At this writing, Jim Dickson, with a damaged autopilot, is said to be en route to Bermuda in his 36-foot sloop, the ''Eye-Opener.'' I hope Dickson makes it to Bermuda, and I hope he then abandons his plan to sail across the Atlantic alone -- blind.
Yes, Jim Dickson has suffered, since age 7, from retinitis pigmentosa. And the name he gave to his sloop is in the nature of a poetic challenge to the scientific community for its failure to come up with a cure for blindness: since the doctors have not opened his eyes, Jim Dickson will do so. With the aid of modern technology, he has set out to cross a great ocean, to prove that blind people can lead productive lives.
''It's not me alone sailing. There's a lot of people helping,'' he said. ''If the same helping hand is extended to hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans, it would make lives a lot easier.''
We know that the blind can lead productive lives. There wasn't an unproductive bone in the body of John Milton, and George Shearing can decoct beautiful music from the blackness in which, throughout his lifetime, he has lived. John Milton ''proved'' that a blind man could compose poetry, but in order for another to do so, the prerequisite is that he be John Milton. George Shearing and Ray Charles have proved that blind men can play the piano, but people who are not blind cannot play the piano if they lack certain skills, some of them endowed, others cultivated. Jim Dickson is endeavoring to pull off a stunt, and the blind stand neither to benefit from his adventure nor to take heart from it.
The rampant egalitarianism of democratic society seeks leveling even at the metaphysical level. Short men are given high heels to wear, curly-headed men use straighteners, crooked-nosed men call plastic surgeons. These are ameliorative devices, in some cases to be tolerated, in others welcome. Nothing is more heartening than the prosthetic device that permits a cripple to wake from surgery to find that he has five fingers again. And no medical miracle can approach the magic of restored sight.
But when the reserves and the ingenuity of the scientists are exhausted, there is left the lame and the halt. And it is one thing to care after the lame and the halt and to endeavor to give them opportunities to live productive and happy lives. It is something entirely different to encourage them to do that which their handicap inherently proscribes.
To sail a boat across the Atlantic it is useful to be able to detect an odor (a fire on board may have broken out). It is useful to have functioning taste buds (the canned food may have turned). Your ears tell you a great deal (the mounting wind, the ripped sail, the detached halyard). But to have vision is quite simply required. Without it you cannot make the most basic calculation intelligently, which is to set the sail correctly. (And if you cannot see the water and the skies, why are you going on a sailboat to begin with?)
Along comes modern technology. And it sets out, in the doggedly hubristic mode, to tell you: No sweat. Look. We can tell you, via instruments, from which direction the wind is blowing. Then we can tell you, by instruments again, how hard the wind is blowing. We can therefore tell you how much sail to expose, and in what angle that sail should fly. We can indicate to you, through Brailled instruments, how long to push the button that furls the genoa jib, and how long to push the button that trims it. See! No hands! And if you get into trouble? I quote Jim Dickson: ''All I have to do is to pull a little Velcro tab and two people in a control room will know exactly where I am and that I need assistance.''
One wonders what next the advisory committee set up to superintend Dickson's passage will turn to. They could arrange to have a blind man fly across the Atlantic -- as a matter of fact, that would be easier, and safer, than sailing across. Takeoffs and landings executed automatically are routine stuff. But what are we proving? That blind men should take up flying?
The beginning of wisdom in respect of the handicapped is to recognize that they are handicapped. To treat them as though they are not handicapped is to deny reality. Let them do what they can do, but it is profane to suppose that a cripple can run, a deaf man hear or a blind man see -- and correspondingly profane to ask them to undertake challenges that in their nature presuppose the active limb or the active sense. God grant Jim Dickson safe passage, but do not make the mistake of supposing that he is helping the blind.