‘Blind Day’: A wasted opportunity

The real problem facing blind people is not so much the physical loss of sight but the low expectations the sighted society has of us.

Blind man with seeing eye dog 521 (photo credit: Courtesy IGDCB)
Blind man with seeing eye dog 521
(photo credit: Courtesy IGDCB)
Wednesday, June 6, has been declared a day of solidarity with the blind and visually impaired community. On that day, you will be able to participate in numerous events supposedly aimed at raising your awareness of the nature of blindness, of how blind people live their daily lives and of what problems they face. Before we hasten to applaud this initiative, let us look more closely at some of the events advertised for “Blind Day.”
At the Knesset, some Knesset members will be called upon to blindfold themselves and compete against a team of blind athletes in a game of “goal-ball,” a sport specially designed for the blind. At other venues, people will be invited to perform everyday tasks, such as eating at a restaurant and shopping for groceries, with their eyes closed or in a totally dark environment.
There will also be some purely spectator events, such as an exhibition ride on tandem bicycles by pairs of sighted and blind cyclists.
Unfortunately, all the blindness-simulation exercises on the “Blind Day” schedule are gimmicks which assume that the principal problem facing blind people is the actual loss of sight.
To be sure, the absence of sight is a problem. I and all my fellow blind have spent years learning and mastering, with greater or lesser success, a host of non-visual techniques which enable us to lead normal lives without sight. These techniques include walking with a cane or dog-guide, listening to the flow of traffic before crossing the street, reading books in Braille, large print or recorded form, and reading our computer screens with the use of speech software, Braille displays or screen magnification.
BY CONTRAST, the Knesset members who will blindfold themselves and attempt to play goal-ball will never function as practiced blind people do. As soon as they don their blindfolds, they will be virtually paralyzed by fear for their physical safety and exasperated by their inability to perform the simplest of tasks as they did with their eyes open.
They will be totally disoriented on the goal-ball court while their blind opponents run rings around them, and their self-confidence will be at zero. As a result, rather than raising the Knesset members’ awareness of the true nature of blindness, this experience will reinforce whatever stereotypes and prejudicial notions they may have had about the helplessness and incapacity of blind people.
However, beyond that, the real problem facing blind people is not so much the physical loss of sight but the low expectations the sighted society has of us and the discrimination we constantly encounter. Even though many of the tasks showcased on “Blind Day,” such as basic cooking and pedaling at the back of a tandem, are so simple and mundane, sighted people typically marvel at how the blind can actually perform them without sight.
Consequently, they are left with the impression that real achievements, such as winning the World Bible Quiz or climbing to the summit of Mount Everest, (both in fact accomplished by blind people), are necessarily beyond the reach of the blind. Is it any wonder, therefore, that we are treated as objects worthy of compassion and pity rather than as potentially productive and contributing citizens, and are segregated and marginalized out of the economic and social mainstream of the community?
“Blind Day” should have been used to publicize, for example, the fact that parents of blind children have asked the Supreme Court to compel the Ministry of Education to provide their sons and daughters with Braille and recorded textbooks in a timely manner, to enable them to compete on an equal footing with their sighted classmates.
“Blind Day” should have been used to highlight the fact that the IDF automatically exempts blind 18-yearolds from mandatory military service, even though they may be judged “Kshirim,” and, if they insist on serving, only permits them to enlist as volunteers.
“Blind Day” should have been used to protest against Egged’s failure to install voice announcements of bus numbers and routes on all buses and at all bus stops, for the benefit of blind passengers.
The organizers of “Blind Day” would have convinced Knesset members and the employer community of the abilities of the blind much more effectively if they had arranged live demonstrations of blind people at work, competently performing a wide variety of jobs, including jobs with high-level professional and managerial responsibility. Only such demonstrations will bring about a genuine change of attitude toward the blind and speed their integration into the labor market and into the wider society.
The writer was born blind and grew up in Israel. After completing studies at Oxford he worked for 17 years as a career political officer with the US State Department, retiring in 2007.