Blindness in Dialogue

Jazz pianist and Santa Clara University Professor Bill Stevens shares an excerpt from an anti-harassment training he created for Music Department faculty, staff, and students. Stevens, who is blind, reflects on disability-based discrimination, which often receives less attention in public discourse.

Blindness in Dialogue
Bill Stevens, pictured with his former guide dog Wrangler, during a rehearsal in the Music Recital Hall. Photo by Joanne Lee.

The following is an excerpt from “Blindness in Dialog”—a training session for the SCU community—created by Bill Stevens. Copyright Bill Stevens, 2020

We can summarize the nature of bias in six words: neurons that fire together wire together. These six words highlight the plasticity of the brain, the fact that the brain’s very structure adapts according to its use. Neurons that fire together wire together. The neural wiring afforded by mental plasticity is extremely valuable. It is how we learn language; how we can brush our teeth or ride a bike without thinking about it; how we internalize the patterns of physical motion needed to play a scale; how we come to associate those patterns with the sounds of the notes of that scale; how we learn to read music; etc. Neurons that fire together wire together.

Mental plasticity is also how we acquire habits of thinking, many of which are inherited from our culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in our use of language. Consider the ways in which language for “female” is associated with language for weakness. In music theory for example, weak-beat cadences were, until recent decades, referred to as “feminine endings.” Consider immature boys at play, mocking each other, saying “don’t be such a girl” to mean “don’t be so weak.” (I’ll leave you to imagine far cruder ways in which immature boys might communicate the same thing.) Is it any wonder then that it is difficult for us, as a culture, to imagine a woman in the Oval Office as a national icon of strength and leadership?

Consider, too, the many ways in which “black” and “dark” are used as synonyms for “evil.” A classical villain is described as being “black of heart,” while J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort is addressed as “The Dark Lord” by his followers. And, since neurons that fire together wire together, these associations of black, dark, and evil become part of the very structure of our brains. Is it any wonder that we continue to struggle with racial equality?

Consider, too, the language of sightedness and blindness. We say “I see” to mean “I understand.” We say that “seeing is believing.” We say that a leader “has vision” to mean that they possess a talent for conceiving an optimal set of future outcomes and the clarity of understanding to effectively navigate a course from the present to that future state.

Blindness on the other hand is a byword for ignorance—for deeper judgement being clouded by strong emotions: Love is blind, rage is blind. To act blindly is to act in naivety of an obvious truth. Common synonyms for blind in our culture include ignorant, naive, foolish, incapable, crude, rude, willful, stubborn, violent, unknowing, and unseeing. We speak of profound expansions of consciousness (or even salvation) as a movement from darkness into light (think of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”—I was blind and now I see). These are the associations built into the language of our culture. Because neurons that fire together wire together, these associations become part of the structure of our thinking, forming the landscape of prejudice. “See” what I mean?

It is tempting to think that, because wrongful prejudice is clearly bad, that only “bad people” harbor prejudice. Since we prefer to think of ourselves as “good people,” then we have a lot invested in not examining the ways in which these habits of thinking, inherited from our language and our culture, may be shaping our perceptions, judgements, and decisions. This is an inaccurate model. Because neurons that fire together wire together, we are all susceptible to prejudice. We are, in fact, wired for it.

The relevant question is thus not, Am I a prejudiced person? but instead, To what degree is the hard wiring of prejudice impacting the freedom of my thoughts and decisions in any particular situation? When we stop asking the first question and begin asking the second, we can actively work to counteract the forces of prejudice that we have all inherited. That is to say, we begin the journey of taking responsibility for our own thinking.

Ok, so we are all wired for bias; we all participate in bias. Bias lays the groundwork for discrimination, and discrimination is what we need to be concerned about.

When we speak of discrimination in our culture, most often we are speaking about discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. These are all very significant forms of discrimination. It is important that we are talking about them. They deserve the space they are being given in our discourse. Disability-based discrimination, though very real, tends to receive a lot less attention.

Let me share a few stories. My first experience with the Graduate Requisite Exam (GRE) came at the end of my last year in college. We filled out the application for special testing six weeks in advance, paying the $100 testing fee as required. Within 24 hours of my testing time, I received four phone calls from the disabilities office on campus, relaying messages from the Educational Testing Service. The first let me know that my exam had been canceled. The next said that it had been rescheduled. The next told me that it had again been canceled. The fourth told me that the exam was on, but that it was at an alternate testing location (a two hour drive from Oberlin College, significantly further than our requested exam site).

Fortunately, an Oberlin staff member was willing to take a full day off to drive me to the exam. When we arrived and I met my reader, I discovered that she had no training with how to use the testing software. Once she had that figured out, I learned that she was unable to pronounce many of the words for the verbal exam. She was unfamiliar with the mathematical notation for absolute value, the proper way to describe an angle as defined by three points, and didn’t understand the phrase “On the Cartesian plane.” For some of the geometry problems, it would take us 10 minutes with my patiently asking questions about the diagrams and her getting frustrated before I had an accurate understanding of the illustrations. Once I had that understanding,I could answer the question posed in 3 seconds. (This is why extended time is provided for alternative testing.) The whole process took 5 hours, not including the two-hour drive each way. I had never been so angry in my life and rarely so mentally drained. I got my results in the mail a week later. I had perfect scores in the math and analytic portions of the exam with verbal scores a bit lower. Along with my scores was a form letter to my schools, indicating that these scores were a result of special testing; that they couldn’t truly vouch for the validity of the special testing process and therefore encouraged schools to disregard these scores and evaluate the applicant based on their other credentials. (I should have sued.)

I could tell a dozen similar stories, about being turned away from the SAT 2 exam because the proctor had not procured a reader, about the college that granted me a conditional admittance because I had no SAT 2 scores on file, about receiving a large print version of the SAT with significant portions of the exam missing and others provided twice, about having ACT scores thrown out because a proctor hadn’t followed directions (directions that had never been provided in the first place).

I could tell stories about teachers turning me away from their studios, saying “I don’t know how you will learn,” which I later understood to be code for “I don’t know how I will teach you,” but nonetheless was an excuse for turning me away before trying. I could tell a story about fairly winning the audition to be drum major of my high school’s marching band, but being made assistant drum major instead with the official scores of the audition being covered up at the last minute because the judges couldn’t imagine my being an effective drum major. (They didn’t trouble to ask me about it; they simply assumed that I couldn’t.) I could tell the story of how the administration of my high school, recently ranked as one of the top 25 in the country, pushed to transfer me to the state school for the blind when I lost the bulk of my vision at age 14, that school being tied for last place on statewide achievement tests. I did not transfer; I stayed. And three years later I was named our school’s outstanding senior, being assistant drum major of the marching band, president of our chapter of the National Honors Society, completing three courses at the University of Louisville in addition to high school requirements, composing commissions for the Louisville Youth Choir and Youth Orchestra, earning national recognition as a young composer, meeting President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn, and conducting an original chamber composition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

I could tell stories about zoning out in countless college classes while other student composers were studying printed scores or software packages whose visual interfaces were wholly inaccessible to me. I could tell stories about the many times when student readers I had recruited, to be paid by the college, flaked out on the work they had agreed to do, leaving me without a textbook or supplemental readings for which I was responsible. I could tell a story about designing an independent major, focused on getting the most accessible education I could ring out of Oberlin Conservatory. I could tell a story about presenting my research on Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening at the end of my first year of my masters program, immediately after which I was given a large bag of tapes (more than 40) by someone from the office of disability services. “What’s this?” I asked. “These are the books you requested for your research.”

I could tell stories about students in high school leaving backpacks in my path to watch me trip, or attaching test tube clamps to my clothing to see how long it would take me to notice. I could tell a story about students in grad school leaving pizza on the sidewalk to see if they could distract my guide dog. I could tell stories about the cafeteria employees who would ask the person behind me in line, a complete stranger to me, what I wanted for dinner. I could tell stories about the university employees who would act as my guides in the cafeteria, saying privately to my table of friends, “It’s really nice of you to let Bill sit with you, but you don’t have to do that; I can always sit him somewhere else.” I could go on, and on, and on.

Disability-based discrimination is real. Disability-based harassment is real. And though I don’t often express anger openly, it would be a mistake to assume that these things don’t bother me. For much of my life I tried to deal with discrimination by ignoring it and overachieving—by working extra-hard and being extra-prepared. As a strategy for personal effectiveness, this hasn’t gone too badly. As a coping mechanism for discrimination, on the other hand, ignore and achieve has been an utter failure. Sighted people who have a mind to have always been able to grab hold of my blindness as a convenient handle for jerking me around.