A Blind Man's Vision of Blindness


From Daniel Kish

 

April, 2005

 

Dear Mr. Baldrick,

 

My name is Daniel Kish. I am totally blind from birth, and the President of World Access for the Blind - a nonprofit organization using a modern, No-Limits approach to equalize opportunities for the success of blind people. I hold Master's degrees in Developmental Psychology (where I focused on children at risk) and Special Education. I am the first totally blind, nationally certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, as this certification was withheld from blind people until very recently. I refer to myself as an Alternative Perception Specialist, because of the highly sensory nature of what I teach. I do not blow my own horn out of fanfare for myself, but fanfare for a few of the achievements possible with blindness - to set the stage for what I wish to share with you. Anyway, 4 years ago, I quit my full time job as a coordinator of educational and enrichment services, to start this organization when I realized a way to teach blind people how to see without sight, and to master their way in darkness.

 

I commend your wonderful work. Your efforts and good intentions stand tall as an inspiration to us all. I have a concern about the new campaign, Kindness Beats Blindness, which I feel a need to share with you with the expectation that you will understand and appreciate my perspective.

 

As a blindness professional, I monitor several blindness related mailing lists. When the article, "See What Kids Can Do: Being Blind For A Day" about Harrington's Heroes came to my attention, I read it with a highly ambivalent reaction.

 

This project is certainly filled with heart and the very best of intentions, but touched me, not with hope, but with a sense of foreboding. I posted a response to the list, and have since been urged by multiple subscribers, sighted and blind, to take the lead in addressing what we perceive to be a well-intended but somewhat misguided (forgive me) threat to the dignity and integrity of blind people, and our ability to gain a position of respect in society. "I wish the staff at Good Morning America could hear these sentiments as they covered this project" said one colleague from the list.

 

I do not claim to speak for all blind people, only myself as a blind person, and professional who works with blind people. My concerns arise from a life's dedication to helping blind people find their own strength. I present my response here, not with any intent to criticize, but to raise points concerning blindness that you may find useful and interesting as one who clearly wishes to make a respectful impact on our behalf. I would also like to offer you some insights about blindness from our No-Limits perspective that can set right and further empower this new movement you have sparked. I have found that the best achievements are often wrought through joint efforts in good conscience. Please accept my contribution in this spirit.

 

When I first encountered this incoming message, my tension was immediately raised by the subject line "Kindness Beats Blindness." Indeed, I have felt beaten and pummeled by many things - misplaced kindness foremost among them. So, my negative reaction was somewhat reflexive. As a blind individual self-dedicated to helping blind people throughout the world gain a place of dignity, respect, and self-reliance in today's difficult, sight dominated society, I read the article with a mixture of chagrin and admiration. In today's society of stress and self-centeredness, who can argue with the need for kindness, camaraderie, solidarity, respect, and all those good things? It seems clear to me from this account that the intention here of promoting compassion is well meant, and is finding well deserved fruition and popularity. My heart-felt congratulations. Is that wrong? If the intention is to promote kindness toward blind people, I respectfully pose this question: Is it kindness that we blind people need? (Perhaps this depends on how you define kindness, and the results of it.) I ask this with genuine respect, because I appreciate the positive endeavor here.

 

In my experience, what we call "kindness" or "compassion" has stood among the biggest threats to blind people. It is compassion with lack of understanding that has landed many blind people in institutions and kept us out of the mainstream "for your own protection" over the years. "Killing with kindness," as a woman wrote on one of the lists in response to this fine article. It isn't compassion that necessarily benefits blind people any more than others, unless it's well blended with understanding and respect for blindness as a gainful opportunity, not a shameful condition of deficit. Compassion without understanding of human strength and respect for dignity and purpose becomes a dangerous and hurtful thing. I know. I and my students world wide confront this reality every single day. Some have told me after losing their vision, "It isn't the blindness that most bothers me, it's the belittling way I'm now treated." They're not generally referring to people being cruel, callous, or insensitive, but rather too helpful, smothering, condescending, and often lacking recognition of their personal potency.

 

In my experience, blindfold experiences typically raise more fears and doubts, and affirm more myths and misconceptions about blindness than they put to rest. The results are typically disappointing, disheartening, and demeaning. I haven't seen this campaign in action, so perhaps I am missing something important here. But, it seems to me that kids leading each other around for a day with a solemn "the lights go on" ceremony as the finale may do little to promote productive understanding of blindness, and may serve to cause more harm toward blind people by way of sending a message of neediness rather than capacity. Indeed, to quote the article itself: "8th grader Kelsey Hogan, one of Harrington's Heroes said, 'This is without a doubt the most moving thing I have ever done in my life. I have learned so many things that I will never forget, like how it isn't all about you, and that helping needy people can give you this beautiful, indescribable feeling that makes you know you were put on this earth for a reason.' ... Pat Dodd, Director of Development of The Foundation Fighting Blindness said, 'It is a wonderful thing to have children helping to light the darkness for others their own age who are suffering from blindness.'"

 

This approach runs the risk of re-enforcing the destructive idea, already too rampant, that blind people need the eyes of others to reach fulfillment, or even just to get by. In truth, we who have adapted to blindness as a viable way of life often find that notion disdainful and hurtful. Please, forgive my strong choice of words. I mean no offense at all to the wonderful spirit of this project and of your much needed work, and I hope I can help make it the kind of project you seem to intend. Please understand, for many blind people, blindness isn't at all about being lead around, relying on others' kindness, or craving the light of day. Blindness isn't about fear of the dark, vulnerability, or suffering. It is definitely not about what we can't do, or wish we could do. Blindness is about adaptation and resourcefulness, about effective, purposeful, dignified, self-directed living in the dark, about achievement through perseverance. Blindness is about the joy, freedom, and beauty of making our own choices by exercising our own sound judgments and capabilities. It is about the gratification of embracing the world and making the unknown known. Those of us who have seen the New Light that shines in darkness are leaders, givers, and doers, not waiting to be lead or enabled by the kind hands of a warm heart. I fear that, with the very finest of will, this campaign as it stands may serve to backfire by presenting and affirming a twisted perspective on blindness to the children involved, and to the public at large.

Blindness need not be a thing that we must regard as a condition of "suffering." The suffering part of it is ultimately a matter of personal choice as is true when faced with any challenge. While most blind people would probably rather see than not, at the same time many of us would not regard their circumstances as "suffering." We see and live blindness from a "gain" perspective, not a "loss" perspective. That is the only way we can find and own our power. I think the purpose of fighting blindness isn't so much to combat it as an affliction, but to bring a positive light to the situation of blindness. I call it the "new light." Blindness may be eradicated in a few instances, and good riddance to it, but more realistically and importantly, I submit that the presumed "afflictive" nature of blindness can and should be addressed in positive, respectful ways without casting aspersions on the condition.

 

World Access for the Blind, for example, teaches blind people world wide how to "see without sight", and how to approach life with a perspective of success and purpose, not loss. Our main message is "No-Limits", and we mean it. Our students learn to use sound and sonar imaging natural to humans, together with belief in their own capacity, to interact with their environment gracefully and energetically in astounding ways not previously imagined. Solo bicycling, competitive ball play, and wilderness survival without need for the eyes of others are just a few things that become readily possible, not to mention finding quality and enrichment in one's day to day life. The impact on self-worth and confidence is immeasurable in this positive light. In our public and professional presentations, we never conduct a blindfold experience without ensuring that participants leave with a knowledge of how to adapt to the dark, and appreciate blindness, not as a condition of deficit or affliction, but one of strength, capability, and promise. The blindness remains, and the capacity is restored and celebrated.

 

Imagine an 11-year-old boy named Daniél from Mexico, spurned by his peers and lamented by his loving grandma after being struck blind by a truck at the age of 6. The urgent hope held before him that his vision would surely return was perhaps most confusing and devastating to him. Once angry, bitter, and bewildered, after our instruction, which he devoured most eagerly, he graciously offered us his heart-felt thanks for showing him how to use "the click of the mouth" to see again. He has since returned all smiles to the soccer field and play yard where he has forcefully earned the respect and admiration of his compañeros and community. His warm-hearted grandma now regards him with hope and pride, not sadness or pity - engaged in the pleasure of who he is and how he has grown. Not only has he won respect, but he has reached the top of his class in his neighborhood school, and earned the acclaim of the local media for his shining No Limits example to all. As you have said, "small bodies do, indeed, have big hearts." The strength of Daniél's heart and the fire burning from it is one of the greatest inspirations of my career, and one of the finest testimonies of our work.

 

Two of our former students and now good friends (one of whom serving as a key employee) say that losing their vision is the best thing that ever happened to them - that they like who they have become as a result of the blindness. Both have appeared with me on national TV to demonstrate their new found ability to see without sight. One of them, Brian Bushway, was called "the world's best, totally blind mountain biker" in Mountain Bike Action Magazine, as he navigated rugged mountain trails on his own bicycle without need of a tandem pilot. Brian will be one of our lead riders in our "TeamBat Over America" campaign featuring blind cyclist riding solo. An avid young athlete, he lost his vision suddenly during the summer before his 8th grade, and his sports gear went into storage. A few years later, he removed his old bike from storage after hearing of our program, and came with us to learn to ride it in the dark, and learn to see again. He is now our most agile rider. He is graduating Pepperdine University with honors, having traveled Europe as an exchange student. While both of these guys would doubtless give up their blindness for sight as it becomes available at some point in the future, both have told me that they would not trade what they've learned and how they've grown through adapting to blindness for a life time of seeing. Neither would I, though I've never seen.

 

As you can see, we view blindness from a perspective of gain rather than loss, action rather than reaction, taking care rather than being cared for. So, I think before we start beating blindness with kindness as if it were a dastardly thing to be scourged, please consider that it may be more productive and respectful to take a look at shedding the light of understanding on what we propose someday to conquer. Let's not make blindness the scapegoat. In the mean time, we can focus on what we can do right now - making it a viable, livable, even enjoyable and enriching circumstance of living. As an expert in the field, I can assure you that many decades stand between us and the fabled cure for most forms of blindness. I can also assure you that there are many ways to see without eyes, and these ways can be applied immediately with very powerful and exciting results by those who believe and achieve.

 

For the near future, World Access for the Blind is involved in mobilizing the development of an artificial eye that will make visual information available in detail through hearing and touch. I was inspired to do this after a visit with Prof. Steve Mann, a top scientist at Toronto University, who told me that, given the resources, detection and sensory technology and knowledge are at a point that we have the ability right now to create a device that would allow blind people to "throw away their canes, and take up tennis as a hobby." Preludes for such a device have already been created by World Access for the Blind, and by Dr. Leslie Kay from BAT LTD in New Zealand, and others. But, for the capacity of blind people to be fully realized and accepted, with or without technology or special training, I submit that we must work with rather than against blindness in a positive way without disrespecting or dishonoring the condition. To do otherwise throws a pall over everything that we blind people strive for - to stand as equals with our sighted comrades, not because of their kindness towards us, but because of our own intrinsic capacity to achieve and to shine. It seems to me that this is, indeed, consistent with the mission statement set forth by Harrington's Heroes: "All of the Heroes believe that blindness is only a challenge, one that shouldn't stop anyone from taking those steps toward their full potential and more importantly, greatness."

 

 

 

I mean no offense or disrespect to you or to this fine cause. You clearly intend a wonderful thing here, and finding cures for blindness is a noble and much worthy cause. I think with a little thought, this could be turned into a powerful message of affirmation and respect, rather than one about the charitable easing of another's afflictions. I would be honored and very pleased to help you with this.

 

With Appreciation and Respect,

 

Daniel Kish, M.A., M.A., COMS
Executive Director

Response to: A Blind Man's Vision of Blindness

From: "Bob" <...
To: daniel kish ...
Subject: Aerticle
Date: Tue, 03 May 2011 23:02:15 -0400

My name is Robert... I am 67 year old male and been legally blind for several years with RP. Sight worsen and finally in 2007 I yielded reluctantly to getting help thru ... Division of Blind Services. I have taken mobility, computer skills using Jaws, OpenBook, Life skills, even Braille but not very proficient at it. Also held a secular job along with pastor mainly smaller church with about 3 years college. I thought your article was well meaning but a bit overdone. Kindness does beat blindness. I certainly do not want pity but understanding would be wonderful. I have faced much difficulties in life and thought those days were behind me. Was I ever wrong now I face much discrimination as a blind man in our society. It is unbelievable how we are treated in our society when it comes to business, vending machines, ATM, paperwork's, etc. Perhaps kindness along with understanding would certainly help manners a great deal. I am faced with a mail order pharmacy perhaps the largest in the country unwilling or unable to work with me as a blind person even though I gave them several options how to communicate which are relatively easy. After several months we have made no progress and now my grievance is at the highest level in the company. I will say I am very persistent and in some ways part Pit Bull. It has become a matter of principles for I know there are other blinds having to deal with them. At the Lighthouse ... during Life Skill I am told by my wife several months later. A staff member who instructed this class made a mental note about me and told my wife I was going to be an advocate for the blind. When I was told I merely shrugged it off but in recently weeks beginning to realize that prediction is coming true. I am not sure where my path will lead me but I am fighting for all blind people everywhere. I am not so concerned about the senior blind for they complain but never do anything about it. But for unborn blind children, blind children, up to upper middle aged adults. My heart aches for these people especially the young having to face a world of discrimination. Perhaps kinds mixed with understanding is what we need. Understanding without kindness would be a very cold world. To me kindness is a start and it would be more effective if we were to show them how to use that kindness instead of burying them in a collection of words. I have made a few friends along the way mostly thru humor and a nice smile. I do display kindness instead a chip on my shoulder about my blindness. An old saying you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar holds true even to this day. I detect a note of vinegar in your response to Kindness is better than blindness. Sincerely Robert ...

To: "Bob" <...
From: Daniel Kish <daniel.kish@worldaccessfortheblind.org>
Subject: Re: Aerticle

Hi,

I really appreciate your thoughtful and detailed response to my article about "Kindness Beats Blindness". My response was written almost 10 years ago. I would write it very differently these days, certainly with more equinimity and gentleness. Would you be averse to my publishing your response on our web site, without identifying information,.

Thanks.
Daniel

From: "Bob" <...
To: daniel kish ...
Subject: Re: Aerticle
Date: Thu, 05 May 2011 13:33:04 -0400

You certainly have my permission to publish it. I just hope it helps others. We have been shown kindness and to be truthful it helps when we face so much discrmination in our society as blind people. I am a 67 year old male and been known at Tampa airport a young lady at the time I did not know worked for Air Tran came along side of me and offerred to help me. Having some difficulties since still learning how to move about in a strange environment. I told her sure with a smile. She started byholding my arm but I suggested it is much easier if I hold yours and she was willing. On the way with a smile I said you are a beautiful blue eye blonde right? She laughs and said my hair is brown. Then with a reply I told her anyway you are beautiful. My wife Lily told me she came back just beaming for it made her day. At a local Applebee they are so good to us. On one occasion I came in with a friend who remained outside on his cell phone fo a few minutes. Trying to find an empty table or booth not so sure if I could tell if I looked directly at it. While there all of sudden a waitress slipped her arm under mine and away we go to a table. On the way I tell her Oh I get escorted by a beautiful woman. We both laughed but it was enjoyable and in my opinion she was beautiful because of her consideration. My wife Lily knows I am not flirting but just making the most of the situation with humour for it helps relieve stress. Also it gives a better impression of blind people and not leave a bad taste in their mouths. I've heard negative comments about th blind several times which does not help our cause any. You see if we are not careful our attitude may turn bitter and it affect others in a negative way. Not sure if you are a Christian but I am and there are Bible verses dealing with this. As a man think in his heart so he is. IF we think we are happy, sad, bitter, hate we are. Also there is one of my favorite. Cast your bread upon the water after so many days it will return back to yu. I've learned what it mean yu do good things and after so long it will return back to yu. In recent months our bread has returned back to us many times over. Another one is as a man soweth that he also will reap. Throw out good seed you will get a good crop. Throw out bad seeds you will get a bad crop. Meaning whatever we give out will return back to us whether negative or positive. Not everything will be postive if we give out good seeds, but much of it will. It also make life much more pleasant for us. We cannot do everything in our socieity to change it but we can change within with God's help. By taking a postive approach to life from within sweeten up life enough where we can enjoy it much more. Bitter approach will only come back to yu in a very real way.

To: "Bob" <...
From: Daniel Kish <daniel.kish@worldaccessfortheblind.org>
Subject: Re: Article

Hello,

Sorry it has been some time since my last response to you.

You have prompted me to review my letter very carefully. As I mentioned before, my approach to these kinds of things has softened. I guess I would say that I agree that kindness with understanding is ideal. You seem to feel that kindness is lacking. I would agree; there is too little kindness in the world at large. I would also say that understanding is lacking. I think that kindness without understanding can be as detramental as understanding without kindness, if there is such a thing. Many a blind person has been over protected, over sheltered, and over catered to to the point of incapacity - all in the name of kindness. In an effort to keep her children safe, the mother bird can either clip her children's wings to shield them from the cruelties of the world, or throw them out of the nest when she determines they need to realize they can fly. With blind children, the wings are more often clipped, leaving them to rely on the mercy of the "wings" of others. I have seen this over and over again with heart breaking results, and this was the angst behind my initial response.

However, a lot of time has passed between then and now, and I am learning the need to increase my own kindness and understanding in responding to these issues.

Thank you once again for your thought provoking letter, and I, too, hope that it helps people.
Warmly,
Daniel