In 1984 I had a curious experience in Barbados, where I presented a paper on social security, entitled: "From Charity to Collective Responsibility", during the first regional conference of the Caribbean Council for the Blind. In my address I referred to several systems of social security in the world, both in the Caribbean region and outside, amongst others also to the North American systems. At the end of the week, one North American participant, Ms. Kay Farrell, then national consultant on Rehabilitation of the American Foundation for the Blind, took leave of me and said: "I hope you don't find us too egoistic." I was a bit taken aback by that remark and asked, perhaps wrongly a little annoyed: "Did I say so?"
Now, several years later, I must admit, that Ms. Farrell had at least understood my basic arguments, even if perhaps, she took if only part of my words as an attack on the United States. I certainly did not intend to attack any particular country or region of the world but she did deduct, from the comparisons I made, that I did not consider the US system an example of what collective responsibility should be.
The quintessence of my address, same as of my editorial in Caribbean Vision under the heading "First Comes the Grub" was, indeed, that we, human beings from all over the world, are in the first place egotists. When something hits home, when an argument is recognized as being correct, and at the same time exposes yourself, that hurts. At such a moment, it is extremely difficult to show the grandeur of accepting criticism for what it is meant to be: a contribution to better understanding of ourselves and improvement of conditions for all. The greatest evil that mankind is still suffering from is individualism. Contrary to what many people believe, individualism is the diametrical opposite of individualization, because the individualist seeks only himself, whereas an individualized personality accepts responsibility for himself and for others, whereby the second is inherent in the first. Or, as the German philosopher Max Scheler put it: "Co-responsibility is simply inherent in self-responsibility".
The struggle for integration of the visually handicapped into society is one that is not confined to the visually handicapped themselves alone. It gnaws at the foundations of society as a whole and is therefore doomed to fail, unless we are completely aware of the fact, that we have to extend it to every aspect of life in society. because in general terms, it can be defined as the acceptance of differences as equal in value. We cannot possibly apply that to one difference only; by virtue of principle, it has to apply to every difference whether we like it or not. In many instances, we don't like it a bit.
In a world of machos it is difficult to accept the equality of women and live up to it; in a world of whites it is difficult to experience blacks as equals and live up to it; in a world of heterosexuals, it is extremely difficult to accept homo-sexuals as equals and live up to it; in a world of catholics it is difficult to recognize the equality of non-catholics and live up to it; in a world of the sighted, it is difficult to recognize that the non-sighted are just as complete human beings as they themselves are and accept their right to full participation and demand from them to recognize their obligations inherent in that basic right. We could go on to extend this list to an infinite number of other examples.
The main obstacle is, that women in a world of machos as a rule submit to their inferior role; that blacks in a world of whites, succumb to the social pressures and accept secondary status; that homo-sexuals either hide their disposition or exploit it; that the visually handicapped, in this world of sighted people like to retreat to cozy corners of their own to feel safe and be taken care of by charitable volunteers, or, if they have united to emancipate, to feel great in their joint struggle directed against the sighted. Very rarely do we, the visually handicapped admit, that in order to compete in a world of competition, we have to prepare ourselves just as thoroughly, or even more so, as the sighted themselves. Blindness is not an asset that outweighs lack of skills. On the contrary: it is a limiting factor that requires us to obtain more skills than our sighted peers.
With great interest I listened to a tape recording of the inaugural address of the chairperson of an important organization of blind people and the reactions to his words from his visualy handicapped audience. i SHALL NOT SAY WHO IT WAS, NOR WHAT ORGANISATION, NOR IN WHICH COUNTRY, because the world may seem very diverse and yet, his words might have been spoken anywhere in Europe, or North America, or Asia, or Africa, or here, in our own region. It was, as usual, one long litany of woes about the discriminatory attitudes of the sighted and -- and that also goes for most parts of the world -- of agencies delivering services to the visually handicapped. Not one word was said about the attitudes of the visually handicapped themselves. It might just as well have been the chairwoman of a women's liberation group, waging a verbal war on men without so much as considering the possibility of educating men and women to a better understanding of the fundamental issues at stake. But then.,.. why should one, when one feels so safe and cozy and self-satisfied in the common goal of scolding men? And why should we, the visually handicapped, take a hard look at our own inhibitions, before we wage our war on the sighted, especially if it feels so good, to feel good together and to conquer for ourselves a good position, even without the skills which would have been demanded from any sighted applicant, in our own little world of great fighters for.... for what?
Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise says the British poet Thomas Gray. (1716-1771) That sounds great, doesn't it? It does, but in spite of the magnificence of Gray's poetry, as will be the case with most captions quoted out of context, it is the most foolish one I have ever come across, the more so, as Thomas Gray was the extreme opposite of an ignorant man. Ignorance can never be bliss. Ignorance is the source of all backwardness, all oppression, all discrimination. Ignorance is, above all, the main tool of all those who individualistically seek their own short term interests at the expense of collective goals. That is also the reason why such ego-trippers will do anything to ban information and exchange of ideas and above all, self-criticism. It is the recognition of Francis Bacon's conclusion that "Knowledge is power" and power should remain limited to them, though the power they strive for has nothing to do with knowledge!
What are we fighting for? I cannot stop repeating it, whenever we get a new worker in our agency or a new volunteer: mind you, if we want to work towards integration we must be aware that we must work at the roots of society as a whole; not just for our own little group; not just for our own limited interests because if we do that, we are bound to fail. Any movement, any organization, any institution, any agency that limits its goals to short-term gains is not contributing to the progress of mankind and as a consequence neither to the progress of the group that it pretends to serve. If we, in our work, really want to achieve the goals that we proclaim so loudly to have, we shall have to free ourselves of all egoistic aspirations; in many cases these aspirations do not even have anything to do with personal material gains but with a desire to be important or even famous. In the final analysis, that desire is a strange form of confirming the negative attitudes of others towards us, or, in this case, of the sighted towards the visually handicapped. It is the sort of expression of an inferiority complex, that we also see in certain members of women's liberation groups, who think, that if they can only prove that they can do anything a man can do, they have made their point. The sad truth is, that this kind of behavior makes the opposite point, since the equality of human value has nothing to do with equality of capabilities, neither physical nor mental. We might mention any other example, from any other emancipating or neglected group.
I once heard an interview on the radio about the changes that have taken place in Curaçao since the disturbances of May 30th 1969, when part of the beautiful, colonial capital of Willemstad was set on fire by rampaging laborers. Now, so many years later, the conclusion of Mr. Stanley Brown (who was directly involved in the uprising) was, that little or nothing had changed. But he made one remark that stuck with me. He said that the power groups had very effectively managed to throw sand in the eyes of the people, by pushing a few "black faces" into important political positions, thereby creating the false impression that at least the black population of Curaçao had benefited from the events. Basically, however, so Mr. Brown said, nothing substantial has changed in society.
The same thing can be said of the world of the visually handicapped. An organization or agency does not improve merely by putting a blind man at the head of it, same as a woman at a women's desk in government or in a regional organization is in itself no warranty whatsoever for fundamental alterations in the position of women. It needs a basic philosophy, that is followed by the leaders in the field whoever or whatever those leaders are. If Mr. Amos Wako was one of the United Nations most important rapporteurs on human rights, that is not, because he is a man, nor because he is a Nigerian, nor because he is black, but because he believes in the absolute value of human dignity and, of course, because he has the intellectual capacity and strength of personality to live up to his beliefs.
What we need in our agencies, not only in our own region, but all over the world, is persons who believe in a cause because they will move the heaven and the earth to achieve it even, at moments, when that entails negative consequences for their own personal interests. Too many institutions of and for the visually handicapped, exist only because they were once founded, but they have lost the soul of their founders; they have lost their élan de vivre because they have lost faith in what they are doing and go on existing to offer a number of people a job and an income. Even for a commercial enterprise, that is LETHAL.