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Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 6:20 AM

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‘For the Benefit of Those Who See:’ the resilience of the blind

Rosemary Mahoney’s new book “For the Benefit of Those Who See” chronicles her revelations about the nature of blindness as she worked with an international organization, Braille Without Borders.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“For the Benefit of Those Who See — Dispatches from the World of the Blind”

by Rosemary Mahoney

Little, Brown, 277 pp., $27

Seattle readers might remember a marvelous short story called “Cathedral” by the late Port Angeles author Raymond Carver. In Carver’s story, a man’s wife invites a blind man named Robert — a friend she used to read aloud to — to visit after Robert’s wife has died. The woman’s husband is uncomfortable with the whole idea. Not only does the close friendship trigger a resentment, even jealousy, but also, the husband admits, “his being blind bothered me.”

Robert comes to their home, they all have dinner, then when the wife leaves the men together awhile, they watch a documentary on TV. But the husband’s superficial diversion tactic gradually opens his eyes when he helps Robert “see” Europe’s great cathedrals by drawing one on a paper bag as the program airs.

Robert holds the husband’s moving hand, and he can trace the pen’s heavy impressions in the paper, too. He reveals himself as intelligent, curious, a pleasure to know; having no sight, the husband learns, doesn’t diminish Robert’s self-reliance, compassion or positive outlook.

Rosemary Mahoney, author of “Down the Nile” and several other notable books, echoes this experience in her fascinating account of researching an article about Braille Without Borders, Tibet’s first school for the blind, and working at BWB’s international institute in India, now called Kanthari.

For, like Carver’s character, until Mahoney grew to know blind people, she’d been ill at ease; she had a “morbid fear of losing my eyesight,” thinking it “worse than being dead” or like “being buried alive.”

Her book’s “dispatches” reveal children and adults with striking resilience and, for the sighted, uncanny abilities. The BWB students could, for instance, find their way around Lhasa, navigating by sound, smells, and touch: the chatter of TVs in an electronics store on a corner, a particularly aromatic bakery, the road beneath their feet turning soft where pavement ends.

They can identify Rosemary by the sounds her shoes make, the speed at which she types, the scent of her shampoo. Using every sense but sight, they operate in an often puzzlingly luxurious world.

In fact, Mahoney notes, those with partial sight often have more difficulties than those in total darkness because they cling to what little they can see. A young boy at BWB in Tibet, for instance, resists learning Braille, deluding himself that constant prayer will restore his vision. Another student takes him to task, forcing him to put his finger to the page of raised dots, a small breakthrough of infinite importance.

Mahoney takes her title from the 17th-century “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See” by Denis Diderot, a rationalist who openly questioned both the church and how the blind were treated. His work was, she explains, “probably the first formal investigation of and appreciation for a blind person as an intelligent, capable human being.”

And she develops those themes, pointing out that prejudice, superstitions about and underestimating the blind or treating them as incompetent or pitiable only serves to demonstrate sighted persons’ discomfort and lack of understanding.

By living and working among the blind, then sending back word of their ambitions and dignity, excellent memories and formidable patience, Mahoney helps readers begin to comprehend that “the assumption that blindness holds nothing but loss is quickly corrected by the testimony of the blind themselves.”

Irene Wanner is a writer living in New Mexico.

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