Musings: Who Is King?

by Paul Edwards

When I was growing up as a congenitally blind person, there were a number of received truths. At blind schools one of those was that the one-eyed man is king in the country of the blind. As young people we even used that phrase. At its heart, the idea was that kids who had some vision were accorded a special status by us. We saw them as privileged if we were totally blind. We thought they could do things we couldn't. They could certainly see things we couldn't. I think we also felt that they were better treated by the authorities than we were as well. I don't think we were jealous; it was just the way it was. We were content to accept our status and probably made some use of their vision when we could.
I have recently read a few books that paint a very different picture. I must tell you that this second notion of the relationship between people who are totally blind and those with partial vision is disturbing, at least to me. At the heart of this new reality is that people who lose some of their sight later in life see us congenitals who are total as very damaged goods.
They seem to see us as people who, from birth, study how to play the system and they see us as very odd, very manipulative and almost beneath their notice. In scene after scene, us totals are pictured with weird blindisms, multiple disabilities, and we seem to have very little resemblance to "normal" people. In one book, the author says he is frightened that others will see him as being anything like us.
I was shocked. I guess I have always considered myself to be a fairly normal sort of chap who, most days, can be taken out in public and can be expected to behave in a manner that is not likely to embarrass anybody. If I had just seen this attitude once, I would probably not be writing this article. However, in several books that I have found the time to read over the past year, there is a real line drawn between those of us who were born blind and those who go blind later. Clearly there are differences. People who grow up with good vision are often seen, by me anyway, as better adjusted than some of us congenitals are. They have often had jobs and have a better sense of who they are and what they can do than we often do.
I absolutely do not buy the idea that a person who has some vision is a less well-adjusted blind person. I believe that people with some vision need to learn to use that vision as well as they can. I do not subscribe to the notion that every low-vision person needs to be forced to wear a blindfold as a part of his or her training. But I am shocked by the idea that many people who have some vision see those of us with none as better off than they are and somehow also as objectionable creatures who are something of an embarrassment.
I am writing this article because I think we need to face up to the notion that what we as blind people accept as reality may just be wishful thinking. I hope this article will spark some debate. This new notion of the relationship between partials and totals has caused me to think a lot about how we communicate. The statistics say that only 10 percent of those who are legally blind have no vision at all. That makes me a part of a very small minority among blind people. I don't see myself as harboring prejudices against people with more vision than me. I don't see myself as a manipulator or as an embarrassment.
I think that there may well be room for dialogue. I think I was guilty of taking the relationship between people with no vision and people with some vision for granted. I think I accepted the received wisdom I grew up with as truth without discussing it a lot or even thinking much about it. I am absolutely convinced that the subject deserves our notice. ACB is an organization of people who are blind. Some of our members have a lot of vision. I have certainly heard some of those folks say that our organization pays more attention to the needs of people who have no vision than it does to the needs of people who have some sight.
So, members of ACB, what is true? Are we congenital totals an embarrassment? Who is king or queen? Is it the person who is partially sighted or is it the congenital who has learned how to play the system? What should we do about this issue, if it is one? I believe that, at the very least, this issue deserves more consideration! Maybe somebody who has some sight will write an article that responds to mine and share how he or she feels about what I have said here! Maybe we should spend some time at our convention exploring how we "see" each other. Maybe, too, our organizational agenda may need to be reordered if we are not paying enough attention to the needs of people with low vision. I look forward to hearing more from anyone who wants to join this debate!