Blindness Philosophy as Anchor and Bludgeon

head shot of the Author Braden Flax
Braden Flax

This week I am reposting an article with permission, written by Braden flax.

When I navigate the world as a blind person, I am constantly confronted with questions concerning how to interact with others, how to come across in the best possible light without allowing myself to be dominated by the ever-present responsibility to do just that, to perform the confidence and competence I feel most of the time, but not always. Luckily, I am far from alone; there are others who have traveled this road before and who continue to alongside me. The advice and support we offer one another is indispensable, yet there are times when we inadvertently make things even harder for one another, even when we have the best of intentions in our commitment to upholding high expectations for ourselves, each other, and how people perceive us.

Blindness in itself is at worst nothing more than a pesky annoyance. Alas, we and our blindness do not exist in a cultural vacuum. Frequently, because of the intervention of paternalistic institutions and ideologies against our interests, blindness manifests not as a superficial inconvenience, but as a life-defining break on our potential, sense of self-worth, autonomy, and well-being. It follows from this framework that it is not our blindness that must be concealed or even cured; instead, transformation is called for at the level of society, which imposes undue limits on us long before we have the fair chance to demonstrate that blindness does not preclude us from the possibility of enjoying the richness of a full, vibrant life. Very properly and crucially, this conviction permeates whatever spaces are taken up by the National Federation of the Blind, which in the past century has taken enormous strides on behalf of the blind community. The Federation calls the understanding of blindness I’ve laid out “blindness philosophy.” This robust outlook, historically, is one of strength, resolve, self-confidence, self-advocacy, and even militancy. The Federation has stood side-by-side with blind parents whose children were horrifically taken from them, rationalized according to the very wrong premise that blind people could not competently care for children. It has stood just as steadfastly with families through the often frustrating process of advocating for the educational needs of their children, who are frequently led astray by professionals wielding intimidating credentials but lacking in certain vital insights. Personally, I’ve been unspeakably fortunate in that at an early age, I was introduced to Braille, allowing me to become a proficient reader. This opportunity, sadly, is far from the norm. Likewise, I was encouraged to travel with a long white cane. This alone puts me head and shoulders above many of my blind contemporaries, in terms of opportunity. This is not a point of pride, but one of perspective. Every blind person should be presented with the range of options that I have been lucky enough to benefit from, at a minimum. Advocacy for universal access to Braille, the importance of the cane, and more generally advancing our capacity to live our lives on terms of equality with our sighted neighbors are key elements of blindness philosophy, which is at its best a paradigm for empowerment and a guidance system to live rich, liberated lives. There is a problem, however; all too often, blindness philosophy as circulated in our community is not always at its best. It is my hope that pointing out where and how it tends to go wrong may help to rescue its best elements, which remain indispensable.

One debate that rages on in the blindness community without a resolution appearing even on the distant horizon concerns public transit. Some blind people maintain that society should grant us access to public transit for free, or at least at a substantial discount, given the nontrivial and in some cases exceptional challenges we otherwise face when attempting to make our way from one place to the next. (Of course, such “special treatment” would hardly be an issue if public transit were free and universal for all in the first place. But as the late great comedian George Carlin once noted, “we don’t have time for rational solutions.”) On the contrary, others object, such a policy solution is not justified; if we want to be treated as equal, after all, we can’t accept any differential treatment or special accommodation. This line of thought is emblematic of the element of blindness philosophy to which I object most strenuously, suggesting that it is our own views and behavior at the root of our current, marginalized social position. If it is indeed true that blind people who favor the discounted travel costs are thereby justifying the unequal treatment of us all, then it is we in fact who are responsible for perpetuating the very discrimination and second-class status which we all say we’re against; in a significant sense, this narrative renders our predicament, and that of blind people the country over, as our own fault. For the most part, I don’t much mind if someone happens to disagree with me regarding the transit issue as such; there are arguments of theirs I could mention which I find much more reasonable, and which also represent blindness philosophy. I fixate here on what I view as an unwarranted blame game because it is the argument most closely related to the conception of blindness philosophy with which I happen to take issue, the assumption that it is doctrine with which to browbeat people rather than something which continues to develop through our discourse and experience. Blaming the personal views and life choices of individual blind people for the sociological position of the blind community is offensive to me on multiple levels, but there is an equally pernicious element that relates not so much to the content of the philosophy as to the deployment of the philosophy as a blunt force object, used to enforce a certain intellectual compliance of a deeply personal sort. I am concerned more, that is to say, with how disagreements are treated than with the specific content of the diverging points of view.

A particularly common refrain to fall back on in our community is that someone who disagrees with us “hasn’t accepted their blindness” or is manifesting “internalized oppression.” These phrases are not conceptually baseless. It is true that the experience of blindness is socially constructed, meaning blind people tend to relate to it in similar ways along at least some dimensions of our lives. It is also accurate to say that we have internalized our oppression, broadly speaking, as has every other marginalized group I can think of. Though this oppression is incredibly easy to substantiate as a general social phenomenon, it remains the case that in most instances, it is supremely arrogant to dismiss another’s viewpoint by making this attribution at the level of the individual. As similar as our experiences are in some ways, we know from blindness philosophy that blindness is only a characteristic, one which doesn’t and shouldn’t define us. Given this, the bar for confidently declaring assumed facts about the internal experience of another must be understood as very high. Unfortunately, it is too frequently not treated as such; I say this as someone who has endured the emotional fallout of being dismissed in this fashion, as though my dissent on a particular issue were necessarily and indisputably a product of my own defective blindness philosophy. But part of blindness philosophy is acknowledging the vast differences among blind people, so I respectfully submit that anyone who feels tempted to label another as embodying inferior blindness philosophy would do well to make sure they aren’t using that philosophy as a discursive shortcut, an argument from authority to justify amateurish psychoanalysis of someone or something which they happen to disapprove of. For those who worry that the behavior of an individual blind person harms our community by misrepresenting it to the public, what does it say about our community when we treat another blind person as though we, not they, are most qualified to speak to how they experience and move through the world? Blindness philosophy has functioned as an anchor for so long, serving those who have achieved much in the name of our freedom. The enduring needs of our community demand that we do better than using it as a rhetorical bludgeon.

When I navigate the tasks, obstacles, and activities of everyday life, I find myself wondering how my movements are being read by those around me, and if I’m playing my part adequately in demonstrating to a sighted world that blindness need not relegate a person to the sidelines. Am I making the most of my experiences, pulling my weight, and not selling myself short when it comes to work and leisure alike, and if not, why not? It’s not always straightforward to know. But I’m grateful the blind community is there to encourage me to ask these questions of myself. Equally important, though, is that the construct of an ideal blind person is just that, a construct, because a person is all each of us is.

Written by Brandon Flax