Iowa Department of the Blind is influenced in its delivery of services by a group of blind people who are members of the National Federation of the Blind which is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. The Iowa folks believe there’s only one way to be blind or visually impaired even though specialists in orientation and mobility training for blind people do not generally agree with their positions. I won’t go into this matter at great length but for the sake of analogy this is like imagining a program for wheelchair users that insists no one can have a power chair–you can only use a manual chair and it has to be of a certain specific type of manual chair sanctioned by a committee of manual chair exceptionalists. Any other form of wheelchair is forbidden and not only that, but if you deign to use one of those other mobility devices you are not a “real” mobility impaired person.
Of course the analogy above doesn’t pass the sniff test. And what if we expanded the argument? Let’s say the Iowa Department of Transportation issued a decision that you can only have a driver’s license in Iowa if you drive a Yugo. Remember the Yugo? Surely there’s a Yugo collector’s group. I’ll even wager there are enough of these cars from the former Yugoslavia to match the population of Iowa. That’s a pretty good guess I think.
The whole miserable story of the Iowa Department of the Blind has to do with the prevailing and controlling idea that people who are blind or who are “legally blind” must adhere to the NFB influenced model of blindness which means that you need to wear a blindfold if you have any residual vision in order to take one of their talking software classes. The idea that a guide dog is some kind of visual aid that needs to be checked at the door is so crazy you can hardly give it credence save that in these United States you will never run out of easily confused people who can serve on local juries. Apparently the Polk county jury was confused by the testimony of a guide dog user at the Iowa Department of the Blind who cheerfully announced that he always leaves his dog at the door.
The fact is that demanding such a position of a guide dog user is illegal. Period. And the additional galling fact in this case is that state dollars were spent on this offensive discrimination in a time when people need all the help they can get.
Jeez. If they let Stephanie’s dog into the computer lab it might cheat.
Why am I bringing this back up today? Because the story remains offensive, incomprehensible, and damaging. Because the National Federation of the Blind puts out press releases about their legal work on behalf of the blind (many of which I’ve reprinted on this blog) but they still have a dark and shameful incident in their social archive for which, as far as I know, they’ve never apologized.
I tend to remember these things.