2009 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the blind Frenchman who invented the raised-dot reading system bearing his name. Blindness has changed since Braille’s day. Thanks to his work, the American dream and modern technology, blindness doesn’t have to be a disabling condition.
But America doesn’t believe that, and that lack of belief is more problematic to both blind and sighted people than the lack of vision. Yes, there’s Stevy Wonder, New York’s Governor David Paterson, and Scott MacIntyre (last year’s blind American Idol contestant), but that’s about it. Here are three things that Americans should know about blindness that will make us a stronger society.
- Blindness is relatively uncommon: This scarcity means that most of us don’t know blind people personally. When we don’t know anyone from a certain group, we are likely to stereotype all members of that group. Blind people are as different from each other as sighted people are. Each of us, blind or sighted, is an individual with unique skills and talents, shortcomings and flaws. We each wish to be accepted as who we really are, not who someone else thinks we probably are.
- Blind people aren’t from a separate planet: We come from the general society, from all races, religions and socioeconomic groups. In fact, most of us grew up sighted. Most of us come from families who never had a blind member before. That means that creating a society which has a positive attitude and a can-do approach to blindness is the best way to prepare the not-yet-blind to have successful, independent and happy lives.
- Blindness and visual impairments are increasing: America’s struggle with overeating and inactivity are causing a diabetes epidemic. The CDC says that diabetic-related blindness among working-age Americans will triple by 2015. If we don’t change our attitudes about the ability of newly blind people to return to productive and independent lives, we will be adding to the taxpayer’s burden through greater disability insurance payments to support otherwise able-bodied people.
American society continues to be structured in ways that do not value blind people. The average person cannot even name one blind woman other than Helen Keller, who died over fifty years ago. The press does not cover issues affecting blind people like the Braille literacy crisis, massive unemployment and the struggle for accessible information. The culture does not promote the co mingling of blind and sighted people. Without pervasive change, when the not-yet-blind, perhaps someone you love, ultimately faces blindness, they will collapse under the weight of their own prejudice.
Fear of blindness now that technology and the promise of the American dream are catapulting blind people into professions like law, engineering, and chemistry, is unfounded and hurts the entire society. Be brave; try thinking of us as equals.
Donna W. Hill is an author, singer/songwriter, speaker and avid knitter. A volunteer publicist for the Performing Arts Division, National Federation of the Blind, she works for improved opportunities for blind Americans. http://www. padnfb. org.
A breast cancer survivor, she promotes self-exam. Hear clips from The Last Straw at: http://cdbaby. com/cd/donnahill.