License to Beg: A TEDx Talk by Anne Malone

From the CFB President: “Anne Malone is a blind woman who, until recently, lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She contacted CFB several years ago, and, as you can tell from the talk she gave at a TEDX conference in St. John’s, she’s been thinking about what blindness means, and, more significantly, what it doesn’t mean.

I thank Anne for telling her story, and ours, in a forum where our voice can be heard around the country and around the world. Anne says, ‘It is all seed–opportunities to germinate new discourse and ways of thinking about blindness, and the vast potential that is resident in all of us, regardless of how we experience the world.’”

TEDX: Published on Oct 7, 2015

Watch “License to Beg | Anne Malone | TEDxStJohns” on YouTube:

Photo of Anne Malone

Anne Malone

It happened secretly and painlessly while I slept. Tiny blood vessels, deep within my eyes, burst, shattering my visual field. In the morning, I opened my eyes to a world that had disintegrated into a psychedelic swirl of optical confetti.

On a sunny August morning in 2006, my identity as a sighted person dissolved. When I looked into a mirror, I couldn’t see my face.

Adapting to the change in my eyesight was easy compared to my struggle to adapt to the social and economic realities of blindness.

Job interviews, for the first time in my life, were excruciating, an agony of indecision – to disclose or not to disclose that I am legally blind.

In Canada, the unemployment rate of blind and visually impaired people is between 80 and 90 percent.

Blindness does not limit my ability to move, learn or communicate. My personality, intellect, skills, talents, and creativity are untouched by blindness.
I, and many other people who are blind, completely reject the belief that blindness is a disability. It is simply a different interface with the environment.

People who are blind are not disabled by blindness. We are disabled by belief – the belief that blindness somehow diminishes or limits a person’s ability to function and participate in mainstream society

This idea of blindness being an incapacitating condition traces back to our earliest civilizations. I am here tonight to challenge that belief, a belief that is so deeply embedded in our collective subconscious that it has solidified into an unquestioned paradigm.

One of our most primal fears is the fear of the dark, and blindness has always been linked to darkness. Blindness was imagined as such a dreadful thing, that it was believed to be a divine curse, a punishment for some horrible wrongdoing on the part of the blind person, or one of her ancestors. To be blind was to be shamed. Blind people were often banished from their communities, or shunned within them.

There was, however, one notable exception – and that was the soldier who was blinded in battle. These wounded warriors were celebrated as heroes and were regarded with great respect.

Have you ever wondered about the oddity of the term “legally blind”? Why not legally deaf or legally paraplegic? And what’s the link between blindness and the legal system? The idea traces back to the Middle Ages, a time of great scarcity, when people who could not work, or who had, for some reason, been expelled from their communities, roamed the roads of Europe, eking out a living as itinerant beggars. Then, as now, people who did not work for a living were viewed with suspicion and judgement. Many of them starved. A law was passed stating that only beggars who held a license would receive charity. To get a license, you had to prove that your need was real, that you weren’t a malingerer, an idle burden on the hard working, charitable citizen. If you received a license to beg, it was proof that your need was real – for blind people, the begging license meant that you were “legally” blind, and therefore one of the “deserving poor.”

Visual artists expressed these beliefs in images that depict blind people as frail, impoverished objects of pity and scorn, who are mostly shown to be totally unoccupied – often bedridden or even crawling on the ground – by far the most iconic image of blindness is the blind beggar, stick in one hand, tin cup in the other, dog at his feet. For thousands of years all of us, the sighted and the blind, have inherited and absorbed, beliefs handed down to us, from generation to generation, and, although they are based on nothing more than medieval superstition, we have not abandoned them – and they show up in the 21 century as bias and discrimination.

Today there are two groups of blind people in Canada. The first is comprised of soldiers who have been blinded in combat and people who have been blinded in industrial or other accidents. These people have access to private rehabilitation programs, to expensive adaptive technologies and devices for reading, to re-training opportunities and to service dogs. All of this is funded, as it should be, by health insurance and workers compensation programs.

Then there are those who are born blind, or have degenerative eye disease. There is no insurance coverage, as the blindness arises from a pre-existing condition. In Canada, there is NO provision for ANY rehabilitation for blind people in the public health care system. People who are born blind or who have a degenerative eye disease are referred to a charity organization for these services. They must purchase their own adaptive technology (some provinces offer funding assistance, but if you live in a province that does not (like NL), you may get caught in a loop of defeat. The technology is expensive. If you are one of the unemployed, you may not have the resources to buy it. Many of us rely on this technology to read.

Why are we still, in the 21st century, assuming that the needs of those who are genetically blind are less than the needs of those who are accidentally blinded? We, like those primitive societies, have created two classes of blind people.

In my wallet I carry a picture ID, with a client number on it, verifying that I have been “registered” with a charity organization for the blind. I must present this card to qualify for “charity” perks like free movies, or free domestic airfare. If I am one of the 80-90 percent who is unemployed, this card verifies to the government that I am entitled to a disability pension. I am legally blind.

I stand here tonight on the shoulders of giants, blind activists and sighted allies from around the world, who have been declaring “Parity, not charity” in a unified voice for more than half a century. That message has been drowned out by the voices of well-­intentioned charities who are challenged by the contradiction of, on the one hand, proclaiming the abilities of the “rehabilitated blind”, while on the other hand, falling back on the very stereotypes we are struggling to overcome in order to soften the public heart to give generously to the cause. It’s a mixed-up, confusing message, and the result is an unemployment rate of 80-90 percent in one of the wealthiest, most progressive, and inclusive countries on the face of the earth.

We live in a time of unprecedented technological possibilities – unlimited access to information, social connection, a time of retinal implants, of stem cell regeneration, and virtual realities. Yet for many unemployed blind people the only technology that is financially accessible to them is still a stylized stick.

I own a Smart Phone that advertises its accessibility features, one of them being voice­-to-text messaging. I can verbally dictate a message and the phone will convert my speech to text, and I can send that text with the verbal command. However if you send me a text, the phone will not read the text to me.

On my tablet, which also boasts accessibility, I can magnify my browser and email, but anything that runs in an app is immune to the accessibility software in the device. Facebook, Google Play, Netflix, any shopping app – all inaccessible to blind or visually impaired people.

When you entrepreneurs and innovators begin co-creating these technologies with the people who actually use them – you will be deconstructing barriers AND creating wealth for yourselves. When you open the doors of your design to your blind and visually impaired colleagues, you are unleashing human potential that has been held in captivity since the dawn of civilization.

None of us should be defined by the bodies we live in. No one should be held hostage to an archaic belief about what is or is not possible. The creativity, intelligence, and resilience resident in the human spirit transcend the boundaries of flesh and bone, of sight and of sound…

This is an idea whose time is long overdue – there is no “them”, there is only “us”, and together we can create a more inclusive and beautiful world – for everyone.