ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.
Rosemary Mahoney's greatest fear was going blind. It makes sense for the award-winning writer. Mahoney's vision lends her books an uncanny quality that makes you really feel like you're with her. Weirdly, she says, she had never met a blind person. So Mahoney was apprehensive when she was assigned to write a profile of a woman running the first school for the blind in Tibet. Her experience there served as a prelude for a fuller immersion in the world of the blind, detailed in her new book, "For the Benefit of Those Who See."
After just a few days at the school, Rosemary Mahoney realized that she had to rethink everything she thought she knew about vision.
ROSEMARY MAHONEY: When sighted people cover their eyes or find themselves in a dark place, this is something that's very terrifying for us. And so in general, we assume that this is what blindness means. But of course, it isn't. For people who were born blind or who go blind at a very young age, that's not at all what blindness means. And even people who lose vision at an older age, yes, they go through a period of depression and utter despair. But eventually, most blind people learn how to live in the world. And the world doesn't feel black to them. I've rarely met a miserable, self-pitying blind person.
RATH: You talk about these misconceptions and actually take us through the history of blind people in human society. And what's shocking is that obviously, blindness has been with us since we've been human. But the attitudes, the association of, say, blindness with mental infirmity, that's lasted up until very recently.
MAHONEY: To me, the remarkable thing is it's pretty much unanimous the way blind people have been perceived in all cultures and for millennia. The first is, if they can't see, they must be stupid. The second one is, and this is a very old one, that blindness is such a terrible thing that it must be a curse from God for some evil that you committed.
When Jesus and his disciples meet a blind man in the road and the disciples say to him, Master, why was this man born blind? Who did sin, he or his parents? Because there was no other conception of why a person would be blind. It was a punishment from God. So the blind person must be evil and must be avoided and must - don't touch a blind person. And so blind people have suffered these things everywhere for centuries.
RATH: You know, one of the deep ironies - you kind of note this in your book with the school in Tibet - is that these children who were told that they have no future, they're a burden, that by coming to this school, they actually have a much wider universe than they would've had in their villages.
MAHONEY: That's right. And this is one of the remarkable things about Sabriye Tenberken who is blind. And she went to Tibet. And when she saw the way blind children were being treated, you know, abandoned by their parents, people throw - were throwing stones at them and spitting at them and calling them idiots and parents would tie their kids to a bed all day so that they wouldn't hurt themselves. And, of course, there was no education for them.
Sabriye got on horseback and rode across Tibet with two sighted people going from village to village asking, are there any blind children here? I'm starting a school. Would you be willing to send your child? And many of these people were happy to get rid of the kid. So what has happened in Tibet because of this school - it's called Braille Without Borders - many blind children have been given an opportunity for an education in a way that many sighted people in these small villages have not been.
RATH: It seems that every blind person that you spoke with, when you talked about the possibility of restoring their vision, they seemed like they didn't want it. Why?
MAHONEY: Well, that is a very interesting subject. You know, we always think, well, for a person who's blind, it must be an amazing, joyful miracle if by some chance their sight is restored to them. Now, this may be true for blind people who lost their vision at a later age. It's rarely true for people who were born blind or who go blind at a very young age.
We are not born with effective vision. The human infant has to learn how to see. The eyes gather information. They transmit it to the brain, but the brain doesn't know how to process it yet. We learn how to see in a way that's very similar to the way we learn how to speak. It takes a couple of years. If the brain is deprived of this visual information at a very young age, it can never learn how to see again.
RATH: On the other side of things, some who have lost their sight as adults, talk about what they've ended up gaining.
MAHONEY: Right. Well, that is - I don't want to paint a pretty picture of blindness. It's not. It isn't ultimately a gift. It's what people make with their blindness that becomes the gift. Having to finally accept the fact that you are not just a sighted person who can't see anymore, but you are a blind person. There are, however, people who finally adapt to it after a great period of depression. And the more they embrace their blindness, the more they begin to realize what they were missing.
One day, these two blind Tibetan teenagers blindfolded me, and they guided me through the streets of Lhasa as a way of showing me what it's like to be a blind person living in the world and navigating. And they would say to me, OK, now we turn left. They had a very specific destination in mind. And I would say to them, well, how do you know we turn left? And they would say, do you hear the sound of many televisions in a shop right next to us?
But I never noticed it because I'm so used to communing with the world with my vision that I don't notice what I smell. I don't - I rarely notice what I hear, and I certainly don't notice the pavement under my feet. And I began to think, this is interesting, not because these people are handicapped but because I'm finding out I am, in some ways, equally handicapped.
RATH: Rosemary Mahoney talking about her new book "For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches From the World of the Blind."
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