“In the kingdom of the blind….” thoughts on impairment and disability

I have read that some people make a useful distinction between impairment and disability.  Impairment is about actual neurology, biology, physiology and so on. Disability is about the effects of that impairment on life in the world.

There is an old saying that “in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king”. It is meant to say that someone with a little ability will have an advantage over people with less; but, in reality, if there really were a kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man would be disabled.

Everything in such a kingdom would be set up for blind people. Nothing would depend on vision; much would depend on the other senses. But the one eyed man would have the problem of seeing and therefore not relying on his other senses as much. He would be disabled.

John Varley wrote a beautiful short story along these lines; it is called “Persistence of Vision” – I highly recommend it. It is collected in an anthology of the same name. The basics of this story is that, in a post-apocalyptic United States, a man is hitchhiking across the country when he runs into a commune of deaf-blind people (survivors of the rubella epidemic). I won’t spoil it by saying more.

Back to the real world. How does impairment interact with the world? Before reading was common, dyslexia was not much of a disability.  If 95% of the people cannot read, then being unable to is not much of a problem, even if it is based on an impairment.

We cannot correct all impairments; but we can ameliorate many disabilities.

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