Whenever the word "advocacy" pops up, I cannot help forming a mental picture of an attorney at law, or barrister, as the British say, defending, or even trying to prove the innocence of a hard-core criminal. That association of course has to do with the semantics of the word and with the stories of law-suits that the popular press usually presents of them. After all, the word "advocate" is not only the literal translation of "attorney at law" or "barrister" in the Romance languages, but also in the other Teutonic languages and even in Scotland.
However, I'm afraid there is another reason for my apprehension about advocacy; I suppose it has to do with my natural inclination to question all those institutions and norms that are presented to me as unquestionable. The problem is that our advocacy is supposed to advocate our rights and demands to society and it is not in the first place we, ourselves, who have to be our own advocates. Because same as in court, advocacy is a profession and professional advocates do not like their clients to speak for themselves, if they can prevent it in any way.
I gladly admit that I'm a stubborn kind of man; I have always insisted on speaking for myself and regretted the few occasions that others had to speak for me. That is also the reason why I very much appreciate the invitation extended to me by the executive director of the Caribbean Council for the Blind, Mr. Aubrey Webson, to give you all a piece of my mind, so to speak. I hope he won't regret it afterwards, but he knows me well enough not to expect me to come up with the usual litany of woes about the ways sighted people will treat us, poor blind devils. Any blind person can do that and some will, whenever they get a chance to. They won't stop fighting as long as they live, against what they see as humiliating treatment. So let me adopt the position of the devil's advocate and conclude that that is a predictably lost battle, for if you are only four or five in a thousand you are bound to meet regularly people who haven't the faintest idea of the implications of blindness or visual impairment, while the sudden confrontation with it often leaves them dumbfounded. As far as that is concerned, we would all do better to ponder the words of that great French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,when he concluded: "La honte est honte de sois; elle est reconnaissance de ce que je suis bien cet object, qu'autrui regarde et juge.", that is: shame is shame of oneself; it is the recognition that I am indeed the object that others watch and judge.
The other day, after having given an information talk to a group of school children, one little girl approached me and asked me if I was happy in spite of my blindness. I asked her in return if she was happy in spite of being a girl. She only laughed, so I'm not quite sure if she understood my generalization. On another occasion I compared blindness to skin color in a mixed classroom. I don't know if it was for that reason, but as we were preparing to leave, one little black girl came rushing up to me to kiss me goodbye.
The very simple truth is that all forms of negative discrimination -- for let's not forget that discrimination in itself is a positive faculty -- is directed against differences, against objects not considered equal in value to oneself, something that is inherent in the process of objectivation. It doesn't matter whether the discriminated group is a minority or a majority, though in most cases it is a minority. Let's examine our own consciences: if we are really honest, don't we all, too often have to plead guilty to this kind of shameless behavior towards people in our own daily environment, towards people who do not behave as we deem acceptable?
All men are created equal, says the American Declaration of Independence, and on Independence Day 1985 in the United States, president Ronald Reagan declared that this was a "self-evident truth". All right: no one in his right mind will attribute philosophical wisdom to Mr. Reagan, but I'm afraid I also have to disagree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence. The opposite is the truth! Each and every one of us is absolutely unique in his genetic heritage, his historic and cultural heritage, his family and environmental background, his education, potentialities, faculties,and abilities. No human being is equal to any other human being, but -- and that is probably what the authors of the Declaration intended -- each and every human being is equal in value to each and any other human being and has the inalienable right to be recognized, accepted and experienced as equal in value by each and every other human being and has the absolute duty to recognize, accept and experience each and every other human being as equal in value in spite of all the differences that exist and in spite of the fact that quite a few human beings will degrade their own human value.
Speaking about "integration", there you have a definition of integration: the right to be different! In other words, if we want to advocate integration we shall have to begin by integrating ourselves by not demanding that the whole world be adapted to our situation and condition, but by showing the world that we accept our responsibilities towards it, in return for which we may expect and even claim the right to full participation in its affairs. And let's face it: we are completely beside the mark -- same as certain groups of feminists who want to show that they can do anything a man can do -- if we approach integration as the right to be able to do anything a sighted person can do.
Let's put it in yet another way: blindness, visual impairment, deafness, hearing impairment,physical disability, mental retardation and what have you, are not, I repeat: are not unnatural conditions for a human being. The so-called unlucky chances are inherent in the process of evolution and on at least two previous occasions I ventured to voice the idea that it is precisely these unlucky chances that have given the evolutionary process its greatest impetus and momentum towards human solidarity and collective responsibility.
I therefore suggest that we turn our perspective around 180 degrees and stop looking at ourselves as those objects that others watch and judge. There is also nothing more natural for human beings than to try and conquer even the most hostile environment as astronautics is demonstrating in our present days beyond any question. So why don't we direct ourselves towards the world as a challenge to be conquered. After all, in a way, we are like those astronauts who cannot change the environment of outer space and therefore have to adapt themselves to it, to be able to conquer it. In the same way, we, the blind, cannot change the visual world to our standards and requirements. If we want to conquer it, we shall have to adapt ourselves to that visual environment and frankly speaking, we stand a much better chance than the astronauts do, because our hostile environment is gifted with consciousness and is prepared to give us a hand even if, quite frequently, that hand is stretched out in a rather clumsy way.
The problem with perspectives is that they always present us with a distorted view of reality. The farther away an object is, the smaller it looks and the fewer the details that can be discerned. Something like that also occurs in social relations. The idea that the majority of sighted people have of blindness is very distorted, due to the social distance from which they perceive it. We have no right to blame them for their distorted perception. It's in the nature of distant vision, which, in this respect, is not dependent upon physical distance. Even your own relatives may be at a great social distance from you, because of the inability to understand the implications of blindness.
What all this comes down to is, that if we want to change the attitudes towards us and conquer the visual environment, we shall have to place ourselves in a wider perspective and refrain from approaching the seemingly discriminatory attitudes with what one American acquaintance of mine once sarcastically called: blind power. For instance: on what ground do we condemn an employer who never had any experience with a blind person, for being reluctant to employ one? Shouldn't we rather be suspicious if such a man were not reluctant to do so?
One of my best friends had a complete nervous breakdown after years of having been employed on a job where he had practically nothing to do and nevertheless was paid a fairly high salary apparently on purely charitable grounds on the part of the employers. My friend realized that his situation was not much better than that of the medieval beggar who was bestowed with a privileged spot in the church entrance.
However, you will never convince anyone, certainly not an employer, with the kind of blind power approach of some present day blind persons who will not mention their blindness in their applications. I can tell you I would get furious if someone did that in an application to my agency. If we want people to understand our problems and how we cope with them, we should begin by understanding that it is not at all easy for sighted people to understand them. We ourselves have trouble enough understanding them, if it were only where the barrier between the blind and partially sighted is concerned.
When I visited New York for the first time, in 1979, Ms. Gordon, then director of the New York Lighthouse told the story of the Lighthouse firing a blind employee for incompetence. At that time, someone had remarked: "at long last the Lighthouse has come to terms with blindness." It took them 75 years to come to terms with it and if you ask me, they haven't come to terms with it altogether yet or else they would have changed their name by now. How long is it going to take all of us? And that goes for all other groups of handicapped people as well.
I'm very much afraid that most agencies for the blind and partially sighted in this world of ours have still a long way to go in this respect. In the first place, most of them still call themselves "Agencies for the Blind", thereby simply ignoring the fact that the vast majority of visually handicapped people are not blind, but partially sighted, however impaired their vision may be. Most probably however, it is more a matter of ignoring the psychological impact that the name tag "BLIND" has on a partially sighted person, which simply implies that the blind themselves refuse to try and understand those who they consider to belong to their own group! If that is so, how dare we demand from the sighted to understand us?
In the second place, such names as "Lighthouse" and even worse in the case of the Belgian agency called "Light and Love" from whatever angle you want to look at them express the condescending approach of do-gooders who pretend to bring something they have: "light" in the metaphorical sense of "alleviation" in the dire lot of the deprived of "light". They apparently don't even realize that the absence of sight has nothing to do with the absence of light, but with a dysfunction in the organs that perceive light and darkness for that matter.
Here in San Juan, not far from where we are now, there is a place called: "Asilo de Ciegos" that is, literally translated: an asylum for the blind; or, in other words, a safe hiding place for them. Originally, the word "asylum"referred to a privileged or protected refuge for delinquents. Later on, especially in the 19th century, the word was also applied to charitable institutions to care for needy people like in a lunatic asylum.
You won't hear me say that the intentions of the people running a place like that aren't good. The problem is, that, like my mother always used to say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Of course, she used it in a different context but we can easily apply it to our connotation,because our own good intentions will, inevitably, narrow down our perspective even more, by reducing our self-criticism to a decimal degree and our susceptibility to other people's criticism to minus infinite.
Most conservative concepts are defended with the knock-down argument of the lesser evil, which is simply the expression of the unwillingness to work at the true and often radical alternatives. That, of course, has also to do with what one author once called: "the law of decelerating progress". It is indeed very difficult to change existing institutions and well-nigh impossible to liquidate them, even if they have lost all reason of existence. It is precisely for that reason that we, here in our Caribbean region have the best of all chances to come up with new and innovative approaches, because most of us, with the exception to some extent of the larger islands like Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have virtually no history in the field of services to the handicapped. To develop them, we first need a philosophy on which to base ourselves; secondly, we need expertise, which we may well borrow from our neighbors north of the Caribbean and from our former colonizers, north-east of the Atlantic, though we must certainly not underestimate the expertise we have at our disposal in the region itself. But, what we should definitely prevent is a transplantation of historically explicable institutions from elsewhere into our situation, which never knew their historic background. The sheltered workshops, implanted in some of our islands are the best example of the disastrous effect of that kind of procedure.
Maybe my arguments sound rather chaotic but they all come down to one basic leit motiv: a cry for self-criticism; a cry for earnest and profound evaluation of our own attitudes; our attitudes towards ourselves in the first place and towards others in the second. Too many of us are embarked upon an ego-trip and the main problem with ego-trippers is, that they show a great preference for building roofs particularly on non-existing buildings.
I actually didn't want to say this, but decided to do it anyway. I'm very much afraid that the international conferences that we are so fond of, these days quite often constitute no more than that kind of hovering roofs. If we do not go home from this one, for instance, with new ideas, new information, new relations and new expertise, to put to practice in our micro activities, this macro event's value is also naught.
To conclude my remarks I should like to come back briefly to what I would like to call the "humanizing repercussions" of our activities. Whenever a new worker or volunteer enters the services of our agency, I always stress the fact, that they must not see their work within the limited scope of the education, reactivation and rehabilitation of visually handicapped people alone. Our work, if done well, has repercussions far beyond that scope. If our goal is integration, we are making a big mistake if we apply that only to the visually handicapped. It is a social movement, that applies to society as a whole and in the end, it cannot even stop at the frontiers of a country. If we preach integration for the visually handicapped or the handicapped in general we have to preach it in one breath for every human being, or else, we don't know what we are talking about! It's human value that we should be concerned with in the very first place and human value does not depend upon a position in the rat race for material wealth!
Though perhaps I'm expressing myself a bit too strongly, I do want to emphasize this point, because I have the impression that most of our agencies are primarily concerned with vocational education and vocational rehabilitation and vocational integration, as if income generating labour is the only thing that gives a human being his human value. Nothing can be further from the truth. Don't misunderstand me. I do not deny for one moment, that educating or rehabilitating a visually handicapped person in such a way that he may obtain or re-obtain the capability to generate an income for himself and his dependents is very important indeed. But it is no more important than educating and rehabilitating people towards becoming active, self-confident human beings also without the capability or opportunity of income generation. And that is where we fail. That is where we neglect the majority of visually handicapped people: the elderly and all those who have no chance as a consequence of economic or other circumstances to become active in income generating labour, whether open employment or self-employment. The thing we really tell them with our strong emphasis on vocational training for the happy few, is that they are less worthy human beings.
We do not teach them that it is human development, human activity that gives them their human value and that non-profit activities quite often rank a lot higher than the income generating ones. We condemn them to "welfare beggary" and then lash out at their eligibility for it with such discriminatory cries as "a disincentive to work". In other words, they're lazy bums And this example of present day prejudice does not in the first place come from the man in the street. I was utterly baffled to read it in at least two or three articles in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, published by the American Foundation for the Blind. Most of the articles in it pretend to be based on purely scientific principles which proves that we have to be very suspicious about the scientific value of many of our scientists.
That then brings me to my conclusion: If we want to advocate ourselves, our rights, our potentialities we shall have to direct our view to society as a whole and choose our place in it, not as a separate spot, but as an essential part of a holistic system. If we do not, if we go on looking at ourselves as demanders we have no right to claim any rights. Only if we accept our responsibilities in and towards society as a whole, our rights are the right rights.