To Be Blind Is Like This
"To be sightless is an inconvenience . . . but blindness has not prevented me from living a full and happy life"
JAMES McDONALD, Frederick Edwards
FOR THE first six years of my life I was sighted, fully equipped with limbs and faculties, a normal, sturdy, inquisitive, averagely mischievous boy, and a Western boy at that. Then I was overtaken by the disastrous accident that destroyed my sight completely and made necessary the amputation of my right arm below the elbow. For nearly a quarter of a century now, through school days, adolescence, a university course and so to manhood, I have been sightless and one-handed. These circumstances, I think, qualify me to answer with reasonable authority the question so often asked of sightless people by those who are blessed with sight: “Just what is it like to be blind?”
Because my early years before I lost my sight were so richly filled with good things, I am able to make comparisons beyond the scoj>e of the sightless person who was born blind. I ran and played and laughed and kicked up my heels with the other boys and girls of our district, saw the prairie bloom in the spring, watched the gorgeous prairie sunsets with a feeling of childish awe, moved freely among the friendly farm animals, rolled snowTnen and dug caves in the drifts when winter closed in on us, just like other lads. It was, in fact, the natural acquisitiveness of small boys for little treasures that led to my accident.
In August, 1915, there was a great to-do around and about Bonnie Braes farm in the Clover Bar district of central Alberta. My father managed the farm for the owner. We were about eight miles from Edmonton, and the Edmonton Summer Fair was coming along in a few days. Bonnie Braes was to be well represented in the livestock classes, and the farm buzzed with preparatory activities.
At the forge, horses were being specially shod for the fair. Together with a dozen other youngsters, the spectacle of the flying sparks, the rhythmic pounding of hammer on anvil, the acrid yet fascinating smell of burning hom as the hot shoe was applied to the sizzling hoof, drew me irresistibly toward this scene. I was smaller than most of the onlookers and I couldn’t see very well from the ground. So I climbed over the wheel of a farm wagon standing near by, thinking to find a better vantage point.
In the wagon I saw a round tin box, and at once lost interest in the forge and its excitements. Tobacco and cigarette manufacturers in those War days were accustomed to enclose in their packages little cards bearing printed pictures of our heroes—Haig, Jellicoe and Beatty, French, Kitchener, Foch and Joffre. To my innocent eyes this was a tobacco tin, and I reached for it eagerly, sure that inside I would find one or more picture cards to add to my collection.
The lid was on tightly. It was stubborn against my small fingers, refusing to budge. I climbed down from the wagon, clutching my treasure-trove closely, then ran to a near-by shed, an open-sided structure roofed against the weather
and with a floor of solid concrete, I hammered the tin box vigorously on the concrete.
The box blew up. About 100 detonator caps of the type used to fire dynamite in such farm operations as blasting out stumps, exploded in my hand !
There followed many months of suffering, then a long convalescence. It was more than a year from the date of my accident when I entered the School for the Blind at Brantford, Ont. There I was to begin life again in complete darkness, with an empty sleeve where my right hand had been. I was 2,000 miles from home, and I was seven years old.
Handicapped Scholastic Career
F)R eight years I remained at the Brantford school.
Because of my missing hand I was unable to take advantage of the handicraft courses in basketry, leather craft, and music which have been so valuable to thousands of other sightless Canadians. I was encouraged to concentrate my efforts especially upon academic work, starting of course with a thorough study of the Braille system of touch reading. I worked hard at Braille, became in time competent in all its branches, and I read and tried to understand every Braille book I could reach. Also I studied voice. While I could not learn to play any instrument, I could sing. I like to sing, and my voice developed into a fair baritone.
By 1924 I had gained everything possible for me at the Brantford school. I returned to Edmonton, determined to continue my efforts to achieve a complete education. That same year I found myself, at fifteen, the first blind boy to be enrolled in an Alberta high school. The school was Victoria High in Edmonton, and I graduated in 1927, when I was eighteen years old, to enter the University of Alberta, majoring in English literature and history, with a Bachelor of Arts degree as my objective. I graduated from the university with my B.A. in 1932, after five years of intensive study.
Obviously a scholastic career is more difficult for a sightless person than for one with vision. While Braille, as now developed, offers a great range of reading material for the blind, it does not as yet comprehend a complete course of higher education. Nor does the talking-book method of instruction by gramophone recordings. Again, teachers and university professors have their own ideas as to what should be required reading in their classes, and since it is not possible for every book in the world to be produced in Braille or on records, the blind student must depend a great deal upon the assistance of sympathetic associates.
In this respect, I was perhaps singularly fortunate. At high school, and later at the university, I made it a special endeavor to seek out among fellow students friends who would read to me and study with me. People who lack sight have an advantage in one way over those who are sighted. They are able to concentrate on study to a greater degree because they are not distracted by the vision of extraneous objects or movements. For exactly the same reason, a sighted person, wishing to think hard, will close his eyes in an effort to command his thoughts. I owe a great deal to those friends who studied with me; but I have been told, too, that through my own example of intense concentration on the subject in hand, and our custom of talking out every academic problem—sometimes those discussions would go on for hours—I was able to be of assistance to them, by way of making some small return.
Because it is not possible for me to take notes in the ordinary way, I trained my memory to serve in place of the written word, with fair success, and I completed my examinations with the help of a typewriter, on which valuable instrument I finally achieved complete accuracy, although not without some heartburnings.
One of the worst shocks I received at the University of Alberta came when, in an English literature examination— fortunately a minor one—I was given a mark of thirty by an exacting professor. When I protested that I couldn’t be that bad, he told me:
“Your answers are reasonably accurate, and your general knowledge of the subject appears adequate; but your spelling is atrocious.”
I suggested that perhaps my errors were merely typographical, that I had failed to hit the right keys on my typewriter, but the excuse was a feeble one, and I knew it. I went to work right away to perfect my knowledge of the touch system on the keyboard, and I have had no serious complaints in this direction since.
Meanwhile I had been keeping up my study of music, as much for a hobby as with any thought of material advantage. I know I’ll never make the Metropolitan Opera House, but I have been accorded some recognition in the West as a radio and concert artist, especially after I was able to win in the baritone class at the Alberta Musical Festival. My music has been an enjoyable diversion, as well as the means of making me many new and valued friends.
By 1932, after graduation, in my twenty-fourth year, I was faced by the problem that confronts all graduating university students in these difficult economic times. I had to find out a way to eam a living. My family and friends had done everything they could. Now, I realized, the rest was up to me. In the past six years I have tried several different types of activity, with varying success. For a while I attempted to operate a concession stand in Edmonton, but although my blindness proved to be no obstacle, the fact that I have only one hand made the work difficult. I sold life insurance and did well at it, then I became interested in theology and studied one term at Knox College, in Toronto, followed by six' months work in the mission field near Vermilion, Alberta; but I was advised by the college authorities to discontinue my course. For two years I worked as salesman for a job-printing firm in Edmonton, and earned a fair living at that. Then a few months ago an opportunity presented itself for me to take a course at the National Institute for the Blind, in order to prepare myself for field work on behalf of the Institute. Here, I think, I have at last found my true vocation.
Pity is Unnecessary
TT WOULD be silly to deny that blind-
ness is an affliction and a severe one. Nevertheless, with the aids that modem science and invention have placed at our disposal to compensate for our lack of sight, I do not regard it as anything like so serious a handicap as many sympathetic sighted people seem to think it is. My personal attitude is that to be sightless is an inconvenience, not more than that, and I believe most blind people think of it that way.
One of the minor difficulties a blind person has to contend with, however, is a wrong attitude toward blindness on the part of those who see, the conviction that one who has lost his sight is a hopeless cripple, can be nothing more than an object of pity.
Everywhere I encounter this attitude on the part of those with whom I daily come in contact. I meet a man on the street who, noticing that I cannot see, kindly assists me to cross a busy thoroughfare. Usually such sympathetic friends want to chat for a minute. The conversation goes like this:
“Can’t you see at all?”
“No.” I don’t want to be rude, but I have been through this experience so many times.
“Well, it certainly is remarkable how you get around. How do you do it, anyway?”
“Oh, it isn’t really very hard,” I say modestly; and really, it isn’t.
I know that I myself live a full and happy life, that blindness is by no means the greatest tragedy that can befall a man. My reasons for this conviction, and the
process of thought which leads to it, I am going to try to explain here.
Developing Other Senses
nPHE sightless person gains his impressions of things about him and of people he meets by the concentrated use of the senses remaining to him, especially the sense of touch, which blind people are taught to develop to a degree undreamed of by those who are sighted. When a single small object is to be examined, it is not at all difficult to get a correct idea of its shape, size and texture simply by feeling it with the fingertips. As to its color, one can only guess or be told; but color is of minor consequence in gaining understanding of an average object of daily use, as must be obvious to those who have had any experience with the common minor defect of color blindness. The big drawback in touch examination of small objects is that they must be handled singly, so that it sometimes happens that the blind person fails to receive a correct picture of their relations one to another. There is also the disadvantage of having to spend more time in forming an impression than is required for a single quick glance; but the final result is much the same. A blind person’s completed concept of such articles may differ from those arrived at by means of vision, but it does not follow that his concepts are inadequate.
In his perception of larger objects—an automobile, for instance—the sightless person must go over the machine bit by bit to get his picture of it. This has advantages as well as disadvantages. When his examination is complete, the blind man will know much more intimately the details of a car and its construction than the eyes can convey in a superficial examination, although he may not be able fully to appreciate such refinements as streamlining—a matter of minor consequence for practical purposes.
When it comes to picturing and estimating people whom he meets, to the touch sense the sightless person adds the aid of a delicate and keenly perceptive sense of sound. He can tell very quickly, upon greeting a new acquaintance, whether he will like or dislike the type. He cannot know without being told, the color of an individual’s hair or eyes or of the clothes he is wearing, but these details are of small importance in the business of forming a correct impression of a man’s personality. One can tell as much, perhaps more, about a personality from sound as through sight.
I know an attractive smile when I hear one—yes, indeed, one may hear a smile as well as see it—and the tones of a voice, the method of speech, tell me much about a person’s character that may be missed by those depending principally upon their eyes for their impressions of individualities.
Persons other than blind people come to depend more upon their sense of hearing than their sense of sight in such matters as this. A close friend of Lawrence Tibbett told me once that the Metropolitan star takes pride in his ability to size up a person newly met, by his voice. For myself,
I am convinced that the average man and woman would be astonished if they could fully realize the comparatively small proportion of their impressions of others they receive solely through their sight. In our associations with people, lack of sight cannot be regarded as a serious drawback.
rT'HERE ARE few social activities entirely denied to the sightless person.
I íe can play cards, checkers and chess. He can dance and skate. Under certain conditions he can even ski. He can read, enjoy good literature and music, appreciate a theatrical performance. As a spectator he can enjoy such sports as hockey and football, gets just as big a kick out of yelling himself into a frenzy on behalf of the home team as the sighted fan. True, he cannot actually participate in competitive games, but he is not worse off than the large majority in this respect. With the modern facilities of Braille, the talking book and the radio, there is no reason why he should not be among the best informed and most socially active citizens in his community.
To many sighted folks the common spectacle of a blind man walking confidently along city streets with no guide other than his stick is a constant source of wonderment, “How,” they say, “can he know where he is going when he cannot see?” My favorite reply to this question takes the true Scottish form of another question.
“When you are walking toward a destination, how often do you actually look to see where you are going?”
After some consideration, most people admit that they seldom take any particular pains to see where they are going. But they insist that they know where they are going, to which my immediate retort is: "So do I know where I am going.”
It seems to be especially difficult to convince sighted people that this is the simple truth. Yet it is so. A blind man does not actually see the street he is walking on, but to him all streets are much alike, and his extra sensory understanding enables him to know in which direction he must walk to reach his destination. In the matter of avoiding obstacles, his keenly attuned sense of hearing is his most valuS able aid. When the ear has been trained, one recognizes sounds very readily, and a blind |>edestrian can tell with surprising accuracy both the direction and the distance of these sounds, and govern his movements accordingly. His sense of touch is valuable, too, in the same circumstances, With his feet and his cane he searches out many little landmarks, such as differences in the heights of various curbs, passed by as of no consequence by the sighted person, but which to the sightless are plain indications of his whereabouts and his direction. With his cane he protects himself from sudden contacts with posts, mail-boxes, fire hydrants and noparking signs.
And don’t overlook the importance of the sense of smell. Blind persons often know exactly where they are on a familiar route by the different smells pervading the immediate atmosphere. Their nose tells them what their eyes cannot see. Nearly every store and commercial building has a definite, distinctive and identifying odor. You cannot pass a drugstore without smelling drugs, a shoe store without smelling leather, a restaurant without detecting the odor of cooking food. That is, a sightless person trained to react
quickly to different smells, cannot. The average man doesn’t notice them, because they are of no importance to him. He has not been trained to seek them out.
An Extra Sense
CO, YOU see, between them those three ^ senses touch, hearing and smell— highly developed and intensively trained in the sightless, serve excellently to compensate for the lack of sight. But that is not all. Most blind people develop in time an extra sense, called by some the “object sense,” and it involves simply an unusual capacity for “feeling” the close proximity of a person or an object. That the “object sense” exists, all sightless people know, although not all sightless people have been able to attain it; but so far science has not been able to define it, or establish a reason for it.
I have heard the “object sense” described as the effect of vibrations from a near-by object upon the nerves of the face. Some believe it has its origin in those same vibrations, but insist they are picked up by the ear. Another rather farfetched theory has it that there are in the skin of the face countless tiny cells which possess sight in a minute degree and so provide a sort of shadow vision. My own notion, for what it may be worth, is that the “object sense” comes from the ear, a sort of tonal difference due to the close proximity of solid objects which provides a faint but discernible echo.
Blind persons possessing this instinct find it of tremendous assistance on their walks abroad. With its aid one can tell just about how far he is keeping from store fronts as he proceeds along the sidewalk; he knows when he is passing an open doorway, a vacant lot, or a recess in the wall. And, where city blocks are built up solidly as in business districts, he can tell when he is approaching an intersection. Because of it, many of our more sensitive sightless have been able to discard their sticks entirely.
The Economic Question
TODAY the greatest difficulty confronting the blind is not their inability to see. They have overcome that. It is the heartbreaking economic condition which is making it more and more perplexing for the sightless to obtain employment in occupations where they can earn their own livelihood. Training for the blind has been developed in recent years until their capacity for profitable employment has increased enormously, yet there still exists a doubt in the minds of many potential employers, even after the efficiency of sightless persons in certain occupations has been amply demonstrated. Even this cannot be considered as a misfortune peculiar to the blind, since many experienced and capable people with good eyesight are unable to find jobs.
But sympathy for the nonsighted can be carried to maudlin extremes, and then it becomes obnoxious. There is a certain technique about conducting a blind man across the street. Often with the best intentions in the world, the would-be helper succeeds only in antagonizing the object of his solicitude. Most blind people are grateful for assistance on a busy thoroughfare; but it must be remembered that the merest pressure on his arm -the free arm, please, not the one which carries his cane is sufficient to guide him. It is not necessary to take a death grip on his elbow, or to half carry him across. Such tactics are thoughtless and inconsiderate. They tend to confuse and disconcert the person you are trying to help. They make him feel a bit foolish, weaken his confidence in himself. Some blind persons I know decline all offers of assistance of this sort from strangers. They say they feel safer without such inexpert guidance. They insist that they know their way about— and so they do.