The Real Experts on Blindness by Justin MH Salisbury

From the Editor: Justin Mark Hideaki Salisbury serves as second vice president of the national Association of blind students and chairs our legislative and self advocacy committee. He teaches home management and braille in Philadelphia and is hoping to begin a phD program in education in the fall.

When a sighted person takes an evening flight, and the plane is low enough in the sky, they can sometimes look down at the ground and see the lights of the cities on the ground. On an evening flight between Boston and New York, sighted passengers can see lights, more lights, and then no lights. There is an area where the landscape has no lights. It is called the Last Green Valley, and that is where I grew up. We said no to getting a Walmart because it would have created light pollution. In that valley, we pulled together a half dozen towns to fill a high school, and the high school is located on the campus of the University of Connecticut (UConn). About half of the high school’s students come from one town, the busier town where UConn is located. It seemed like most of my classmates had parents who worked at UConn. I do not know that anyone directly told us that attending UConn upon graduation was a consolation prize, but that was how most of us treated it. It is a Research 1 school with a lot to offer, but we frequently took it for granted, and we frequently looked for expertise anywhere but UConn. It was as if we felt like we already owned UConn by growing up there, so the expertise that we needed could not have possibly existed at UConn. We believed that we had to look elsewhere, and we overlooked the resources that were in our backyard, maybe even resources created by people we knew.

I notice that a similar problem can occur in the National Federation of the Blind. This can include students, but it is not limited to students. Maybe we need to design a public education program for healthcare professionals, or maybe we want to write an English paper about a problem in the blindness rehabilitation system. Maybe we want to investigate a new piece of blindness-related technology, or maybe you want to learn about best practices for blindness rehabilitation before you select a service or service provider. In all these situations, the National Federation of the Blind has amassed expertise and resources for these things, but we sometimes underestimate the value of our own expertise. I sometimes hear blind students saying that they want to go to the real experts, implying that someone outside the Federation is more expert. I do not know where exactly a person can come to such an idea, but I think it could help to consult Federation resources first if we need something about blindness.

We can all improve our understanding of the value of the collective knowledge and experience of the organized blind. People often underestimate or undervalue those resources that sit right under our noses. Some of us like to be the ones who create resources, but then the same people can conclude that something did not exist just because they personally did not know about it.

I think there may be something else at play here, and I think it can be internalized ableism. At some level, ableism is in the psyche of every person who is developed enough to read this article, just like racism or other kinds of prejudice. If we have internalized the ableism from the society around us, it might be a part of what leads some of us to look for resources that were created by the sighted for the blind instead of by the blind for the blind. In other words, we can fall into the trap of thinking that something is more accurate, more credible, more official, or more professional if it was not created by a group of blind people. Many of us are good at confronting this idea when it is openly expressed by a sighted person, but I wonder how often it creeps in the quiet corners of our minds. It can subconsciously drive us to look outside the collective knowledge based on the lived experiences of blind people.

Just because we find something about blindness does not mean it is good information. Some material about blindness is overtly loaded with ableism as soon as we read it, but other material can be tainted in more subtle ways. In his 2017 banquet address, President Riccobono coined the term “the vision-centered approach” to describe an approach to blindness that has held us back for so long by emphasizing vision first and foremost. The vision-centered approach focuses on the experiences of sighted people first and the experiences of blind people second. The vision-centered approach teaches us to attempt to use our residual vision if possible, then resign to nonvisual techniques when we have no other choice. The vision-centered approach teaches us that we should always have an orientation and mobility instructor just like how we should always have a dentist. The vision-centered approach produces a lot of harmful ideas, and the National Federation of the Blind helps us to recognize what’s what.

Sometimes, we feel like it is our job to be an information and referral network, but sometimes we should be looking at the resources inside our movement before we look at resources outside our movement. We have an awesome team in Baltimore, and anytime we need resources, I think it is good for us to ask ourselves first if the Jernigan Institute can be the resource that we need. I think we owe it to ourselves to check before we go outside the Federation.

Sometimes, we personally can provide the help that another blind person needs. Maybe we undervalue our own knowledge, or maybe we just do not want to take the time to help someone. When a newcomer to our movement calls a member of our movement, I do not want us to shoot them around like a pinball, referring them to fellow members who refer them again and refer them again. I am not saying that anyone would do this to try to make the person give up and go away, but someone who wants to make the person give up and go away could use exactly that strategy. If we do need to make referrals, I think following up with them and staying with them through the search process can help a lot.

I am not suggesting that the National Federation of the Blind will never refer a blind person to a service provider that we do not oversee; in fact, we do it all the time. I am suggesting that we start by consulting our own movement so that we are equipped with the collective lived experiences of blind people before we approach a situation that is new to us. Sometimes, we personally are the resource. If not us, do not skip the step of consulting the lived experience of 50,000 blind people.