Kudlick, Catherine J. “The Outlook of The Problem and The Problem with the Outlook: Two Advoacy Journals Reinvent Blind Poeple in Turn-of-the-Century America”, The New Disability History: American Perspectives. ed. Longmore, Paul K and Lauri Umansky, pp. 187-213
Kudlick discusses the representations of blind people in two journals, The Problem, published by and for blind people with the intention of fostering communication across the country, and Outlook for the Blind, which was aimed primarily at sighted professionals and talked about the blind rather than to them. The Problem was published from 1900-1903, while Outlook launched in 1907 and lasted for a generation. [I'm a little unclear on when Outlook stopped publishing, but I suspect this is because I read this article fairly quickly, and not because of any fault on the part of the author.]
Kudlick compares the two publications primarily on whose voices are highlighted in them – Outlook almost exclusively published works by sighted professionals, while Problem primarily published the words and letters of blind people – and the intended audiences. She argues that Outlook presented blind people for sighted people. Outlook was a very visual magazine, complete with photographs. As well, the language used in Outlook made it clear that sighted professionals were needed for the aid of blind people, and that blind people were best served by these professionals, rather than each other.
Kudlick draws the distinction between the two journals most strongly by their discussions of gender, primarily their discussions of women’s roles in society. While The Problem presented happily married blind women going about their days as women who happened to be blind (with children!), Outlook was very clearly setting blind women up to be de-sexualised, their skills in domestic science aimed to help out around other people’s homes, not to start their own. She also describes the difference in how blind men and masculinity were discussed in each journal. The Problem published regular biographical sketches of blind men in jobs such as bank managers or farmers. Such sketches did not appear in Outlook.
Kudlick describes two series that Outlook published: the debate over the foundation of a blind college, along the lines of the college for the Deaf, Gallaudet, and the regular publication of letters from Helen Keller. I must admit that until she brought it up, I had never considered questioning the lack of a college for blind students, nor why such a college had not been founded during the US Progressive Era. (I suspect there are different, although complementary, reasons for this in Canada.) The debate apparently raged on for several issues. Kudlick highlights that this debate did include the voices of blind men, often proffesional men who had been educated at various high education institutes across the US, which makes it clear that some blind people, at least, were reading Outlook. However, she also makes it clear that the words of these men were published last, after all the sighted experts had had their say.
As for Keller’s letters, Kudlick expresses some disdain towards Keller’s role as a “spokeswoman” for blind people, and questions how free she could be with her opinions in light of her dependence on others for her support. She also questions how much of Keller’s expressed opinions were actually her own, rather than those of the non-disabled people around her. I don’t buy into this argument as much, but I admit I have not read Hermann’s Helen Keller: A Life or Lash’s Helen and Teacher, so this is more of a knee-jerk defense reaction to my respect for Keller and less some carefully nuanced opinion having taken in all the facts. Certainly I understand Kudlick’s presentation of Keller as being fairly safe and non-confrontational for the readers of Outlook, and am equally aware of her probelmatic status amongst blind people as presenting both an unattainable image of success, and as a very desexualised (or “virgin”, as Kudlick puts it), presentation of blindness.
One of the things I found most interesting was how many of the same discussions we have in disability and gender-related discussions now, in 2010, are the same ones they were having in 1910. Kudlick describes the idylic blind woman presented in The Problem in a very domestic setting, her sighted husband reading the newspaper as their 18 month old child plays at their feet. As Kudlick says, this image doesn’t strike a blow for women’s rights in the Progressive Era, but it does present a very radical image of disability: that of a “normal” family, of a blind woman being obviously sexual in some way. It reminds me of the discussions and debates in online feminism about the presentation of women with disabilities in beauty pagents or advertising, comparing them with presentations of non-disabled women.
My only frustration with Kudlick’s work is it leaves race and class unmentioned. There’s some implication of class discussion in who is actually published in either of the journals, but race is left entirely unmentioned. Having recently finished Burch’s Signs of Resistance, which discusses race issues in Deaf education in the same time period Kudlick is writing about, I would have appreciated some explicit mention of race. Its absence is, of course, an indication of the publications in question being by and for white people.
Overall, I found this article very useful to my own research, as it gave me things I need to question about the people I’m writing about. While C.F. Fraser is a blind man – he was blinded in a childhood accident, attended a blind school, and identified himself as a blind person when applying to be a teacher at the School for the Blind, the primary expected audience of the Annual Reports of the school is obviously sighted. I need to question why that is, and discuss how that intended audience affected what Fraser wrote about. I also need to spend more time looking at how Fraser himself was presented to the public. One could be forgive for not realising Fraser was blind, since it was hardly ever mentioned or referred to at all after his hiring, and pictures of him only show him with glasses. Is he being presented that way in order to be more re-assuring to the sighted public, especially parents? And how is he presented – if he’s presented at all – in publications that are aimed at blind people?