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Community and Domestic Life: Public Perspective

Man cleaning out his gutters on a ladder, 1994

Blindness is only a characteristic… nothing more or less than that…it is nothing more special, or more peculiar, or more terrible than that suggests. --Kenneth Jernigan

The public's view towards the blind has often been negative. Many of the beliefs surrounding blindness have been socially attributed, rather than based on actual abilities. Rather than judging a blind person on their skills, competency, and achievements, the public was most likely to assume the worst. The “custodial approach” towards the blind was prevalent before the 1960s in Iowa. This attitude was fundamentally based in the conviction that the blind were not able to function in society, or in the workforce, without supervision. One example of the custodial approach to blindness was the Iowa Home for Sightless Women, a program put together by alumni of the State School of the Blind at Vinton. This program, and others like it, was formed by well-meaning individuals who were intent on helping the “helpless”.

In 1958, a new philosophy on blindness as introduced at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. A new campaign to change public perceptions began. This attitude challenged the blind to prove their capability and “ordinariness” to both themselves and their communities. In some cases, if a blind person moved to a new town and gradually proved herself to be competent, the locals thought that she was an anomaly and somehow overly gifted. They thought she had a “super memory” or that she could hear extra well, when in reality she was just doing what she had to do to perform her daily tasks.

Today, the public is still uncertain about the blind. Because they fear being blind themselves, the sighted are often quick to judge blind people, thinking that they must be helpless because, “I would be if it happened to me”. This outlook was evident over the years in the action that people took to “help” the blind, creating special homes for blind women and keeping the blind off of the streets and out of harms way. Although the public perspectives on the blind have progressed, discrimination and assumptions continue. Only through exposure and interaction with the blind does a community's views begin to change.

In recent years several articles showing awareness of the public's views have been published. Here are some of those articles:
Afraid of the Blind (Date Unknown)
Should Educate Blind Brother (1970)
Public's Attitude on Blind Called Prehistoric (1985)

More resources are available in the Iowa Blind History archives, such as “Teach--In on Blindness and the Blind” and "Blindness: Is the Public Against Us?".

Blind Iowans Talk About Their Experience With the Public: 

Susie Stageberg
Sandi Ryan
Janice Borgwardt

To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or to find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about their experiences, visit the Oral History page.

Image #1: Photo of blind man cleaning gutters from his home, circa 1994. From box 6, folder 40 of the Iowa Blind History archive.


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