New York Times Disparages the Blind, and Responses


Daniel Kish's Response to the New York Times


[The letter below was written and forwarded by Daniel Kish to the NY Times editor. A similar letter was also submitted to Bloomsbury publications, asking them to re-consider re-publication of the NY Times article, or at least providing a balanced perspective.]

Date: Tue, 04 Oct 2005
To: magazine@nytimes.com
Subject: Please respond

October 2, 2005

Dear Sir or Madam,

Please respond to this letter.

My name is Daniel Kish. I am the Executive Director of World Access for the Blind. Our blind, nationally certified specialists teach blind people everything from cooking to nontandem mountain biking to hiking through the wilderness alone. Our focus is on dignity, self-reliance, and living with grace. Our blind students participate competitively and cooperatively with their sighted peers in sports, education, and the work place. We use an approach of No Limits. Some of our blind students and instructors have been featured throughout the world for their skills on such shows as Ripley's "Believe It or Not," NBC nightly news, and the Sally Show, and in top publications including Popular Science, Business Week, and Mountain Bike Action Magazine.

I am writing you this informative letter in response to the article by Gabrielle Hamilton entitled, "Eat, Memory: Line of Sight" that you recently published. I think it prudent to inform you of the very egregious effect that this article is having on literally thousands of self respecting blind people, their friends and families, and blindness professionals across the country. Here is the web page of a major organization on which some of this discussion is taking place.

American Foundation for the Blind

You may want to read it for yourself. Aside from unbridled outrage from blind and sighted alike, the most common question raised is: "If aspersions aimed at race, creed, or sex are considered unconscionable and susceptible to public decry and legal action, why might such aspersions raised against blind or other handicapped people be considered acceptible?" The answer perhaps lies in the notion that, when aiming aspersions against a blind person, these aspersions are likely to be accepted, not as stereotyped or bigoted representations spurred by ignorance or contempt, but rather depictions of the unfortunate truth about blindness. "If it's true, then what's wrong with saying it, especially if we can get a little fun out of it." The problem is, all stereotypes have a grain of truth. It takes only 34% of a population to exhibit a certain trait for that trait to be generalized to them all.

Let me start, then, by assuring you that their are blind people working very successfully in the food industry as cooks, chefs, and even line chefs, and that many blind people assume the role of food preparation in their families. I, myself, was taught the finer arts of barbecuing by one of my own blind students who'd taught himself. At no time did anyone need to pull him from the flames or pick up after him. One of the most famous restaurants in the country is owned and run by a deaf-blind man in Seattle Washington. Many blind people all over the country hold excellent jobs, and do not exemplify the negative depiction of this unfortunate gentleman.

It is hard to gain a sense of reality in Ms. Hamilton's account as it focuses exclusively on her perspective and output into the situation, and does not give her subject any voice. However, Ms. Hamilton's account may, indeed, ring true as concerns a blind person who has not adapted to or learned to cope with his blindness. Many people losing their vision simply do not know how blind they are - do not know how much and how vanely they yet rely on their failing vision. Many blind people in this circumstance simply suffer from an inability to see the reality of their condition - something we can all relate to. It would seem to me that anyone of conscience might regard such a circumstance with some measure of kindness, well meant counsel, or at least forbearance. By contrast, this article and any unbalanced publication thereof reflects, if I may say, a negative, perhaps even malicious intent - wanton exploitation of a struggling minority for purposes of self gain.

Please know that, very simply, this article is perpetrating considerable damage to public perception of the integrity and capacities of blind people - a public perception which remains unwittingly tenuous at best. This article is hurting many, many people who already struggle in the face of negative prejudice born of longstanding ignorance and fear, and perpetuated by unchecked sentiments like those expressed by Ms. Hamilton, and by your publication of her work without presentation of a balanced view. In my experience in rehab, the thing that most interferes with the livelihood of the blind is not what they can or can't do, but what they are perceived to be able to do or not do. Here, you do an extreme disservice.

Though I may question her motives, I can not in this free country falt Ms. Hamilton for expressing, even publically, what may have been a true and evidently traumatic account. However, without a balanced report, publication of this inflamatory article is being regarded by many as a deliberately targeted, vicious attack on blind people as a minority group tantamount to the common, underhanded bigotries that have besmirched our nation's history.

Having said all that and taken a deep breath, I will end by saying that I was not shocked by the article. I guess I'm intuitively aware of people's generally disparaging perspective on blindness. It was almost refreshing to see it expressed so openly. It did, however, very much disturb me that the NY times did not present a balanced perspective on the subject. Maybe they'll publish excerpts from the many letters that have been submitted to the editor, but they might have interviewed a blind cook, or employer of one, or anyone from the field knowledgeable about the subject. It seemed instead quite okay to them to just publish this genuine but slanderous account, without considering the damning implications of the sheer bigotry behind it. Along with my full awareness of the cultural disparagement that continues to surround blindness, even as we enter the new millennium, I guess I was still naive about how much it is still considered acceptible to direct contempt openly toward the handicapped more than perhaps any other minority group. Imagine the explosion of public outrage, and rightfully so, if this article had been published with a person of color, or woman, or gay person as it's hapless subject. So, naturally, to my limited knowledge, the NY times refrains from printing such inflamatory material. It's publically considered "not nice", and garners poor ratings. But, it's still okay when you're just talking about handicap.

I have forwarded this article to those who work in and support World Access for the Blind, because I want them to know what they're fighting for with our No Limits approach, and the harsh realities of that battle. But, as much as I want the public to know what we're really dealing with, I haven't had the heart (and I can have an awefully stern heart), to present it to the parents of my younger students. I try to balance my thinking. These parents perceive the disparaged, pitying, averted, shocked, astonished, bewildered looks and comments they and their blind children draw every minute of every day, every where they go. I see how many of these loving, conscientious parents struggle to help their small children cope valiantly with an unyielding world - how they try to balance the harsh realities of adapting to blindness with the full appreciation of enjoying the full breadth of life with grace, dignity, and achievement. Tears almost sting my artificial eyes (which incidentally don't wander around in their sockets like fish in a cheap tank, but stare fixedly ahead like those of a manikin or something out of a SciFi flick - wonder how Ms. Hamilton would describe that), to consider how one of my good friends who is succeeding so well to raise her 6 year old son to be the best of the best, and live his boyhood life with high achievement and pure glee, would take in such an honest account of pure venom. Of course, her very well adapted son would not likely make the mistakes this man is depicted to have made, but how can a parent not help but see their child be the subject of such unmitigated ignorance and cruelty. I certainly don't mind fanning the flames over a nice juicey topic of divergent perspectives. A little fire is good for the soul, especially where there appears to be stuck thinking. I've even sent this insidious article to some of my older students. "Hey guys! Look at this. Let's open our eyes to what's really out there, and beware." But for a parent, a mother, as she stands upon the brink of the black abyss of human iniquity, holding out the bright hope to her innocent, smiling child that he should learn to soar above it all... I feel I can't be party to fanning the soot of this black abyss upon them. And yet, I must. They must know the full, sinister scope of what they are preparing their children to manage, however much it hurts.

Thank you for your attention. Please, respond.

Sincerely,

Daniel Kish, M.A., M.A., COMS, NOMC
Executive Director, World Access for the Blind


[Note: Daniel received no response from either the New York Times nor Bloomsbury USA. Ms. Hamilton's piece was republished in Bloomsbury's "Don’t Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs" Edited By Kimberly Witherspoon & Andrew Friedman, under the title "The Blind Line Cook".]

[nabs-l] FW: Gabrielle Hamilton's essay


NFB's NABS Listserve
Tue Oct 11, 2005

[This listserve contains a great deal of discussion and perspective on Ms. Hamilton's essay, and the New York Time's decision to publish it. Below is included New York Time's official response to many who wrote in about the essay.]
"It was in no way our intention for the essay to be offensive.... we do not feel that Hamilton's story was insensitive to the blind. ... We believe the story was a poignant and sensitive slice-of-life about a difficult subject. And we hope you will reconsider your thoughts about our judgment."

---------------------------------------
Just thought I would share the response that I finally received from the Food Editor of the NYT magazine. It is ironic though, it's exactly the same response received by a friend of mine.
Melanie Peskoe

-----Original Message-----
From: Amanda Hesser [mailto:amandah at nytimes.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 11, 2005 2:30 PM
Subject: Gabrielle Hamilton's essay

11 October 2005

Dear Ms. Peskoe,

I am sorry you felt this way about Gabrielle Hamilton's story "Line of Sight." It was in no way our intention for the essay to be offensive. This is a magazine that has done a lot of journalism about blindness and other disabilities. A recent example is Harriet McBryde Johnson's feature story, "The Disability Gulag," about her life as a disabled person, which led to her book, "Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life."

That said, we do not feel that Hamilton's story was insensitive to the blind. Because it is unclear if the man actually did have kitchen experience, it portrays him as complicated, and a little mysterious. The chef, on the other hand, is so caught up in her desire to bend over backwards in being fair that she cannot bring herself to raise the obvious subject of the applicant's blindness -- which would be a valid question in an interview for such a high risk job. And this makes her look, if anything, gullible for her do-good instincts.

We felt that Hamilton amply acknowledged her failures in the essay. Early in the story, she writes of her reluctance to give him a chance: "I thought maybe I was making some despicable assumptions about the "sight impaired" and needed to get my politics up to date." And later, she points out that one of her employees had to step in to save the applicant from her irrational anger.

We believe the story was a poignant and sensitive slice-of-life about a difficult subject. And we hope you will reconsider your thoughts about our judgment.

Best regards,

Amanda Hesser
Food Editor
--
The New York Times Magazine
229 West 43rd Street -- 8th Floor
New York NY 10036
tel 212.556.1440
fax 212.556.7382

The New York Times Magazine Food Section Serves Up Bigotry for Breakfast


American Foundation for the Blind - September, 2005

"I never thought the food section of The New York Times Magazine could make me sick to my stomach. But it just did. In this week's magazine, there is an article by Gabrielle Hamilton that is possibly the most insidious, offensive thing I have ever read about someone who is blind."
- Carl Augusto, AFB President

"What reputable newspaper, supposedly providing a public service, would publish a 'humor' piece in which a 'plain joe', just trying to find a suitable job, is exposed and humiliated in public? Maybe it's funny to write about how a bunch of big kids beat the heck out of a little kid half their size, too. I wonder if this woman would have found it nearly so funny if she had been the one trying to get a job and had had a similar self-destruction experience. I suspect she wouldn't have been out there trumpeting about it. I just don't get it. All I know is that I'm pretty sure I would never like to meet the contemptable person who committed this article."
- Responder

Half-Baked Bigotry and Mr. Magoo


FAMILIES - Spring 2006
by Kathi Wolfe

[The following is a non-inflamatory, soulful reflection of a woman's experiences growing up as a partially sighted girl, as stimulated by her reading of the article. It is not only insightful and gently honest, it serves as a comfortable close to a troubling discussion.]

During my childhood, I spent most Saturday mornings glued to the TV watching cartoons. Though I loved Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny and Fred Flintstone, I cringed whenever Mr. Magoo came on the screen. I knew that near-sighted Mr. Magoo (with his glasses, clumsiness and incompetence) reminded the other kids of me (with my thick Coke-bottle glasses, klutziness and lack of coordination).

As soon as I, a visually impaired child who did not use a cane, walked outside to play, many of the non-disabled kids would have a field day. Some would imitate the way my eyes “rolled.” (Because I’m visually impaired, my eyes sometimes appear to wander and maintaining eye contact can be hard for me.) Others would imitate how I bumped into obstacles or held things very close to my face so I could see them. Luckily, I had friends who wanted me on their team....Magoo or no Magoo.

Like most of us, with and without disabilities, I grew up. I learned how to use a white cane, gained self-respect, and seldom thought of my youthful experience with Mr. Magoo—until I read an essay “The Blind Line Cook” by Gabrielle Hamilton, a food writer and the chef-owner of Prune, a restaurant in the East Village in New York. The piece appears in “Don’t Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World’s Greatest Chefs” (Bloomsbury). The column originally appeared (under the title “Eat, Memory: Line of Sight”) in the Sunday New York Times magazine. Hamilton, in the first person column, recounts her experience of interviewing a man, who was blind and applying to be a line-cook at her bistro.

I am a foodie who hates to cook, but loves to read about cooking. Making meatloaf seems like rocket science, but reading the Trader Joes catalog is fun. This would be true even if I were fully sighted. My friends, who are blind or visually impaired and fabulous cooks, send condolence letters to my stove! Kidding aside, I love to hear them talk about cooking and to eat the wonderful foods that they prepare.

I thought Hamilton’s piece would be a short, interesting read. I’d just celebrated Thanksgiving at my friend Penny’s. Penny, who is blind, had prepared a feast – turkey, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, oysters, rolls, stuffing and pies. I was eager to learn about what it would be like to be blind and a line-cook.

Hamilton began the column by saying that she’d placed an ad in the paper for a line-cook. A man called her to say he was applying for the job. He had a degree in political philosophy, had worked for six years in the restaurant business, and had been a lunch chef at a restaurant in the Jersey shore, Hamilton said. The job applicant said nothing about being blind or visually impaired. She invited him to come in for an interview.

As I read the above information in Hamilton’s first paragraph, nothing seemed unusual; no red flags went off in my head. I guessed (from the title) that the line-cook wannabe might be blind or low-vision, but wasn’t prepared for what came next.

By the second paragraph of Hamilton’s piece, I was back in Magooland. “The first thing I noticed about him when he arrived was that he was blind. His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby,” Hamilton wrote.

Not since my days on the playground, had I encountered (in such chilling honesty) the contempt and ignorance that many in our society have for those of us with low vision. If Hamilton had directed such prejudice toward any other group different from her, would Bloomsbury or the Times have published her piece?

I’m lesbian, so I’m going to put forth this hypothetical. I’m not encouraging disrespect toward any group, but what if the man Hamilton had invited for an interview and been gay. If she had written that the first thing she noticed about him as his “gayness.”

“His hips swished like a whirling dervish and he was more flaming than a crepe Suzette,” what would the reaction have been?

Many people, besides me, castigate Hamilton for her ridiculing tone. (See the American Foundation for the Blind’s web site at www.afb.org.) Yet, as the cliché says “it takes two to tango” and there were two people involved in the interaction: Hamilton and the man who applied to be a line-cook.

From reading Hamilton’s piece, it appears as if the job applicant is low vision. Hamilton says that the man peers very closely at the menu of her restaurant (so that he can see it). The gentleman doesn’t use a white cane or guide dog.

“He wrote his new phone number on the top of his resume in large unwieldy script and even managed, more or less, to locate and cross out the old number,” Hamilton writes. The job candidate goes through “the trial” (an audition in which Hamilton watches him to see if he can perform the duties of a line-cook). Our aspiring cook puts salt, not on the meat, but on the counter. He drops French Fries and takes the whole afternoon, Hamilton says, to cut parsley.

In case you haven’t already figured this out, he doesn’t say anything to Hamilton, his prospective employer, about being blind or visually impaired. Nor, does this job applicant request any accommodation.

If I’m setting the dinner table at a home where I’ve never been, I’m going to ask, as someone who is low vision, to be oriented to the kitchen. Yet, the man applying to work at Prune doesn’t ask Hamilton to show her where things are. He doesn’t explain how, with accommodation, he could be a line-cook. For instance, many people with low vision use chopping boards that are black on one side and white on the other side. On the black side, we can cut onions (which are white). On the white side, we can chop green peppers.

Because Hamilton’s essay is a first-person piece (not a news story), we don’t hear the job applicant’s side of the story. But, it appears that he either didn’t know how to conduct himself on a job interview (how to deal with his disability as a job applicant) or that he was trying to “pass” (to pretend to be fully sighted).

As I read Hamilton’s essay, I couldn’t understand why I kept thinking of Mr. Magoo. Until I realized: whether we like it or not, we who are low vision will appear to be like Mr. Magoo (bumbling and incompetent) if we try to pass—if we aren’t up-front about our disability. That means ‘coming out” about our disability, and saying what kind of accommodation we need. Especially when looking for a job.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not letting Hamilton off the hook. She doesn’t ask him any questions. Hamilton seems afraid to ask the job applicant whether he has a disability, and if so, how that might impact his functioning as a line-cook. Like many non-disabled people, she exhibits contradictory feelings toward people with disabilities. She wonders what the “politically correct” term is “nowadays” for blind people.

At first, Hamilton convinces herself that the job candidate, though blind, must “compensate” for his visually disability. She takes “a mental inventory of famous accomplished blind people.” But, Hamilton is disappointed to find, when the job applicant fails the audition for being a line-cook, that he is “just plain blind.”

Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, roughly 70 percent of Americans with disabilities are un-employed or under-employed. This isn’t the fault of the ADA. The ADA is a civil rights law, not a job creation bill, and the reasons why so many of us with disabilities have difficulty finding work are complex. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s essay points to two essential truths.

We who have disabilities will never join the workforce in significant numbers until we are forthright about who we are in the job application process. That means, though it is difficult, that we must ‘come out” about who we are; we must disclose our disabilities to our prospective employers and be clear about the accommodation we need.

To be sure, there is a risk to “coming out.” When you “come out,” you open yourself up to the possibility of prejudice, to the stigma that our society places around disability. But, isn’t it better to be oneself forthrightly and with pride, than to be perceived as Mr. Magoo? If you stop expending energy passing and ask for accommodation, you’ll be on a level playing field in the workplace. With that, you’re more likely to be viewed as competent, rather than as a circus freak or a “fish in a tropical aquarium in a cheap hotel.”

Prospective employers (and people without disabilities) must work to overcome their fear of not being politically correct, their shyness at asking questions. There is risk involved in asking people with disabilities about their impairments. In a job interview, a prospective employer needs (for legal reasons) to keep the questioning geared to how a job applicant’s disability impacts his or her functioning in the job. Some people don’t like being asked questions and you may hear different answers to the same question from different people. Still, without questions, we’ll never have the conversation that we need to have in this country about people with disabilities in the workplace.

“I wish I could invite Hamilton for dinner,” my friend Penny said, “I’d cook her a great meal!”

I’m inviting myself to that dinner party and I’d like the “blind line-cook” to join us. Then we could all talk.