A Primer for the Rlind
BEFORE I lost my vision sixteen years ago I don’t remember having read many books about the blind that left a lasting impression upon me. Besides the books by and about Helen Keller I can recall only The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens and The Blind Musician by Vladimir Korolenko. After the revolt, the listlessness, the void that accompanied the grim experience of oncoming blindness, there had ensued a period of inner stress that disconcertingly recurs to this day. ‘Is the life of a blind man worth living?’
I sought an anchor, a precedent, a philosophy of life that would answer all questions. Could anyone teach me the technique of living, planning, working without sight in a world in which the seeing eye is the most important means of communication between man and man? Has there been a blind person who succeeded in attaining a certain amount of inner satisfaction, a modicum of dignity in living?
Relatives and friends often talked to me with the obvious intention of bolstering up my morale. In most instances their well-meaning efforts proved futile. Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, I threw myself upon books for and of the blind. Closely, hungrily I studied the volumes I had formerly read as literature. Librarians helped me to seek out those with which I was not familiar. Within two months some twenty volumes had been read to me.
Helen Keller’s life, so beautifully and so touchingly delineated in her biographic writings, left scarcely more of an impression than did the avowedly imaginative creations of Dickens and Korolenko. Her emergence from a state of virtual animaldom to that of a highly gifted writer, recognized and sought after the world over, appeared like a miracle wondrous to meditate upon, but hardly applicable to the problems of a man of twenty-six in a world made dark for him by rapidly oncoming blindness. Unfortunately, Miss Keller had written most of her biography after her meteoric flight to the zenith of her fame. Her early struggles, her financial difficulties, only served to add glory to the saga of her life. Somehow it was impossible for me to associate disappointments and difficulties with the miracle that is Helen Keller.
Furthermore, Helen Keller never had been able to see. She undoubtedly rued her lack of vision; she had never mourned its loss. If blindness is a kind of death, hers was the tragedy of stillbirth, mine of death in early manhood.
As I look back across the dozen years to the first few months of my blindness, I recoil from the utterly unnecessary, stupidly inhuman cruelty of my situation. Within me I felt the stirrings of untapped powers — an innate tenacity of life, an elemental challenge to death, an exhilaration born of expected combat.
But my hands were tied, my inner resources paralyzed. I was blind.
I could not dress myself without help. I could not eat unaided. I did not dare take a step without someone at my side. At twenty-six I was an infant once again. Is it possible to conceive anything more deeply humiliating? In the morning, fumbling for my shoes on my hands and knees, I gashed my forehead on the sharp corner of my dresser. At breakfast, feeling around for a glass of water, I stuck my hand in the hot coffee and upset it. I upset lamps, broke vases, tumbled downstairs. I could not walk, read, or write. All former habits had to be abandoned. I was no longer I — I was a burden to myself and everybody around me.
Following the two months of bitter, humiliating experiences and exhausting inner conflict there ensued a much longer period of patient self-discipline. Imperceptibly, old habits and attitudes, the cultural structure of my twenty-six years, began to assert themselves. One day I realized that the young strong animal had learned to swim. Clumsily at first, with faltering, blundering movements, I began to propel myself shoreward. Without precedent and guide, I was compelled to become my own teacher. Sixteen years of daily, hourly drilling have taught me many things.
Some time ago, upon leaving the office of a physician in New York City with whom I discussed the perfectly ‘normal’ reactions of the blind, he took me to the door, where he helped me into my coat. We stood near the hatrack. I reached for my hat and put it on,
‘Now, how did you know which hat was yours? Was it by the shape of the hat, its weight or size, or were you able to tell colors through the sense of touch?’ asked the physician.
All I had done was merely to remember where I had hung my hat when I entered.
A blind person must learn to use little devices to compensate for his blindness every hour of his waking life if he is to gain self-dependence. He cannot afford to be mentally lazy and must discontinue all slovenly, careless habits. His other senses must be carefully trained, his memory and reasoning power developed to their utmost.
The theory of ‘natural compensation’ was exploded fifty years ago. One’s hearing does not become more acute the moment one loses his eyesight. Acuity of hearing and of other senses must be developed through constant practice. Most people feel that they can ‘get by’ with partial use of their equipment. But the blind must make a virtue of necessity if they are to get along. Now let us make a list of ten of the major problems that have confronted me.
(1) The cane. The cane, the blind person’s ‘long arm,’ is at best but a crude and ineffective tool. Its value lies more in its mute attestation of its master’s handicap than in its own helpfulness to him. Yet, whatever its limitations, the cane often becomes a substitute for the seeing eye, and the blind person can little afford to do without it.
Since canes in the main are manufactured without regard to the special needs of the blind, most of them are somewhat too short for their purposes. They are generally thirty-four to thirtyfive inches in length. A blind person of average height will find a cane about two inches longer more adequate to his needs.
For a long time after I had lost my vision I refused to carry a cane. A cane was synonymous with blindness to me, and the mere idea of it was abhorrent. But when I finally realized that through this unreasonable attitude I was denying myself something that might be of assistance, I secretly acquired a cane and used it only when I was certain that no one who knew me was around. My early experience with it was unsatisfactory. It was an instrument of destruction in my hands rather than of help. Not until I had learned to use it effectively did I lose my sensitiveness regarding it.
Contrary to the experience of many blind persons, I have found continuous tapping with my cane on the sidewalk objectionable; first because tapping noisily on the sidewalk needlessly proclaims my sightlessness, and secondly because the repetitive sound of the cane drowns out other sounds. When walking unguided I consider full use of my hearing indispensable.
In place of tapping I lightly touch the sidewalk with my cane at every step. The natural swing of my body permits me to let the end of my cane drop to the sidewalk now in front of my right foot, now in front of the left. A cane thirtysix or thirty-seven inches long makes it possible for me to touch the sidewalk at a point approximately eighteen inches in front of my feet.
The primary function of a cane is to permit its master to determine whether the road before him is clear, whether there is a ditch or excavation or, on the other hand, an embankment or some other obstruction lying before him. Tapping in a straight line will not disclose what lies to the right or left of that line. Dropping the end of the cane alternately now in front of the right foot, now in front of the left, gives you an idea of what lies across the path you are to traverse. Used in this way, the cane will prove a sort of bumper either cushioning a collision or enabling you to avoid it entirely.
The usefulness of a cane on other than cement roads is negligible. Indoors it becomes a veritable bull in a china shop.
(2) Trouble with furniture. In the home, the office, the classroom, numerous objects of irregular shape are to be found on the floor, on tables, or protruding from walls and often from ceilings. Many of them the cane will not detect, and those that it will are frequently so irregular in shape that the blind person will have to examine them with his hands in order to know how to avoid them. If a blind person is in the habit of regularly visiting a certain room, he should make it a point to study its contents systematically. Like the mariner who is able to orient himself by his position in relation to whatever star may be visible to him at the moment, the blind person by touching a single object in the room must be able to tell the relative position of the others. A certain amount of practice in familiarizing himself with his surroundings will give the blind person the self-assurance he might have thought was denied him forever.
Sighted people must be very careful not to move objects in such rooms without specifically describing the changes to the blind person.
(3) Walking — guided and unguided. Blindness is the most sedentary of occupations. Sight is an indispensable prerequisite of most forms of physical exercise, and the blind, as a class, are doomed to relative inertness. Walking is one of the few exceptions.
Because it is often so difficult to secure the service of a volunteer guide, learning to walk unguided becomes an important problem to every blind person unable to afford a paid assistant.
In New York City, I succeeded in arranging with numerous members of ladies’ groups to take blind women out for a walk or a drive to their destination.
In the case of a blind man, the advisability of going out unguided depends largely upon his ability to use his cane effectively. He must avoid going into sparsely populated neighborhoods where he may experience difficulty in getting someone to help him across the thoroughfares. Under no circumstances must a blind person undertake to cross a street alone. Most accidents in which blind persons are involved occur in neighborhoods where the blind pedestrian gets tired of waiting for someone to help him and undertakes to cross the street himself, or when he is perfectly sure it is safe to cross the street alone.
Guiding a blind person through heavy city traffic or along an uneven country road may seem to be very difficult. In reality nothing could be simpler. The blind person should pul his hand through his companion’s arm and let it rest lightly on the latter’s forearm. He will feel the rise and fall of his companion’s body and will be able to approximate his own steps accordingly.
(4) Loneliness. While the problem of getting enough air and sunlight and a certain amount of physical exercise may be partly solved by the skillful use of a cane or an intelligent dog, the loneliness of the blind can be answered only by human companionship. Confined in movement, unable to see their own faces in the mirror, to see the sky above and the ground under their feet, they sit alone with their dark thoughts, the incubus of loneliness astride their souls. When I speak to people with sight about the loneliness of those without it, and ask them to spend an hour or two with a blind person, a few refuse on the ground that they are too sensitive. The blind depress them. Such revolting sensitivity makes misanthropy understandable.
(5) The ‘Seeing Eye’ dog. Years ago when I first, read John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga I paid but scant attention to the few scattered references to a dog named Balthasar. In a book permeated with the pathos of a passing era in British social history, the fortunes of a mere dog necessarily became part of the casual background. Thus it was that Jolyon Forsyte’s characterization of dogs as ‘the most unselfish of creatures’ slipped unnoticed into a corner of my mind. If someone had asked me about the dog in the story shortly after I had finished reading this remarkable book, I should have found it difficult to recall anything about him. A decade later, however, as I was walking one day with my guide dog at my side, Jolyon Forsyte’s remark protruded itself upon me with the compelling suddenness of a flash of lightning.
In the fall of 1938, I spent a month at the Seeing Eye Institute in Morristown, New Jersey, undergoing the very rigorous training preliminary to my entering upon an unusual sort of partnership — that of a man and a dog. My new companion was a female German shepherd named Sylvia, as incongruous a name as that borne by Jolyon Forsyte’s dog Balthasar. We came to an intersection where we had to cross a wide and busy thoroughfare. I waited until the traffic started in the direction in which I wanted to go. My trainer purposely fell behind in order to give me the feeling of being on my own. Sylvia stopped at the down curb. I thanked her and commanded her to go forward. We started to cross and had gone three or four paces when I felt Sylvia suddenly coming to a halt. My momentum carried me a step ahead of her when I felt her pulling back toward the curb we had just left. I stepped back to my correct position, my knee touching her body about halfway between her front and back legs. A second later I heard an automobile slowly rolling past us.
My trainer subsequently explained that the car had detached itself from the moving traffic and had swung around the corner into the street which Sylvia and I were then crossing. Sylvia placed herself directly in the path of the oncoming automobile and manœuvred me back to the curb. The trainer regarded the incident as a matter of course. To me it symbolized a new freedom and a new security.
Today, after more than two years of t his companionship, I have come to feel that every active blind man or woman under fifty can profit from the possession of a guide dog, not alone in increased earning capacity, but, what is vastly more important, in greater self-reliance and self-esteem. Unfortunately, however, there are not nearly enough trained dogs to go round.
(6) Braille. Since the year 1830 when Louis Braille, a French teacher of the blind, devised the embossed type code that bears his name, thousands of braille books have been published for the use of blind readers in all modern languages, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Hundreds of novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, have thus been transcribed for the benefit of those unable to read with their eyes, and the United States Government, together with many private welfare agencies, is constantly adding new titles to this already vast collection.
For at least six months I could not bring myself to begin the study of braille. Books, authors, characters, take on the guise of living persons to whom I am sentimentally attached. They could not be the same in braille. It would be like suddenly beginning to speak French to one’s father and mother. To learn braille was tantamount to saying goodbye to all books in print — and that, for me, would have been an act of disloyalty. These motives seem somewhat sentimental now that I am sixteen years older and a full-fledged resident of Brailleland; then they were part of life itself.
When I finally did make the transition from print to embossed type, all doubts vanished as though they had never been. I now prepare braille notes for use on the lecture platform and pulpit. I carry on an extensive correspondence in braille with the people to whom I minister. I keep a card index in braille for addresses and other useful data. Within its limitations braille has proved a faithful and willing servant. Without it I should be lost.
Often people who have lost their sight in middle age or later find it difficult to learn braille. That is especially true of people who blunted their sense of touch through manual labor. In the case of several sightless men over fifty who had difficulty with their sense of touch, I found that a regimen of washing the hands with Castile soap and warm water several times a day and applying honeyand-almond or cold cream at night for a period of several weeks was sufficiently helpful to enable them to learn braille.
Almost all braille magazines are free to blind readers, and about thirty of the largest cities in the country maintain free braille circulating libraries. Blind readers are not required to go to their libraries to borrow or return books. They may send a list of desired titles to their librarians and the books are sent to them by parcel post. The United States Government ‘franks’ all such packages.
(7) Eating. A wit once remarked that eating is an art, not a business. The enjoyment of one’s food without detracting from that of others at the same table is an accomplishment of a fairly high order. For a blind person it is truly an art.
Table manners arc, for the most part, conventionalized common sense in eating. In my own case, they have proved a boon. To be able to know where to find the right spoon, where to look for my waiter, to switch the fork to my right hand after having cut my meat — all that has simplified a process which otherwise might have become a painful ordeal.
In a few regards, however, I have found that the blind diner must depart from generally accepted etiquette, or at least must observe practices that will reduce to a minimum his own peculiar condition.
Among the most important of these considerations is the diner’s posture. If you are blind your chair should be placed so as to have the first inch or two of its front edge hidden by the edge of the table. You must sit back in the chair as far as you can. This position wall give you plenty of support and a feeling of ease and security. When receiving food you should lean forward approximately four or five inches, bringing your mouth to a point directly over your plate while keeping your necktie and vest beyond the ‘danger zone.’ Too much movement at table attracts attention. Sitting close to the table, you can change with an economy of movement from actively partaking of food to a position of ease, talking or listening, during which you can lean against the back of your chair.
As is to be expected, the carving of meat constitutes the blind diner’s most perplexing problem. My plate always seems to be too small, my knife too dull, and the grain of the meat perversely running in the wrong direction.
I ask the waiter to bring a meat order on a large plate and to serve my vegetables on a separate dish. I force my fork with the left hand into the meat and cut around it with my knife, being very careful to sever all entangling alliances.
The blind diner must also remember that the best place for his hands when not engaged in preparing food or bringing it to his mouth is in his lap. Idle hands and elbows on the table are a sign of bad breeding. In the case of a blind person, they may become the cause of a minor catastrophe.
(8) Personal appearance. Part of my duties as Chaplain to the Blind of New York City consisted of visiting sightless persons at hospitals and in their homes. One day I was going to make a call on a blind old lady living in an exclusive apartment house in New York’s West Side. Because of a long report I wanted to put out that morning I had had no time to shave. A continuous rain made it advisable that I should put on my oldest coat and hat, and altogether I must have presented the appearance of a firstclass bum.
As I was going into the apartment house the doorman told me in a somewhat annoyed tone that no canvassers were allowed in the building. My appearance and my brief case, in which I was carrying a braille book for the lady, gave the doorman the impression that I was a salesman canvassing the building for new business.
That day was unique during the six years of my chaplaincy in New York City. During those years I had occasion to enter many exclusive hotels, restaurants, and apartment houses. Though in each instance I must have been subjected to the closest scrutiny on the part of doormen and house detectives, never before or since have I been thus mistaken.
From time immemorial sightlessness has been associated in one form or another with poverty and mendicancy. Many welfare agencies for the blind in their campaigns for funds unwisely and unjustly stress the utter dependence of the blind on the ‘charity’ of the sighted. To overcome the damage wrought by the high-powered publicity methods of these welfare agencies, you who are blind must consistently deny yourselves the privilege of occasionally appearing carelessly dressed if you wish to escape the stigma attaching to street beggars.
(9) Being introduced. Among the most painful experiences in the early years of my blindness were introductions to strangers. In the first few years of my blindness every introduction was another ordeal. In my anxiety to do the right thing I would extend my hand a bit prematurely for the expected handshake. Often, after letting my hand drop to my side in nervous confusion, I would find it grasped warmly by the hand I had vainly sought a moment too soon. This trifling incident would many times cause a cold sweat to come out on my forehead and render my conversation stiff, halting, and stilted for at least a half hour.
Under such circumstances, the names of persons to whom I was introduced invariably escaped me. If I were introduced to three or four people simultaneously, I found it impossible to identify them by their voices. My answers to questions were laconic and hence discouraging to those who tried to ‘make’ conversation with me. I was glad to be left alone, and often my wish was gratified. Alone in my room, my boorish conduct appeared even worse in retrospect. What Clarence Day might have called my ‘simian pride’ suffered from my awkward and for me quite unusual reticence. I was talkative by nature and enjoyed conversing with old acquaintances. My unwonted conduct was plainly due to my inability to meet people. I determined to study the details of introductions in an effort to forestall embarrassing moments.
My first rule was to get the name of the person to whom I was being introduced and to repeat it distinctly as I extended my hand. If I didn’t understand the name, I asked to have it repeated. This procedure usually confronted me squarely with my acquaintance. The exchange of words that thus ensued gave me an opportunity to associate his voice with his name. I still follow this rule whenever there aren’t too many introductions at the same time.
Another rule is to repeat the names of my new acquaintances two or three times in the course of our conversation. Most people like to hear their names on the lips of others, especially if pronounced correctly. They are sure to respond in the same way. I have found this conducive to bringing conversationalists closer together.
More general in scope is a third rule I have been practising more or less successfully. Because of the relative infrequency of sightlessness, many people are somewhat at a loss as to how to act toward a blind person. They often assume that the blind are much more helpless than they really are. In the course of showing a group of ‘philanthropic’ ladies through an institution for the blind with which I was connected, I escorted them into the dining room during the lunch hour. The residents of the institution were seated around several tables enjoying their meal. ‘And they are all blind, the poor dears!’ commiserated one of the ladies in a loud voice. ‘How do they know where their mouths are?’
Upon entering a drawing-room I am escorted to the most comfortable chair. Sometimes a lady will vacate a chair and let me sit down. Although I am inwardly irked at such conduct, I seldom protest. That would only add to the general confusion and embarrassment. At such times the hostess often begs me not to rise when introduced to ladies. She may also offer to hold for me the platter on which my coffee and sandwiches are served.
While the last two requests are easier to deny than most others, I ordinarily try not to make an issue of things. The most salutary procedure is to settle the controversy and go on to matters of a more general nature. I try to avoid making such incidents the focus of attention.
(10) Keeping up social contacts. Man is a social animal and his circles of interest overlap at a hundred different points. One is not merely a chemist, carpenter, mail carrier, or stenographer, and nothing else. By choice or compulsion we devote a major part of our time and thinking to only one pursuit. That does not mean that our other pursuits are of lesser moment to us. Indeed, in the case of many people the interests that yield the greatest joy and are responsible for the greatest sorrows are far removed from their main occupations. Only the monomaniac can live within the confines of a single idea. The minds of normal individuals are at once relaxed and stimulated by going from one circle of interests to another.
In my case, apart from its implications, blindness has given me an additional interest without seriously affecting any of my old ones. I play chess and checkers, swim and take long hikes. I go to the theatre as frequently as my income will allow, and occasionally attend a movie. My duties as Chaplain used to make it necessary for me to conduct religious services, to preach and lecture, to visit hospitals and other institutions, to appear before governmental agencies on behalf of those to whom I ministered, and to urge their cause before their relatives and social service agencies.
In all my associations I make an effort to assume a well-balanced relationship in which consideration of my blindness is excluded as far as possible. If the subject arises, I speak of blindness simply and frankly, and I seldom refer to myself as ‘not being able to see’ in preference to the harsher phrase of ‘ being blind.’
Without inviting the subject myself, I never hesitate to talk about my blindness to those who seem interested. I neither exaggerate nor minimize its difficulties. I laugh at the absurd notions people have concerning the preternatural abilities of the blind, and urge the need for vocational training for the blind and for the establishment of subsidized workshops in place of charity. I describe the process by which blind persons develop greater acuity of hearing and touch. This approach strips the blind of their mysteriousness and puts them within the sphere of understandable phenomena.
Once a blind individual has succeeded in establishing a well-balanced relationship with those about him, he must be careful not to upset it. He must avoid being unduly burdensome to his companions. He may call attention to his blindness unnecessarily. He may develop what social workers call ‘ blindisms.’ He speaks to someone while facing the other way, rubs his hands nervously, sways his body, rolls his eyes or fixes them on a point above the heads of the people in the room. Because he does not see objects within his reach, he has a tendency to touch them, fingering and caressing them ceaselessly. Sometimes he plays with his handkerchief, his nose, ears, lips, or chin, or curls and twists strands of hair endlessly.
He must constantly bear in mind that, while he does not see those around him, they see him. He must realize that his mannerisms are annoying, and even obnoxious to many. If he doesn’t break himself of the habit, these people may in the future avoid meeting him.
Is the life of a blind man worth living? This question, in one form or another, has been put to me by scores of people, blind and sighted. Barring moments of weakness such as are known to most people, I have come to look upon my blindness as a physical handicap without psychological implications. I have not allowed it to influence my actions or to warp my thinking.
In moments of insight when the threshold is lowered before the stream of consciousness within me, I am able to catch a glimpse of the dignity, the calm strength, of the spirit. There blindness is unknown. Although the spiritual microcosm is resident within every human being, the key to its door may be secured only through rigorous mental and moral discipline. The effort lies within the reach of everyone.