Blind Activists Protest “Blindness”

Posted on October 2, 2008 at 10:12 pm

“Blindness” is the story of unnamed characters in an unnamed community who all suddenly lose their sight with just one exception, a doctor’s wife played by Julianne Moore. The newly blind citizens, along with Moore’s character, who pretends to be blind, are quarantined and quickly confront a series of tragic choices and heart-wrenching moral compromises and violations as they struggle to survive. The movie, like the novel that inspired it, is an allegory along the lines of “Lord of the Flies” or “28 Days Later.”
The National Federation of the Blind has criticized the film, saying that it portrays blind people as monsters. That is not true; it portrays human beings as monsters, or at least as animals who cast off the thin veneer of civilization when their infrastructure and external controls were removed. They also say it perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes, portraying the blind as unable to care for themselves and navigate. Again, that is not true. It portrays people who suddenly become blind and have no support services or training as having a very difficult adjustment. Indeed, there is one character who was blind before the epidemic, and the movie makes it clear that he does have the skills to use a cane and a braille machine.
Once again, misplaced activism attacks the most superficial details of a movie without taking time to understand that it is on their side.

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12 Replies to “Blind Activists Protest “Blindness””

  1. For a long time religious organizations (or at least the Christian denomination to which I belong) have used the metaphor of vision to describe the sense of purpose, and the direction of the organization, and its’ faithful people.
    Conversely, if the organization does not have a clear sense of purpose or direction it is said to ‘lack vision’.
    Make the connection here. Is it any wonder that people who have limited, or no vision (and I mean that literally, not metaphorically) might be a little put off by a movie that portrays people with limited or no vision (and I mean that literally, not metaphorically) becoming like monsters?
    BTW, I have not seen the movie. I’m not commenting on the movie itself.

  2. A very thoughtful comment, SJ, and I see your point (which shows how hard it is to avoid metaphors relating to sight and vision). I believe just about every organization — especially corporations and non-profits and government — refers to “vision” as an element of planning and perspective.
    I do not agree with the activists’ understanding of the film but am glad to see them getting a chance to remind the world of their independence and capability. “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

  3. From an old saying comes a full length movie – “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king”. I understand this movie to be a way to work through the implications of this and so many other sayings about sight that we use without thinking.
    I have long resented groups that protest without thinking – or worse – without seeing the very movie that upsets them. It is – and I mean to use this word here intentionally – blind. Ironic, huh? Expressing some concern and using the film as an opportunity to educate is one thing. Dismissing it out of hand (or out of sight) is another. Maybe they need to go to the movie and discover what it is about and how they may actually be well – perhaps even heroically – represented. After all, “When the lights are out, only the blind know where they are going”.

  4. First thing I thought of when I heard of this movie was “Day of the Triffids”, the 1962 movie where humanity is struck blind and left at the mercy of alien, man-eating plants. That movie edited out some unsavory aspects of the original novel. In one episode, a sighted survivor is enslaved by a gang of blind survivors; he escapes by leading them into a nest of Triffids. Later, he falls in with a sighted group planning to enslave the blind so they can rebuild society. The movie did add a previously blind character who starts training the newly blind.

  5. My baby boy is totally blind, so I’ve recently learned a lot about blindness. I believe the biggest challenges my son will face in his life are negative stereotypes and low expectations, and I think media depictions of blindness do make a difference.
    Members of the NFB did indeed screen the movie before organizing this protest, and have read the book on which it is based. (I must admit that I have not seen it yet, though I’ve read and heard detailed descriptions). We understand that blindness in this movie is being used as a metaphor (I don’t see why that matters) and that characters are coping with very sudden blindness. But even so, the depictions seem extreme to me: blind characters totally and constantly disoriented, unable to even dress themselves, etc. Depictions like this are so discouraging because many people have worked very hard to little by little change public perceptions about the capabilities of blind people (I’m so grateful to them), and this does not help.

  6. Thank you so much for this comment, Susan. If you have read other posts on my blog, you have seen that I am deeply concerned with the portrayal of disabled people in the media and always do my best to point out good and bad examples. As a factual matter, the characters in this movie are very distressed to find themselves suddenly blind with no explanation and it is the sudden onset and being thrown into quarantine in a strange and vile environment that disorients them. Most of them continue to take care of themselves and each other very capably. But they are preyed on by some abusive fellow prisoners as well as the guards and other the seeing members of society. As I pointed out, one man in the movie who was blind before the plague hit does have the skills to get around, use a Braille machine, etc.
    The movie is about humans, not about blind people. Blindness was picked as the symbol because it is disorienting, as opposed to other disabilities which affect mobility, communication, etc. The theme of the movie is how we can be forced to jettison our values and rules when survival is at stake, similar to “Lord of the Flies” or “28 Days Later.” I understand your point and like you I long for better and fairer depiction of disabled characters. But I do not think this film is offensive. It would be a better use of the activists’ time to protest the absence of blind characters in media and the portrayal of blind characters by sighted actors than have them attack this film.
    I have two disabled family members and worked in a school for the disabled. Your baby has resources beyond the wildest dreams of the blind children born just one generation ago. With you as advocate and teacher, there is no limit on what he will be able to achieve. I wish you both all the best and hope you will make this site part of your community.

  7. So you’re telling me that if you were to close your eyes or put on a blindfold you would suddenly forget how to find the bathroom, use it, wash your hands, etc. much less forget how to shower, eat, be kind, dress yourself and so on???? As one who works in the field of visual impairments as an instructor I find this “arguement” reprehensible! You’re doing nothing but promoting stereotypes and ignorance with such statements as you’ve made here.

  8. And as for your comment about it being about human beings not the blind? Ah, last time I looked (excuse the pun) those who are blind are people. It is beyond a poorly chosen “metaphor” and it does incredible harm! If you haven’t been in or worked with the blind community you should not be defending this movie until you have ALL your facts and read the history of what it has taken to get the stereotypes diminished and the education of these kids to the level it’s at now and it still has a long way to go because of ongoing biases about what it is to be blind. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  9. R, I appreciate your taking the time to share your views. I think they make a valuable contribution to the discussion. As you will see if you read further on the site, I have two disabled family members and worked in a school for disabled children. Furthermore, I have written many times about stereotyping and negative and superficial portrayals of disabled people in the media and the overall neglect of the disabled characters. In my opinion this movie has nothing to do with the stereotypes of blind or other disabled people and your description of the film is inaccurate. I do not believe anyone who sees it will think it has anything to do with the way the blind community is understood or that it will promote bias or bigotry.

  10. Just because you have disabled family members does not make you an expert on what it is to be blind. It is very different from what you apparently think it is. Again, you need to read the history of blindness and get more facts because this absolutely portrays bigotry and bias against folks who are blind. Let’s put it this way, what would happen if you substituted black, hispanic, illegal aliens etc. for the metaphor? How do you think THAT would go over? What makes blind people any less than those I just mentioned?

  11. I do know what blindness is and have spent a good deal of time with blind people. That is one reason I am certain this movie is not intended to be about the real-life experience of blind people. The film is less critical of the people who become suddenly blind than it is of the people who remain sighted who abuse them. But I appreciate that it seems bigoted to you and am grateful for having that point of view represented on the site. It is very important for all of us to recognize that well-intentioned stories and characters may be offensive to people who are dealing with special issues and challenges.

  12. I understand where the NFB views the film as reinforcing stereotypes of the blind, yet, it seems as though they are focusing on that only. If people understand that the blindness is a metaphor then shouldn’t that view of the disability kept in mind throughout the movie? I mean that if the blindness represents moral lapse or lack of conscience shouldn’t we see see that the characters are not blind and instead are lacking consciences or morals? Blindness is used by the author/writer as a tool to help people, ironically, to see the what humanity is capable of without moral guidance. The movie does not say anything negative about the blind population specifically, but rather focuses our attention to a bigger picture.
    Personally, even though i’ve worked with blind persons before, i feel that the film doesn’t exploit them at all. It simply is a way of telling a story, as was used in the novel. Incidentally, there were no issues (read: no protests or activism involved) when the book was released, so why is there an issue with the film now? If blindness was acceptable as a metaphor in written form, what makes it inappropriate in a visual medium? Sometimes it’s best for people to focus on the message rather than the medium, and that way we can learn something rather than condemn it.

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