President's Message: Some Thoughts on Independence and Blindness

by Mitch Pomerantz

Knowing that this will be read sometime after July 4th and that everyone has an opinion about what it means to be an "independent blind person," I thought I'd share some of my own notions on the subject.  Before proceeding, let me offer a warning followed by a disclaimer.  The warning is for those of you who believe in absolutes, who feel that there is only one right way to do things as a blind or visually impaired person.  If that's you, then you probably should stop reading at this point to avoid unnecessarily elevating your blood pressure.  I will not take the responsibility.  The disclaimer is that I haven't bothered to seek out a dictionary definition for the word "independence."  When it comes to everyday life, I think I have a pretty intuitive idea of what it means.

Let me begin by quoting from ACB's mission statement: "The American Council of the Blind strives to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and to improve quality of life for all blind and visually impaired people."  By virtue of where the word independence appears in the mission statement, it is apparent that ACB's founders felt strongly that the most significant goal this fledgling organization could undertake was to work toward a time when we would be able to live our lives free from the need for the charity or interference of others.  In order to obtain that independence, the organization would have to address the pervasive stereotypes which existed (and still exist) toward blind and visually impaired people.  It would need to advocate for our right to an equal education, a fair chance to compete in the job market, and the idea that we could and should make decisions for ourselves about our own lives.  Precisely defining what independence meant likely never crossed the minds of anyone who approved that statement.

For me, as someone who has been virtually blind since the age of 11, I know that my definition of the word has evolved over the decades.  Having been raised as an only child by a mother who was widowed less than a year before my final unsuccessful eye surgery, it shouldn't be surprising that as a teenager, independence was getting out from under a pretty over-protective environment.  Independence meant being able to go somewhere separate and apart from my mother's supervision.  Doing something such as crossing a street, making a purchase at a store, or being with my friends away from home without Mom being around was my idea of being independent.  Ironically, much of what I now believe about living independently came from things she taught me, but that's a discussion for another time.

By the time I graduated from college, I began to realize that it was a challenge to be truly independent without sight.  I did learn some valuable lessons since I didn't have the benefit of disabled student services; I needed to hire my own readers and arrange to take exams with my professors without someone running interference for me.  College is where one is supposed to grow up and that experience, along with all the other good and bad experiences of living on campus, certainly helped teach me what it meant to be an independent blind adult.

These days, with 40 years of experience and hindsight under my belt since those relatively carefree years, I no longer feel as if I have to do everything sighted folks do in order to prove how independent I am.  Having once been in the situation of needing to remove the meat from a rather complicated whole lobster shell in front of a friend and a couple of her clients, and having done so without embarrassing either myself or my friend, I now ask that the kitchen staff shell my lobster before bringing it to the table.  Does that make me more dependent upon sighted help?  Not to me!  I know I could do it if I had to; after all, I did it once.

For as long as I've been paying bills, I've used a sighted reader to assist.  Now that online bill-paying is so prevalent, why don't I stop relying upon sighted help and pay bills electronically?  I could, but I find it more convenient to pay for a friend (who really needs the money) to take care of it with me.  I'm the one who signs each check and balances the checkbook to the penny when the monthly statement comes in.  As a personal aside, I'm a bit paranoid about Internet identity theft by hackers, so will pay bills the old-fashioned way for the foreseeable future.  To some reading this, that probably revokes my "independence card!"

What about independent travel?  As you might guess, I travel a fair amount these days; much of it for ACB, but some (almost always with Donna) for recreation, such as our recent trip to Spain.  As airports have gotten bigger and I've gotten a bit older, I will accept rides in those electric carts, but absolutely refuse wheelchairs.  To me, there is a difference.  Many sighted folks ride the former mode of transport from gate to gate and therefore, I'm willing to hop aboard myself.  A wheelchair is for those who have physical limitations: people who are either unable to walk any distance, or who cannot board a cart which usually requires a step up.

I also choose not to wait in my seat on an aircraft for the "meet-and-assist" I've requested.  I deplane with the other passengers and wait for my escort either in the jetway or in the gate area.  Does this mean that I think less of someone who accepts a wheelchair and/or waits on the aircraft for assistance?  Absolutely not!  Did I always feel this way? Absolutely not!  That's what I meant earlier by stating that my notions about independence have evolved over my adult life.

If we honestly espouse the idea within the American Council of the Blind that there is no one right way to be blind, then we need to be extremely careful about judging how our blind brothers and sisters practice their independence.  Let me make it clear: I do not support those activities which promote stereotypes about us, such as begging.  I would be happier if all of us would cut our own food in public, cross streets without sighted assistance, or clean up after our guide dogs.  However, following my recent illness which, for almost three months, made it nearly impossible for me to cut meat because of the loss of strength in my right arm, I'm a little more tolerant of the limitations of my fellow blind.  Despite our best efforts, most blind people -- particularly those who have become blind as seniors -- will never receive the kind of rehabilitation which they would require in order to do many of those things.  Just like ACB, independence isn't a one-size-fits-all concept, and likely will never be.