If Charles Krauthammer's commentary on blind sailor Jim Dickson {op-ed, Aug. 21} marks an enlightened step up from that of William F. Buckley Jr., it is nonetheless a flawed and disappointing effort.

In addition to ignoring the resiliency of the human spirit, Mr. Krauthammer underestimates the adaptive capacity of the human brain. Persons deprived of one or more of the senses usually receive heightened, supranormal input from those remaining. For an example, one has only to turn to the rich and varied sensuous images supplied by Helen Keller in her autobiography.

Some time ago, I remarked to a musician friend that the worst sensory deprivation imaginable must be never to have heard the music of Beethoven and Mozart or the sound of a human voice. She responded with a story. One of the finest young performers in her graduate music program was a fellow pianist, totally deaf from birth. Her skill, acquired through a combined "hearing" of vibrations and touch, reflected an extraordinary knowledge of and sensitivity to the sound of music.

Since then I have not had the audacity to rate the quality of sensory life for the blind and deaf. Unlike Mr. Krauthammer, I cannot say that a deaf person sitting next to me at a concert or a blind person standing next to me on the edge of the Grand Canyon is less able -- much less unable -- to participate in what he deems wholly "hearing" and "seeing" experiences.

As for Jim Dickson's sail, no doubt a seeing sailor would have experienced the same voyage differently, but would the quality of either experience necessarily diminish because it was different?


William F. Buckley Jr.'s arrogant retort to widespread criticism about his views on handicapped people {op-ed, Aug. 26} proves that when one simply won't admit one is wrong about something and wishes instead to defend the indefensible on intellectual grounds, one becomes one's own worst enemy.

Any other human being on the face of the Earth could easily understand that what Jim Dickson attempted was brave and a fine example of an indomitable spirit for all of us -- handicapped or not.

Had Mr. Buckley written about a fellow sailor's appreciation of the sea (something he can speak about with authority) and the fearsome prospect of sailing single-handed across an ocean, he would have been squarely on target. Instead, he chose to split hairs about the allegedly superior experience of sailing with a full set of human senses and, in the process, allowed his keen mind to play mischievous tricks on him -- and Jim Dickson.

I say "mischievous" because I do not believe Mr. Buckley meant to disparage Mr. Dickson when he compared his accomplishment with appreciating a book because it was written by a "semiliterate" and with a dog's (yes, a dog's) walking on its hind legs. These comparisons would be interesting and even amusing in a college debate. But they are merely obnoxious in a newspaper column about a real person in the real world.

Enough is enough. Mr. Buckley should simply apologize to his loyal readers for bringing the matter up in the first place. And he might also extend that courtesy to Jim Dickson, who certainly deserves it. Better yet -- Mr. Buckley should blindfold himself and then attempt an Atlantic crossing alone. That experience might produce a column I'd enjoy reading. DON MACE McLean

William F. Buckley Jr. concluded his Aug. 26 column by citing Samuel Johnson to further dismiss Jim Dickson's attempt to sail the Atlantic. Mr. Buckley provided only a partial quotation, however. The complete passage reveals more about the columnist than he intended, for Samuel Johnson's sneering reference about dogs that walk on their hind legs was directed at ''woman preachers.'' In the 200 years since his writings, we have become -- in most quarters -- fully accustomed to woman preachers, just as we have become accustomed to the participation of women in other areas of public life. Mr. Dickson's brave attempt is part of the process by those previously considered helpless by society to participate fully in life. One hopes that this process will not also take 200 years.

In the meantime, we can be thankful to Mr. Buckley for clearly revealing the mean-spirited contempt for one's fellows that lies so close to the affable surface of American conservatism.

DAVID C. WARD Washington

Can you stand one more letter about Jim Dickson? His odyssey has made an important point, but not the one he intended.

Each of us, not just the obviously handicapped, must both recognize and push against our limitations, but none of us can succeed on our own. As a nearsighted asthmatic, my handicaps are less severe than Mr. Dickson's, but like him I depend on the technological and societal assistance of others.

Without special instruments, and caring people to design and monitor them, Mr. Dickson could not have attempted his journey. But this points up not just the helplessness of the handicapped, but the network of mutual dependence that connects each of us. In an age when nuclear war has made all of us vulnerable, it's a good point to keep in mind. LORI EATON Alexandria

I was appalled when I saw the four letters attacking William F. Buckley Jr.'s position {Aug. 18}.

Mr. Buckley encouraged handicapped people to devote their energies to fields where they are not disqualified by their handicap. I take that to mean that a blind person should not aspire to be an art critic or a tour guide through the Grand Canyon, but could become a great music critic, college professor or president of the United States.

As for the letters from representatives of organizations concerned with the handicapped, I am infinitely more impressed with that handsome man in the TV commercial -- who works for IBM and, though blind and in a wheelchair, has not allowed what most would consider great handicaps to prevent him from becoming a valued member of that corporation -- than I am with Jim Dickson and others who choose to help the handicapped with stunts attracting the interest of the media. VICTOR A. MACK Silver Spring