Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Misplaced Pride?

In my previous blog I wrote about the court-mandated changes in the U.S. currency that should be forthcoming unless the court case drags on or the ruling is overturned. One piece of the news however, was a bit puzzling and perhaps even disturbing. The National Federation of the Blind sided with the U.S. government in this case and said that no changes were needed in the currency. In an interview on NPR, the NFB spokesperson said that this issue is detracting from other more pressing and important issues for the blind. Such as, said he, the blind still have trouble being accepted in the work place and are often seen as not being as competent as a sighted person. He went on to imply that acknowledging that the blind need a change in currency is tantamount to accepting that without "special" arrangements the blind function sub-par. Here is an excerpt from the NFB's website about the ruling:

National Federation of the Blind President, Dr. Marc Maurer, said: “Today’s ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is profoundly misguided and may unintentionally do real harm to blind Americans. Hundreds of thousands of blind people use paper money every day without difficulty. We hope that this ruling will not have the unintended consequence of reinforcing society’s misconception that blind people are unable to function in the world as it currently is. Identifying items by touch (including currency) is convenient, but not essential to blind people being able to participate fully in society. For a court to say that if we cannot identify it by touch, we can't use it is a fiction and a dangerous one. Millions of items that cannot be identified by touch must be managed by the blind in business, industry, and education every day. We are successfully managing all of these endeavors, and the court's ruling challenges our ability to do so without any supporting evidence.

If America really wants to improve opportunities for education and employment of the blind, then it should focus on providing Braille instruction to the 90 percent of blind children who are not getting it, effective training for the 70 percent of blind adults who are unemployed, and books for the approximately 300,000 people who are about to be locked out of the only library for the blind.”

This is a convoluted argument. A person's worth is not judged by how good s/he is at telling change on the world's only currency designed to give this kind of difficulty to its users. The NFB should realize that the change in currency would be less a special accommodation than a step toward equal rights. And fighting for equal rights is not tantamount to an admission of a weakness. It is an acknowledgment of a system skewed against a sub-group within the population.

All the things that Maurer talks about in his second paragraph should still be important and the government should do those too. For Maurer to present it as an either-or scenario is ridiculous. Dr. Maurer's claim that the court ruling challenges the blind person's ability to function in a modern world is a gross misreading of the ruling. The noises coming from the NFB sound a lot like misplaced pride.

[The photograph is from the weblog of Doli Akter, a young blogger in Bangladesh. She wrote a photo essay about being blind in Bangladesh. The photograph shows a young man counting the money handed to him by the cycle riksha wala. If you click on the photo, you will be taken to her weblog.]

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