by Paul Edwards
Recently on the ACB-conversation list, someone raised the question of whether it is appropriate to refer to people who are blind as consumers. The word “consumer” got compared with the word “client” and there was considerable debate about which was the least pejorative of these two terms. The consensus seemed to be that both had some element of inappropriateness as a way to describe a person who is blind and his or her or their relation to the society in which we live.
It has long been axiomatic that there is such a thing as “disability culture” which is similar to other manifestations of minority status. There is much more debate about whether there is such a thing as “blindness” culture. Are there characteristics of the relationship between people who are blind and the rest of the society in which people who are blind live that are significantly affected by the attitudes and values of the people who are blind? If there is such a thing as “blind culture,” how does it manifest itself? Is it a good or a bad thing?
Let us be clear right from the start that it is not sufficient to establish a culture to point out the differences that exist between one population and another. Blind people can’t see so they obviously have a culture. I don’t accept that, and I suspect that most blind people who think about who they are wouldn’t either. There have to be some characteristics that infuse the way we interact with society or among ourselves that create a set of values that are different from those that other groups have and that are reinforced by the group we are a part of: those who are blind.
Most of us who have worked with other disability groups have found it fairly easy to accept that there is such a thing as “deaf culture.” People who are deaf have their own “language” made up of shorthand gestures, body movements and facial expressions. That language has led to a belief widely held by people who are deaf that the isolation of deafness, in-group bonding at boarding school, and the rejection of the rest of society of many of the values that people who are deaf regard as crucial to their well-being all create a space where people who are deaf exist that they regard as dominated by their deafness. They are quick to say that they are not disabled! Instead, they are deaf! Folks who lose hearing later in life or who get cochlear implants or operations that allow them to interact with people who are deaf and the rest of society in “non-deaf” ways become a part of the out-group and have lost some of the status they had in the deaf “community.”
I don’t think that “blind culture” is as pronounced as deaf culture is. However, it is worth asking whether it exists now, existed more in the past and may, in fact, be disappearing. One of the characteristics of a culture is that it needs fertile ground to grow. Was that ground provided by residential schools or, to a lesser extent, blindness-dominated home rooms in mainstream environments? Many who grew up in these environments felt a kinship with the others who they knew there. Many bonds were created that built a sense of inclusion in a group that was based on shared experiences and shared values. Members of this in-group would continue to meet after their school experience was over. They developed value systems that assumed norms that are different from those espoused by members of other groups.
People who were part of “blind culture” could use pejorative terms to describe themselves like “blinks” but would be insulted if outsiders used such descriptors. There were expectations about how people in the group should behave. They should dress well; they should interact with society appropriately; there should be no whining; no blindisms should be permitted; and people should avoid asking for help as much as they could. These are examples of the expectations that blind culture has and don’t come close to describing the range of values the culture mediates. Is our culture self-sustaining or was it built by our parents, teachers and caregivers when we were young? Does our culture limit our actions by creating a set of norms that should govern our behavior? Have the expectations of people who are blind changed enough that most of the cultural components of the normative notions of what it should be like to be a blind person no longer apply?
Clearly this article has raised more questions than it has answered. I believe that there is such a thing as “blind culture” and that it is a positive thing which ought to be better investigated, better understood and more seriously espoused. Those who have heard me speak know that I try to encourage people to be proud of their visual impairment. If our culture currently tells us to know our place and behave like good little blind people, it is potentially detrimental to progress for people who are blind. Our shared experiences together, the heroes who have fought for the recognition and rights we have and a pride in what we accomplish every day overcoming the barriers that inhibit full inclusion should all be the basis of a reimagining of who we are and how we see ourselves.
I believe that every single person who is blind in the world has a notion of who he or she or they are and how that individual fits into the world. People who are Hispanic or black and women and LGBTQ folks have all reimagined who they are and have demanded that society give each of those groups the right to be seen by the rest of the world in the way they want to be perceived. Is it time that we as people who are blind ask society to see us differently? Do we need to first decide who we are and what it means to be blind? Do we already know? Will you join in the effort to define our culture? Let us as a group decide who we are, and then let’s tell the world!