The Dumb Leading the Blind

Last week I ran a story about how hundreds of celebrities were on the defense witness list for the Michael Jackson trial. The tag: “…Stevie Wonder is particularly upset at being named. ‘Yeah I was there,’ he admits. ‘But I didn’t see anything!'”

Yes, provocative. I got two types of responses to it. Peter in Japan:

Stevie Wonder, whether you like his music or not (I happen not to), is not deserving of such a comment. It is a poor, reused, overused punch line. It does not stand up to your usual standards of wittiness, and more importantly, it does not stand up to your usual standards of decency and fairness. You have poke and jabbed many deserving victims of their own stupidity, but Stevie Wonder is being made fun of because of his fame and his disability.

The other side is represented by Glenn in Alabama:

I’m sure you’ll get some negative comments about this; my sister is blind and my parents said early on that they wouldn’t treat her any differently. As a result, she told Helen Keller jokes, and we saw that moving the furniture was indeed a punishment (she’d come running up the hall and flip over the couch which wasn’t there before — even after being told not to run, and that the couch had been moved). When I met my [now] bride, I made some offhanded comment that made her think I was absolutely horrible towards my sister. Thankfully, she met the family anyway. Now, she makes as many jokes as the rest of us. It amazes me how many people talk louder to a blind person, or talk to you instead of them. So many people see any disability and think the person is incapacitated — they rush to do everything for them (almost to the point of blowing their nose!) So, keep your skin thick.

Yes, I have several blind friends, and a lot of blind readers. (How many of my blind readers wrote to complain? You guessed it: none.)

Training a guide dog at a subway station (Photo: CC2.0 Chris Gladis on Flickr)

Blind people are fully capable of writing to complain if they’re offended, and don’t need patronizing sighted folks to “watch out” for them when it comes to jokes. If you really can’t handle that I treat everyone the same (which many would define as “fair”), then you’re not reading the right publication.

I ran the above in the Premium edition on Monday. Premium reader Jennifer in California replies:

I appreciate the comments made by Glenn in Alabama and by you concerning blind people and blindness-related jokes. Few ‘sightlings’ are capable of seeing the humor in blindness, and it was refreshing to read your jokes and comments. Thank you for pointing out, by the way, that we blind folk are perfectly capable of writing and complaining ourselves if we’re offended.

Notice that she didn’t.

Jennifer did me a lovely favor, too: I asked her to check out my new story archive and let me know if she could read and navigate it OK. She replied: “I poked around the archive. I am *delighted* with the search feature. I love the fact that you can click on a link, read the story, hit the back button and down arrow to the next result. Very nicely done!” Thanks for checking it out, Jennifer!

Educating Readers

Enrique in Texas:

You mentioned that you’ve got a bunch of blind readers subscribed to TRUE, and you had some reply to you in defense of your humor. You mentioned these people can read and write just fine, but I’m curious as to how? Do they print out a copy in braile and read it? How do they write you back? Is it all dictated? Maybe it would be worth noting in the next issue how this is — it’s certainly news to me that blind people can use computers without being able to see the screen and everything on it. I’d be interested in knowing how it all works.

I’m definitely not an expert on the subject, but I’ve had blind, computer-using friends since the mid-1980s. In some ways things were easier back then, since everything was character-based (rather than graphics).

There are two main systems I’ve seen them use: the first is a screen reader, which voices the text on the screen. No, the blind don’t need to dictate everything they want to write: touch typing works just fine; you’re not supposed to look at the keys anyway! Since they can set the reader to read back everything they type, they can even check for typos. The voice, of course, is electronic; its pronunciation is rather odd to my ear, but one can obviously get used to it.

The second system is more complex — and more expensive: an electronic braille “display.” This is often a rectangular device in front of the keyboard which “shows” just a line or two at a time using raised pins, which are read like any other braille — by touch. Since not all blind people read braille, and since it only shows a very limited amount of text at a time, it’s probably not used as much as voicing systems, but I imagine it has certain advantages for some, especially for those that also have hearing problems.

The bottom line: the blind can use computers so well that they can even be, say, full-time 911 dispatchers (see Comments). I’m glad I could open your eyes to that!

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29 Comments on “The Dumb Leading the Blind

  1. It amazes me that there are people like Peter in Japan that think that jokes are always derogatory. Of course some are, but like they say you have to be able to laugh at yourself first. All my life I grew up in a household where my mother was blind and my brother and I have Cerebral Palsy (I also have Dyslexia). We were always picking on our mother by sneaking up behind her and scaring her, and her favorite quote when we would tattle on each other was “I didn’t see anything!” So your story made me laugh and think about my mother who passed away four years ago.

    I’m very happy that the story evoked such warm memories of your mother. -rc

  2. I think Stevie Wonder himself would approve of your comment since he undoubtedly has a sense of humour. My favourite Stevie quote: when asked if being born blind had held him back in life or in the music business he replied, ‘It could have been worse, I could have been born black.’ Now that’s a sense of humour.

    For the four readers who don’t know, Stevie Wonder is black. -rc

  3. Thanks for the blind jokes. I am also totally blind. I work full time as a dispatcher for the local Fire Department. People have even asked me how I dial the phone! I’ve even had doctors tell my wife that she could go ahead and dress me now, because they were finished with their examination. While in the hospital, they want to send someone to bathe me, just because I’m blind.

    Amazing how ignorant even doctors can be! -rc

  4. good on your comments about blind folks, i’ve had a couple of blind friends, living quite independently. one was a telephone operator back when long distance had not, in my area, been automated. blind people are in other respects quite normal, as demonstrated by the blind girl who tried to seduce me, (the answer was as gentle a “no” as i could make it, it was a nice compliment but i was married already.)

  5. Several years ago in London, I arranged to meet a “friend of a friend”. She was blind from birth. I’d called her, and arranged to meet her and go back to her place for dinner. I was amazed at the way she navigated London, including a complicated Underground route, before arriving back at her place (after Dark). We went inside, and she headed off to the kitchen to start preparing the meal. I stood like an idiot at the door.

    “Ummm, where’s the light switch?”

    She replied, “Sorry, I forgot you need the light on”. I had the sneaking suspicion she considered ME as the one with the disability. I know I did.

  6. This story reminds me of an incident 25 years ago in East London, when “they” cancelled Christmas.

    It was replaced by “The Winter Festival” and – it was explained by “them” – it was because Christmas offended the growing Muslim community.

    There was uproar as you would imagine BUT not from our churches! – the biggest complaint came from the Muslim organisations that eventually had our Christmas restored.

    It left us all a little dazed…. who then came up with the theory that the muslims would be offended if it was not the muslims themselves?

    This was at the start of ZT and PC that has all spiralled out of control nowadays. I think we need to find “THEM” and see just who is taking upon themselves to judge what is offensive and what is not.

    Love the blogs!

  7. I’ve encountered such people for more than 40 years now, those who rush to defend those who need no defense. I’ve often wondered, there should be some kind of descriptive name for such busybodies (which, itself, is too general a term).

    The term is “paternalistic”. They think the disabled need to be defended because they can’t defend themselves. By their actions, they’re much more demeaning to the people involved than anyone else. As we saw, blind people can take care of themselves quite well, and can write to complain all by themselves if they’re offended. None were offended by my comments; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they were offended by the complainers’ ridiculous condescension. -rc

  8. As a legally blind subscriber, I fail to see what all the fuss is about in jokes about blindness.

    At work, the boss once decided I needed an escort in case of emergencies in order to evacuate. I pointed out that in a power failure plunging the building into darkness, which of us would likely be better at maneuvering and in any emergency? I didn’t want someone slowing me down by trying to “help”; they will just get trampled if we have to get out. If the place is on fire, *I’m* not waiting for someone else. :0

  9. I didn’t see your Stevie Wonder joke when it first ran a couple of years ago but as a totally blind premium subscriber to This is True I want to say that I didn’t find it offensive. Blind people make those kinds of jokes ourselves. Although jokes can be cruel and painful and discriminatory I think one must look at the whole picture first. Your discussion of how blind people access the computer is right on track although electronic Braille displays only have one line of text rather than two or more. And you are also right that more people use speech rather than Braille because of the cost and because, unfortunately, the professionals in the field of teaching the blind tend to believe that Braille isn’t necessary now that we have talking computers and digital recordings. Those of us who are blind and working in the blindness field do not agree but what do we know.

    Thanks for the correction. -rc

  10. The commentary reminds me of the reaction when ‘a Fish Called Wanda’ came out. Do-gooders rushed to condemn the depiction of stuttering as insensitive. Then, several stuttering organizations came forward to say that they felt that the characterization was done with sensitivity and an appreciation for the problems of stutterers.

    For the record, I once house-sat a house in the Hollywood Hills. The house at the end of the block with a 3 sided view of the area [gorgeous view] was owned by Stevie Wonder.

  11. I remember when you first wrote the Stevie Wonder “quote” – and thought it was great!

    I have one hand (think carefully about my name…) and I have a (sic) “second hand” shop filled with (sic) “offhanded” puns. I love meeting new folks & subjecting them to the jokes. I find that it helps them relax, especially conservative managers (I am a consultant for embedded computer systems). Many folks have a hard time knowing if they are going to offend me, so I do it for them…

    In fact, I know I am blind – I cannot see the hand before my face. I need new glasses because I am starting to see two hands. BTW – Finger Food is only an expression. Also – watch the Palm Pilot – I used to keep notes on my palm, but the erase function got me. If someone asks you to lend a hand, get a receipt!! When they say “Give him a hand” – I gave at the office. Real reason: My folks wanted 1.95 kids. (My mother’s favorite.)

    I also offer my chop saw for those who want to join the club, and my consulting fees would be, umm, half of. So far, no takers (wimps :^)

    Relax folks – it’s only life & nobody gets out alive. I suspect Jesus used similar humor when appropriate, but Matthew, Mark, etc chickened out writing them down. I will ask Him when I can – after all, God made me this way, so I *know* He has a sense of humor, albeit “wicked” at times. (Just look at the differences between men and women, and tell me I am wrong.)

  12. While not blind, I am extremely nearsighted, and I can only really focus on things within 2-3 inches of my eyes without my glasses.

    The US Navy spent most of a day (twice!) in the 1970’s trying to get wavers to allow me to join up.

    I was told eventually that I couldn’t join because if the ship caught fire and the companionways filled with smoke….

    If you really want to *see* the humor in blindness, check out the film “If You Could See What I Hear” (1982) about musician Tom Sullivan’s college life.

    My favorite line: “Oh my God! I’m color-blind too!”

  13. I remember years ago in college (1969-1975), I had two totally blind friends. Gerry really loved Star Trek on TV. The first time that I said, “Did you listen to Star Trek last night?” he set me straight. Under no circumstances was I to speak to him in any way different from how I spoke to my sighted friends.

    As far as accented abilities, I was amazed by my other blind friend. While I’d be reading from his textbook, he’d be assembling a jigsaw puzzle. He’d pick up pieces, feel them, lay them on the table in specific places, then once in awhile, he’d pick up a piece, reach over to the table, pick up a certain piece and put them together.

    I lost track of both of them. The first, Gerry, I did find out later died from diabetic complications that sometimes accompany blindness.

    Oh, yes, sometimes a mostly blind student doesn’t understand when she can’t get a job. I remember a third friend in those years who applied for a job shelving books at the college library and didn’t understand why they didn’t give her the job.

    Ten years later, I revisited the campus and happened to run into her, and she still remembered me (and still had the reel to reel tapes I had loaned her with Star Trek books on them). She took my address and returned the tapes. I then donated the tapes to one of the “Books on Tape” organizations for others to enjoy. (I’m glad I did that because my sister would have thrown them out, as she did with all my books, video tapes, diskettes, business papers, etc., two years ago when I couldn’t make it home for Mom’s funeral. I think she was mad at me.)

  14. More blind people are beginning to use braille displays in conjunction with their screen readers, I’m delighted to report.

    Your one reader made me laugh, Randy, when he mentioned his sister telling Helen Keller jokes. I used to tell those as well, and I made my sister (who is sighted) furious when I told those jokes. I must admit, they are pretty awful — but they still make me laugh. 🙂

    Randy, you also made me smile when you used the term “sightlings”. I can tell you how that term came into being. Back in the late 1970’s, I believe it was, a friend and I were discussing the various terms we’ve heard sighted people use in order to avoid saying “blind”: “non-sighted”, “visually challenged”, “sightless”, etc. My friend — whose name was Randy — said, “We need to come up with a term for well-meaning sighted folks who just don’t know any better. Sort of a verbal, slightly patronizing pat on the head.” He tossed out a couple terms, then said, “How about sightlings?!” I loved it. Told a friend in Iowa about it, and she passed it along to correspondents, and it was in general use before the mid-80’s.

    Now, if anyone still doubts we blind have a sense of humor, listen to the song by Ray Charles and George Jones, We Didn’t See A thing.

    You do know where I got “sightlings” (I hope!): from you, my friend! 🙂 -rc

  15. I have a close friend who is blind. He reads braille and also uses a screen reader. We were at a convention and there was a hospitality room with free booze. Both he and I as well as many others in our group were rather inebriated. A stranger commented rather loudly that she thought it was horrible that we were letting that poor blind man get so drunk. One of our group replied equally loudly, “Don’t worry about it, we aren’t going to let him drive home.”

    Another time I was traveling with him and we were checking in at an airline gate for a flight. The gate agent asked me, “Is he totally blind?” I replied, “Yes, but he’s not deaf. You can ask him yourself.” He gets this quite a lot, others assume that he’s somehow helpless. He tunes and rebuilds pianos for a living, very talented fellow. Very impressive memory, sharp as a tack. I ask him how he got so smart, his standard reply is, “How much faster would your computer run if it didn’t have to process any graphics?”

    Two great (aka awful) examples of obliviotic patronizing sighted folks creating offense in a misguided effort to “protect” adults who are fully capable of making their own decisions. And I love your friend’s computer explanation. -rc

  16. When I was young, my parents’ best friends had a son who was blind, so I was around him all the time. We played a lot of cards, he taught me to read braille (although I haven’t used it in so long that I can’t do it now), and the one that shocks most people is that I used to go bike riding with him. He had a tandem bike and he was up front. As long as you didn’t change the center of gravity, he could ride his neighborhood as well as anyone else. If he needed help in a new place he had no problem asking for it, and I knew all the little signals to tell him a step was coming without saying anything out loud. To this day, one of the first things I do when I move into a new place is to learn to navigate it with my eyes closed.

    About 25 years ago, I had taken my son up to visit his grandfather and David was there with his parents as well, so I got to introduce my son to him and we went outside and played some tossball with velcro rackets. I was so glad for the opportunity to show my son in person that blind didn’t mean helpless. At that time David had his own place and was working as a darkroom technician at a local hospital.

    If there’s anyone who could thrive in a darkroom…! 🙂 -rc

  17. Some people live to be offended and have to imagine offence when it isn’t there.

    Gary Larson, cartoonist of The Far Side, told this story in one of his collections about when people get upset with his drawings. In the book, he didn’t mention the last item, which may not have happened at that time [about his panel about Jane Goodall].

    FYI: Goodall’s research records are kept at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I happened to be be chatting with one of the workers there who had the honor of bringing a group of them from her to the museum. They never left his hands except to be xrayed at the airport. He said it made him nervous to be entrusted with a section of the longest continuous research documentation ever and what he would feel like if he caused it to not be continuous.

    I saw that Mental Floss article a few years ago, and it’s excellent. Rather than leave your lengthy quote of the article in, I’ll let readers catch the whole article at the link. (#7 is the Jane Goodall story.) -rc

  18. I have a son-in-law who is deaf. My daughter has told us that people frequently ask her if her husband can read braille. She always replies to them, “Why would he need to he is deaf, not blind.”

    Classic example of failing to think. -rc

  19. My sister was born blind. In elementary school a person asked our mother “Does she know that she is B-L-I-N-D?” My sister replied, “Yes I D-O.” Returning to college in the fall she found that all the curbs at the intersections had disappeared so she couldn’t tell where the sidewalk stopped and the street started. The school had replaced all of them with ramps to help the handicapped. Made life harder for her, not easier. She’s retired now after working three jobs and retiring from two. On her third service dog. Loves to tell service dog and blind jokes. Loves to tell the strange places she has found braille or has been told where the braille is since she would never have found it there. But she also tries to work with companies who claim that their products or apps are enabled and really aren’t.

    • First there were curb cuts for wheelchairs. Then blind people started walking into streets, so they added raised dots for the blind. Which trip up people with canes and walkers.

      Still waiting for a perfect solution, but at least the ADA makes people *try*.

      • Another thing about those raised dots is that you can’t shovel all the snow off of them. They become the icy spot on the sidewalk and there’s nothing you can do about it. Okay, they stay icy for just a few days a winter (in Colorado) but it irks me when I’m trying to get the sidewalks nice for the neighbors.

  20. I got interested in computer programming, around 1980 or so. I went to San Antonio College and signed up for a class in COBOL. On the first day of class, the teacher came in with a white cane. He said, “Don’t worry about me being blind.” Then he told us that he had a way to print out the code in Braille, and could follow the code. He loved to say “I will have a look at your code”.

  21. Once upon a time, I was working as a classroom aide with 8th graders. The teacher was standing in front of the chalkboard while writing classwork. One student said, “I can’t see the board.” Blind student Jamie pipes up with “I can’t see it either!”

  22. When I worked as a Public Affairs Officer for a large California law enforcement agency, I had the honor to work with Stevie Wonder at a press conference about drunk driving. He approved and promoted a poster that reflected his sense of humor and as well as his concern for traffic safety.

    Comments can’t have photos, but what Steve sent was a poster with a photo of Wonder with the caption, “Before I’ll ride with a drunk, I’ll drive myself.” -rc

  23. I have two sisters and a very close friend who are blind. They all joke about it. My friend complains that she’s straining her eyes when she’s trying to read braille that has been flattened a bit. We played cards and shuffling, plus usage, wears down the braille bumps. One of my sisters uses a guide dog. She goes on cruises and travels all over the country by herself. She uses a navigation app on her phone to learn how to get around in new places.

    The only limitations in life are the ones you allow to stop you.

  24. When I was a kid, my grandmother gave me one of those Scholastic children’s biographies about Helen Keller, and what sticks out in my memory is a description of some of the silly questions people used to ask her, and the way she used to handle them. The specific exchange that comes to mind is “Do you sleep with your eyes open?” “I’ve never stayed awake to find out!”

  25. “Hire The Handicapped. We’re FUN To Watch!”

    As as “challenged” person (I love the PC crowd, NOT! “I’m not hearing challenged, I’m DEAF, dammit!”) I use that line frequently, much to the dismay of the same “PC” crowd. Tough toenails to them!

    When I was a kid, we were called cripples. (Yes, I have a permanent disability that limits my ability to run [walking is mostly fine], and reminds me of its presence with pain pretty much every day. “It’s FUN to have!”) A lot are much better off than I am, a lot are much worse off. So I just try to go with the flow and roll my eyes over folks who are clueless –and move on. -rc

  26. I just read this week’s This Is True which had a link to your 2005 story, “The Dumb Leading the Blind”. When I married my first wife who was legally blind, now totally blind. She taught me a lot about how to treat folks regardless of what is their “Different Ability”, and we ALL have one. Firstly, make no assumptions and then only offer to help when it is truly needed and agreed to by that person. Lest you be insulting. Paulette and I were married when I was still finishing college (I was on the 8-year plan). Her first job after getting her MLS was with the Colorado Talking Book Library. Later she became the first totally blind person to earn a PhD at the University of Colorado.

    During the winter of my senior year there was a huge snowstorm one night. It dumped nearly a foot of snow and made huge drifts on campus. You could not tell where boundaries were between sidewalk, street, and grass. I was walking to my car after midnight from my studio when I noticed about a block away, a young blind woman in an open grass area of campus. She was probing the snow with her cane, much like you would use an avalanche probe. She must have been there for some time as there was a tangle of beaten down snow around her probably 50 feet across. Obviously, she was really lost and very upset trying to find her way. I approached, introduced myself, and from a few feet away offered assistance. FYI, never grab at or push a person to help, blind or not. Ask first! She, screamed at me something like “I can help myself!”. I then calmly told her that I knew she was quite capable navigating campus under normal conditions but that she was nowhere near the sidewalk and probing in drifts of deep snow. I also said I was not trying to insult her and that my wife is also blind. She then burst into tears in frustration, and I offered to guide her with my elbow. She then calmed down and apologized for shouting at me and asked if I could guide her to where she was trying to go, which of course I did. I assumed she was also a student on campus, but I never saw her again. The Take-A-Way, never make assumptions but always be willing to calmly help or ask for it when needed.

    And be understanding when they lash out in frustration. Good job. -rc

  27. I never thought of blind people using computers; that changed in about 2000. I was working at a software company and was on a project at that corporate HQ. One day, the guy on the other side of the cubicle wall from me had an issue with his computer. I did not know him nor saw him because of the height of the cubicle walls and he was not on the project I was.

    Anyway, he had someone from the helpdesk over because he was having issues with his screen reader; it was interesting to hear the voice the reader had (it was computerized)–he could not use his headphones, obviously, so the helpdesk person could hear what was broken.

    I also knew a blind couple from church. One could see light but not much else, and I think one was blinded because of what happened when they were born. Interesting people — the husband played the accordion and sounded pretty good. I met them after they had retired, but apparently had two daughters that could see.


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