by Karla Westjohn
(Editor's Note: "From Your Perspective" is a column that appears occasionally. Its contents vary from technology to religion, from internal goings-on to items of concern in the blindness field in general. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, not those of the American Council of the Blind, its staff or elected officials. "The Braille Forum" cannot be held responsible for the opinions expressed herein.)
Besides physical fitness, sports have long been credited with developing civility, self-discipline and self-confidence, and with bridging barriers between people. The accomplishments of blind athletes have long been touted as a means of opening the minds of the sighted to the capabilities of the blind. The goals are laudable, but whether they are actually being achieved is debatable.
Certainly, everyone, blind or sighted, can benefit from physical fitness. Sportsmanship, discipline, and confidence transcend sports. The blind person who skis, swims, bikes, runs, or is a martial arts black belt dispels stereotypes. Blind wrestlers from residential schools have competed successfully against sighted wrestlers. Playing a sport can be a means for a blind child to demonstrate to sighted peers that he or she is "one of the gang."
Athletics, however, are not a panacea. Stressing sports above all else can be catastrophic. About five years ago The Seeing Eye Guide, the newsletter of The Seeing Eye, featured an article about a young graduate who had briefly held an entry-level job at the school. She quit because the job interfered with playing goalball. The article's tone was laudatory! Imagine a young sighted woman quitting a job with a nationally known organization because working interfered with her softball league. No complimentary article would have been written. Discussion of the matter would have constituted the conversation she had with her parents. After telling her to stop acting like a bum, they would have informed her of her options: "Get the job back or find another one -- because you're not moving home."
Responsible commentators decry the overselling of sports to poor, inner-city kids. They point out that few outstanding high school athletes become outstanding college athletes, and even fewer of these turn professional. Professional sports careers are short. Without an education and job skills, the athlete quickly becomes a sad has-been.
The prospects are even bleaker for blind athletes. Now blind athletes occasionally receive sponsorships, and the Paralympics have received some exposure on ESPN, but blind people still have no real hope for careers as professional athletes. Preoccupation with sports, to the exclusion of everything else, leads to unemployability. Unlike her sighted counterpart, a blind athlete would even have trouble getting hired to flip burgers -- partly because of employer prejudice, but also because, without blindness skills, she may not even qualify for a menial job.
More troubling is the duality surrounding some blind athletes. On the one hand, they are allegedly inspiring because of their extraordinary sports feats, feats implicitly impossible for most blind people. On the other hand, they supposedly prove that they (and all blind people) are exactly like everyone else, and sight is irrelevant. The exploits of Erik Weihenmayer and Rachael Scdoris exemplify this phenomenon.
Both endeavors (mountain climbing and running in the Iditarod) cost thousands of dollars. Both would have been impossible without massive sighted assistance and, in Scdoris's case, a major modification of race rules applicable only to her. Of the 18 people in Weihenmayer's Everest expedition, he was the only blind climber, and the entire undertaking revolved around him. In his subsequent climbing exploits, some done with students from a residential school for the blind in Tibet, the parties have been equally divided between blind and sighted climbers. The Iditarod is supposed to be a solo race, with mushers relying upon themselves and the power of their dogs -- no assistance in negotiating the trail from mechanized equipment, GPS technology, other mushers, or anyone else. This year another "competitor," Tim Osmar, a 20-time Iditarod veteran who generally finishes in the top quarter of the race, guided Scdoris along the trail by remaining with her and giving directions via two-way radio, another prohibited device for other race participants. She finished 57th out of 72, days behind racers completing the course "in the money." Osmar finished 56th, a position wholly unrepresentative of his real ability. Finishing the Iditarod is an accomplishment, but finishing under those circumstances is hardly inspirational. Scdoris bills herself as a champion dog sled racer. Lynda Plentner, a grandmother who makes no particular effort to finish in the front of the pack, finished ahead of her, and Plentner followed all race rules to the letter.
The problem with such exploits is not the activities themselves, but the false picture they present. Blind people can and should be expected to participate equally in society, enjoying the same rights and assuming the same responsibilities as everyone else. Employment, education, and yes, even sports, usually are not inordinately expensive. To be reasonable, and thus legally required, an accommodation must be cost-effective and must not fundamentally alter the activity or facility. The sighted assistance Weihenmayer and Scdoris received in their sports endeavors differs greatly from the sighted assistance most blind people receive. Most of life's activities do not require constant sighted assistance. No employer is required to hire two comparably qualified people to do one job. Reading and driving assistance on the job is either minimal or is performed by people with lesser qualifications than the blind worker and for less money than the blind worker receives.
Ironically, Weihenmayer and Scdoris reinforce the misconception that the blind require copious assistance while everyone pretends that the help is negligible. This misconception all too often leads to the fallacy that, whatever the activity, whatever the individual attributes of the two, between a blind person and a sighted person, the blind person can never really be the best. Paradoxically, most successful blind people readily admit that sometimes sight, per se, is necessary. Far from being defeatist, considering a problem objectively is the first step toward its solution and ultimately leads to real excellence.