I’m an optimist by nature. As I’ve said on other pages of this site, there’s never been a better time to be a blind person than now. Thanks to the advances in assistive technology over the last few years, there are now so many more tasks we can complete with independence and dignity.
That said, you’d have to have your head in the clouds not to know that blind people face significant challenges. The data suggests that the unemployment rate among working aged blind people is far far higher than many other minorities, perhaps as high as 60 or 70%. Employer surveys have shown repeatedly that a high percentage of employers are more reluctant to appoint a blind person than any other group. More studies show that blindness is feared by a good number of people more than they fear AIDS or cancer.
It’s easy to become angry about the stereotypes and misconceptions, but anger can lead to bitterness, and that’s never constructive. I believe, however, that it is important to stand up politely against being belittled. Words matter, and as societal norms change, what may have been considered acceptable language at one time may not be considered acceptable now.
Only yesterday, I rather belatedly discovered the twitter account of New Zealand Republic. I am a republican, for my American readers, that’s with a small r, and means something very different from Republican in a US political context. It simply means that I believe New Zealand’s head of state should be determined democratically by New Zealanders. Thrilled to find the account, I followed.
I was taken aback to read the following tweet from them today.
Thought for today: “A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.”
I’ve not read this one before, and wondered if it was an attempt at some internal profundity by someone who fancies themselves as a philosopher. But a Google search indicates that this quote, or variations of it, have been around a long time, although it seems no one can attribute it to anyone.
So what’s wrong with this quote? Well clearly, it’s trying to strike a contrast, saying that you’re wise to be mindful of the past but foolish to be totally captured by it, a philosophy that, if you’ve listened to my radio show, you low I agree with strongly. But the word they use to describe the opposite of wise isn’t foolish, stupid, or unwise, it’s blind.
To illustrate my point, let’s think about what would happen if we took disability out of the mix and put race in its place. When I was a kid in the 70’s, there was a hideous expression a lot of people used without thinking, “a maori day off”. It catered to the bigoted stereotype that all maori were lazy. There were plenty of stupid jokes that played on this stereotype too. Maybe it’s the circles I socialise in, but I haven’t heard that offensive expression for years, and I’m delighted about that.
It’s no less appropriate to use Maori to mean lazy than it is to use blind to mean stupid. If we let language that equates blindness with lack of wisdom or stupidity to stand unchallenged, subconsciously it reenforces the notion that we are less capable. And in reality, the biggest problem blind people face is other people’s attitudes.
There’ll be people who will talk about political correctness, which is a term that gets dragged out whenever anyone gets called out on language that is no longer acceptable, but attitudes evolved and language evolves with them.
So I sent a reply to the tweet, which said this.
@nzrepublic I support strongly what your organisation stands for, but as a blind person I find that incredibly offensive and in bad taste.
@JonathanMosen It’s a metaphor – not intended to cause offense, much like Ghandi’s maxim on an eye for an eye.
First, I have no doubt at all that the last thing on the mind of the publisher of this tweet was to offend me as a blind person. I also believe that we don’t have control over what is said, but we do have control over how we receive and react to what was said. I do, however, think that when language is used that clearly equates a disability with ignorance or stupidity, we have a moral obligation to draw that to the person’s attention, to seek to avoid further perpetuation of the stereotypes.
Second, let’s look at the Ghandi quote referred to. What Ghandi said was, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”. I think most people would agree that if you had the choice to be born blind, or to be born sighted, you would choose to be born sighted. Similarly, if you were used to seeing, I don’t think you would choose blindness over sight. Nowhere does Ghandi in this quote seek to equate blindness with stupidity.
Even if he had, there are things written in literature about racial minorities, women, and people with disabilities that are not consistent with today’s values.
On the flip side, it amazes me how many people go through all kinds of crazy linguistic gymnastics to avoid using references to the word blind, or seeing at all in my presence. I am blind, it doesn’t define me, but it is a small part of who I am, just as I am short. Blind is OK. What is not OK is when the word blind is hijacked to mean something relating to intelligence.
I’m grateful to the operator of the Twitter account in question for the courteous dialogue, and wish them well with their very important cause. I just hope that maybe this will give them, and others, pause for thought about using the word “blind” as a simile for lack of wisdom and ignorance.