There are only two points I want to make here.
- volunteerism is a wonderful thing. I’ve experienced it for decades from both sides, and know how helpful and rewarding it can be.
When one sets out to help, one must do so respectfully, and with a full awareness of the individuality and dignity of the people one helps.
The importance of my first point has always been obvious to me. As a blind person, I’ve benefitted in countless ways from the time, effort and money donated by kind and generous people. As a long-time volunteer myself, I know that hard work in the right place is its own reward.
I became really aware of the second point recently, when my attention was drawn to some of the rhetoric employed by the Lion’s Club with respect to blindness, and their mission to make our lives better. I’ll come back to this later, but I need to stress from the outset how much I respect and value the impulse to help, that motivates each member of the Lion’s club. I’m including the text of an induction ceremony below. It’s publically available, so I’m not betraying any secret initiation rites.
Helen Keller Induction Ceremony
We are about to begin the induction ceremony which will welcome (a) new member to the _________ Lions Club. This is an important occasion for this new member and I sincerely request the attention and silence of the membership during the ceremony.
(Lights off please)
I will call the name of the new member and their sponsor and the candidate will enter and stand before the membership. You have been brought into this room blindfolded and guided by your sponsor, for the purpose of showing you what Lionism is about the aiding of the blind and afflicted. You now know what it is to be blind and to have to be dependent on someone else. You are experiencing blindness for just a few minutes, many others are blind for life. You have just done something the sightless do every day of their lives. I’ve asked you to spend a few moments in darkness because this symbolizes the life of the blind and hopefully this will be the only time you spend in darkness. Lion __________ is now going to say a few words about darkness. Lions International was founded by Melvin Jones in 1917, some ___ years ago, and today it is the world’s largest service organization. The reason we became the largest has a lot to do with the blindfold you are now wearing.
Originally there was no particular direction for Lions to go, no special cause, but in 1925, eight years after being founded, a blind and deaf woman, Helen Keller, asked permission to speak before our international convention. She asked the Lions to pick up her crusade and adopt sight conservation as a major project of Lions International. She was dealing with a small group of men from the western hemisphere at that time. She did not realize what was going to happen when she asked, ‘Gentlemen, would you be my knights of the blind? We have many problems to overcome and we cannot do them alone, we need help.’ Twenty-five years later, after Helen Keller went on to become one of the most famous women in American history, she came back to the Lions convention with tears in her eyes and said, ‘Thank you, my knights of the blind. Little did I realize 25 years ago when I asked you to take my cause that I would find Lions not only in America, but in China, Africa and all the other free countries of the world, all working for one goal to eradicate the dreaded disease of blindness.”
Before you, we have lit a candle to represent the International Association of Lions Clubs. You obviously cannot see its flame. Many sightless people throughout the world have never seen what this simple flame even looks like. Please remove your blindfold. Welcome back to the world of light. Hopefully in your lifetime, you will never have to spend moments in darkness beyond those you just did.
Please take this candle and light it from the international flame as an indication of your membership in this lions club. This is the light we hope you will shed on all those in need and that look for your help.
(Lights on please)
In the beginning there was darkness. We are born in darkness, and we die in darkness. Sadly, there are millions of us on this less-than-perfect planet who spend their days and years in this darkness.
In this moment we have together, lets try to understand their loss, that we might dedicate ourselves to their care, and their cure. Lets take a walk in the long, dark corridor they travel every day.
Try to erase from your mind’s eye the visions they cannot share. Try to erase from your mind’s eye the faces of your children, the view from your window, the words on a printed page. One by one erase from your mind’s eye each flower, each bird, each sunset you have ever seen. Erase every work of art ever created, every panorama from nature’s infinite palette. Erase even the concept of colour, of clouds and stars and morning mists. No blue sky, no golden fields of wheat dancing in the breeze. Remove them, every beautiful sight you have ever beheld. Erase them one by one until there is nothing left but darkness. And when you feel alone, and perhaps frightened, you will have experienced just a small part of the terror than is blindness.
I’ve long been aware of the usefulness of an “us and them” mentality when it comes to dehumanizing, marginalizing, or waging war on others, but I hadn’t thought much about it in the context of charity. As I wipe away a solitary tear of despair, and try not to get lost in my personal journey down my own empty corridor of agony, I’m impelled to raise a couple of objections.
Within the disability community, it’s generally understood that an hour or a day in a wheelchair, while instructive, will not teach anyone what it’s like to spend 24/7 in one for the rest of your life. Likewise, being blindfolded for a few minutes doesn’t mean someone knows “what it’s like to be blind.” I suppose blindness is “dreaded,” and an “affliction,” but if someone spoke to me face-to-face about it in this way, I’d be mortally offended. My life is rich, full, overflowing occasionally, and as likely to hold adventure, creativity and richness as anyone else’s.
Of course being blind in a sighted world presents barriers of varying degrees every day, but my life isn’t an endless corridor of isolation. Disabled people are more subject to marginalization and depression, but I’ve got my own inner landscape of flowers, trees, and the people I love, that doesn’t require sight to sustain me.
I wonder whether it’s an established fact in the fundraiser’s universe, that pity and fear carve a deeper path to people’s hearts and wallets, than understanding or inspiration. This isn’t the first example I’ve encountered where “the terror that is blindness” is exploited to tap charitable impulses. Fortunately, in my part of the world, we no longer have to beg, or sell pencils on the street corner to survive. I think a more useful approach to this problem is to show real blind people living our textured lives, and to describe actual barriers we face day-to-day, barriers that are reducible with the right kind of public will.
Part of the problem here is political correctness. The words of Helen Keller to the Lion’s club don’t represent a 21st century conception of visual impairment, at least where I live. They do appeal to a somewhat romantic approach to benevolence. At least in this instance, her words are at the core of their mission. The results speak for themselves. Lion’s is a huge organization doing valuable work. It really surprised me to encounter this kind of rhetoric about the people they help.
The real challenge here is that the Lion’s club is full of kind, generous people who have chosen to give their time, energy and money to help. This is the most beautiful impulse we as humans have. The text above is only one of the induction speeches that can be chosen, and of course its paternalistic reductionism doesn’t necessarily speak for all Lions clubs. Although I’ve never been a member of a service organization, I’m sure that for some, their induction ceremony was a moving and powerful experience, maybe a peak experience of their lives, symbolizing their commitment to help make a better world. I can’t overstate how much I value this. However, this isn’t the 19th century, and I feel troubled to be represented by a speech that looks like it was written by Charles dickens.