Future Reflections May/June 1983, Vol. 2 No. 3

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Myths and Facts...about blindness

As the parent of a blind child, you have often encountered situations that are inappropriate for your child until some adaptation is made. The schoolbooks are in inkprint, and we must arrange to get them recorded or Brailled. The menu on the wall is too far away for the youngster with limited vision to see, so we read it aloud.

It is perfectly right and appropriate that we make allowances for these "special arrangements," or this "preferential treatment" if you will. They help provide opportunities for the child to learn, to participate and compete equally with their sighted classmates.

However, there are times when special arrangements are not only unnecessary but actually harmful. Consider this example. A blind child's pre-school teacher always allowed him to sit next to her during story time. She thought that way he could see the pictures better. What really happened was that his classmates became jealous and resentful of him because of this special privilege and he did not try to look at the pictures anyway (with his limited vision, he had to hold the book and put his nose to the page to get any benefit from most pictures). What had started out innocently as a "helpful" modification turned out to be harmful. The teacher gladly changed her procedure once she realized what was happening.

The same kinds of problems occur when society, through a private or public agency, decides to offer a special service or produce a special device for the blind. Sometimes the results will be helpful, but sometimes they will do more harm than good. Unfortunately, it is a popular modern day myth that any special service, treatment or gadget for the blind can only be positive and good. This is a tragic misconception and one that not only sighted people buy into, but often blind people will believe as well.

Blind federationists are always alert to these misconceptions and realize the importance of resisting implementation of well-intended, but unnecessary and harmful services or devices. Of course, federationists also realize the necessity of fighting for needful services and for blind persons' rights and responsibilities as first-class citizens. The two are only different sides of the same coin.

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind) spoke at length on how we can distinguish between the two --services and devices that are helpful and necessary, and those that perpetuate helplessness and dependency of the blind. In "Pros and Cons of Preferential Treatment of Blind Persons,"* Dr. tenBroek had this to say:

Preferential treatment of the blind based on favoritism, privilege, whim, prejudice, patronage, pity, charity, self-interest of others, or feelings of like or dislike, cannot be justified and indeed does a great deal of harm. On the other hand, preferential treatment which takes account of the special qualities or needs of the blind or aspects of their situation not shared by others, which is aimed at a desirable social objective and which employs proper means adapted to this purpose is not only justifiable preferential treatment but is treatment which should be at the foundation of all public and private policy toward the blind.

As parents of blind children, we too have a responsibility to distinguish between "good" and "bad" services; between devices that are helpful and those that are unnecessary or even damaging to blind people. By supporting or opposing such, we set an example for our blind youngster and we help determine the kind of world he/she will live in as an adult.

Of course, it isn't always easy to make these kinds of judgments. However, it will help if we study the kinds of decisions and judgments the organized blind have made regarding various services and devices they have found to be helpful or harmful.

Following is an article from the Winter, 1983 NFB of Washington newsletter, Newsline. It should provide some insights into why the blind oppose a service that might, on the surface, seem a helpful thing.

*"Pros and Cons of Preferential Treatment of Blind Persons" is available free of charge from the NFB National office. Write to: NFB, 1800 Johnson St., Baltimore, MD 21230.