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by Stephen Kuusisto
Dial Press, 1998
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 16th 2002

Planet of the Blind

Stephen Kuusisto is legally blind, and for nearly all his life he has had severe visual impairments.  He is a gifted writer, so his memoir of his life is a pleasure to read.  He was born in New Hampshire in 1955, and much of his childhood was devoted to making up for his disability.  He read books, rode his bicycle, and watched TV.  His mother insisted that he learn to type.  His mother wants him to live like other children as much as possible.  His family was not ready to face up to the fact that Kuusisto had real problems with his vision, and even if they had been, it is not so clear that they would have been able to do much to help him. 

There are no books about blind children or how to bring them up, no associations of parents or support materials, at least not in rural New Hampshire.  Instead there are assumptions: Blindness is a profound misfortune, a calamity really, for ordinary life can’t accommodate it.  (p. 13.)

Knowing that blindness is stigmatized, against the advice of officials, his parents enroll him in a public school rather than an institution for the blind.  For many years, Kuusisto took very much the same attitude as his parents.  It was decades before he agreed to carry a white cane as he walked around towns and cities. 

Clearly, simply closing one’s eyes does not explain to the sighted how life is on the planet of the blind.  Kuusisto’s prose helps the reader to get some idea of what it is like to lack sight. 

I believe that in every person’s imagination there are landscapes.  The world is gray and marine blue, then a clump of brown shingled houses stands revealed by rays of sun, appearing now as bison—shaggy and still.  These are the places learned by rote, their multiple effects of color made stranger by fast-moving clouds.  The unknown is worse, an epic terrain that, in the mind’s eye, could prevent a blind person from leaving home.  (p. 63)

Easier to understand is Kuusisto’s relief and joy when he finally gets a guide dog, Corky; Corky transforms his whole experience of mobility and safety, and of course, they form a powerful emotional bond.  But, as he always knew, it means that he is instantly identifiable as a blind person, and walking with a guide dog changes how people interact with him and talk about him in his earshot.  But after decades of living at a disadvantage and even putting himself in danger of physical injury, Kuusisto learns to live with the stigma associated with blindness.  Strangely, it is at this stage of his life that he feels a need to turn to religion and seek comfort in faith. 

Planet of the Blind is a graceful work about a life of blindness, and is well worth reading. 

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.