Program hopes to break down ‘hierarchy of sight’
“We are changing what it means to be blind.”
These are not the words of a miracle breakthrough operation or technological procedure. Rather it is the quiet yet confident motto of a Twin Cities haven for blind students who have found refuge here from all over the world. It is the motto of Blind, Incorporated — or Blind, Inc., as it is commonly called.
Established in 1986, Blind, Inc. — a private nonprofit corporation — is Minnesota’s only comprehensive orientation-to-blindness program. It is fiercely committed to training and empowering blind people of all ages to full independent living — a curriculum that includes literacy, vocational training, industrial arts, social development, cooking, repair, computer and software training, white cane travel, sports (rock climbing, sailing, water sports), and even woodwork.
There are many misconceptions of blindness and blind people, and the folks at Blind, Inc. seem acutely aware of them. As Assistant Director Dick Davis is quick to point out, “Blindness is pretty much viewed the same all over the world: a disaster in life. A blind person needs someone to take care of them.”
Blind, Inc. is out to change those perceptions. “We’re role models for other blind people, and we know that,” remarked one Blind, Inc. instructor, Lorie Brown, during my visit on the campus.
The school — which another instructor incisively noted “doesn’t have an institutional feel to it” — is housed in the historic Charles S. Pillsbury Mansion in South Minneapolis. But the students (no more than 20 during one session) do not actually live there. They are expected to live nearby (most near Uptown) and commute — a sort of rite of passage for many of the students here who have never traveled alone, much less lived alone.
“To the sighted community, that seems a little crazy,” says Mobile and Traveling Instructor Zach Ellingson. “But when a blind instructor teaches a blind student something that’s either dangerous or scary, it exudes a lot of confidence in that student. Being a blind instructor, I’m walking the talk. I’m out there doing what they’re doing every day.”
Ellingson, a former student himself, is also quick to point out the immense importance in the blind community of learning how to travel independently. For most of the students, it’s a first experience.
There are three main components to Blind, Inc., according to the director, all based on the overarching motive of engendering self-determination among the students. First, there is the skills-based component — mainly the classroom lessons taught at the school.
Second is the attitudes-based component, developing a positive attitude and feeling comfortable about being blind. And finally there’s the self-confidence component, which seems to be the backbone of every curriculum, facility and program at Blind, Inc.
“Our philosophy is a holistic approach,” points out the center’s director, Shawn Mayo. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
While the sense of community among the students and facility at Blind, Inc. is obvious, both directors and their instructors are quick to point out that their center is not without its struggles.
“Blind people are in the midst of a developing process…where it’s respectable to be blind. That is, if you are blind you are as good as anybody else,” says Davis in sober, measured tones.
Davis, a director and one of the few sighted workers at Blind Inc., has been involved in blind causes for decades, often referring to it as a civil rights issue. In fact, as Davis points out, the Blind Civil Rights Movement, which began in the 1970s, owes a lot of its existence to the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
In fact, an interesting parallel between the two groups exists. In those days when racial hegemony was at its most palpable and opaque it was often common for many African Americans to “pass” — pass for being White or Whiter than many of their Black counterparts. Thus, the lighter a Black person — the assumption went — the less racial resistance an African American would encounter in such a racialized society.
The same holds true for many blind people today, argues Davis, who is passionate about such programs as Blind, Inc., mainly because the skills they teach, like literacy, empower blind people.
“Most blind people don’t get good training in blind skills,” Davis points out, adding that only 10 percent of blind people in the U.S. are taught Braille.
“Without the kind of training we have here, you get into this kind of hierarchy of sight where if you are totally blind, you are at the bottom of the food chain, and if you have enough sight to be able to read some and walk around without a cane, you are kind of at the top of the chain. Blindness isn’t just a skill set, but a civil rights issue.”
While a variety of prejudices looms large in everyday society, they are the exception within the school. When asked if she has ever encountered issues about being both Black and blind within the program, student Juliette Warren is blunt and matter-of-fact: “No.” She confesses that her biggest misconception upon entering the program was not knowing that blind people went to school.
Warren, 24, was selected largely because she is recently blind, losing her sight last year. “It was traumatic for me,” she says, “but I had a good community. If I weren’t here [Blind, Inc.], I’d be at home, doing nothing.”
When asked what most of the students do once they graduate, instructor Brown beams — a glow common among both parents and teachers (she is both) — and declares, “Anything they want. Name just about any profession, and we have someone representing it.”
One such notable student is Shafee Farah. Farah, 23, is a recent immigrant from Somalia who became blind at the age of seven due to what he says was an “unknown disease.” Farah shyly shares his plans to attend college and become a social worker upon graduating from Blind, Inc.
Farah is one of many Africans, particularly East Africans, represented at the school who have traveled to the U.S. to acquire independent living and vocational skills. As is common among many African groups, they then stay to become active servants in their community.
“We give them the tools to be productive and proactive. A lot of them stay in the area [after they have graduated] because they feel familiar with the area,” says Brown.
There is a tradition at Blind, Inc.: Upon graduating, students receive a bell with an eagle on the top. The bell — which represents their freedom and independence so long and arduously sought — is to be rung not only during graduation, but for every breakthrough, for every milestone and steppingstone that lies on the path ahead.
Blind, Inc., it turns out, is just the beginning of their journey to self-determination.
For further information on Blind, Inc., contact Shawn Mayo at email@example.com, call 612-872-0100, or go to www.blindinc.org.
Wilt Hodges welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.