Award-winning author Rosemary Mahoney takes readers into the world of people with vision loss in her book For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind. Mahoney’s stunning, compelling, and descriptive prose transports the reader to Braille Without Borders, Tibet’s first school for the blind, and to an international training center for blind adults in India. Through Mahoney, readers meet both schools’ founders and partners Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg. Mahoney weaves science and history into her narrative, which gives the reader an insider’s view to why most of the people with vision loss she meets wouldn’t want their vision back.
Mahoney talked to Vision Loss Resources during an hour-long phone conversation. We felt lucky to talk with her after thoroughly enjoying the journey through her book’s pages. While reading it, we felt like we were visiting Tibet and India and meeting the people Mahoney met during her travels. The vivid colors of both countries came through clearly. Below is an excerpt of the interview. Listen to her personal take on why she wrote the book, what it was like to be a sighted person writing profiles on people with vision loss, and the inside scoop on getting to know visionaries Tenberken and Kronenberg. Come back next week to read part two of our conversation. We are happy to report that The National Library Services is making For the Benefit of Those Who See available for visually impaired people in both digital and audio formats.
The statistic for unemployment for blind people in the United States jumped off the page at me. (“In 2011, 63 percent of America’s blind population of working age were unemployed.”) What do you think it will take to change this statistic?
Mahoney: We have the lowest rate of blindness in the world: 50 percent of the blind here are middle aged or the elderly from diseases including glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetes. A lot of these people are not really in the running for jobs and a lot of blind people have other physical disabilities (meaning they are unable to work). So the real rate for unemployment for blind people is about 35 percent. This is twice the regular unemployment rate.
Leaders of blind associations say this rate is high precisely because of the prejudice against blind people. The biggest obstacle for blind people all over the world is that sighted people don’t know enough about them. Partly because we do have a low rate of blindness, people don’t see blind people unless they live in a big city. I live in Rhode Island; I hardly ever see blind people. It’s not easy to get to know a blind person unless you go out of your way to do it.
Whenever I meet sighted people who have a fear of blind people they can’t believe how much they didn’t know. It’s really a very simple matter of ignorance. It [ignorance] isn’t a sin or a crime and it’s not the same as stupidity. Ignorance just means they don’t know. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. What I learned from living and working with blind people was such a revelation to me that I really thought people could learn from my experience. I really hope that people can learn from my book.
So one reason you wrote the book was to help eradicate ignorance about what it is like to be a person with vision loss. What else drew you to the topic?
Mahoney: There are a couple of things. I was always really afraid of blindness; I still am really terrified of becoming blind. The reason it scares us so much is because it’s not like so many other physical disabilities. I think all I would know would be darkness forever. There is something about blindness that is akin to death. We very unconsciously associate blindness with death. We think for blind people it must be miserable. They are like walking dead people. This is simply not true.
One of the reasons that throughout the centuries the blind have been thought to have super natural powers is because blind people have to learn to use their other senses. I write about sitting in the waiting room next to a blind person and after 5 minutes the blind woman says “Ma’am” to me and it freaked me out. Well, she probably smelled my shampoo but at the time I didn’t know that. [After going to Tibet to do a story on a blind school for O Magazine] I thought about how much I miss out because I ignore these other senses. We really don’t know what we can learn from blind people.
The idea I want to pass on to readers is this: it goes way beyond this blindness. [This book] is an encouragement to people to not make judgments about other people who are different from them. Racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, all of these things come from ignorance. The less we know about other people, the more afraid we are of them. It’s a plea to people to educate themselves about other kinds of people. That is my ultimate motivation.
This book has a lot to do with my mother, too. My mother had polio in 1955. Her left leg was completely paralyzed and her right thumb a little bit. My mother walked with a brace on her leg and crutches. That was the only kind of mother I knew but I didn’t see the crutches. If you were raised by a brown bear, the fact that it was a bear was not the first thing that came to you. Having a mother who had a disability, I learned a lot from that about accepting other people. All of this is really about accepting that we are not all the same. In essence as human beings we are all the same but we have many differences and we should embrace that and not reject it [differences].
Did it strike you as odd that you were researching a book and taking notes based on your ability to see while writing a book about people with vision loss? The dichotomy of this fact presents itself so often throughout the book. How did that feel to you as a writer?
Mahoney: I don’t have a choice because I am a sighted person. The only thing that is weird is that some of the people I write about have been blind since birth. When I describe them in the book, I thought, “How are they going to think about that when they read it?”
That is one of the things that make us [sighted people] uneasy. We can see them but they can’t see us. We really think that since we can see them that gives us a little bit of power around them, but it doesn’t really. They see you in a less superficial way and a slightly deeper way.
When sighted people meet blind people for the first time, there is a whole complex range of emotions that are almost visceral and also irrational. You can’t blame people for what they feel, but they need to understand it more so they will stop feeling those uncomfortable feelings.
What was it like getting to know Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg, the founders of Braille Without Borders in Tibet and the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in Kerala, India? They sound like revolutionary people.
Mahoney: I love them. They are very fun. They are very dynamic. They are really visionaries. They are zealots in the best possible way. They really live for their work. They never take any time off. They are coming to New York and D.C. soon and they are meeting so many people while they are here.
Sabriye and I had a similar sense of humor. We got along really well. Read her book My Path Leads to Tibet: The Inspiring Story of How One Young Blind Woman Brought Hope to the Blind Children of Tibet. She is a very good story teller.
Sabriye and Paul met by accident when she was starting to work in Tibet. He was so moved by her story. He was planning to go home but he didn’t. A lot of people make the mistake that it is all Sabriye but they have a real partnership. Neither one would succeed with this without the other. Paul is just as important as Sabriye. She is a real celebrity; she is the blind one. But Paul is equally amazing.
Their school in India isn’t just about blindness anymore. It is now called Kanthari. They accept anybody from the developing world who has a strong desire to make social change. They believe anything is really possible if you believe in it. There is a lot of suffering in the world that can be abolished if we change our way of thinking. The real problem is we are not spreading enough knowledge quickly enough.