by Mitch Pomerantz

I mentioned in my last column that I subscribed to ACB-L during the campaign for president and have remained subscribed since the election. While it may be argued that the 300 or so subscribers are not necessarily representative of ACB's membership as a whole, there is no question in my mind those who participate on this list are a broad cross-section of the blindness community. The diversity of experiences shared and opinions expressed truly cover the social and political waterfront.

Recently, a subscriber posted to express serious concern over a Paul Harvey ad -- a testimonial letter read by Harvey -- for a vitamin product which claims to retard or halt macular degeneration. In the ad, Harvey says that blindness would amount to the end of the letter writer's life. The gentleman would be unable to drive, or to earn a living; the typical public misconceptions about blindness with which we are all too familiar.

Considerable and sometimes heated posts ensued as to how or even whether ACB should respond. Several subscribers believed there was little point because none of the principals -- the network, Harvey, the sponsor, or the sponsor's advertising agency -- would pay the slightest bit of attention to our protest. Others felt ACB should chastise Harvey for his total lack of understanding concerning blindness, while still others thought ACB should at least make an attempt to educate him regarding our abilities and capabilities.

After weighing the various points of view and considering whether ACB, as the leading consumer advocacy organization on behalf of blind and visually impaired people, had a responsibility in this situation, I ultimately decided to have the chair of our public relations committee and a professor of marketing at Western Kentucky University, Dr. Ron Milliman, draft a letter to Harvey and company to try educating and informing them about vision loss. This letter -- which was posted to ACB-L -- received unanimous approval for its tone and content. The decision to take advantage of this opportunity was based on my strongly held belief that the American Council of the Blind has the responsibility, whenever and wherever possible, to improve the public's generally negative attitude about blindness and blind people.

In 21st century America, our image as a minority group and public perceptions about us are critical to the acceptance and inclusion of blind and visually impaired people in society as a whole. This is one reason -- but certainly not the only reason -- for our unconscionably high rate of unemployment and the other forms of discrimination we experience on a regular basis. So, let's briefly explore how blind people are viewed by the sighted public. For starters, numerous surveys conducted over several decades have consistently shown that blindness is the most feared disability after HIV/AIDS (since that epidemic was first recognized in the 1980s) and cancer, both of which are often fatal. Since blindness in and of itself is not typically fatal, this speaks volumes about our public image and societal perceptions.

As a disability-awareness trainer for over 20 years, one of the exercises I always used was one in which I listed five disabilities: blindness, deafness, paraplegia, epilepsy and mental retardation. Next, I told participants to choose two of these disabilities: first, the disability they would most prefer if they were to wake up tomorrow morning with one of the disabilities mentioned. And second, the disability, out of those five, that they would least prefer to have, given the same scenario. Not surprisingly, in classes of 20 to 25 sighted attendees, it was rare to have anyone choose to be blind. Epilepsy and deafness were almost always the most preferred. And no, blindness was seldom chosen as the least preferred disability by a majority of trainees. That distinction usually went to mental retardation. Typically, there were two to four participants whose "least preferred" choice was blindness.

What about television and movies? How are we portrayed in the media, which plays such an influential role in modern American society? I must admit that I'm far from a TV or film buff (although I loved "Scent of a Woman"). I can't think of too many characterizations of everyday blind people. Perhaps Jake, the proprietor of the newspaper stand in "Becker," comes closest to a regular blind person in the popular media.

It is apparent to me that blind and visually impaired people as a group still have a very long way to go before achieving full equality and total acceptance by society. Say what you like, the process of educating the public that blindness does not have to be an overwhelming tragedy is one which requires every ACB member, as well as the organization itself, to respond in a positive manner to negative portrayals and stereotypic notions about blindness when brought to our attention. We know that tens of thousands of us are working, raising families, and otherwise living satisfying, fulfilling lives, despite visual impairment. There is an expression in the advertising business: "perception is reality." It is every ACB member's responsibility, on behalf of his or her fellows, to work toward improving the image of all blind people and to strive toward changing the public perception of blindness. With your help, ACB will do just that!

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