By William H. Grignon
Recently, three events in my local area caused me to ponder what message is being sent to the sighted world about people who are blind. The first was the annual Dining in the Dark fundraiser hosted by the local Lighthouse agency. The second was a private party hosted by a person with vision loss, where the sighted people were told to bring used items from which the blind guests would choose. The third was a gathering sponsored by a “of the Blind” organization, where two sighted people were dragooned to run around serving the blind people because, according to members of the organization’s leadership, “Blind people can’t serve themselves.” In this PCB year of Self-Reliance, I couldn’t help asking, “What message is being sent?”
Dining in the Dark (DITD) is a longstanding fundraising gimmick where sighted guests are blindfolded then forced to eat their meals, forcing them to eat in public as though they were suddenly blinded and afforded absolutely no coping skills or strategies. Unable to see and receiving no training, these guests fumble around and knock things over. At the end of the meal, they are told to remove their blindfolds and, experiencing an overwhelming sense of relief, are asked to write big fat checks to the Lighthouse.
It’s not difficult to fathom the evening’s message: blindness is scary, being blind is clumsy and embarrassing, sight is good and precious, and sighted people should shell out big bucks for the sightless unfortunates.
The private dinner party brought together blind and sighted guests. Again, what could have been an opportunity to connect people through a shared human experience was sabotaged when the sighted invitees were encouraged to bring along a used item to donate to blind attendees. They brought such items as small household appliances, dishes, serving plates, and the like – all used. During the party, each blind person was invited to go up to the table on which the items were placed and choose an item. At the end, each blind person left with their used “gift,” while each sighted person left with quite an impression of blind people.
The private dinner presents a worse message than the DITD: blind people are not only poor but are in desperate need of cast-offs from sighted people.
The gathering featuring sighted servers while blind people sat on their big, fat, um, chairs, illustrates a pernicious strain of defeatist thought within the blindness community, where blind people believe the negative messaging, count themselves as somehow lacking, and perpetuate negative stereotypes through their passive acquiescence to broken assumptions and low expectations.
One doesn’t have to strain the imagination to conjure what sighted people think coming away from any of these events: blind people are inferior, pathetic, useless, and desperate.
There isn’t much one can say about the private sighted-blind swap. This is just wrong in so many ways and should be avoided at all costs.
The “of the Blind” organization should have known better, but no matter how many self-advocacy workshops, pep-talks, and cheerleading events, sighted-world prejudices prove strong and lasting for many with vision loss. Maybe it’s just easier to go along, maybe it’s too hard to constantly fight for rights and insist on independence, maybe it’s just plain exhaustion at trying to navigate the line between tired individual and diplomatic champion. One can only hope that this organization can find a place to meet, talk, and reaffirm its core principals. If not, then it might be facing schism and the loss of its most ardent practitioners.
But DITD presents a more nuanced dilemma. Practically speaking, DITD could constitute a real teaching moment that shows the sighted world just how competent blind people can be.
Imagine a DITD event that began with blind people teaching the sighted people around their table the basics of blind dining. They could explain how we use a slow-and-low reach across the table to find and identify various objects like silverware, napkins, water glasses, and other drink glasses. They could teach diners how to imagine the plate to be the face of a clock to locate various items on the plate. They could teach them how to use their utensils to locate, measure off, and slice manageable bite-sized portions. The meal would then become an educational event at which the blind person is the learned teacher, and the blindfolded sighted diners would be the students applying new skills to an unusual situation.
Gone would be the sudden thrust into darkness and gone would be the flailing, the fumbling, and the feeling of desperate aloneness.
Instead, the sighted diners would learn that blind people take on the challenge of blindness, learn skills, adapt, and conduct themselves with dignity, dexterity, and decorum – the essence of self-reliance.
People with vision loss should have the right to control how they are depicted and perceived. Too often, sighted people and “for the blind” organizations make decisions, enact protocols, and hold events that only manage to rehearse negative tropes. Sadly, it is almost axiomatic that people involved in the Blindness Industry owe their jobs and their power to the perpetuation of these negative tropes. Too often, too many fall into the easy trap of keeping blind people down and dependent so they can stay 1-up and employed. And DITD is just one tool by which these sighted… um… (is “jailors” too strong a word?) … perpetuate the myths, negative tropes, and power structures.
It’s even sadder when blind people drink the Kool Aid and lock themselves into their private prisons of self-defeatism.
It can be exhausting being the ambassador, the teacher, or the role model. Many times, you want to just be you. But the world can thrust us into sharp relief against the primal fears of a sighted world and, we, once again, must pause, take stock, reckon if this is indeed yet another teachable moment, and, if it is, take up the challenge with grace and aplomb. Or maybe not. Maybe we just let the moment pass and save our passions for those who value and affirm us. After all, our passion is not limitless and why not share it with kindred spirits and celebrate our secret knowledge – our inside joke – our tasty little truth that we are simply fine and that vision loss is just part of us living the good life, no matter what other blind people practice and the sighted world thinks.