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'A Factor In A Much Larger Life': Debating Chen Guangcheng's Blindness

Chen Guangcheng at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. This photo was released by the Embassy's press office.
Getty Images
Chen Guangcheng at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. This photo was released by the Embassy's press office.

If you've been following the case of Chen Guangcheng, the activist looking to leave China for the U.S., there's one thing you probably know about him.

The fact that he's blind.

But is Chen's blindness central to his story – his political activism and the diplomatic dance he has set off?

"His blindness did not give him any particular bravery or insight," says Stephen Kuusisto, the author of two memoirs about being blind. "It is just a factor in a much larger life,"

Chen has been repeatedly referred to as "the blind activist" or "the blind activist lawyer" by news outlets such as The New York Times, The Associated Press and The Washington Post. The Economist's current cover story is headlined "Blind Justice."

On Wednesday, NPR decided not to label Chen a "blind activist." Though, as in Mark's post Thursday about people uploading pictures of themselves wearing dark glasses in solidarity, we do refer to his blindness.

Descriptions of Chen as blind may have stuck in part because of the way he burst into broad Western consciousness last week – not through his longstanding campaign against China's one-child policy, but by escaping house arrest and trekking 300 miles to Beijing. The fact that he is blind made the story that much more dramatic.

"We're sticking with 'blind' because Chen's name might not be familiar to readers, but they may be aware that there's a 'blind activist' in trouble," says Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy.

But it doesn't seem like a useful shorthand to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, and regular contributor to NPR's Fresh Air.

"It was relevant, obviously, in reference to his escape," Nunberg says, "but the continued use implies a relevance that just isn't there. I don't think it's a 'PC' thing – the point would be the same if he were, for example, 6'7"."

While news outlets have for the most part stopped referring routinely to public figures by their race in recent years, pointing out disabilities has been a harder habit to break, says Kuusisto, who directs the honors program at Syracuse University.

Alluding to Chen's blindness makes him seem even more of a sympathetic victim, he suggests, in much the same way that the constant references a decade ago to the terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman as the "blind sheik" made him seem a greater villain.

"Blindness stands as a kind of metaphorical intensifier," Kuusisto says. "The cleric is angrier than other people because he's blind. In that way, Chen is more miraculous and heroic because he's blind."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.