Friday, June 24, 2011

The Blindness of Blindness

Instead of autism, I want to blog today about blindness.  No, not the visual disability, but the attitude of people towards those with disabilities.  (Throughout this post, I will use the term "blind" as that is the term I grew up with.)

There has always been a fear in the back of my mind that one day I would go blind.  I don't know at what point it started, but as long as I remember, I did not have good vision without glasses.  It wasn't noticed until I was 4 years old, when a friend of my mothers noticed that I would watch TV with my nose practically up against the glass.  Fortunately, my extreme nearsidedness was easily corrected with glasses.  But each year (this was back in the 1950's) my parents would get a mailing each summer, while school was out, offering services for the blind to me.  This was back before IDEA so I suspect what the mailings concerned was me going to a school for the blind.  In those days, that is how the school system dealt with blindness-send the children away.

At least in New York they were trying to educate them, which wasn't true for all disabilities.

As I grew up in New York City, I'm pretty sure that I would have ended up in a school for the blind in NYC.  But for people in upstate, the choice may have been a school in Batavia, NY.

By the time I was 11 my uncorrected vision would have been enough to classify me as legally blind, and I wore glasses full time.  All I have to do, to experience blindness, is take my glasses off.  How lucky I am that a low tech solution was available to me.

As I've blogged before, things were very different for people with disabilities in that day.  Some people are so nostalgic for the 40's and 50's but there was a lot of ugliness right underneath the surface.  And the blind people of that era paid a horrible price for that prejudice.  But I did not really understand it until a few days ago.

Someone I know (not well, but I know a very good friend of his) suffers from a medical condition, which left him blind about three years ago despite a last ditch surgery up in Syracuse, NY.  He retired (he had enough service in and he was in his early 60's anyway) from his job and ended up working at a place in downtown Binghamton, which (this may be unfair) may be on the order of a sheltered workshop.

What I did not know, until a few days ago, is that this man actually was born blind, spent most of his childhood blind, and went to that school for the blind in Batavia.  At some point in his growing up, a series of surgeries gave him a degree of vision, and he was able to work in the "usual" workplace. He's never seen well enough to drive, but that never stopped him.  He's a lovely person.  He has friends.  He has a good life.

But now he was in that place for the blind, you know, the place where the blind people work.   And he was - horrified.

So many of the people there - how do I put this delicately, in a "correct" way - have problems.  No, I don't mean visual problems.  I mean mental problems.  They are "off". They aren't right.  I've seen some of them on the bus when I ride to work in the morning.

How could that be?  Blindness is about the eyes not working, about the brain not getting vision signals from the eyes or not being able to process them right.  It is not a "mental health" condition.  Or is it?

He talked to his boss.  He had to understand.  He was struggling to adjust.

His boss told him, "You were fortunate.  Your parents were able to raise you with the advantages.  You weren't abused.  They did whatever they could for you.  (the school in Batavia, at least now, is private, so who knows how much it cost.  In those days there was no federal law guaranteeing a free, appropriate, PUBLIC education in the least restrictive environment.) You were surrounded with love.  They sought out doctors for you.  They wanted you to succeed.

Most of your co workers didn't have that growing up, his manager continued. 

At best, they were neglected.  At worse, they were abused.  They became warped.  That's why they have mental problems.  That's what happens when children aren't loved.  That's what happens when children with disabilities aren't accepted, aren't treasured for their other talents, when people can not see past the blindness and think they are stupid-or worse. (I won't even use the "R" word.)

This is how visual impairment changes a person.  They aren't born like that.  It comes from the attitudes of their society, their family, from the people they interact with.  It isn't from their lack of vision.

My acquaintance understands.  He is trying his best to adjust and accept.  He "doesn't" have to work, but he wants to make some money on the side, and this is the path he has chosen to get that extra money.

What a waste.

And again, it makes me think of Bil, of his suffering when he was younger.  If he hadn't been in a family that loved him, who knows the path he may be walking now.

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