The Blind Community Needs A '60S-style Revolution,' Says Blind Activist

Soner Çoban, 24, is a blind community activist who says the visually impaired are victimized by positive discrimination in Turkey and that people often try to console them for their "shortcoming." Çoban says, "The blind community is not a different sphere of society." Nearly 13 percent of the people in Turkey have some form of disability, and 11.75 percent of this segment is blind. While the so-called normal people enjoy all sorts of facilities, the disabled are deprived of many services. But they are seldom heard speaking out.

Soner Çoban is an exception; he has always raised his voice and fought for the rights of the blind community, of which he is quite an active part. "A disability is not the shortcoming or malfunctioning of an organ. It is actually the conventions and misperceptions in society that create barriers rendering the world inaccessible to us in many respects," he says.

During his education, both among acquaintances and strangers, Çoban, 24, has perpetually run up against biases of people -- with and without disabilities. "For me blindness is just a nuisance, not 'dust on a precious jewel'," he remarks, referring to the words of Ayse Kuralay, when she described the way she perceived the blindness of her husband during an interview with Today's Zaman on May 11. "The blind community is not a different sphere of society; the problems of the others are valid for blind people, too. For example, the employment issue is still one of the greatest challenges for us. We cannot prove our efficiency, often employers just immediately reject the applicants," he explains, adding that the reason they are faced with such prejudice when applying for jobs is that employers are ignorant about the capabilities of the blind community.

Though all these problems make life difficult, Çoban is against special regulations for the blind in the welfare system: "In Europe, the blind community goes through the same problems; but, because the welfare system is strong, it is as though they don't exist. The system steals the chance to show people who you are and, when everything is readily granted, you exert no effort. But if their welfare system collapses some day, worse things may happen there." For Çoban, asking for donations obtained by means of telemarketing and lotteries is just another form of begging. He thinks this contributes to the pity people tend to display toward the disabled, which Çoban is entirely opposed to. "If you want to help, be constructive and help strengthen my position and self-sufficiency. Don't give me a fish, teach me 'how' to fish. Otherwise all the support will be merely spoon-feeding."

At this point, he mentions the concept of positive discrimination, which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defended. "Positive discrimination is as dangerous as negative discrimination," Çoban says, adding: "It not only makes us lazier, but also provides an opportunity for exploitation for the people pretending to be blind. We have to engage in internal criticism and question the degree to which we should accept the segregationist benefits or rights that sighted individuals do not have. For instance, I am against tax cuts and discounts on inter-regional bus tickets for blind people. We must pay the same amount, but the state should supply better facilities for us." However, he points out that only a small number of people say "no" to this "constitutional pity," which he sees as an obstacle to changing people's perceptions.

At the root of such perceptions, however, are preconceived notions, such as the angelic status attributed to the blind. "We are not semi-prophets," Soner remarks, adding: "Even the blind exploit the state. I mean, there are good and evil among us, including alcoholics and perverts. The traditional portrait of disability should be smashed somehow. People have to acknowledge that we are no different from the rest of the society." Such a process "might take some 2,000 years" he says with a bitter smile on his face. He explains: "Whenever a blind individual achieves something, people are completely surprised and pour out words of admiration. If you analyze the discourse, their previous disbelief in the capabilities of blind people is revealed." Ironically, the blind get the same treatment from the so-called educated people, including some of the professors in Çoban's graduate department. "The only difference is that they use polished and embellished words. But their prejudices are the same as those of a villager."

So how and why are such negative perceptions of blindness created? Çoban believes this is because of poor interpretations of the two fundamental components of social life: traditions and religion. Traditional beliefs about blindness, such as thinking that the blind have some sort of internal vision, date back to ancient times (the Tiresias figure in Greek mythology, for example). However, this outdated belief still exists in our "modern" world. What is peculiar to Turkish society is that religious beliefs combined with misjudgments add to this understanding. "During the Ottoman period, the responsibilities and duties of the blind were limited. They were simply Quran memorizers, and that is why from time to time I am called "Hafiz" [someone who has memorized the entire Quran] by passersby. Unfortunately the society attached a negative connotation to such a positive word," he says.

One other point he is uncomfortable with is the explanations people feel urged to put forward to "console" him. "Some people base blindness on religion and say I am created to show people how important the faculty of sight is. Yet they cannot comprehend that God created me this way to display diversity. ... Otherwise, it would definitely be a monotonous life," he explains, adding, "I am not an exhibition tool everybody can get their lessons from."

However it is evident that there will be no end to these fantasies and myths about blindness without the emergence of an intellectual milieu to examine the issue. "Blind society has no voice. They don't react, but just produce constant complaints in their perpetual inactivity. What we need is a '60s-style revolutionary movement, a new intelligentsia. The rights and voices of lesbians, gays and transsexuals are much more discussed, but this is because of the literary ground prepared for such groups. As for us, who is going to demythologize the prejudices and intellectualize the ideas and feelings of our community?" he asks. At this point, some people might recall Cemil Meriç -- a well-known author and intellectual who lost his sight at the age of 38 -- but Çoban claims even he was not at peace about his blindness: "I believe this is one of his shortcomings. A man who saves the world in his writings cannot save himself from this dark and miserable psychology of blindness." He also mentions Kenneth Jernigan, the longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind in the US and a well-known figure for his revolutionary works and speeches during the '60s. However it seems impossible to start even the slightest movement for the blind due to the internal factions in the community. Çoban explains, "The political separations-- left and right separations-- are strongly felt among us. Some associations are tagged as 'bigots' and some as 'infidels.' These differences make us forget our common blindness and keep us from being on the same route. That being said, it is quite natural that we cannot progress and have no philosophical works for perspective when we are stuck on such trivial issues. "

Even though difficulties such as internal factions and prejudices complicate the situation, a small number of people like Çoban are determined to break through and prepare the way for a long-awaited revolution. Who knows, if a healthy and active consciousness can be built not just for the disabled but also for the so-called normal people, the spirit of the '60s spirit may be revived. tz-web/detaylar

Reproduced from http://www.zaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=148218

More blind related articles.