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The Culture of Blindness

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following commentary appeared in the O&M Opinion E-Zine, July 1999

Does blindness have a culture? I've asked this question a number of times in various situations and the most common answer is "no". The subject of whether blindness has borne a culture is a topic of debate in many blindness-related forums and meetings.

The existence of a deaf culture is not in dispute. Many people are proud to be counted in that community and consider their inability to hear to be a characteristic and not a disability. Blindness is viewed in almost the opposite light.

It's odd...there are many people who would attach certain characteristics and behaviors to all blind persons, and yet deny that we have a culture of our own.

To admit that blindness was more than a disability, that it was a cultural characteristic of which we could be proud, would be like finally admitting that we are not the pitiful creatures that the media, and some of society, usually portray. To call us a culture would be like recognizing our uniqueness without belittling it. Would it be an accurate term though? Are we truly a culture? I posit that we are.

Many of us use a form of written communication that differs from the mainstream. Braille bears no visual resemblance to the written alphabet and only a person trained to read Braille can do so. And, it is a form of reading and writing unique to the blind. Even (most) visually impaired print readers have to either get their materials from an alternative source, or use technical aides to enhance the print.

The need to do this is unique to the visually impaired. Like some signing deaf people need an aural interpreter, those of us not around our chosen written medium need someone as a print interpreter. We may share the same language as the majority, but the way in which we access printed material differs markedly.

Within the framework of the English language, we use abbreviations that are unique to the blind community (CCTV, CCVI, VIP, OT, PT, DX, RX, ACB. NFB, CNIB, RNIB, AFB, B1, B2...and so on). We also attach different meanings to words than the general public and use them accordingly (partial, total, legal, low vision etc.). We share linguistic traits unique to the blind.

Those of us who carry white canes are a visible minority. In fact, some individuals carry canes specifically for the purpose of identifying themselves as visually impaired. The use of a long stick as a "bumper and probe" is generally recognized world wide as a sign of visual impairment. In some countries; i.e., Germany, it is mandatory that blind people identify themselves as such, either by using a cane or some other identifying symbol. Thus we are a minority, symbolically identified, as being unique among those around us.

A culture can be formed by the problems that minorities face as a group. Blindness is rife with them. Take illiteracy for example. How many print readers should be using Braille? How many blind people, both legal and totally blind, graduate high school functionally illiterate? Unable to deal with either printed matter OR Brailled matter in an efficient, expedient manner could be considered a cultural problem, and not just the natural consequence of our specific disability.

Many don't expect blind people to be literate. This is demonstrated by comments such as "Why use Braille when you have Talking Books?" or the belief that a book is an inappropriate gift for a visually impaired person. Such high rates of illiteracy in any other group would be cause for alarm, and yet for the blind it's condoned.

We are linked by the attitudes of those around us, and by the problems we face. With an estimated un(der)employment rate of 70% in both the US and Canada, many blind people live within the same economic strata. Those who do, tend to share the characteristics of those who live in underprivileged environments. Many live in poverty because of their status as a minority. That means that many of us have to make the same kinds of adaptations to our environment, and many of us live in similar environments.

Blind people have created, or participated in, groups which exist solely because blindness does. We group mainly to share stories and ideas, to further civil and social rights and to inform the public about the facts concerning blindness. We form groups to further the aims of the whole.

We use methods specific to the blind to understand and navigate the world around us, which leads many of us to develop behaviors markedly similar to one another. Why, most of us even use the same modes of transportation. Similar behaviors range from marking our oven dials to judging traffic direction by hearing.

We also have mannerisms in common. Most people with visual impairments, young or old, seek out alternative forms of "stimulation", especially evident in congenitally blind children who "eye-poke" and "rock".

We have internal conflict on issues unique to our group. The most notable being Print vs. Braille (sound familiar? Speech vs. Sign). Other conflicts include Cane vs. Dog. An interesting fact to note here is that while most sighted people know very little about these debates, most blind people are well aware of them and are on the front line. We share internal conflicts alien to the larger community.

Many blind people have the same concerns...the stability of our jobs, the problems associated with raising a family, the inability to drive, prejudice, personal safety when walking the streets (especially the women), how we'll provide for our retirements, how we adapt to a certain environment and how to adapt a certain environment to us. The list goes on and we are intrinsically linked by the concerns that we share.

I'm sure that many people could add to this list of attributes unique to the blind. As you noticed, I've brought up the deaf community as a model culture with which to measure the blind culture's growth. Since the deaf community is a well-established culture with many admirable traits, and since they have a sensory impairment much like ourselves, it's logical that we compare the blind community to the deaf culture in some instances.

Let's review the major points though. I believe we are a culture because:

  • Many of us share a 'written' language, or at the very least, the need to have an alternative method of accessing materials.

  • We share linguistic traits unique to the blind.

  • We are a minority symbolically identified as being unique among those around us.

  • We are linked by the attitudes of those around us and by the problems we face.

  • A number of us live in similar economic conditions.

  • We form groups to further the aims of the whole.

  • We share some methods of understanding our world and we sometimes share mannerisms.

  • We share internal conflicts alien to the larger community.

  • We are intrinsically linked by the concerns that we have.

Now for the benefits of recognizing our status as a culture rather than just a group or community. People would begin to see blindness as a characteristic rather than a problem to be solved. People wouldn't automatically assume that we are hopeless or that we'd sell our souls for sight. Whatever divisions within, discrimination would be met with a powerful response. Our unique ways of gathering information would be seen as cultural traits.

We would develop more pride in ourselves with the knowledge that we were a culture and that our "mannerisms" (some of us have them) were a norm. People would be less apt to say "So and so succeeded DESPITE his blindness" and may even start to see blindness as a component of the success.

Organizations and corporations would be forced to accommodate us as they have the deaf (closed captioning for them, audio description for us). Readers would be bound by an official code of ethics. Complete integration or "normalization" wouldn't be one of the goals considered when educating the blind. Medical breakthroughs wouldn't be heralded as "the only true road to equality" and they wouldn't be what we supposedly pine for the most.

One of the largest pluses would be that blind people would be hired to work with other blind people as a matter of course and respect for a unique culture. No longer would a sighted person be considered an optimum teacher for a blind person. American Sign Language (ASL) is considered by many to be a complex and beautiful language, whereas Braille is seen as a last resort. This double standard MUST end.

In order to gain respect, and for blindness to be seen in it's proper light, I believe that we need to recognize our special status as a culture and act accordingly. We should hold our heads up and be proud of what we are! Yes, proud...blindness and all. We should call ourselves what we truly are, by virtue of bonds formed by language, experiences and concerns...we are a culture.

For those of you who disagree with my stance, I ask that you at least consider the possibility that what I say has merit.

Comments

As the mother of a 11 year old boy who is cometely blind
I agree with you. I agree that blind people should not be stereotyped
as not being intligent or capable. My son is capable and intelligent.
I always tell him him is an ambassador to show the sighted that the blind are intelligent. And I agree that the blind should be proud of who they are.
If a sighted person spent one day blind, their respect for the blind would sky rocket. And yes just because ypu are blind does mean you want to be sighted. My son is happy just the way he is.