“The biggest problem we face is not being blind, it’s dealing with the public reaction to you being blind,” says Michelle Gittens. “With education and proper training, blindness does not have to be a tragedy.”
Gittens is a student currently working toward a master’s degree in music at the McNally Smith College of Music. She is a professional R&B and jazz vocalist — and she also happens to be blind. She talked with the Spokesman-Recorder last week about some of the struggles and challenges of being blind and black.
Gittens also describes some of the successes she’s had in combatting discrimination based on her blindness as well as the fight she has waged to throw off the negative self-perception she had once associated with her blindness.
Social prejudices against the blind
Some of the biggest challenges facing blind people are the hidden, yet very real and deep-seated social prejudices associated with blindness and people who are blind, explains Carrie Gilmer, president of Minnesota Parents of Blind Children.
“[The mainstream] media usually prints articles that applaud the blind person who can cross the street, have friends, or get a job as rising above great tragedy with superhuman strength. They never want to talk about the discrimination and stereotypes and do not understand the nature of it. They do not get the often subtle forms that are nonetheless devastating,” says Gilmer.
The prejudice and discrimination Gittens and Gilmer speak of most often take the form of social paternalism toward the blind both on the institutional level and in the realm of interpersonal relationships.
This paternalism leads to discrimination against sightless people in all areas of life, including employment, education, housing, and access to government services. This discrimination occurs most often under the rationalization that the blind can’t do anything for themselves and are incapable of truly independent functioning.
According to Gittens, paternalistic attitudes also lead to some outrageous behavior toward the blind on the part of sighted people. “If I get on the bus and don’t sit in the handicapped seats, I often have people tell me, ‘You’re not supposed to sit here,’” says Gittens. “You have people who just come up and put their hands on you. On several occasions I’ve even had people walk up and start to pray over me.”
Paternalism often has damaging consequences for the blind person in that it hampers their social, educational and personal development. “There are lots of blind people who are crippled by fear and inappropriate dependence,” says Gilmer.
Gilmer and her husband, Phillip Richardson, have learned a good deal about blindness through the experience of fighting against the public school system for the rights and dignity of their 15-year-old son Jordon, who is also blind.
Jordan was diagnosed at an early age with blindness, Gilmer and Richardson explain. Their problems with the educational system began right away with professional educators, social workers and others. “The expectations among educators [of the blind] are low,” says Richardson, who works as a high school music teacher.
Gilmer and Richardson explain that these low expectations manifested themselves in the adoption by school officials of an educational approach that either constructively denied Jordan’s blindness — even to the point of exposing him to injury — or discouraged Jordan’s access to education and training that could prepare him to be an independent and fully developed human being.
Gilmer describes one such struggle with school officials over whether Jordan would be allowed to use nonvisual techniques to learn wood and metal working in industrial arts classes. Counselors and school officials objected to Jordon being instructed in nonvisual methods under the assumption that he should use the small amount of vision he had.
Gilmer explains that her son’s vision teacher believed that “any vision was better than no vision at all.” Gilmer says that the vision teacher told her that they should trust her judgment to assess what part of the class Jordan’s “vision was useful” in, and that the shop teacher could “guide Jordon (do it for him) when it wasn’t.”
After several meetings and a site visit to a workshop that specialized in teaching industrial arts to the blind, school officials were forced to recognize Jordon’s rights.
Jordan is currently a 4.0 honors freshman. He has been accepted as one of the top 12 blind high school students in the nation to attend a summer science camp sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind and NASA. “I really wanted to get accepted to the Rocket On! Program; when I found out I was, I felt great,” says Jordan.
Claiming humanity and dignity
The prejudice, discrimination, and negative social attitudes associated with blindness have had devastating consequences on the lives of the blind. “I flunked out of college, and I thought I was stupid,” says Gittens. “But I wasn’t — I just wasn’t getting what I needed to learn.”
Just a few of the statistics on blind people in the areas of employment and education provide a glimpse of the scope of the socially imposed challenges confronting the sightless. According to Gilmer, in 1940 the unemployment rate among blind people stood at a staggering 98 percent nationally. Most of the 2 percent who were employed had make-work jobs as basket weavers or broom makers in special industries that ruthlessly exploited them, often paying less than minimum wages.
Today, says Gilmer, the blind unemployment rate is around 75 percent. Only 10 percent of the blind children in U.S. schools receive instruction in Braille. Gilmer also highlights the correlation between discrimination in education and chances for employment with the fact that 90 percent of the 25 percent of blind people who are employed are fluent in Braille.
“Not working is the biggest problem,” says Gittens. “It’s dehumanizing.”
One of the milestones in the history of blind people’s struggle for justice and dignity was the founding in 1940 of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The organization has 50,000 members in 700 local chapters and 52 affiliates, and has become the leading force in the country in the fight to defend the interests of the blind. According to Gilmer, “The organized blind modeled their civil rights strategy and movement after the efforts of American Blacks for their freedom and justice and the road to first-class citizenship.
“The National Federation of the Blind is of, for, and by blind people,” says Gilmer. “Our motto is ‘Security, Equality, Opportunity.’” Gilmer, Gittens and Richardson all stress the importance of self-organization to the blind, who have waged a lengthy struggle over the decades for organizational independence and for a decisive voice in all decisions that affect their lives.
Much of this struggle has been against government agencies and charitable organizations that speak in the name of the blind but are led by sighted people. “This is a big business,” says Gilmer. “Sighted people were benevolent; they had built up charities, and who were you [as a blind person] to tell us what to do.”
Gilmer hopes that more African Americans will avail themselves of the services and support of the local NFB chapter.
A big part of the struggle of blind people, however, is casting off the negative self-image imposed on them by societal prejudice and ignorance and realizing that blindness is not the end of the world. “Blind people have to get rid of the stereotypes of themselves,” says Gittens.
Both Gittens and young Richardson have gone a long way toward achieving this goal. They are two young, black and blind persons who have fought for and won a healthy image of themselves. “I’m just me,” says Richardson. “Part of me is black, part is blind, and all is beautiful.”
To contact the National Federation of the Blind, located at 100 East 22nd Street in Minneapolis, go to their “Web site”:http://www.nfbmn.org, or call 612-872-0100.