Why Do We Fear the Blind? My Answer: I Don’t. Do You?

Painting of Diderot

Rosemary Mahoney, author of the forthcoming (January 14, 2014) book For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind, has published a provocative op-ed “teaser” for her book in the January 4, 2014 edition of the New York Times.

Entitled Why Do We Fear the Blind?, Ms. Mahoney’s op-ed describes her work as an English teacher of blind students at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Trivandrum, India, a branch of Braille without Borders, with a majority of her students hailing from the developing world: Madagascar, Colombia, Tibet, Liberia, Ghana, Kenya, Nepal, and India.

Like many of my colleagues, I read her op-ed with great interest.

Book Excerpt: For the Benefit of Those Who See

Excerpted from a Chapter 1 preview, available at the author’s website:

Most of us who have healthy eyesight are extremely attached to our vision, often without being conscious that we are. We depend heavily on our eyes and yet we rarely give them a second thought. I, at least, am this way. The physical world is almost hypervivid to me. The appearance of objects is registered instantly and boldly in my mind with no conscious effort on my part. I cannot help noticing tiny details.

But seeing and noticing aren’t a function of the eyes alone. They are as much a function of the mind, and in my case, perhaps they aren’t as involuntary or superfluous as I tend to think. On further consideration, I suspect that my mind could not really operate without my eyes, because in fact it is my mind that is constantly asking questions of the visual world, looking for evidence, for information, judging existence on the basis of what I see.

My reason for going to India to teach blind and visually impaired people was not that I wanted to teach English or live in India … No, I was teaching at this school solely because I had developed a strong curiosity about blindness and wanted to meet blind people, to spend time with them, to get to know them, to find out how they think, to see how they live in the world, how they navigate, how they talk and eat and dress and write and shave and brush their teeth, and learn just about anything else I could about blind people without trespassing too far beyond the limits of decency.

Op-Ed Excerpt: Why Do We Fear the Blind?

In her companion op-ed, Ms. Mahoney expands on her work in India and expresses her belief that the majority of sighted people intensely fear blindness and blind persons:

The United States has one of the lowest rates of visual impairment in the world, and yet blindness is still among the most feared physical afflictions. Even in this country, the blind are perceived as a people apart.

Aversion toward the blind exists for the same reason that most prejudices exist: lack of knowledge. Ignorance is a powerful generator of fear. And fear slides easily into aggression and contempt. Anyone who has not spent more than five minutes with a blind person might be forgiven for believing … that there is an unbridgeable gap between us and them.

My Own Response: No Fear, Just Interest

Apart from correcting her usage of the term “the blind,” which I do not use in my own work (I prefer to say “people who are blind”), I cannot respond to Ms. Mahoney’s question because (a) I do not fear blind people and (b) I am sighted and would rather defer to my blind friends and colleagues to respond. Like Ms. Mahoney, I am a traveler in a world I only partially – and marginally – inhabit.

Although I report most often on research and breaking news about blindness and low vision, I also like to explore the philosophical issues that underlie the nature and meaning(s) of sight, vision, blindness, and cognition:

  • How do we form images about, and therefore interpret, the sensate world?
  • How do our brains construct mental images? Do we use only our eyes, or do our other senses contribute to this imagery as well?
  • Can people who have never had sight grasp the concept of space and the arrangement of objects within it?
  • And what is “seeing,” really? Is it simply absorbing objective reality through the eyes, or is it more?

Denis Diderot

Like Ms. Mahoney, who quotes Diderot in her op-ed, I have studied the work of Enlightenment philosopher and encyclopedist Denis Diderot (pictured above), whose 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient or Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See presciently described blind persons, and blindness itself, as worthy of scientific and philosophical inquiry.

As Diderot’s character Lenôtre, the “Blind Man of Puiseaux,” concluded,

Sight … is a kind of touch which extends to distant objects and is not applied to our face. Touch gives … an idea only of relief. Therefore, a mirror is an instrument that represents us in relief at a distance from ourselves, when properly placed with regard to [ourselves].

Within this relief environment, the blind man experiences sight (the unknown ‘other’) as a kind of figure/ground relationship; it is bound in the notion of difference – if the points of a figure are the same height or texture as the ground, they are lost and the figure disappears.

This way of presenting ‘the other’ is a set of comparisons and/or metaphors that attempts to move both parties (the blind man and the sighted man) beyond themselves into a new space of greater understanding.”

Thérèse-Adèle Husson

Diderot also worked closely with Thérèse-Adèle Husson, an accomplished blind woman and author of Reflections: The Life and Writings of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France, first published in 1825. Publisher’s Weekly describes Reflections as “One of the earliest accounts written by someone with an actual disability rather than by an observer or educator. It is also one of the earliest records of solidarity among blind people, advocating self-sufficiency and independence as well as education for blind children.”

Diderot worked with Mme. Husson to determine the methods she used to construct mental images of her environment. “When I describe a scene to you,” Diderot asked, “where do you see it?” “I see it in my head,” she replied, “the same as you, Monsieur Diderot.”

Esref Armagan

And how does one explain the work of the congenitally blind Turkish painter Esref Armagan, who is able to draw in three-point perspective, demonstrating a perfect grasp of horizontal and vertical convergence at imaginary points in the distance? Can biology alone explain such abilities? Of course, I don’t have these answers, and probably never will, but such questions are certainly worthy of exploration.


I look forward to reading For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind. And readers: Please feel free to add your comments. I am always interested to hear from you.