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What can it be like when closing your eyes makes no difference? What is it like when behind those closed eyes there is a blind person’s brain, a brain without colour, without stars and smiles, without scenery and horizons, and perhaps above all without faces.
Here is a simple test. Close your eyes now and try to think of a person close to you, someone you love, but do not permit the picture or image of the face of your loved one to come up before your imagination. I have tried this on Marilyn, who has considerable powers of concentration. She says that she can just about do it by concentrating on the shoes, or perhaps the handbag, or a lapel badge of the person, but it is very difficult to maintain and the face of the person almost irresistibly keeps sliding back. Now imagine that this never happens. Imagine that you speak to yourself the names of your children, your family and closest friends, and no face appears, nothing visual at all. I think that most sighted people would find this very difficult to imagine.
It is because of this subtle strangeness about the condition that we call blindness that I want to ask the question today about what it is.
The first reply which I shall suggest is that blindness is something that goes wrong with your eyes. Blindness is when you can't see.
My own history is that after a long experience of retinal detachment and repeated surgery, I was finally registered blind in 1980 when I was forty-five years old. I continued to have a little bit of mobility vision. I could see a white glow where the window was, and I could see dark shadow if you were to walk between me and the window. After about 3 years this little bit of light sensation faded, and since about 1983 I have lived without light sensation at all.
My first reaction to this situation was, I suppose, fairly robust. I took the view that blindness takes place when your eyes go wrong. Your eyes are a convenient visual aid situated in your head. If they become useless, you just make other arrangements. The necessity of making these other arrangements and so to retain my job as a senior lecturer in the University of Birmingham School of Education kept me busy for the next three years. Looking back upon that time, I now see that I was not so much a blind person as a sighted person who couldn't see. I lived in a sighted person’s world without seeing it. I had the memory, the imagination, the expectations of a sighted person, without sight.
Gradually, however, I began to understand that blindness was more serious than I had thought at first. I began to realise that it was changing the way I thought. It was changing the way I experienced the things around me, and indeed the people around me were also changing. Day and night were changing, food was changing, sex was changing, my own body was changing and so I realised that blindness is something which happens to your brain.
After all, the retina is said to be an extension of the brain. We speak of brain-blindness referring to that condition when although the eyes themselves are perfectly sound, the brain is unable to receive or process visual information. But I am speaking of brain blindness in a more comprehensive sense, not as a medical condition, but as a form of thinking.
I came to think that blindness was essentially a cognitive condition. That is, it is a way of knowing, or as I first experienced it, a way of not knowing. We do speak of blindness and hearing impairment as the two major cognitive disabilities. For me, this meant first of all that what I lacked was knowledge. After all, I could cross the road as well as anybody, since my legs and the rest of me function more or less normally. What prevents me from crossing the road is my lack of knowledge. I do not know when the lights have turned from red to green, and I do not know for sure when the road is clear. What I need from the passer-by is not physical assistance. I do not need to be helped to cross the road. What I need is knowledge. Is anything coming? No. Then I can cross now.
Blindness is a cognitive condition in the sense also that blindness does affect the brain. The brain is not like a computer which can be switched off, and quickly resumes its activities the moment it is switched on. The brain is never switched off. Even in sleep, the brain continues to carry out various functions e.g. dreaming. The brain is affected by its sources of knowledge. When I say that the brain becomes tactile I mean that the brain begins to operate, in the case of a blind person, a bit like the hand. The brain becomes a hand. This is expressed in the popular saying that blind people see with their fingers. I prefer to put it a little bit more cognitively and to say that the brain begins to act like a hand.
The hand does things one by one. The hand places things in positions, puts things next to each other, ignores subjective factors such as perspective and distance, since for the hand nothing is ever distant. Thus it is that the blind thinker becomes extremely economical with thought. Thoughts are arranged, filed, just as the objects in the drawer in a blind person’s office are carefully stored, each in its place, so the tactile brain becomes more concrete, more intimate, more orderly, and more sequential. It was going blind which taught me, a university academic, to think in concrete terms. It was blindness which taught my brain the importance of pictures.
However, we are not disembodied brains. The body provides an environment for the brain, and just as the brain is affected by the source of its knowledge, so the brain is affected by the whole of its physical surroundings. As I realised this, I began to understand that blindness is something which happens to your entire body.
In the first place, just as other people’s faces and images disappear, so to the blind person his or her own body disappears. Not only do you not know or care what other people look like, the whole idea that things have a look becomes strange to you, and most important for your identity, the idea that you yourself look like something becomes a strange and meaningless thought.
In a way, blindness is a regressive or atavistic condition. The blind person becomes primitive. What I mean by this is that in primitive or simple life forms, the organ of sight is not specific, like eyes at the end of your tentacles or in your forehead as the case may be but perception is generalised over the entire organism. The primitive organism sees with its skin. Thus, it is only half true to say that the blind person sees with the fingers. The truth is that the blind person sees with the skin. Perception is no longer specialised or located in a specific part of the body, but the whole body becomes an organ or perception. When I realised this, I no longer thought of myself as being blind, but as a whole body seer. Of course, whole body seeing is a kind of short range perception. Only through the wonder of sound and smell can the blind body perceive at a distance. The most detailed perceptions are available only at close contact. The world becomes a gigantic feeling. This means that the body, now an organ of knowledge, begins to behave in a different way. This is the true nature of those characteristics of behaviour which the sighted world calls blindisms. They are merely an indication that blindness affects the entire body.
Even as we say this we are moving towards a new conception of blindness. At first we thought blindness was something which affects the eyes, then the brain, and then the whole body. We begin to see that blindness is something which creates its own world. Of course, this is also true of sight. Sight also creates a world, but sighted people do not know this. After all, sighted people do not generally know that they are sighted; they just think that the world is like that. But the world is not like that. Only its world is like that, and there are many worlds. The existence of the blind person’s world relativises the sighted persons world. But to realise this, the sighted person has to begin to think of blindness as a genuine, independent world with its own characteristics, its own wonders and terrors. Blindness affects the whole body when the subliminal bodily gifts, normally obscured by sight, begin to come to the surface of consciousness. When this happens, the blind experience begins to generate a world.
When I wrote my first book on blindness, 'Touching the Rock', I received a number of thoughtful letters from blind people commenting that I did not distinguish between the state of blindness and the experience of losing sight. In my case, it was impossible at first to make that distinction, because both realities, the appearance of one world and the loss of another world, made their appearance at the same time. When I lost the sighted world, at first I had no world. I was disembodied, de-robed, naked in an infinity of dark space. Gradually a new world dawned - a world of fragrance, of little currents of wind and snatches of moving air, of voices and elbows, full of bird song and laughter, a world of minute detail, consisting of things which in the sighted world I never even noticed, but now in their tiny particularity were full of character and beauty.
In other words, I abandoned a deficiency model of blindness and came to think of blindness as one of the great natural human conditions. Blindness is just the way that some people are, and the world which blindness creates is one of the many human worlds, which must all be put together if the human experience is to become entire. Each world must be transcended by the other world if the first world is to know itself. In knowing other worlds it realises its own world.
Blindness is a little world and sight is a big world. This raises important questions of how the two worlds are to relate to each other. If the world of power, the sighted world, can relate to the world of blindness, the smaller less powerful world without patronising it, and if the little world can relate to the big world without manipulating it, we will have learnt something about the way in which power and powerlessness can be managed.
When I lost the sighted world I also lost the God of the sighted world. Reading the Bible as a blind person, I became sharply aware of the fact that the Bible was written by sighted people, and the God described in the bible is the sighted person’s God, the God of light who rejects darkness, the God in whom there is no darkness at all, the God who sends Jesus Christ to be the light of the world and so on. My experience with God was rather like my experience with the world. When I lost the sighted person’s God, I wandered in the darkness with no God. Gradually, along with the blind person’s world there emerged the blind person’s God. This is the God who says ‘I who create light shall I not also create darkness?’ This is the God who said 'I will show you the treasures of darkness'. This is the God who says that he dwells in 'thick darkness'. This is also the God who says that 'God is beyond both light and darkness, that darkness and light are both alike to God'.
No sighted person can say those words. No sighted person can ever say that darkness and light are both alike as far as he or she is concerned. Only a blind person can have that experience, can know that knowledge. And yet, to be beyond light and darkness is to be in the image of God. From this I have come to believe that the image of God is stamped into the lives of blind persons in their blindness, just as the image of God is stamped into the life of sighted people in their sightedness.
To gain all the worlds, to believe in the God of all being who is Lord of all life, we have to put the worlds together. We need each other.
John M Hull: Honorary Professor of Practical Theology in the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, England; & Emeritus Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham