Breath & Shadow

A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature


The Indignity of Blindness By Chris Kuell

I had a lively debate with my sixteen-year-old son a few days ago. We were discussing the movie Blindness, which opened on October 3, and is based on the novel written by Portuguese author José Saramago. Like most teenage males, my son thought the previews looked great, with glimpses of epidemic, chaos, violence and horror. I'm familiar with this type of movie's appeal, as I saw I Am Legend and 28 Days with him-both films about the human struggle to overcome an unknown virus which turns people into raging, zombiesque creatures. Saramago's twist is that people become blind and are segregated, which he postulates will naturally lead to societal devolution.

The story begins with a man waiting at a red light. Suddenly and without cause, he goes blind. A good Samaritan helps him home, and he too becomes blind. The first blind man sees an ophthalmologist, who goes blind, and so on. The only person to escape the plight of blindness is the doctor's wife, who fakes being blind so she can stay with her husband when all blind people are rounded up and confined in an abandoned asylum.

I understand the allegorical nature of the book/film--how if you pull out one of the supportive beams of a society, it will quickly crumble--Basically, a variation on William Golding's classic novel, The Lord of the Flies.

Saramago's choice of blindness as his epidemic was in no way random. After all, blindness is fairly rare, highly misunderstood, and feared by every sighted person. It is impossible to imagine what blindness is like, so it is easy to believe it's horrible. To envision that without sighted people to help them, blind people would quickly devolve into animals who defecate where they sleep, steal and rape and lose their humanity. A quote from the book is illustrative: "It was too funny for words, some of the blind on their knees advancing on all fours, their faces practically touching the ground as if they were pigs."

Society, full of misconceptions and false impressions of blindness, easily swallows this. Short of zombies, nobody could believe such degradation could come from anyone else except maybe the mentally retarded or people with psychological problems, and of course, nobody would dare portray those groups in such an ugly light.

So why is it okay to portray blind people this way? The truth is, the average blind person can do the average job as well as the average sighted person. I can sense the disbelief, as most readers have bought into the myths of Mr. Magoo and their own subconscious fears--as I once did. That's why able-bodied blind people have a greater than 70% unemployment rate. That's why blind people with masters degrees wind up bagging groceries if they can find a job at all, because the sighted public just can't believe they can do much more. That's why people talk to them as if they are slow, or ask the sighted person they are with what they want to eat, or ask if they'd like someone to cut up their food for them, or if they need help in the bathroom. You can't imagine how degrading it is to be pulled by the arm like a child or a dog, or told you can't ride the roller coaster because you might get hurt, but a 10-year-old can ride all she wants.

Of course, no film/novel like this is complete without somebody to save the day. Chaos can't win, the human spirit must prevail, and Saramago's savior, the only person who can possibly lead the blind animals from the madness is of course, the doctor's sighted wife. After she leads her grateful followers out into the filth of the city, there comes a cleansing rain, and just as suddenly as the blindness came, sight is returned. Hope is renewed.

The truth is, many blind people live alone, or together, without the guidance of a sighted savior. They travel independently, to cities and places they've never been, and do just fine. They cook and clean and work and play and love--all without sighted help.

Films like this feed into society's fears and misconceptions, and are highly offensive and damaging to blind people. How would the public react if the victims were women, suddenly struck by breast cancer? Or Caucasians, suddenly having their skin darkened, followed by isolation and inevitable social collapse? There would be outrage.

Saramago's novel has literary merit, and those who have made it through the difficult prose (he doesn't use quotation marks or much punctuation, and one sentence I found was 128 words long) might think it brilliant. People prone to ignorance aren't very likely to make it through such a difficult read. However, the film adaptation is being promoted as a horror flick, available to anyone with 2 hours and ten bucks to spare. I'm guessing the audience will largely consist of impressionable teenagers who will soak up the inaccurate portrayal of blindness and leave it to fester in their subconscious. Then one day when a blind person comes looking for a job, it will surface, and that blind person won't stand a chance.

I know-I am that blind person.

Postscript: My son and his friends never went to see Blindness. It was pulled from our local movie theatre less than three weeks after its release. According to my research, the movie has regained only about a third of what it cost to make it.

Budget estimate: $25,000,000 (www.imdb.com)
Worldwide Gross, as of November 7, 2008:

Chris Kuell is a blind writer and advocate living in Connecticut. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Breath and Shadow. A version of this essay appeared previously in The New Haven Register.

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