The Social Causes of Blindness
February 14, 1911 — Massachusetts Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind, Boston MA
I rejoice that the greatest of all work for the blind, the saving of eyesight, has been laid so clearly before the public.
The reports of progress in the conservation of eyes, of health, of life, of all things precious to men are as a trumpet blast summoning us to still greater effort. The devotion of physicians and laymen, and the terrible needs of our fellowmen ought to hearten us in the fight against conquerable misery.
Our worst foes are ignorance, poverty and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society. These are the causes of much blindness, these are the enemies which destroy the sight of little children and workmen, and undermine the health of mankind. So long as these enemies remain unvanquished, so long will there be blind and crippled men and women.
To study the diseases and accidents by which sight is lost, and to learn how the surgeon can prevent or alleviate them, is not enough. We must strive to put an end to the conditions which cause the disease and accidents.
This case of blindness, the physician says, resulted from ophthalmia. It was really caused by a dark, overcrowded room, by the indecent herding together of human beings in insanitary tenements. We are told that another case was produced by the bursting of a wheel. The real cause was an employer’s failure to safeguard his machines. Investigation shows that there are many clever safeguards for machinery which ought to be used in factories, but which are not adopted because their adoption would diminish the employer’s profits.
Labor reports indicate that we Americans have been slow, dishonorably slow, in taking measures for the protection of our workmen.
Does it occur to you that the white lace which we wear is darkened by the failing eyes of the lace maker? The trouble is that we do not understand the essential relation between poverty and disease. I do not believe that there is anyone in this city of kind hearts who would willingly receive dividends if he knew that they were paid in part with blinded eyes and broken backs. If you doubt that there is such a connection between our prosperity and the sorrows of the poor, consult those bare but illuminated reports of industrial commissions and labor bureaus. They are less eloquent than oratory. In them you will find the fundamental causes of much blindness and crookedness, of shrunken limbs and degraded minds. These causes must be searched out, and every condition in which blindness breeds must be exposes and abolished. Let our battle cry be, No preventable disease, no unnecessary poverty, no blinding ignorance among mankind.
Source: Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years: Writings and Speeches, Ed. Philip S. Foner, (International Publishers), 1967, p. 29.