by Paul Edwards
The mission statement of the American Council of the Blind says, “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.” How are we, as an organization, to increase the independence of people who are blind or have low vision? Perhaps more importantly, what does independence mean? When our forefathers wrote the Declaration of Independence for our country which we celebrate on the fourth of July each year, they thought of independence as enabling everyone they considered fully enfranchised to be able to optimize their ability to make the most of life freely and to be able to pursue happiness. When consumer organizations of blind people were created in 1940 in the United States, people who were blind were, as a group, profoundly dependent on others. The rehab system was in its infancy and Helen Keller was just beginning her crusade to create separate agencies to meet the special needs of people who are blind. The Talking Book program was only six years old. Very few people who were blind were employed. The Social Security program had barely started. There were no tax credits for people who are blind. Most blind people who were working had jobs in sheltered workshops or in the very young Randolph-Sheppard program, which was just beginning to allow people who are blind to operate tiny newsstands in federal buildings. There were laws on the books in many states that made it illegal for blind people to be out by themselves. There were many in our society who believed that people who are blind should not be allowed to have children. The only way to describe the society out of which the consumer movement emerged is custodial.
By 1961, when the American Council of the Blind was born, a lot had changed. Blind people demanded civil rights long before any other group of people with disabilities did, and our movement was already challenging many of the custodial values at the heart of the services being offered to people who are blind in our country. Separate agencies to serve people who are blind was the norm then, and specialized service deliverers like orientation and mobility instructors and rehab teachers were beginning to provide training and adjustment to blindness in ways we now take for granted. The Perkins Brailler had arrived in 1947 and quickly became a prized possession of every person who was blind who owned one. Most children who were blind still went to “blind schools.” In most states sighted counselors laid the law down and blind clients did what they were told. Braille books were rare and precious, and we were still 20 years away from the first talking computers and the most primitive braille displays and braille printers. While the ACB and the NFB had begun to demand that people who are blind be treated with respect, the first inkling of protection from discrimination did not become law until 1978, when the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehab Act of 1973 were finally rolled out after demonstrations by people with disabilities.
If we fast forward to 2019, a lot is different. Clearly technology, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a mature Social Security system make life very different for people who are blind than it was back then. Clearly too, the ACB and the NFB have moved in very different directions since they split in 1961. I think it is probably true that the independence of each person who is blind has increased over time. But I think that we have taken steps backward as well as forward and are still a long way from being free to easily pursue life and liberty.
Let’s look then at the three issues just raised. I think “independence” means very different things to NFB and ACB. The NFB has a clear notion of what a good “independent” blind person is. A good blind person is a totally blind person. A good blind person does not ask for help very often, uses a long cane and tends to be hard on people who are blind who are not behaving in the prescribed NFB way! People who have some useful vision are expected to recognize that they must learn all the skills a total has and are discouraged from optimizing their ability to use the vision they have. Totals are kings or queens. I think that it is also true that the NFB does not encourage the “independence” of local and state affiliates. Instead, these groups are dependent on the national organization for many of the initiatives they espouse.
I think that ACB accepts people where they are and does not have a stereotypical notion of what a blind person ought to be. We certainly value people with low vision and their organization and support efforts to be sure that they, as the majority of people with vision loss, have their needs and rights acknowledged. I am not sure we are perfect at this, but we try. I think we encourage more independence for our state, local and special-interest affiliates. In fact, I think it could be argued that we go too far! Our national organization has its hands tied by the need to be sure to recognize the rights of our individual affiliates. In general, I think we in ACB value free expression and debate which increases the “independence” of our individual and affiliate members.
So, are we more independent than we were? I think so! Technology, the Internet, mainstreaming and increased access to services have all combined to create more options for people who are blind than existed in the past and have perversely decreased the degree to which most people who are blind feel the need of involvement in organizations of the blind. It is worth noting that, whatever statistics we use, only 10 percent of people who are blind are members of organizations of the blind! But the “independence” that exists now can also be seen as isolation!
I also think that people who are blind as a group have taken a step backward in terms of their independence because of the monolithic view of the rest of society that has emerged. There was a time when people who are blind were seen as deserving of support by the general public. Since we have demanded rights and associated ourselves with other disability groups in our quest for civil rights, we have come to be seen as members of a minority that, though clearly to be pitied, are also accused of seeking to take advantage of our situation by refusing to work and putting small businesses under threat by demanding accessibility accommodations that are unreasonable. We have forfeited some of our independent capacity to be supported by not behaving like “good little blind people” are supposed to behave.
The truth is that neither people who are blind as a group nor any blind individual is truly “independent.” I think ACB recognizes that all of us are really interdependent. We depend on our forefathers who set the bar high in terms of the required vigilance that independence for our country requires. We set the bar even higher for ourselves by the actions we have taken since 1940 to build a society that demands that we as people who are blind must be included, respected, and allowed to pursue happiness. And, most of all, we are dependent on each other. Each of us reaffirms that it is OK to be blind and that we, as an organization, will work to increase independence for every person who is blind by helping each person who is blind to be all that he or she can be! So let us celebrate the independence that interdependence creates and, through our togetherness in ACB, let freedom ring!