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An Inconvenience for whom?: Making Room for Narrative Strategies in Blindness Research


Tasha Chemel

Boston College, US

Ben Underwood is a blind teenager who has taught himself to navigate in familiar surroundings without a cane. Instead, he relies solely on echolocation, the same strategy that dolphins and bats use to navigate in the dark by picking up sound waves that bounce off nearby objects. Since it is rare for blind people to depend on echolocation alone, the media has viewed Ben’s “super-sense” with amazement and awe. He has received substantial press coverage, with headlines touting him as “the boy who taught himself to see.” In 2006, Ben was the    subject of a British documentary, titled “The Boy who sees Without Eyes,” for the Channel Five series “Extraordinary People.” The documentary told an entirely different story. While much of the film focused on the extraordinariness of Ben’s skill, the latter half concentrated on the limitations of echolocation and Ben’s refusal to “free himself from his hatred of the white cane” (The boy who Sees Without Eyes, 2006). Though this story might have been more factually accurate than those favored by other media, it is heavily influenced by dominant discourses of independence, identity and liberation. In addition, because of the lack of agency ascribed to children in our culture, it was Ben’s mother, and not Ben himself, who was responsible for making the decision as to whether he would participate in the documentary. Though it is unlikely that Ben’s mother would have agreed to his participation without his consent, the extent to which Ben was involved in the decision-making process is unclear.

Initially, the primary aim of the documentary was to tell the story of how Ben learned to perform daily activities without a cane. However, these intentions seemed to have been overshadowed by a desire to send a message to and about blind people. According to the narrative framework, the need to moralize or to convey judgment has interfered with rich story development and has contributed to the marginalization and misrepresentation of Ben’s story. It can be argued that marginalization and misrepresentation are an inevitability of participating in a documentary and any other form of media, for as Foucault repeatedly states, knowledge and power are inextricably linked. However, the elements of marginalization and misrepresentation that are visible in this documentary are particularly problematic for me because of my growing interest in deconstructing dominant discourses of blindness. I think the documentary provides a useful means through which such discourses can be scrutinized and examined, as well as an opportunity to explore how Goffman’s “spoiled identity” and Foucault’s “analytics of power” might relate to the experiences of some blind people. Such explorations are necessary because I strongly believe that as in all fields of practice and enquiry, it is crucial to acknowledge the role power relations play in the treatment and education of the blind. Unfortunately, it has been my perception that there has been a strange reticence among professionals who work with people with physical disabilities to openly discuss power differentials, both with the clients they are serving and among themselves.

Due to the return of his cancer and other factors beyond my control, I was not able to speak with Ben directly. Fortunately, Daniel Kish, a blind mobility instructor who worked with Ben for a short time as part of the documentary, generously agreed to share his story with me.

 In writing this paper, I do not presume to speak for all blind people. However, by sharing my impressions of the film, I hope to demonstrate how narrative strategies can be used to create a safe space in which blind people can tell their stories, without fear of losing their dignity in front of those who are in a position to judge them. It should be noted that the alternative narratives I will propose are shaped in part by my relative privilege. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive environment that allowed me to devote energy to questioning the cultural assumptions underlying the instruction and help I received from family, friends and teachers, even if this questioning compromised my ability to learn from them. And, though I make the argument that in replacing a medical model of disability with a socio-cultural one, we have only exchanged one subjugating narrative for another, I am also aware that for blind people who have experienced blatant discrimination or deprivation, the socio-cultural model is extremely liberating. I have also experienced discrimination, but on a much subtler level. As a result, though there are pieces of the socio-cultural model that I find useful, I am very attuned to the voices this discourse has silenced. In light of this sensitivity, before I proceed with the analysis of the documentary, I think it would be valuable for me to give some brief glimpses into the evolution of my own story.

I am eleven years old, and I am panicking because I have forgotten the way to my science classroom. All of the narrow hallways feel the same, and my cane provides little information as to my precise location in the maze. For a time, I wander aimlessly, my efforts at re-orientation becoming less systematic by the minute. Just when I feel that I am about to break down completely, my aide comes up from behind me. “Do you know what you did?” she says, her reproach and disappointment evident. Unbeknownst to me, she has been watching my struggles all along.

The summer I was fifteen, I attended a training program for blind and visually impaired teenagers. I had difficulty finding friends among the students, and, with a few notable exceptions, the teachers brushed off my attempts to form closer relationships because “you need to improve your social skills through interacting with your peers.” The classes were intended to teach us “activities of daily living,” like orientation and mobility, basic cooking and personal hygiene, but the staff rarely acknowledged the feelings of vulnerability learning such intimate tasks sometimes engenders. I often found myself resenting the fact that while my best friend enjoyed the dubious pleasure of supervising rambunctious day-campers, I was struggling to assemble a tuna sandwich.

When the end-of-year evaluations came in the mail, I discovered, to my dismay, that I had only earned eighty percent for “use of a napkin,” and seventy percent for “attitude” and “hand strength.” For someone who has considered herself to be a perfectionist and an overachiever and who has always been proud of these attributes, those low scores were a bitter and demeaning pill to swallow. To this day, I still occasionally find myself looking for those lost points in cobwebby corners and dusty bottom drawers.

In a college creative writing class, I was suddenly compelled to tell these stories and others like them. My intention was not to garner people’s pity for the poor little blind girl, but rather to earn their curiosity, validation and understanding. In a thinly veiled attempt at fiction, I described a typical school day in painstaking detail: what it was like to go to great lengths to print out my homework on the school’s one accessible computer, only to find that the ink had run out and I would be penalized for lateness. I was sorely disappointed by my professor’s response. He told me that although he liked the concreteness of my writing, “victim stories were more interesting when they were complicated. I … feel that you’ve written about an unmitigated, probably unrealistic, oppression.” In his final comments, he praised me for “never asking for anything special” and said that it seemed odd to him that “only in stories are you a victim. If you're also a person who sees herself as a victim, you hide it well” (J. Clayton, personal communication, May 7, 2004). I felt chastised by those words, and I began to question the content and the relevance of the stories I felt I needed to write. Was I exaggerating? Had I really been the victim of “unmitigated oppression?” or was this just my distorted perception? And even if this perception were correct, were these stories even worth telling? Perhaps I should continue to hide my victimization, as my professor seemed to be impressed by my talent for doing so. I am still grappling with these questions, which were no doubt influenced by a preoccupation with objectivity and positivism, but have come to the understanding that my professor does not represent the voice of a univocal authority. Instead, I realized that his response was influenced by dominant discourses concerning oppression, acceptance, identity and emancipation, and that these discourses could and should be deconstructed.

My creative writing professor was by no means the first person to respond to me in such a way. I have been told by family, vision specialists, friends and even strangers that if I ever hope to lead a rich, productive life, I must let go of my fantasies about sight and devote my energy to overcoming my disability, both physically and emotionally. Stories of oppression, of degradation, of victimization, have their place, to be sure, but if I allowed such stories to be too pervasive, I would become a “bitter, angry person” with “bad attitudes about blindness” and would thus risk alienating myself from society. They reassured me that my refusal to accept blindness, to feel comfortable in the skin of a blind person, was merely a phase. One day, they said, I would become a well-adjusted independent person who saw blindness as comparable to one of the many inconveniences with which we must all contend.

During my childhood and adolescence, I had no inkling that such narratives were dominant or subjugating, and so I did not attempt to call them into question. There is no precise moment when I realized that these narratives comprised a problem story whose effects I found great fault with, only that it happened some time before I was ever introduced to such concepts as “externalizing” and “developing an alternative story.” A unique outcome that contributed to this shift in thinking occurred during my senior year at college, when a professor who was interested in stories of the magical and the supernatural came to speak at my fraternity house. He happened to mention offhandedly that in some cases, people with disabilities and other afflictions were actually possessed by some dark entity, and that if the entity was exorcised, the person would be cured. I was very skeptical as to the veracity of these claims. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I decided to tell this man my story. I told him that even though I had been born totally blind, the loss of my sight caused me a great deal of pain. Consistent with the socio-cultural model of disability, some facets of this pain were rooted in my frustrations with how the world viewed blind people. At the same time, I also experience a grief that is deeply personal. I mourn my lost ability to create and appreciate visual art, and I struggle to make sense of the visceral discomfort with my blind body that I have experienced ever since I can remember. The professor listened to my story with rapt attention. After I had finished, he questioned me about the pain—its nature, duration and location—and stated that I might in fact be the victim of possession. Though his later attempts at exorcism and hypnosis proved unsuccessful, I was still greatly moved by his response. For what felt like the first time, someone had taken what I had said at face value and had no moral judgments as to how I should handle my disability. On the contrary, he had acknowledged and honored my pain and grief, without viewing me as pitiable or inadequate for refusing to accept myself.

   Bit by bit, I began to piece together an alternative story of blindness. In this story, “fantasies about sight” and “bad attitudes about blindness” were no longer cast as villains, and I gradually began to acknowledge both their positive and negative contributions. This enabled me to view blindness as something that was external to me, rather than an integrated component of my identity. I rejected the idea that in order to love myself, I must love and accept blindness, and to appreciate that contrary to the teachings of Western psychology, the self is not “stable and singular,” but rather it changes and is contradictory (Gergen, 1990, 1991, 2001; Lifton, 1993, as cited in Besley, 2002). My construction of an alternative story is by no means perfect or complete, and sometimes I find myself reverting back to a dominant story where I am a burdensome, dependent blind person. Worse, sometimes I ask myself whether constructing this story was just a complex method to avoid responsibility for failing to learn “blindness skills” that are difficult for me. By stating that “independence is not my top priority,” am I letting myself off the hook too easily?--my mother seems to think so. This is an unsettling proposition, and I think it will be quite some time before I arrive at a satisfactory answer.

Though it does not relate to blindness directly, I resonated  strongly with the shifting perspectives theory of chronic illness put forth by Paterson, (2001). Paterson (2001) Questions the idealization of acceptance and the pathologization of denial that pervades much of the chronic illness and disability literatures. Instead of a linear progression from denial to acceptance as Kubler-Ross’ stage theory of grief suggests, Paterson (2001) states that people’s relationships with their illnesses are constantly fluctuating between an illness in the foreground and a wellness in the foreground perspective, and that adopting either perspective does not indicate either “good” or “bad” functioning. Such a theory is consistent with a narrative view because it allows the stories of people with chronic illness to stand on their own and does not attempt to prescribe for any given individual which coping strategies are adaptive and which ones are not.

The documentary about Ben Underwood is a perfect example of prescriptivism, and this is one of the reasons I found it to be so disturbing. Though Ben and I are at different places in our lives, I immediately identified with his disavowal of all things blindness-related and his desire to see, and I resented the producers’ criticism of his way of coping with that desire. When I have discussed the documentary with blind friends and acquaintances, many of them also find the documentary to be flawed, but for different reasons. Rather than focusing on the documentary’s failure to adequately and compassionately tell Ben’s story, their criticisms focus on the concern that Ben’s story sends a negative message about blindness. As Lauren explains, “The reason I think the message is problematic is basically because you cannot teach yourself a sense--our five senses are ingrained. I think it's saying that a disabled person can achieve normalcy but that normalcy is obviously very ablest rather than saying I can overcome my disability by adapting my life but being blind in and of itself is not the issue, the issue is attitudinal” (L. Tuchman, personal communication, April 24, 2008). Interestingly, both Lauren and I agree that the documentary is consistent with a problem-saturated story of blindness, but we have different ideas as to what constitutes that story. Lauren’s critique of the documentary is a refutation of a medical conceptualization of disability that views blindness as a personal tragedy. At the same time, she embraces the view that disability is a socio-cultural construct, a view that can trace its origins to the Disability Rights movement and the emerging field of disability studies. This latter account is appealing on several levels. First, it encourages society to take responsibility for its treatment of people with disabilities, rather than pinning the onus of overcoming one’s disability entirely on the individual. Second, when compared to the medical model, it is a breath of fresh air because it neutralizes the stigma and victimization associated with disability. However, the unfortunate result is that, because the medical model is so unappealing, the socio-cultural account masquerades as an alternative account of disability. Consequently, people feel no need to question or deconstruct the normative judgments underlying this narrative (e.g. the philosophy that adversity is always something to overcome and to learn and grow from, or the belief that all blind people attribute their struggles to the negative attitudes and misperceptions of others. In actuality, because of their insistence on the inflexibility of either/or rather than the ambiguity of both/and, these accounts provide thin descriptions of the experiences of blind people and those with other disabilities (D. Cervenakova, personal communication, April 25, 2008). But because the socio-cultural account is gradually being positioned as the alternative story, attempts to deconstruct this narrative are seen as ungrammatical (Kelly, K., 2008, personal communication; Povinelli, 2001).

The writings of Michel Foucault and Irving Goffman provide further explanations of the process through which dominant narratives remain unchallenged. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1995) uses the example of the evolution of the criminal justice system to posit a novel definition of power. Whereas humanism conceptualizes power as a repressive force that a dominant individual applies to her subordinate, Foucault defines power in terms of subjugation, rather than repression, and states that it is perpetuated through discourses rather than individuals. He uses the omnipotent gaze of the panopticon and the sense of anxiety it evokes to demonstrate how individuals become “docile bodies” and unwitting participants in a disciplinary regime. Power rests not with the individual, but rather in “a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up” (Foucault, 1995, p. 202). Foucault describes how, prior to the advent of disciplinary technology, those who exercise power were individualized, through “rituals, written accounts or visual reproductions (Foucault, 1995, p. 193). In a disciplinary regime, however, power has become more anonymous and disbursed, and it is those upon whom power is exercised who are marked as individuals, through surveillance, examination, observation and normative judgments” (Foucault, 1995, p. 192).

Goffman, (1963) clearly demonstrates this process of individuation. Unlike Foucault, Goffman views power as a commodity wielded by the individual. Rather than the anonymity of the panoptical gaze, Goffman focuses on the experiences of stigmatized individuals and their interactions with so-called “normals.” According to Goffman, stigmatized individuals are faced with reconciling the discrepancies between how they choose to define themselves and how “normals” choose to see them. Consequently, a stigmatized individual attempts to hammer out “codes of conduct “in order to make consistent sense of his situation.” These codes are also generated by people who see themselves as professional representatives of the target group, as well as by members of non-stigmatized groups. Such codes not only provide stigmatized individuals with “instructions as how to treat others,” but with recipes regarding an appropriate attitude regarding the self” (Goffman, 1963, p. 111). More specifically, codes govern the way an individual chooses to view his or her stigma, which members of his group he should find favor with and which ones he should criticize, and his expectations of how he will be treated by normals. Stigmatized individuals are encouraged by normals to accept their stigma, ostensibly for their own benefit, with the understanding that they should not expect more than a conditional acceptance in return. Finally, they are told to judge members of their own group who devote too much time and energy to normification, which Goffman defines as attempts made by stigmatized individuals to cover up their differences and to prove to others “that in spite of appearances they are very sane, very generous, very sober, very masculine, very capable of hard physical labor and taxing sports, in short, that they are gentlemen” (Goffman, 1963, p. 112).

One such code of conduct is the philosophy espoused by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a well-known president of the National Federation of the Blind. In one of his most famous speeches, Jernigan paints a picture of the ideal, independent blind person:

Normal independence also means not rationalizing your fear or inability by saying that you are just doing what is convenient and efficient and that you don't feel the need to prove something when in reality you are just covering up the fact that you are as helpless as a baby—and it means not going so far the other way and being so touchy about your so-called independence that nobody can stand to be around you. It means getting to the place where you are comfortable enough with yourself and secure enough with your own inner feelings that you don't have to spend much time bothering about the matter one way or another. It means reducing blindness to the level of a mere inconvenience and making it just one more of your everyday characteristics—a characteristic with which you must deal just as you do with how strong you are, how old you are, how smart you are, how personable you are, and how much money you have. (Jernigan, 1993). Jernigan also exhorts blind people to exercise “maturity in dealing with condescending treatment,” and “flexibility in accepting or rejecting offers of assistance, kindness or generosity” (Jernigan, 1993).  For individuals who do feel comfortable and secure in their identities as blind people, or who aspire to such feelings, these words must be very empowering. However, for those of us whose attitudes about blindness differ from Jernigan’s standards,  they have quite the opposite effect. All of us, blind or sighted, feel the need to prove  ourselves and sometimes this need to impress others can make us “unpleasant to be around.” In addition, all of us experience feelings of insecurity   and sometimes we go to great lengths to hide these inadequacies. To put it another way, though sighted people might not be as preoccupied with issues of independence, the behaviors Jernigan described are not unique to blind people. In the larger society, such behaviors are not viewed as immoral or inexcusable, so why should the blind community be any different? 

Treat blindness as a mere inconvenience” soon became a rallying cry among Federationists, many of whom embraced this novel conceptualization of what was once seen as a feared affliction. By the same token, I have had firsthand encounters with Federationists who are quick to deride other blind people-- Ben Underwood, for example-- who are too intent upon normification and who fail to adopt the requisite amount of security, maturity and flexibility. However, like Goffman, I cannot help but wonder what the following of the “good-adjustment line” means to normals, and I tend to agree with his assertion that such an ideology caters to the needs of the sighted because it ensures “that the unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to them,” and that they “will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is” (Goffman, 1963, p. 121).

Like Foucault, Goffman illustrates how the active role stigmatized individuals play in the creation of these codes unwittingly contributes to their own subjugation. Goffman’s theory is also consistent with Foucault’s claim that the powerless are more individuated than the powerful, as “normals” are not subject to these codes and are in fact often unaware of their existence. Though Foucault and Goffman adopt differing perspectives, their theories surrounding the experiences of marginalized individuals can be considered complementary, as both suggest that people who possess undesirable characteristics are more heavily scrutinized than those who do not. Thus, it is helpful to deconstruct the narratives in “The Boy Who Sees without Eyes” from a Foucaultian and a Goffmanian perspective.

The documentary begins with an account of Ben’s early life. Though he was born with normal vision, he lost his eyes to retinal blastoma as a baby. From the beginning, Ben’s mother went against commonly held beliefs that parents should accept their child’s blindness and teach their children to do the same. Instead, “Aquanetta was determined that Ben wouldn’t think of himself as blind” (The boy who Sees Without Eyes, 2006). Soon after his eyes were removed, she was overjoyed when she noticed Ben’s ability to detect objects using echolocation. Later, at age seven, Ben discovered that if he made high-pitched clicking sounds, his echolocation allowed him to navigate through space without a cane, which he referred to as a “handicapping device.” “Clicking has set him free to live life to the fullest,” the narrator proclaimed with dramatic flair. Ben sees echolocation as a form of sight and does not view himself as blind. “There ain’t nothing wrong with me,” he told the interviewers on one occasion. Ben’s family is supportive of his decision not to use a cane, and they make “no allowances’ on account of his blindness. However, when Ben was fourteen, at the time the documentary was being filmed, Ben’s mother decided to move the family to a more urban area to increase Ben’s independence in preparation for college. One of the chief advantages of the move was that Ben would now be able to walk to school independently. Though his mother taught him the route the day before, Ben’s efforts to walk to school on his own proved unsuccessful. The narrator described Ben’s appearance before setting out on this first attempt: “Ben’s confident body language is gone. This morning, he looks tentative and unsure. He looks lost” (The Boy who sees Without Eyes, 2006). Like the disciplinary regimes Foucault describes, codes governing the conduct of blind people are preoccupied with the body and how it is controlled. Eventually, Ben’s uncle dropped him off at school, and the narrator concluded that “by refusing to use a cane and label himself as blind, it has made Ben more dependent on others, not less, more blind than he otherwise would have been” (The boy who sees Without Eyes, 2006). On another occasion, during a travel lesson with Dan Kish, Ben became distracted by a game of basketball. The narrator informed viewers that traveling as a blind person requires “strategy, thought and discipline. But that is no fun, and Ben is skiving” (The boy who Sees Without Eyes, 2006) . The narrator’s responses to these incidents indicate to me that preserving Ben’s dignity, and acknowledging the power differential between the observer and the observed, were of little concern to the producers. Far from it, these comments pathologize Ben’s behavior by describing how he departs from the image of the confident, secure blind person.

Without speaking to Ben directly, I cannot determine whether he was bothered by how the documentary portrayed him. However, according to Dan, Ben became increasingly frustrated and upset as the five weeks of filming wore on. Though I cannot know for certain, it seems as if he was experiencing a loss of agency as a result of the gaze of the film crews’ cameras, and of society at large. When reflecting on my own life and on what Ben’s experience must have been like, I think of Foucault’s panopticon, which he defines as “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Foucault, 1995, p. 202). In other words, all of us must deal with the fear that we are being watched, and because of the rising anonymity of power, it is impossible to determine if we are in fact being scrutinized and by whom. Blindness adds an additional layer of complexity to this anxiety. In a world where visuality is highly associated with power, the blind are unable to act as the subject of the gaze, nor are we aware when we have been made its object. Here, I speak of the gaze in the strictly visual sense of the word. Obviously, Foucault’s definition extends far beyond the visual and into the realm of the symbolic, and blind people have other means of acting as the subjects and objects of scrutiny. In fact, the deficit I speak of might not be a deficit at all, but rather a deficit that is perceived by the blind individual. But regardless of whether the deficit is real or perceived, the discomfort that arises from such a perception must not be minimized or overlooked.

As I mentioned previously, anyone who consents to participate in a documentary knowingly submits to being gazed upon. However, given the dual significance of the gaze for blind people, and Ben’s minor status, the documentary’s treatment of Ben is particularly troubling, perhaps even unethical.

   Though Aquanetta was deeply impressed with Ben’s knack for echolocation, she also believed that his travel skills were not fully developed; in order for Ben to reach his full potential, she needed expert help from Daniel Kish (The boy who sees Without Eyes, 2006). Parents often feel the need to turn to “experts” to diagnose or treat their child’s physical or psychological problem, and teachers or treatment providers who position themselves as experts seem to pay scant attention to the child’s feelings as a result of being subjected to the examination. The role of “experts” and “professionals” is especially pervasive in the blind community, where people who wish to teach the blind to cook or travel must undergo a comprehensive training program even though teaching many of these skills requires little more than ingenuity and common sense.

Dan worked with Ben for two days towards the end of the filming period. By this point, Dan recalled, Ben was pretty much burnt out and fed up with the whole process. He frequently threw tantrums and was very resistant to Dan’s efforts to convince him to see the cane as nothing more and nothing less than a tool, and to let go of the “emotional baggage” attached to it. For the most part, Dan was sympathetic to Ben’s frustration, telling me that it was unrealistic for any teacher and student to form the rapport necessary to learn these complex skills in four days. He recognized that matters were made more complicated by the fact that Ben did not choose to work with him. He was also able to empathize with Ben to some extent, stating that he once underwent a similar ordeal: “My heart aches for where he is, trying to fit himself in to a world that sends a lot of mixed messages about blindness and the cane and where you do and don’t fit in” (The boy who Sees Without Eyes, 2006). However, Dan still viewed Ben as a person “who had only reached less than half of his potential as a traveler,” and he was frustrated by Ben’s attitude that he had nothing to learn. At the same time, he understood that such an attitude is typical of teenagers. Much like a court that mandates that a child must receive therapy, the producers of the documentary have placed Dan and Ben in the untenable position of being thrown into a stressful situation together, while knowing that the way in which they both dealt with this situation was being closely scrutinized.

Though Dan had only the best intentions for Ben, his teaching style is reminiscent of the NFB philosophy that one should eventually grow to believe that blindness is an inconvenience. His answering machine message tells callers to remember that “the only limits we must deal with are those that we create for ourselves. ”When I asked him about his company, World Access for the Blind, he said that its mission entails much more than simply teaching blind people to use echolocation. He explained that his work was about helping blind and sighted people to achieve freedom, and he wished that the documentary had communicated his mission more clearly, instead of being so preoccupied with echolocation. When I asked him why freedom was so important to him, he said that this was a difficult question to answer “because freedom is as fundamental as breathing” (D. Kish, personal communication, April 26, 2008). Dan defined freedom as the ability “to be, to make choices, to contribute and to recognize and access opportunities” (D. Kish, personal communication, April 26, 2008). In teaching blind people to hike, for example, Dan is showing them that they can successfully participate and enjoy an activity that many believe is relegated to the domain of the sighted. Similarly, by illustrating how the cane and echolocation can be used in conjunction with one another, Dan hoped to “plant a seed” so that one day Ben could become a safe and independent traveler.

White, (1997, as cited in Besley, 2002) describes what he calls a “triumvirate of interrelated limiting humanist assumptions.” Though these assumptions are described in terms of their influence on therapy culture, they can be applied just as easily to the culture of education. White’s triumvirate consists of the will to truth, or the idea that we can precisely capture the essence of human nature; the repression hypothesis, which holds “that repression conceals or obscures our true or essential nature, inhibiting our growth or self-actualization and so inducing illness because our authentic needs and desires are frustrated”; and the emancipation narrative, which states that it is possible to liberate oneself from repression (Besley, 2002, p. 136). He provides a summary of Foucault’s criticism of the Freudian repression hypothesis, which lays the groundwork for his deconstruction of the “emancipation narrative: “According to this hypothesis, all that is required is to break these repressive deadlocks and man will be reconciled with himself, rediscover his nature or regain contact with his origin, and re-establish a full and positive relationship with himself. I think this idea should not be accepted without scrutiny” (Foucault, 1997, p. 282, as cited in Besley, 2002). White (1997, as cited in Besley, 2002) goes on to explain how the ubiquity of deficit theory has perpetuated the misconception that people in therapy must grow, change, develop or improve.” He cautions that so-called emancipatory therapies that operate on the assumption that repression is preventing the true self from being known are “diminishing and entrapping, preventing people from questioning the possibilities of how their lives are lived in the present” (Besley, 2002, p. 138). Thus, Dan’s mission rests on the humanistic idea that all blind people have a reifyable potential, but that “as a consequence of certain historical, economic and social processes,” such a potential has not been fully realized. It is quite possible that when Dan uses the word “potential,” he is, in actuality, referring to firmly established norms and codes of conduct. In other words, his definition relies on global narratives rather than local ones. In Ben’s case, such an approach seems to have been unhelpful, not only because it is not consistent with how Ben sees himself, but also because it fosters the belief that Ben is somehow deficient for failing to live up to this thing called “potential” that he had virtually no hand in defining.

If I were a narrative therapist working with Ben shortly after the lessons with Dan, I would have begun by asking Ben what the experience of working with Dan and participating in the documentary had been like. I would ask him to tell me more about his feelings about the “handicapping device,” and would have expressed curiosity as to how he felt when the people around him were so bent on getting him to view it in a different light. I would have also asked him what he thought of the word “independence,” and whether his mother’s vision of an independent life at college was consistent with his own dreams. Above all, I would abandon concepts such as emancipation and “achieving one’s full potential” in favor of encouraging Ben to discuss his strengths, priorities and hopes.

   In this paper, I have not attempted to do justice to Ben’s story, and much of my analysis is based on how I would have responded, had I been in Ben’s situation. I have tried to maintain the narrative stance of curiosity and not knowing, and I am well aware that my efforts are not always successful. However, through my analysis of the documentary, speculative though it may be, I feel I have raised important questions about the nature of acceptance, independence, power and freedom. In my future work with blind people, I one day hope to investigate how narrative strategies can be applied in both educational and therapeutic contexts. Given the rigidity that I perceive to be a prominent characteristic of the field, I know that such an undertaking will not be easy and might not even be feasible. But I have experienced firsthand the positive effects of adopting a narrative approach, and it is my most fervent wish to make those effects available to others.


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