Taboo avoidance for the blind

Ved Mehta has a piece in the Winter 2010 issue of The American Scholar, “Wrestling with Two Behemoths”, about trying to get some accomodations from the New York Public Library (where he conducts much research) and the Metropolitan Opera (where he enjoys the performances) — accomodations for a blind person like himself.

Close to the end of the story (p. 79), Mehta recounts some of his history with institutions:

There have been huge advances in services and facilities for the blind since I came to America from India for my education in 1949. In those days, any book that had explicit sexual material or four-letter words was not recorded on Talking Books or generally embossed in Braille, with the result that a blind student could not read classics like Joyce’s Ulysses, never mind Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In fact, the whole corpus of postwar literature from Faulkner to Updike–not to mention postmodernist European writers–was banned from the ears and fingers of the blind.

How prudish.

Things are considerably improved, thanks mostly to technological innovations.

5 Responses to “Taboo avoidance for the blind”

  1. mae Says:

    “Listening to Braille” in the current NYT Magazine has an interestingly related subject — that Braille has become much less common, actually replaced by the technologies you mentioned. I would be very interested if you or other linguists commented on this article’s claims about the loss of language ability in blind non-Braille-readers.

  2. irrationalpoint Says:

    “Things are considerably improved, thanks mostly to technological innovations.”

    I understand what you meant here, but for the most part it sounds like it’s not lack of technology that stopped explicit material from being put in accessible formats. Technology is only as good as the people implementing it, and if the people implementing it think “blind people don’t have to or shouldn’t be able to read that“, then the best technology in the world is of very little use. It’s not that nifty technology can’t lead to huge advances in accessibility — of course it can be extremely useful. But my own experience (being mobility-impaired, rather than blind) is that the single biggest access issue I face isn’t technology, but people’s attitudes, and I face that every single day, even with access to pretty good technology.


  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To irrationalpoint: I suppose I was not clear enough. What the technologies allow are ways to avoid the strictures of the institutions that historically provided material for the blind.

  4. irrationalpoint Says:

    I got that, actually. I think my point still stands. However good the technology, it can’t entirely remove the problem-people from the situation. Of course, it’s a matter of degree, but still.

    For example, technology advances means that it’s not too hard for a disabled student to convert some kinds of electronic version of, say, a lecture handout into a more accessible format. That makes things a lot easier for everyone. Except. The most accessible handouts in the world are of little use to me if I can’t actually get to the lecture because somebody has parked their car across the building’s access ramp. Technology’s great, but it’s not enough on its own.


  5. irrationalpoint Says:

    Thinking about it a bit more, it occurs to me that a better way to put it might be (although it’s not a perfect comparison):

    Because of web-based technology, it’s much easier for me to work at home when I need to, or just when I’m fed up with dealing with the low-level but routine sexist/ablist/homophobic nonsense on campus, and it’s useful I have that option. It’s also the case that there’s been improvement in this (even if it’s slow).

    I’m extremely reluctant to attribute improvements in the gender/disability/queer rights situation to the fact that tech-based options exist for avoiding contact with the people I know to be a problem. I’d much rather say that improvements are due to changing attitudes and long-term sustained activism. Furthermore, as long as it’s the case that working from home (=not going out) is a strategy for minimizing the amount of nonsense one has to deal with, and that some people are in the position of having to be grateful for having that option, then there’s still very much a social justice problem that technology can’t solve.


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