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United We Stand: Is The Blindness Community Really a "we?" The Answer Is Yes!

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Braille Forum, Volume XL, No. 6, December 2001.

Ever since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and its successor, IDEA, there has been much discussion within the blindness community about the ever-decreasing number of blind people who actually get to know one another. Some might dispute this assertion while others might find it to be a good ramification of integration. Finding statistical evidence of the effects of inclusive/mainstream education may or may not have on our ability as blind people to interact with one another is probably less important than the underlying worry our mutual speculation entails, and the challenge it presents to us.

Sometimes the idea that there even exists a blindness community is challenged because of the disbursement of blind and visually impaired people. We are distanced from one another not merely by geography, but also because of the social pressures to ignore any notion of community in favor of a simplistic notion that we simply cannot see, and that about wraps it up. Blind people come in all shapes and sizes; there are rich blind people and poor blind people, and most of us in-between; there are people labeled by some professionals as the "vanilla blind," meaning that they have no additional disabilities, and blind people who have other disabilities to contend with as well, including hearing loss, cerebral palsy, and the inevitable physical side effects of just growing older. Add to that the range of visual impairment that is described as "legally blind," and it's understandable why some wonder about the existence of a community of people who are blind. Is the concept of community of people who are blind just an abstraction that is more virtual than real?

Given the many circumstances which serve to separate us rather than to unite us under one single classification, it is easy to dismiss any cohesive blindness community as more of an intellectual construction than an ongoing reality experienced by a couple of million people in our nation each day. Yet the failure to acknowledge the circumstances which unite us and which cause us to relate to one another as members of the same community perpetuates the inability of individuals to change any of the circumstances which make it difficult for people to function effectively in the everyday work-a-day world because of the condition of blindness.

The notion that blindness is just another physical characteristic, like being left-handed or short or tall, is simply nonsense. I don't deny that this philosophical perspective can be helpful to some folks, allowing them to realize that blindness is really not a pit of despair. However, for others who find that their visual impairments present some very real problems, say, in getting from one place to another, identifying currency, finding accessible information, succeeding in school, or finding work, taking this proclamation as a literal truth can leave them thinking that there must be something very wrong with them. Even worse, there are blind people convinced of their own failure because they have not reduced their blindness to a mere nuisance. This is not an attack on those who espouse these philosophical views, but more a reassurance from one blind person to others, that you are not a failure, and you don't have anything drastically wrong with you if you find yourself having difficulty from time to time coping with the substantial ramifications of not being able to see.

So, how do we define ourselves as a community, and what if anything do we do about the life circumstances that so many of us share?

We are, indeed, a community in that we experience a common set of challenges presented by our blindness which are further complicated by the physical and social world around us. In most parts of our nation, we are challenged to get from one place to another without depending upon rides from people who can drive. While this is merely one of a number of constraints with which many of us cope, it clearly points out the difficulty of building a fully expressive self-image when our choices of going anywhere may be limited to our reliance upon what someone else may or may not want to do. This single example illustrates how blindness prevents easy mobility, limiting our choices in environments where transportation is exclusively by private car, and forcing too many of us to forego our own choices to conform to those of others. Sure, this is something we all must cope with in the course of living our lives as people who are blind, but the frequency with which we must make compromises and the net shaping of individual and group identity are clearly more descriptive of the lives of blind people and others with disabilities for that matter.

The many examples of common experience and their shaping effect upon us would take too long to number. What is important is that we do have alternatives from both a community and integrated standpoint. The social and psychological benefits of recognizing blindness for what it is and moving forward with other blind people to remove the barriers that complicate our lives and those of our sighted brethren are well worth the effort it takes to accomplish our goals.

We are not a co-dependent community based purely upon struggle although there are many times when supporting each other is just what is needed. We are a community of shared experience, and we can change the very substance of that experience through united effort, not only for ourselves, but for all people in our society. That is the acknowledgement of our reality, the power of our movement, and the promise of our opportunity.

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