Charles Freer Andrews: The Eyes Of the Blind

Editor’s Note:
Charles Freer Andrews ((1871—1940) was an Anglican priest,a Christian missionary and an educator in India.
The following article appeared in The Modern Review in 1919. Prompted by Andrews’s encounter with a young blind Russian poet and thinker Vasily Eroshenko, it is a reflection on the nature of blindness, as well as on the practical meaning of the familiar Gospel statement: That the works of God may be made manifest” (John 9:3).

The eyes of the blind

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Yesterday, at Shantiniketan Asram, we received a welcome visit from four young Russian pilgrims, who had come to see the poet and the poet’s school. Three of these had, quite recently, successfully attempted a long journey from Petrograd and Moscow, through Persia and Mesopotamia, to the Persian Gulf. They had met with great hardships on the way and described the state of Russia as very bad indeed, but not so full of horrors as the papers made out. One of these three had been secretary to Mr. Kerensky, who, for a time, had been the leader of the Russian Revolution. His wife was accompanying him,—a pale, silent lady, who seemed to have passed through great suffering. But the one who interested us most of all was a blind Russian, whom the three travelers had met in Calcutta, on his way from Burma. He was quite young, with a childlike face and wavy, flowing, flaxen hair. From his infancy he had been quite blind, but he seemed blithe and gay, the brightest of all the company. As we walked round, he showed a wonderful instinct for free movement and he rarely stumbled. He was most keenly interested in everything that I described, and, in the evening, he listened most eagerly of all to the poet, when the latter talked with all his guests, and he asked the most intelligent questions. On leaving Bolpur, late in the night, the blind Russian put into my hand at the station, a paper which he had written and asked me to make what use of it I chose. As it appeared to me to be a document of great human interest, I felt certain that I might offer it with acceptance, to the readers of the “Modern Review.” The paper runs as follows:

“What does blindness mean to a blind man? In what way does it affect his psychical faculties? These questions are always before society, and many able writers have attempted to answer them. I knew a good worker for the Blind in Russia. She gave all her life to the work and, with bitter feeling, she wrote in an article on the ‘Psychology of the Blind’, that they are more selfish and more cruel than the sighted.

“Some writers speak of the immorality of the blind as one of their characteristic features. In Western Europe complaints are always made of the weakness and helplessness of the blind. In order to eradicate this evil, swimming, cycling, skating, rowing and other sports are taught at many schools in the West. All this, of course, should make the blind physically strong, but very often the workers go much further. In the compounds of many schools, the paths are arranged in such a way, that the blind may easily know where there is a turning, where there are steps, where there is an entrance and so on. A sighted person is sent with the blind when travelling on a railway or by tramcar. In a new and well-known home for blind soldiers in London, it appears that mat paths are arranged, even indoors, so that the blind may walk freely from one room to another. I should not wonder, if, after living in such a well accommodated dwelling, the blind were unable to walk alone not only in the streets of London, but evenn in their own compound.

“But if the blind of Western Europe are helpless, we cannot say the same of those in the East. The Japanese blind person, from his childhood, has to earn his living by massage. He goes about here and there among the people in the pursuit of his profession. The greater number of the blind are obliged to attend ordinary schools, in the same way as sighted students do, and they walk in the streets of Tokyo as freely as in their compounds.

“If the Russian blind are selfish and immoral, we cannot say the same of the English blind. Moreover, if it is true to say that the blind of Europe look dull, it would be quite wrong to say this of the blind in the East. There are writers who think that blindness, by putting a man in a peculiar position towards the outside world, strengthens his psychical faculties, develops the senses more intensely, and enables him to create for himself new and original worlds full of beauty and splendour. I remember a story of a blind man in Switzerland. From his childhood, he used to hear about the beauties of the Alps, their fantastic valleys full of wonderful flowers and glorious lakes surrounded by majestic rocks. He enjoyed all these things as much as the sighted did. At length one of his friends, a doctor, restored his sight by means of an operation. The first thing which the man wanted to see was the mountains and their beautiful scenery; but, as he gazed he grew sad and finally, throwing himself on the ground, he cried out, “Give me back my mountains! Give me back my valleys!” The reality was nothing in comparison with that which he had imagined.

“What, then, does blindness actually mean to the blind man himself? Does it mean that we are put in a dark place, where we know nothing of the things around us, or which way to go? Or does it mean that we are placed in a dream-land, without any limits to our imagination? Does blindness, by isolating a man from the outside world, make him somewhat like an idiot, as is commonly supposed? Or, on the contrary, does blindness, by the very fact that it separates him from his surroundings, thereby strengthen the inner side of the blind man’s nature? And does his imagination consequently attain a miraculous power and flexibility?

“I do not consider that personally I have enough experience to answer these questions. But whatever blindness may mean to the blind man, in whatever way it may affect his capabilities, we must emphatically maintain that education, or instruction of some kind, is more essential for the blind than for the sighted. This fact cannot be denied by any one; it is self-evident. But how many people fail to realise this! How many Governments fail to recognize the necessity of education for the blind! Is it not a pity and shame that this should be the case in our enlightened Twentieth Century?

“Now I shall speak a little about myself. I left Russia more than 3 years ago, in order to study a few subjects in the East, one of these being the state of the blind in Asia. I stayed in Japan for two years, and then I went to Siam, with the intention of starting work for the blind there. I stayed in Siam for 6 months, but I was unable to do anything for the blind in that country, the chief reason perhaps being, that a richer and more energetic and capable man than myself was needed for this work. The Siamese Government, however, as well as the Christian missionaries, promised to think over the matter, carefully, when they had more time.

“From Siam I came to Burma. The first thing which struck me, in the Moulmein Blind School, was the poverty of the students. There are thirty-three boys, of whom about ten are orphans and about ten have only one parent: the remainder belong to the very poorest class; hence none of the boys receive any assistance whatever from their homes, but depend entirely upon the School for food and clothing. If they were even sighted children, they would have the right to ask society to help them. Nevertheless the whole work of the Blind School is carried on by a few noble persons, who are left to their own devices. Society is quite indifferent to their work. Society, it seems, forgets the blind. Even women, who take such a great interest in the blind of Europe, forget their existence here in Burma. Perhaps it is not the business of Society to enquire how many fatherless or motherless children there are in the School, or how many boys have nobody in the world to help them. But this attitude does not do credit to European Society in Burma and it is a great shame that the Burmese people themselves should leave their blind to the care of a few persons, if the Buddhist people have no confidence in the School let them take up the matter themselves. There are thousands of Pongyi schools all over the country supported by the people. Could not a few schools for the blind be arranged on the same lines as these? I mean that schools might be instituted, where the blind would be under the control of good sighted Pongyi teachers, who would instruct them in the Buddhist Scriptures, the method of treating various diseases, and other useful occupations. The Burmese people should supply them with food, clothing and other necessaries of life, en the same way that they do for sighted Pongyis. If this were done, there is no doubt that blind Pongyis would be as useful to Society as the sighted ones. There is a considerable number of blind Christian Preachers in the West; and I do not see any reason why the Buddhist people should not also have their blind Preachers. The first thing to be done is to accept the Braille system, so that the blind may be able to read and write for themselves.

“Another thing, which I would like to suggest, is that a Colony for the blind should be instituted. This could easily be done in Burma. My idea is that a piece of land should be set apart for the blind, and they should be taught to cultivate paddy fields, vegetable gardens, coconut trees, rubber trees, sugarcane and fruits of various kinds. They could also keep cattle and fowls. They could learn how to row, how to catch fish, how to make or repair boats and nets. They might learn how to preserve fruits, vegetables, fish. Blind girls should learn weaving, spinning, sewing and knitting, as well as cooking, washing clothes, rearing of domestic animals- and other household duties. There is no doubt that such a Colony, under the control of sighted teachers, would flourish, if it were well-managed. In a few years, it would gain the confidence of the Government and the sympathy and love of all people. Such a Colony would be a brilliant example also for the West. Every year millions of pounds are spent for the blind in Western countries and as a result the blind are helpless; they are continually asking for assistance. This helplessness is due not to the blind themselves, but to the blind leaders of the blind who hitherto have not realised their fatal mistake. But I will not speak of them here. In the Colony which I have suggested, the sciences and arts would also be taught to the blind, their bodily and spiritual Hygiene would receive proper attention, and the blind man would become a useful citizen. Who knows but that they might take a great part in arousing the Jungle people to rid themselves of their old prejudices and their enormous superstitions? Who will dare to say that the blind man may not become a leading light in the dark night of the forest, a blessed guiding star on the path of jungle people, leading them from the darkness of their ignorance to the true lights of civilization?

“How much could be accomplished, and yet how little is actually done! And all this because Society is quite indifferent to the matter. But the less attention Society pays to the blind, the greater are the admiration and gratitude due to those who, in spite of being over-burdened with other work, endeavour to promote their education. I hope that, in the future, more interest will be taken in the blind, and that before long, not the blind of Burma only, but the blind of neighbouring countries, such as the Malay States, Malay Archipelago, Siam and Annam, so that these will also enjoy the privilege of education and become useful to their fellow-countrymen. I hope that the blind will no longer be regarded as people who are punished for their sins, in a former existence, or for the sins of their parents.

I hope that the blind will be recognized as people, by whom, as Christ said of a blindman, the ‘works of God may be made manifest.’

With this quotation from St. John’s Gospel the paper ends. It is signed “V. Eroshenko, Russian blind man”.

The opinions of the young Russian, when I read them, gave me much to think about. The time has surely come for a united Indian effort,—claiming in the name of common humanity the sympathy of all sects and creeds,—which soundest lines, the problem of giving eyes to the blind. Each province, through its own education department and through voluntary eflort, liberally aided by the authorities) should try to cover the whole ground of blind child-life. Mr. V. Eroshenko’s words should be carefully remembered,—“We must emphatically maintain that education is more essential for the blind man than for the sighted.”

Speaking generally, the faculty of touch, in India and the Far East, is so much more delicate than in Europe, that it may be possible to do without many of the aids and props which European Institutes for work out, on the best and the Blind have used, at the cost (as Mr. Eroshenko asserts) of making the blind more blind than before. It will be quite feasible to avoid many of the mistakes of the training of the past.

It should be possible also, in time, to do away with that disgraceful exploitation of blind people which now goes on in many cities,—the blind being used, as mere tools, by the sighted in order to excite the pity of the charitable and bring money to themselves. This is frequently done by parents who have blind children and it is to be feared that sometimes the children’s blindness remains unhealed because of the cupidity of the parents.

The cases of individual blind beggars are well known to the police, and if a sympathetic inspecting officer were appointed, who would work in conjunction with a voluntary citizen’s Committee, it might be possible to rescue at an early age many blind boys and girls from a life of sordid beggary.

I do not wish, however, in this brief article, to do more than ventilate the whole subject for the careful consideration of the Modern Review readers, in the light of the statements made by my Russian blind friend, Mr. V. Eroshenko.

Shantiniketan.                                                                                                   C. F. Andrews.

Andrews C. F. The Eyes of the Blind // The Modern Review. – 1919. – Apr. – P. 339-342.