Rod Michalko. The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998 (179 pages).$45.00 Cloth, $17.95 Paper.

The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness is an ambitious book that seeks to educate those with sight about the world inhabited by those who are blind. The author of the book is blind himself and thus brings first-hand knowledge and experience to the subject matter.

Any attempt by a “disabled person” to share his/her experiences - and method of making sense of his/her life - is fraught with a particular danger. If the account is too personal and subjective, it will be criticized as autobiographical, with little relevance to the experiences of others with the same condition, and of marginal scientific value. On the other hand, an account that is objective and academic will fail to capture the reality of what it means to be “disabled”. Michalko is clearly aware of these two dangers and early in the volume states that the “book is not about me but is about blindness itself” (p.4).

However, the balance between objectivity and subjectivity is a problematic tension in the book. The reader's interest is piqued when the author relates his own experiences, but sinks rapidly when he tries to focus on blindness as an abstract condition and concept. The use of excerpts from literature – such as H.G. Wells's short story “Country of the Blind” (1927), in which a sighted person is the deviant is a society of the blind – fails (at least to this reviewer) to illustrate the experience of being blind.

Michalko states three purposes for his book: to analyze the influence that blindness has had on his life; to examine societal attitudes toward blind persons; and, to examine existing research on blindness. This is a demanding agenda, especially for a book of less than 200 pages. In order to accomplish his second and third objectives, Michalko treats blindness in a largely philosophical manner, only introducing his own experiences in later chapters.

The second chapter – titled “What is Blindness?” – fails to answer this question, but instead focusses on quasi-philosophical questions such as the desire of human beings to master nature and the universal fear of death. What is missing for those who are not blind is an account of the variability (congenital, partial, late onset, etc.) of what is called “blindness”. In other words, Michalko too quickly assumes that his readers have considerable knowledge of blindness and have already contemplated its implications. This is unlikely to be the case, and hence his discussion in the chapter is premature for many readers.

Chapter three is largely an examination of the inability of medicine and medical procedures to assist many blind persons. However, by again failing to address the basic medical facts that readers would require, the chapter hovers uncertainty between a philosophical discussion and the experience of a handful of individuals. Although Michalko strives for objectivity, his analysis makes clear that he must have had extensive and fruitless encounters with the medical establishment. A review of what these were would not only help the reader understand the physiology of blindness but also the source of Michalko’s critical view of the medical profession.

Chapter four - ostensibly about the rehabilitation of the blind – is a critique of the underlying philosophy of rehabilitation programs: that the blind must be taught to fit into the sighted world; that they must be taught to be “normal”. Much of the chapter deals with the tensions inherent in the patient-professional relationship although Michalko does not frame the discussion in this manner. As with the previous chapter it seems likely that Michalko has had personal exposure to programs for the blind which have shaped his criticisms, but he fails to elucidate the reader about his own background.

Only in chapter five is the reader given some lengthy and concrete examples of Michalko’s personal experiences with growing up as a near blind person. By using the concepts of Goffman and Garfinkel, Michalko analyzes (pp. 104-122) the strategies he has used to “pass” as sighted. For example, as a teenager he manufactured and propagated fictional stories (related to police charges of driving under the influence of alcohol) that would account for his inability to obtain a driver's license. Although concealment is one strategy employed by the disabled, Michalko might have used the sociological literature for a more detailed application of Goffman’s and Garfinkel’s ideas, including strategies such as voluntary disclosure, avoidance, and disavowal. Indeed, a broader sociological framework of disability, stigma and deviance might well have allowed Michalko to further evaluate his own experience and those of others.

As alluded to above, the book would have been more informative and powerful if from the beginning the focus was Michalko’s own life and experiences (and those of others who are blind). From such a base of knowledge - supplemented with better descriptions of what blindness is - the reader might have been more gradually and systematically conducted on the path that Michalko has indicated.

Although the flaws of the book are not inconsiderable, neither are its accomplishments. The book challenges the reader to ask questions: Why do I assume that when using the word “reader”, this person has sight? Why do I feel sorry for the blind person coming my way on the sidewalk? What can I – the sighted – learn from the blind? These questions should continue to raised by Michalko and other disabled individuals, who should not be hesitant to use their own experiences.

Thomas Klassen,
Dept. of Sociology
Trent University

November 1998
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