President's Message: Changing How Others See Us by Mitch Pomerantz

by Mitch Pomerantz

In my November 2007 president's message, "Image and Perception," I discussed how blind and visually impaired people are viewed by the sighted public. I mentioned the fact that numerous surveys conducted over several decades have repeatedly shown blindness to be the most consistently feared disability, only topped by HIV/AIDS and cancer. I pointed out that while both medical conditions are often fatal, blindness in and of itself is not, and this speaks volumes about the public image and societal perceptions regarding blindness.

A little later I commented that: "It is apparent to me that blind and visually impaired persons as a group still have a very long way to go before achieving full equality and total acceptance by society." I'd like to explore this topic a bit further to see how and whether we as individuals, and/or the American Council of the Blind as an organization, can do anything more to change the aforementioned negative public perception about blindness and blind people. At the outset let me express my feeling that individual interactions, both positive and negative, do more to affect how the public perceives us as a whole. Obviously, such interactions between blind and sighted people involve considerably more time and effort, on a personal level, and may take years or even decades to see positive results.

For at least four decades or more, agencies and organizations of and for the blind, including the American Council of the Blind, have developed and disseminated films, public service announcements, and press releases geared toward educating the public relative to the abilities and capabilities of the blind. Of those I've seen and heard, the general theme is that blind and visually impaired people are just like everyone else; all we want is the chance to compete and live on equal terms with our sighted peers. Films and PSAs typically feature one or more of us working in interesting jobs or participating in a variety of amazing (from the public's perspective) recreational activities. Press releases call attention to a specific, noteworthy accomplishment involving the organization or agency which put out the release. Most of these efforts have been pretty good from the standpoint of their overall message. Whether they have positively impacted public perception about us is open for debate.

With all due respect to these efforts and particularly to those of ACB's hard-working public relations committee, I suspect that such endeavors, while beneficial to the cause, haven't had the overall positive impact all of us would prefer. I believe this is so for two reasons. First, what someone experiences on a personal or emotional level will affect them far more than something experienced either indirectly or on a more intellectual level. The public can see or read all the stories about successful blind people, but until they actually meet one, it isn't real. Second, the attention span of most people is fairly short and what they will take away from a news story or PSA relative to blindness will fade quickly into a generalized impression. That impression, however, will be incorporated into an individual's previous direct and indirect, positive and negative experiences with blindness.

One of the strongest arguments used by proponents of integrating disabled students into mainstream school and classroom settings is that non-disabled students will become more familiar -- and perhaps even friends -- with disabled students. This will occur through regular, personal and positive interaction between non-disabled and disabled students. While I haven't seen the data myself, I've been assured that more than one survey validates this argument. If accurate, this means that the more positive, direct exposure members of the sighted public have with people who are blind or visually impaired, the more likely it is that we will be treated fairly and equitably by the public. Hence, while I unequivocally support our and other organizations' efforts at generating positive publicity about us and ACB through those aforementioned media, I'm inclined to believe that we're more likely to change public perceptions for the better, one person and one positive experience at a time.

A brief personal story is in order. After a year-long fight, I finally succeeded in getting the City of Los Angeles to let me take the entry-level civil service administrative examination. The gentleman proctoring the test informed me at the outset that if I scored well, his supervisor, the head of the section, was prepared to offer me a job, already knowing that I was blind. Why? Because this man had been a volunteer counselor for a couple of years at a local agency which conducted Saturday activities for blind and visually impaired youth. I learned this later, after I was hired. Would this man (who became one of my closest friends until his untimely death) have offered me a position without that positive experience? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Thus began my nearly 34-year career with the city.

My point in all this is that while it can be a burden, a hassle, and a general pain, each and every one of us is a representative of the broader blindness community when we step out of our front door. No, we won't always be on our best behavior (I'm certainly not) when crossing paths with someone who is intrusive, boorish or rude. Nonetheless, we should always remember that we may be the first blind person that individual has ever encountered personally and that how we interact with him or her will, for better or worse, affect their subsequent attitude toward and about us. Just something to consider as we proceed through our busy lives.