I recently saw the motion picture premiere of Madeline L’Engle’s infamous A Wrinkle in Time, and was reminded of the rich wisdom enclosed in this childhood classic. I first read this story at age 10, during a time when I already knew there was something different about me compared to kids my age. I felt an immediate connection to the characters in this story, especially Meg – stubborn, caring to a fault, and easily angered by questions that didn’t seem to have concrete answers.
As I re-read this story with my daughter recently, I was struck not only by all the familiar characters and riveting plot lines, but also by the many morsels of wisdom that had escaped my memory. Especially one involving blindness.
I had a vague recollection of the loving character named “Aunt Beast”, but had not recalled the fact that the beasts are blind. I was struck by the conversation Meg and Aunt Beast have about sight.
“We do not understand what this means to see.”
“Well, it’s what things look like,” Meg said helplessly.
“We do not know what things look like, as you say,” the beast said, “We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.”
“Oh, no!” Meg cried, “It’s – it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!”
“What a very strange world yours must be!” the beast said, “That such a peculiar-seeming thing should be of such importance. Try to tell me, what is this thing called light that you are able to do so little without?”
“Well, we can’t see without it,” Meg realized that she was completely unable to explain vision and light and dark. How can you explain sight on a world where no one has ever seen and where there is no need of eyes?
The idea of a world where eyes are not needed is difficult for most human beings to conceptualize. L’Engle takes the notion even further by suggesting that sight is “limiting”. Joy and I have talked about the things blind people “miss”, which are prime examples of how limiting sight can be in the ways it prompts superficial judgement based on outward appearance.
In my social work program, we’ve been learning how much of what we as a society believe to be “true” or “natural” is actually a social construction. This includes race, gender, sexuality, and disability. The social construction of disability is something I can recognize more easily than those without disabilities because I have experienced the ways in which others limit me more than my vision loss does.
Aunt Beast shares what a society without sight focuses on.
“We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.”
I love the conclusion Meg comes to from her time with the beasts. “It was she who was limited by her senses, not the blind beast, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.”
Just as Meg realizes that there are senses the beasts have that escape her awareness, society has vague misconceptions of the people behind the white canes. People with canes or guide dogs are often not recognized for their innate qualities, but rather the focus is placed on what they are “lacking” in vision abilities.
While I enjoyed many aspects of the movie A Wrinkle in Time, I was disappointed SPOILER ALERT that Aunt Beast did not appear in the on-screen story. The entire chapter was cut out of the movie. Hollywood and therefore society missed an opportunity to deconstruct what it means to see.
There are so many negative images of blindness in the media from obnoxiously offensive characters like Mr. Magoo to mocking jokes on Saturday Night Live. Even a wonderful high school performance of Into the Woods I took my daughter to last week included blindness as a punishment for Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, in which one of the townspeople wanted to offer “a blind girl” to the angry giant, directly implyingf that her life was less valuable than those with sight. The 2 step-sisters wore stereotypical sunglasses and canes and stumbled around miserably on stage. While I realize this is an old folktale, this portrayal perpetuates negative stereotypes dating back thousands of years.
This is not about being “politically correct” or “overly sensitive” about how blindness is portrayed. Each seemingly harmless joke is another microaggression towards people experiencing sight loss. These depictions of blindness are the pieces that weave together to construct society’s impression of what it means to be blind. These negative images of blindness continue to infiltrate the minds of American citizens, constructing an image of helpless, hopeless, hysterically inept people without sight.
As these negative images of blindness persist, it is not surprising that blindness continues to be at the top of the list of what Americans fear most – right up there with terrorism, death of a loved one, and financial ruin. This deep seated fear will continue until the construction of blindness shifts towards an image of competence.
The percentage of people living with vision loss in the U.S. is rising with the aging baby boomer generation. As the low vision and blind community increases, it is essential for society to stop mocking people who don’t use sight as their primary sense, and start empowering those living with blindness to live full and joyous lives. If society is unable to shift it’s conception of blindness, it will take a toll on the mental health of individuals facing vision loss. The late Madeline L’Engle clearly recognize the social construction of blindness over 50 years ago, and it’s time for all of us to take a closer look at how blindness is portrayed in modern society.