Saturday, March 15, 2008

Paterson's NY Governorship Will Offer Insight To Those Blinded By Prejudice...

The Vision Thing

By STEPHEN KUUSISTO For The New York Times

Iowa City

WHEN David Paterson takes the oath of office in Albany on Monday, he will not only become the third African-American governor since Reconstruction, he will also be the first legally blind chief state executive. I think it’s a safe bet that Governor Paterson’s visual impairment will be harder for the public to understand than his race.

Blindness is often thought of as an either-or condition: a person can see or he can’t. Terms like “low vision” or “legal blindness” are mysterious. Spotting me with my guide dog in Grand Central Terminal when I was in New York recently, a stranger asked: “How blind are you? I mean, you don’t look blind.” I told him I can see colors and fog. “Oh,” he said with obvious puzzlement, “colors and fog.”

Tens of thousands of people with severely limited vision or who are legally blind have delicate and even intricate forms of sight. I think of it as like living inside a painting by Jackson Pollock — our sight is real but hard to explain. The images are sometimes indecipherable.

David Paterson’s blindness isn’t identical to mine. He lost his vision because of a childhood illness. I was born prematurely and my retinas were damaged by incubation. He can see some images with his right eye and nothing with his left. I see the world from inside an abstract painting. Still, we’re almost the same age and both of us were sent to public schools in the early ’60s, an era when visually impaired children didn’t usually receive a mainstream education. We both learned early on how to make serious use of our ears. I imagine the future governor’s information-gathering skills are supple and inexhaustible.

Blind people are invariably creative and resourceful. Obviously we’re good listeners. But what people may not know is that learning to have a keen sense for what others are talking about requires developing an equally sharp curiosity about human beings. When people talk to me, I can’t just listen; I am also compelled to take stock of the person behind the words. This means asking questions that might not occur to people who can see. One of my students recently observed that I ask people in my classes to explain the things that they customarily overlook. “You ask things like ‘What was the first thing you said to yourself this morning?’” she pointed out. “You challenge us to recall the forgotten things.”

I can’t afford forgotten things. Blind folks must constantly keep track of what we learn and memorize our surroundings. For us, an unfamiliar setting that a sighted person could map out in a glance is a puzzle that requires agile problem-solving. On occasion we even need to ask strangers for advice.

New Yorkers will no doubt discover that Mr. Paterson will take great interest in the details of governance and that this will require him to take sincere interest in people. He’ll ask more questions than your average politician. And those who work in his administration will find that they are important not simply for knowing things but because they can describe how they learned those things in the first place. That’s perhaps the most important thing for the public to understand about professionals who are blind — we are by nature tireless in acquiring information, and we remember virtually every detail of what we read or hear.

Sometimes I ask my students to notice the words they’re saying, and then I ask them to listen once more to the things they may have missed. In the world of blindness this skill is part of “orientation and mobility.” Blind people can navigate independently because they can interpret what they hear. They can differentiate between the sound of traffic moving forward and cars in the turning lane. And yes, if you have a visual impairment you are likely practiced at being patient.

I’m guessing there are some who wonder whether a blind man is up to the job of governing the Empire State. Even though there are 10 million blind or visually impaired Americans, many people have never seen one of them in a job of such responsibility — or in any professional role at all. Even though it has been close to 20 years since the adoption of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the unemployment rate for the blind is estimated to be 70 percent. In this era of superb computer screen-reading software and talking P.D.A. devices, when many blind Americans are college graduates, this statistic implies that the public still doesn’t fully understand how talented visually impaired professionals are.

That’s fine. New Yorkers once underestimated Franklin Roosevelt. Now David Paterson can show how a legally blind person can lead.

Stephen Kuusisto, who teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, is the author, most recently, of “Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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