Monday, October 26, 2009


I’ve been doing a little reading lately. A book that, surprisingly has caught my interest is Scattered Shadows, a memoir by John Howard Griffin. It’s a book about going blind and then regaining sight. Often it seems that I get more than my share of books about blind people, sent along by my main source of reading material, the CNIB library. Usually I open these books, skip quickly through them and send them back. Over a lifetime, you can only read so many books about the experience of going and being blind. But this one is a little different.
Griffin’s memoir, published as a book in 2004, is a compilation of journal entries and articles he wrote in the ten-year period between 1947 and 1957. During this period, suffering consequences of nerve injuries from World War II, he gradually lost his eyesight, the use of his legs and sensation in his extremities. He bred ribbon-winning livestock by touch, learned to use a typewriter and read braille, wrote two best-selling novels, was a key player in a Supreme Court battle over censorship, regained the use of his legs, and finally got his eyesight back. He also married. His first child was born when he was in a wheelchair. He was on crutches when the second child arrived. He saw his third child on the day of his birth. His journalistic accounts of regaining his vision came at a time of poverty for his growing family. They brought in enough money to support the family for a year. Yes, John Howard Griffin was a most unforgettable man.
Griffin certainly had some interesting ideas. In fact, I read his book twice just to enjoy them. Take, for example, his theory that people would adjust to blindness much more easily were it not for the presence of sighted people. In support of this theory he observes that a blind person left to his own devices will freely explore his environment, locating its features and adjusting to its particularities. But then, as soon as sighted people enter the scene, that same blind man will cease his searching behavior, will stop exploring, and sit politely in one place, make himself dependent on the sighted people.
Sighted people are rather uncomfortable with the kind of searching and exploring that works well for their blind counterparts, and we blind people are uncomfortable learning about our environment while they watch. . The sensible thing for a blind person to do upon entering an unfamiliar house would be to take a touch tour of the walls the way sighted people take a glancing tour, identifying with hands and feet the location of furniture, admiring the ornaments. Such an exploration would facilitate independence and provide valuable information. I say Griffin has hit the nail on the head. I cannot imagine how much more I would know if I took it upon myself to explore the environments I enter.
I recall a time many years ago, making my first-ever visit to my sister’s new home. She was there to welcome me when I arrived. She invited me to sit on the couch. Then, summoned by some urgent call, she went out for a few minutes.
The moment she was gone I got to my feet and did a touch tour of the whole house, visiting all the rooms, finding the position of things relative to each other. By the time she returned I was perfectly comfortable at her house. Funny, isn’t it, that I would not have explored while she was there.

1 comment:

hope101 said...

I appreciate your honesty about this. It strikes me that some honest conversation between the sighted and the blind would help a great deal.

I personally struggle with understanding what will come across as patronizing vs helpful, and feel awkward because of it. Maybe next time I should just ask...