REFLECTIONS OF A PERIPATETIC FEDERATIONIST
by Michael Baillif
As Monitor readers know (see July, 1988, issue), Michael Baillif (President of the Student Division of the National Federation of the Blind) is traveling in England and other European countries this year on a Watson Fellowship. On October 27, 1988, while traveling in Wales with his parents, Michael was in an automobile accident in which he suffered minor injuries. At this writing in early November, he is recovering and expects soon to return to his research. His work so far has been confined to studying of the blind in England. The yardstick he is using to evaluate the condition of the blind in the United Kingdom is the philosophy about blindness developed by the National Federation of the Blind in the United States. In his report to Watson officials, Michael boldly asserts that "the condition of the blind in England is generally dismal." Here are some of his ruminations and conclusions. It is clear that Michael takes his Federationism seriously.
A Beeping Nuisance
Traveling the streets of London presents to the pedestrian numerous challenges, including roads which intersect to form all manner of geographical patterns save right angles, and sidewalks which are cluttered with signs, scaffolding, and every imaginable variety of refuse. Blind travelers face an additional obstacle, the well-meaning English pedestrian. It is virtually impossible for a blind person in London to approach a street corner without being set upon by a benevolent passer-by and dragged across the road to the accompaniment of such reassuring phrases as "You're okay mate" or "It's all right love, we're almost there." This state of affairs, which is highly detrimental to one's mobility, to say nothing of one's self-respect, can be traced to a number of causes, none of which is more boisterously apparent than the audible traffic signal.
Street corners of London are randomly dotted with these signals which emit a piercing beep when it is supposedly safe to cross a street. These signals, in theory, are designed for the convenience and protection of blind travelers. It is not uncommon, when walking the streets of London, to be assaulted by the din of honking horns, frantic sirens, barking dogs, and (rising above the audio melee) shrieking audible signals. Although their obtrusiveness may lead one to the contrary opinion, it is important to realize that audible signals are by no means placed on every street corner in London. In fact, they are scattered throughout the city in such a whimsical pattern that any blind traveler actually depending upon them as a mobility aid would soon find himself cursing the lack of beeping signal at a busy intersection. In most cases he soon would be hustled across the street and deposited on the opposite side by a public benefactor. On occasion, however, the blind traveler would be left to depend upon his own abilities when crossing the street and, judging by the fact that the mortality rates for the blind in England are no higher than those of the sighted, would apparently acquit himself reasonably well in this endeavor. Thus, audible signals simply make a good deal of noise and are not a mobility necessity for blind pedestrians. If this assessment of audible signals accurately represented their entire character, they would be a laughable curiosity, ineffective and perhaps even charming in their own beeping way.
Audible signals, however, are far from harmless and have a powerfully negative effect on the public perception of blindness. It should not be surprising that the average English citizen is so readily willing to lay hands upon blind pedestrians, regardless of whether they desire any assistance. The profusion of audible signals reinforces the idea that it is external devices, rather than a blind person's senses and skills, which enable him to perform various activities, such as crossing streets, with competence and expedition. Accordingly, when a member of the English public encounters a blind person standing on a street corner at which an audible signal has not been installed, the good citizen generally accepts his responsibility to act as custodian of the blind pedestrian and (either cheerfully or grudgingly) undertakes to conduct him to his destination.
Although the English are charitable people, their good will (which is offered to and enforced upon blind people on the sidewalks) generally does not extend to blind people in the job market or legislative halls. Audible signals perpetuate the myth that the blind are helpless. After all, it is reasonable to ask the question, "If a blind person cannot travel to work without the assistance of clamorous, paternalistic gadgets, how can he adequately perform a job without other expensive and noisy aids?" If a potential employer has no means of providing such devices, his experience with audible signals and blind travelers will likely cause him to conclude (without a second thought) that blind people are unemployable. Additionally, with audible signals trumpeting the good will and commitment of the English public toward their blind brethren, it is easy for matters of substance to be ignored. The cries of the blind for civil rights and their shouts for independence are all to often drowned out by the screening of audible signals.
Perhaps the most unfortunate result of these signals in England is the stultifying effect which they have on members of the general public who happen to be blind. Because audible signals have been in existence for some time, and as a result of the virtually inescapable assistance provided at street corners without these signals, many blind people never gain complete confidence in their own travel abilities. They regard the few independent street crossings which they safely make as mere coincidence and good fortune. Most are never afforded the opportunity to develop positive attitudes and skills in personal mobility. Those blind travelers who wish to assert their independence are so beset by audible signals on the one hand, and an overly helpful English public misled by these signals on the other hand, that they sometimes despair of quietly crossing even a single street with dignity and without incident.
Audible signals are certainly not one of the more charming aspects of London. Rather, they are among the most clamorous and pernicious environmental hazards with which blind people must deal.
Lunch At The Hard Rock Cafe
Lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe on Piccadilly Street is an indispensable experience for anyone wishing to explore the contemporary culture of London. The Hard Rock Cafe stands as a Mecca to which people fond of rock and roll memorabilia, loud music, and American cuisine flock with unwavering devotion. Among the characteristics which make it unique, the Hard Rock Cafe possesses some, such as long entrance lines, deafening music, and several sets of stairs, which would be anathema to the typical blind person described by conventional negative stereotypes. Of course, these characteristics, for a blind person with positive attitudes and proper skills, as for a sighted person, are simply part of the atmosphere of the Hard Rock Cafe to be embraced or rejected as one's general taste and outlook dictate. There are many blind people in England who would like very much to have lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe but who are prevented from enjoying this experience, not by discrimination or by lack of competent travel skills, but by their own restrictive and self-deprecating attitudes.
There is an essential difference between the approach to blindness adopted by the Federation in America and that taken by the average blind person in England. This distinction has been characterized in the following way: A Federationist in America would say, "I'm blind, so what?" Whereas, a blind person in England would say, "I'm blind, please excuse me." This observation, which was actually make by an Englishman, is not meant to be critical of anyone but to emphasize the vital importance of attitude to us a blind people. In England many blind people are vociferous in insisting upon their respectability as individuals. Paradoxically, however, most attempt to gain this recognition without first asserting that it is respectable to be blind. The end result is that, although they possess both the right and the ability to dine at the Hard Rock Cafe, many blind Englishmen nevertheless are excluded from its premises by their own feelings of timidity and insignificance. It is impossible to establish the dignity of the person who happens to be blind without first proclaiming and believing that blindness is respectable. If we attempt to live this contradiction, we are left with entitlements equal to, or exceeding, those of the sighted but not the social status and personal confidence needed to transform these stagnant benefits and privileges into equality.
As part of my research project, I reside at a hostel for the blind in London. The hostel embodies a number of subtle contradictions which reinforce the idea that blind people are almost, but not quite, as good as the sighted. The very concept of a hostel for the blind implies that. Although blind people may be competent enough to gain an education and exercise a vocation, they are nevertheless either unable or not welcome to reside within conventional society. Some revealing assumptions about blindness are made within the hostel. For instance, blind residents are expected as a matter of course to climb flight after flight of stairs to reach their rooms. The myth that the blind have difficulty with stairs is appropriately disregarded. By contrast, however, there is a strict prohibition against the moving of furniture for fear it may present an insurmountable debilitating stereotype is broken, another even more groundless and damaging assumption is accepted in its place.
The attitude toward the white cane is worthy of note as well. Canes are rarely found in use around the hostel. And, in fact, residents are actively discouraged from carrying their canes into the dining room. Officials claim that they would present a hazard to other residents. Interestingly enough, each table in the dining room is provided with a pot of boiling tea at every meal. It is automatically assumed that residents will have no difficulty in helping themselves to the steaming tea. Isn't it reasonable to expect that if an individual possesses the common sense and dexterity to pour tea without scalding himself or his neighbors, he will be that it will present no annoyance or threat to other diners?
If at first glance these contradictions seem minute, consider the message they send. When the idea that the blind require special accommodation and attention is constantly reinforced and when the white cane is viewed not as a badge of freedom but as a clumsy annoyance to be dispensed with whenever possible, one cannot assert with any conviction or credibility that it is respectable to be blind.
In any case, others are not going to take us to lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, nor should they. We must go there ourselves- and we must teach society that our right to be there is as legitimate and respectable as that of anyone else with whom we happen to stand in line, listening to the music and anticipating the meal.
The Power of Law
When considering the importance of the laws which govern a society, one is inevitably confronted with the question, "Are laws the expression of a society's values, or are the values of a society determined by its laws?" both a cause and an effect of the various beliefs, desires, and attitudes of a given society. This philosophic point is of more than pedantic interest to us as blind people, play a central role for better or worse in determining the extent to which our efforts to achieve first-class citizenship will be realized. Nowhere is the dynamic power of the law more apparent than in its effect upon the blind of England and America.
The attitude of the general public in England regarding blindness is as benevolent, although not so well informed, as the attitude about blindness exhibited by most Americans. The English, who for the most part have not been exposed to the positive philosophy propounded by the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S., generally assume that blindness is a terrible tragedy rather than a simple characteristic. Accordingly, instead of being recognized as an emerging minority group, the blind are viewed as a diligent, although pitiable and inferior, subculture.
The result of this perception is that charitable solicitations and custodial legislation are warmly supported by the well-meaning English public, while attempts to gain civil rights protection and to establish government assistance programs which foster independence often meet with the cold shoulder of societal indifference.
Given this social climate, it is not difficult to imagine the nature of the laws which exist (or, more frequently, do not exist) concerning blindness. In England a blind person has virtually no civil rights protection. It is common for dog guide users to be denied entrance to restaurants and even taxi cabs. Such discrimination occurs with the sanction of the English law. On occasion, blind people are told that they may not attend a given theater or cinema unless they are accompanied by a sighted attendant. In such instances there is no recourse to civil rights provisions of the law, for such provisions do not exist. The proprietor of any private or public establishment can legally discriminate against the blind, simply by claiming that his actions are based on safety considerations.
The effect of this license to discriminate within the law is much more pernicious than the actual examples of injustice which are countenanced. The fact that blind people are not accorded dignity and respect under the law fosters a view of them as a class which is somehow not deserving of the considerations and rights guaranteed to the average citizen. This trend, attributable to the lack of constructive laws, works such mischief that I recently sat across a pub table form a dog guide user and listened with astonishment while he passionately defended the right of a restaurant proprietor to deny entrance to any person using a dog guide. One can see a vicious circle being established. Bad attitudes lead to destructive laws which in turn perpetuate even worse attitudes.
The laws pertaining to blindness in America are generally, although by no means universally, superior to comparable English laws. The American airline industry's exit row seating policy toward the blind undoubtedly does rival the absurdity of repressive laws held over from the 19th century, whether in England or not. The very fact that the airlines have to date been successful in committing substantial injustices against the blind and flouting anti- discrimination laws poignantly demonstrates the shortcomings of current civil rights protection afforded to the blind. For the most part, however, the American laws that refer to blindness reflect and reinforce the positive attitudes about blindness articulated by the National Federation of the Blind. White Cane Laws, prohibiting discrimination against the blind by public establishments, exist, in one form or another, in every state, and civil rights protection for the blind is increasing across the country.
In California, Maryland, and a growing number of other states discrimination against blind people using dog guides has recently become a criminal as well as a civil offense. This new protection under the law has a significance which extends beyond ease of enforceability and is of benefit to all blind people regardless of whether they use dog guides. In this case, the law enunciates the principle that the blind are first-class citizens against whom discrimination will not be tolerated.
The cycles of cause and effect, attitude and action, are inherent in the law. These cycles can run either powerfully in favor of, or in opposition to, the attempts of the blind to gain equal status and fair treatment within society. As we are successful in fostering positive attitudes about blindness and reinforcing them through legislation, we will mold the law into a staunch ally which will support us in our efforts to achieve first-class citizenship.
NFB of the United Kingdom
The National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom (NFB-UK) held its annual National Conference the weekend of August 26-28, 1988, at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The event, which was a conference of delegates rather than a convention of the general membership as we hold in the United States, was attended by approximately one hundred people. Included in this number were voting delegates representing twenty-nine local branches of the NFB-UK from throughout the United Kingdom.
The primary business of the Conference was the consideration of motions which establish the policies and priorities of the organization for the upcoming year. Among the issues most widely discussed were the need for a comprehensive disability income and the importance of gaining increased consumer representation on the governing boards of voluntary agencies for the blind. One of the high points of the weekend occurred on Saturday morning when Tom Clarke, and influential Member of Parliament, addressed the Conference. He assured delegates of his sympathy with the move for a comprehensive disability income, and he expressed strong support for the goals and activities of the NFB-UK.
On Sunday morning all conferees participated in a forum discussing the future of the NFB-UK. The desirability of developing the comparatively small organization into a mass movement like the Federation in America was the Main theme of the morning's speakers. Ideas ranging from establishing a youth wing to affiliating with other organizations of the blind were contemplated as a means of achieving this growth. Although no answers were produced by the forum, it furnished some interesting food for thought and provided a glimpse into the possible future of the NFB-UK.
The National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom has ahead of it a long journey on the road to changing what it means to be blind and establishing the respectability of blind people. Its members are energetically and diligently working to improve the lives of the blind in the United Kingdom. I salute them as colleagues and friends. The road they travel is the same one we in the United States follow. The precise obstacles confronting them may differ from those facing us, but the causes are the same: public misunderstanding, ignorance, and prejudice. I am grateful to have come to know these brothers and sisters, and I am stronger for having walked with them during these weeks in England.