In elementary school, I would stay after school to participate in a program where blind children came to interact and play with sighted children their own age. We would guide certain students around by hand and others by the sound of our voices. It quickly became clear to me that these children were very capable despite their handicap, even playing certain adapted sports. Blindness did not define them.
The abilities of the blind and even advantages of blindness were major themes of the “Social Worker for the Blind” Brainwave event on Saturday night at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Non-fiction writer Rosemary Mahoney moderated the conversation between Sabriye Tenberken, an accomplished German blind woman and inspiring social worker for the blind, and Sabine Kastner, a Princeton neuropsychologist. Tenberken established Braille Without Borders, an education program for blind children in the autonomous region of Tibet. Relying heavily on the Tibetan Braille system she developed virtually singlehandedly during her college years, the program brings desperately needed services to Tibet’s blind children, a group shunned by their society because they’re viewed as incapable and bearers of bad luck. During her time at the University of Bonn in Germany, she was the only blind student and the first to embark on a full course of study in Central Asian Studies.
Mahoney talked about the magical qualities and supernatural powers that have been attributed to the blind throughout history due to their astonishing ability to compensate for their inability to see. About a third of the brain is dedicated to visual perception, said Kastner, and blind individuals are able to re-organize neuronal connections and re-purpose these areas of the brain. The brain power not needed for the visual cortex is used to enhance the other senses such as touch and hearing. She added that even the ability to read Braille is a function of the visual cortex, demonstrating a deep connection between visual and language systems in the brain.
Nonetheless, due largely to their amazing adaptability and difference, the blind have been often feared and much stigma still exists. Kastner pointed out that “blindisms,” or quirky movements, jitters, and other odd behaviors sometimes exhibited by blind people, are not well understood and have contributed to the misconception that those who are sightless also suffer from some form of mental retardation. In fact, these behaviors are most likely an expression of unreleased energy, a lack of physical exertion, as well as a way of creating self-awareness in space.
Much of Tenkerben’s social work has centered on education and she believes that solid education and encouragement are essential for those who are blind to succeed in life and overcome the stigma of blindness. As a child, Tenkerken was sent to a specialized school for the blind that had high standards and expectations for its students. Tenkerken and her peers were encouraged to participate in challenging actitives such as white water rafting. She said that her inspiration to destigmatize blindness comes from being teased and bullied as a young person progressively losing her sight.
As Mahoney said, “We miss much about the world because sight is so overpowering.” In her new book, For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind, Mahoney talks about her experience with Tenberken and Braille Without Borders, and coming to terms with her own mortal fear of blindness. Blindness allows individuals to savor the world in unique ways and is a testament to how the mind can and does overcome the physicality of not seeing.