Humans. Ya gotta love ’em. Either that or want to slap some sense into our thick skulls out of sheer exasperation, so it’s best to just go with the love and don’t get yourself all worked up. It’s not like we’re going to change anytime soon or anything. After a couple of million years climbing the social ladder from hunter-gatherer to internet cadet we’ve shown both remarkable skills and a perverse streak a mile wide.
With us it’s either landing on the moon or inventing lemon-scented toilet paper. Curing diseases or creating new ones. Harnessing the atom and then using it to blow stuff up. Singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” back-to-back with “99 Bottles of Beer on The Wall.” Creating beautiful architecture and surrounding it with strip malls. Writing both the Bill of Rights, which giveth, and The Patriot Act, which taketh away. What’s with us?
Now word comes to us from the National Federation of the Blind and Virginia Tech that as soon as next year a prototype vehicle will be unveiled that will allow blind people to drive a car. This bears repetition just to let it sink in: they want blind people to drive cars.
You just know that this achievement, called “nonvisual interface,” had to take millions of man-hours of intense research and hard work by a lot of smart people for a very worthy cause, easing the plight of blind people, but you wonder if society will embrace this idea.
In a classic display of understatement, advocates for the blind conceded that “years of testing will be required before society accepts blind drivers.” You think?
Now you’re wondering if it ever occurred to any of these brilliant minds to apply all that time and energy trying to cure blindness. Other than training a dog to lead them around or giving them a stick to feel their way around life’s many obstacles, pretty low-tech approaches, there haven’t been a whole lot of breakthroughs in helping out blind people.
Then you ask yourself exactly what have they been doing with all those eyes that get donated by organ donors? You know how that works, you check off a box on the back of your driver’s license that says if you buy the farm in a spectacular car wreck that doctors can help themselves to whatever organs you didn’t mangle.
The results of this program have been stunningly successful, with news of kidney, heart, lung and other internal organs being transplanted into people and saving their lives quite commonplace, many of them children afflicted with a horrible condition. Except if that horrible condition happens to be blindness.
They’re still shit out of luck and getting dragged around by dogs or groping their way through life with a cane, while those millions of donated eyeballs collect dust in a bin somewhere, or are being separated by color and used in games of Chinese Checkers on slow days at the lab. We just don’t know, and they’re not telling.
So, we’ve split the atom, landed on the moon, replaced hearts and linked the planet together via the largest library ever assembled, right at our fingertips (except of course blind people, who can’t seem to get the hang of computers, what with them being so visually oriented and all). They get a dog or a stick, and now they’re getting a car. They just won’t know what color it is, what the speedometer reading is, or what color is that traffic light they can’t see.
When you’re blind, you sort of have to accept these things. Like deaf people who will never hear a Beatles song or their child’s voice, there are huge slices of the human experience denied the blind. The Mona Lisa and the view from the Empire State Building are only the tip of the iceberg. Try shaving, showering and getting dressed with your eyes closed, or maybe cook a meal blindfolded once. You won’t try it twice.
Apparently someone thought that driving a car was an indispensable experience, more important than giving them eyesight to see those little things the rest of us take for granted, like brick walls and pedestrians.
So, while congratulations are in order for the scientists, researchers, students and technicians who made driving a car possible for blind people, a part of you just wants to shake some sense into these people and ask “What the hell are you thinking?”
Most sighted people are lousy drivers, and we’re always accusing each other of being blind when we’re out on the road. What would you say to a reckless blind driver? You’re not supposed to verbally abuse blind people, but put them behind the wheel of a car and that bit of decency will disappear swiftly.
You also can’t help but wonder if anybody asked any actual blind people what they could use to make their lives more manageable. It’s hard to believe that driving a 2-ton hunk of steel at high speeds without being able to see all the other speeding 2-ton hunks of steel hurtling around you is very high on the wish list of a blind person. A peek at the Mona Lisa seems more like it.