The development of battlefield medicine
Mass Media Television
Images in Literature
This topic is complicated so we are going to examine it from just a couple of areas. You will notice as we move along that there are common threads running through the development of American social attitudes. We will look at a historical overview focusing on the military, literature, and mass media. Psychosocial attitudes are fluid and can't be examined in a static format.
It may surprise you (I was certainly surprised) to know that many of the services, adaptive aides, and current attitudes surrounding visual impairment come from the U.S. Armed Forces. There is even a connection with the military and medical research on blindness as well.
Just to get us started I want you to know that part of the reason there are such highly developed medical services in this country for people who are blind has to do with the history of penicillin. Before the invention of this antibiotic people with certain illnesses which can result in disability did not live very long. Staff infections were a big contributor to the early deaths of people who would have survived with a disability today. This was not so much an issue for people who were visually impaired or blind. We lived a lot longer even before penicillin and having to provide support for our community promoted the development of many of the services we know today.
Now here is where the military comes in. During World War I and II battle field medicine was still being developed. Soldiers wounded during battle had significantly high death rates. The injured soldiers coming back home included the men with head wounds and facial lacerations and men with injuries which were not life threatening, but resulted in visual impairments.
The military being what it is chose to provide support and services to these soldiers because the view at the time was that they gave up their strength and well-being to protect their country (these are my words, and this is the feeling I have). Research was directed toward investigating mobility techniques and improvements were made in the construction of the long cane. I also believe that the first talking book machine was developed by military researchers.
Rehabilitation hospitals were founded, recovery and vocational centers were set up, and funds were allocated to advance research in adaptive aides. This was all done to provide support to the blinded veterans.
I am sure that you are already making the connections in your minds on where some of the things we do in the voc-rehab systems in which we all work were birthed. Right here in the Armed Forces.
Here is where the first psychosocial attitude comes in for our class. You all may know that people who are visually impaired are expected to be as strong, self-reliant, and independent as possible. Not only do we blind folk feel a lot of pressure from the society at large to mirror independence we even pressure one another. The fierce sense of independence we are expected to adopt comes from the influence of the Armed Forces. I am using a much focused lenses in order to illustrate this attitude. The military picked up this viewpoint from the American under current of freedom and self-determination. Independence includes a sense of personal strength, self-direction, and taking risks to carve out a meaningful existence. Keep this in the back of your minds. It will pop up later.
American television magnifies and anchors all kinds of belief systems - not just the ones on visual impairment. To help you get a handle on how mass media can influence people's attitudes we are going to look at soap operas.
Yes, when I am home in the afternoon I catch the occasional soap. It is a guilty pleasure like sneaking coffee into the Library. Soon I won't have to slip my coffee by the Circulation desk because they are opening a Starbucks coffee/computer bar in the Healy Library. But I digress!
Do any of you follow either All My Children or General Hospital? In the past ten years both shows had plot scenarios involving blind characters. In both story lines the person was an adult and became blind suddenly.
Let's start with General Hospital. A character named Tony Jones - a very successful doctor - suddenly became blind. Within a week he was back at the hospital using a long cane expertly and all the beautiful women were offering him sighted guide assistance. He handled the trauma of suddenly becoming totally blind as if he was having a bad hair day.
During his tenure as a blind man his brother got in trouble. While searching for his brother Tony got his sight back as suddenly as it left. After regaining his sight he continued to pretend he was blind in order to help his brother. What he said was that he would pretend to be blind so he could eavesdrop on conversations since people would always talk in front of blind people as if they weren't there.
Horrendous? Yes? No? I am sure the writers were trying to insert an educational component into the show by demonstrating that someone could go blind and still have a normal life. It is also true that people do sometimes talk in front of blind people as if they aren't even there. Unfortunately this was presented in such an encapsulated way that there wasn't any possibility of absorbing the information.
Now let's go to All My Children. A character named Natalie Hunter suddenly became blind. While recovering in the hospital she made friends with a man she thought was very nice who turned out to be stalking her. He ended up kidnapping her. After a period of captivity where he beat and terrorized her she finally escaped. Natalie regained her sight on Christmas Day. It was a Christmas miracle.
The implication of Natalie's story line is that if she had been able to see the man she would have known that he was creepy. Her lack of sight caused her to put herself in a victimized role.
This portrayal does have an element of accurate information on how women with visual impairments have to address their personal safety. Again, however, everyone watching the story line is soaking up these emotionally charged images and doing something with them in their consciousness.
What happens to the powerful images broadcast by mass media is what is known as "cultural out-picturing." This is when a group of individuals merge their feelings about an issue or event into a unified story or "picture." Here is an example of what I mean.
I have two elevators in my building. For a couple of years they did not work properly. One would open and close really fast and the other one would close very slowly. For a while people just assumed that the elevator's timing mechanisms were off and would be repaired.
As more and more time went by and the elevators continued not to work correctly the people in my building grew uncomfortable with the thought that the management was not taking care of the people by attending to the repairs.
Here is where cultural out-picturing kicked in. No one in the building wanted to feel uncomfortable or challenge the management to fix them, so a collective story was created to address the feelings of discomfort. What was eventually said about the elevators is that the slow one was for people in wheelchairs.
Everyone accepted the story and no one talked to the management. Finally the elevators were worked on and the doors close as they should. No one now even remembers the view that the slow elevator was for wheelchair users. There is no need to maintain the story anymore.
This collective viewpoint is what grows up culturally around people with visual impairment. We have social roles assigned to us out of these collective norms. They are gender specific which is why the soap operas are a valuable barometer for the cultural viewpoints. Also soaps are still watched primarily by women and many women are still the significant care givers for children. What the parents absorb is passed to the children.
In contemporary literature blindness, sight, light, and darkness imagery are symbolically woven into almost every reference to health. More often than not, able-bodied is associated with good, cleanliness, and virtue. Conversely, persons who have disabilities have been associated through the ages with all that is bad.
A very common theme running through historic literature shows that at various times, physical disabilities have stood for sin and evil. Positive images of no disabled and negative images of persons with disabilities have been etched deep in the minds of most people throughout history, and many able-bodied persons have nourished these images to maintain their own self-esteem.
Much like the English child in William Blake's poem, the able-bodied perceive themselves as angels, while persons with disabilities can only yearn for wholeness through their deeds, hoping to become like the able-bodied so that they will at last be accepted as worthy beings. This socially perverse arrangement is communicated through social status, peer relationships, education, and job opportunities. This concept is carefully and religiously injected into children through school texts, television, programs, and catechism.
Unfounded positive images are also part of their mystique. For example, it is commonly believed that nature automatically compensates individuals who are blind by sharpening their other senses? Helen Keller was assured by her friends that people who were blind could identify color by touch. Many other positive traits are attributed to persons with disabilities solely on the basis of the "automatic" compensation myth. Some of the more desirable mystical traits are cheerfulness, patience, and extraordinary musical skills. Although these myths positively characterize disabilities, they are nevertheless as inaccurate and as distorted as the negative ones.
First of all, I want you to understand that people with visual impairments live in the American society with everyone else. Yes, there is a great deal of social isolation, but even accounting for low degrees of integration we are still social actors. Understand that even separation from mainstream society is still part of a social relationship.
The American attitudes towards persons with visual impairments go both ways. Blind people have attitudes about sighted people as well. There are many blind people who are uncomfortable socializing or being friends with sighted people. Also blind people learn how to function within the cultural belief system of whatever community in which they are engaged. It may not be comfortable, but it does contribute to the social interaction of the entire group of people the individual comes across.
We are going to stop for now. I am getting tired and I want you all to process this material. We will talk about this all some more.