Last week or so, someone from an (apparently) popular gaming forum posted a link to this site in a thread, causing a nice spike in numbers. Naturally, I went to the source to check it out and it turned out to be a discussion about why Daredevil isn’t more widely known. It was interesting enough, but of course, eventually someone had to bring up the old bit about how “Daredevil isn’t really blind” (in response to, as I recall, several people bringing up his blindness as one of those things that make him less relatable). Either way, as long time readers might imagine, I had a moment of exasperation. But rather than beat my head against the wall I decided to try to beat that horse just one more time. Because it just won’t die, dammit!
I’m sure many people either outright disagree with me – as much as it grates me to have to accept it (as far as I’m concerned this isn’t really a matter of opinon so much as logic) – or have a hard time understanding this particular brand of OCD I can’t seem to shrug off, but either bear with me or feel free to have a look at one of the other 500+ posts on this site (and hey, tomorrow we’ll look at a Daredevil appearance in a 60’s issue of The Avengers!) while I give this one another go. 😉
Technicalities versus functionality
First of all, I’m sure everyone would agree that Matt Murdock is technically blind in the sense that his eyes don’t work. It should be clearly stated somewhere in his medical files that he’s totally blind (which is usually described in medical terms by the label NLP, which stands for “no light perception”). He’d fail an eye exam miserably and the state of New York will never issue him a driver’s license.
Where things get sticky is when it gets to whether this technicality is merely just that, a technicality, or whether it actually causes enough of a functional deficit to make the blind label an appropriate fit. Again, even the most ardent defenders of the “Daredevil is not really blind” stance will usually admit that there are certain things that fall outside the otherwise exciting realm of Matt’s heightened senses. For him, a trip to the movies is all audio and he cannot read any of those lovely protest signs waved in his direction in that unlettered preview of New Avengers #20. Where people’s opinions differ seems to be when it comes to whether the list of things Matt can’t do is long or short and whether those things matter very much.
There also seems to be a lot of confusion about what the term blind even means which I suspect might cause people to reject the label without even thinking. Blindness is apparently seen by many as an all or nothing kind of phenomenon, and as something that’s associated with certain types of paraphernalia (such as a white cane or guide dog, using braille etc). While Matt is technically totally blind, even I would agree that his remaining senses make him quite a bit less than that, from a purely functional standpoint. But does being less than totally blind make someone fully sighted? Of course not. Nor does having some vision make someone “not blind,” going by how the term is generally used. Most “blind” people can see at least a little bit. If we extend the term to the more generous “legal blindness” (which exists for tax reasons as well as for granting access to certain types of services), only about ten percent of the legally blind are totally blind.
Is being sort of blind like being a little bit pregnant?
The problem with Daredevil and judging whether his “vision” (or pseudo-vision, rather) is excellent – “He can see better than all of us!” – or somewhere between crappy and non-existent is that it seems to be both. At the same time. There’s a complexity to the whole situation that makes putting him neatly into a category quite difficult. Seated in a law school classroom while the professor works his magic on the blackboard, a college-aged Matt’s edge over any other totally blind student would be so negligible as to give him no advantage whatsoever (though he might amuse himself by eavesdropping on whispering fellow students or trying to figure out whether his professor actually feels confident in the material). At the same time, his connectedness to the physical world around him is so acute that it lets him literally feel something approaching at high speed from behind or judging with precision the distance to the next building. Some would then argue that because he can do the latter that somehow cancels out the former and sends him straight out of the blind category.
But even in the real world, there are all kinds of real eye conditions which cause situations that are nearly as complex (minus the actual superpowers, of course). For instance, someone with the retinal disease Retinitis pigmentosa, which causes progressively worsening tunnel vision and difficulty seeing in low light conditions might have such a narrow field of vision that they need a white cane to get around, yet may be able to see well enough in what remains of their visual field that they can fish out a standard book and read it just fine without glasses. Such a person would be considered blind. The same goes for someone who might have a really hard time reading or seeing fine detail but is nevertheless walking around unaided and blending in just fine, because he or she still has enough vision to do so, even if it might all seem like a blur to someone else.
If we transfer this way of looking at things to the Daredevil comic, one might argue that Matt’s heightened senses are good enough to let him retain some of the functions of normal vision while other functions are lost completely. Then the question becomes whether Matt’s perceptual hole, so to speak, is large enough to place him in the blind category. I would argue that, particularly in the modern world with so much (mostly) visual information everywhere, it definitely is. While you might disagree with me on the severity of the situation – and that’s totally fine – there is no way that the assertion that Daredevil somehow “sees well” will ever make any kind of sense, at least unless you radically redefine what the word “seeing” means. For the benefit of those who still argue that what he gained in that accident all those years ago outweigh what was lost, I’ve constructed a series of super pedagogical Venn diagrams (click each image to zoom in, click again to close). If I can’t win people over with Venn diagrams, then there’s little else I can say. 😉
Venn diagrams?! Yes, Venn diagrams. Anal, me? No!
- Okay, let’s look at two different people and pretend they’re otherwise healthy and buff men of Matt Murdock’s age. The big circle represents someone who’s got 20/20 vision and the little circle represents someone who’s totally blind. The size of the circles might represent what they are able to perceive or what kinds of tasks they can carry out. The relative sizes of the circles are not that important (lest a blind organization decides to slam me for making the small circle too small), just that one is bigger than the other. While it is true that blind people are capable of much more than they’re usually given credit for, it’s still a fact that, as primates, vision is by far our most important sense.
You might have noticed that I gave the blind guy a tiny slice that doesn’t fit into the larger circle, and that’s just to account for the little things that blind people have been found to be better at than sighted people (no superpowers involved!). 😉
- Now, let’s make things exciting and throw Daredevil into the mix! Yep, Matt gets to be the big circle here, and I do mean big. Just how big that circle should be and how much it will overlap with the medium circle is something fans and creators alike will have to disagree on. Brian “I can smell saline solution through a brick wall despite the fact that saline has no scent” Bendis would probably choose for it to be enormous. Regardless of the writer though, it will never completely cover the medium circle. There are things non-powered sighted people can detect that Daredevil can’t, and that’s just how the character is designed.
- For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Venn diagram, let’s go over the different areas. Meet Mr Average 30 something blind guy (incidentally, the kind of guy Matt pretends to be). Yes, if you’re a blind guy with super-senses, a certain amount of pretense goes into acting as if you don’t have those senses, which was something I talked about in a previous post. In Matt’s defense, it’s easier pretending that your “circle” is much smaller than it is than making it stretch into those “strictly sighted” areas of the medium circle. Anyway, not much more to say here, moving on…
- Area number two represents the kinds of abilities that normally require at least some vision and which allow Daredevil to do typically sighted things despite the fact that he’s totally blind. I suspected that this area alone is what leads so many to feel that he’s not really blind at all. However, as I mentioned, this is only true if by “blind” one means “totally blind.”
There’s also the additional complication that he doesn’t actually use any form of normal vision to do any of these things and from the perspective of his own experience, I don’t find it at all odd that Matt would self-identify as blind and not find this particularly problematic. His focus, in terms of the kinds of perceptions he would have and the experiences he might enjoy, would be almost entirely on the kinds of things he can smell, hear, and touch. Whereas vision makes up such a huge proportion of what the average person experiences, it makes sense that in many ways the “super-powered blind” would have much more in common with other people for whom vision is their weakest sense.
- Of course, this represents the area the super-human side of our intrepid hero, the things that he can do that no one else, whether blind or sighted, is capable of. The list of things that fall into this category is a long one, of course, but includes hearing heartbeats, experiencing the presence of objects that would be outside a normal person’s line of sight, smelling things at much lower concentrations than normal, reading print by touch, improved balance and many more. This is what makes him a superhero and that’s valid regardless of the things he cannot do, which takes us to…
- Like I said, people might argue about the size and relative importance of this particular area, but it’s pretty undeniable that it’s there. Matt cannot read in the usual fashion, and cannot read at all unless certain conditions are met (i.e. either something printed in braille or written on a piece of paper that he can touch). He cannot detect colors, it is doubtful (though this depends on the writer) that he can discern anything in fine detail, and I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone could operate under such conditions without having it cause various complications throughout the day that would have to be worked around.
- Well, congratulations for making it this far! I’m almost done (and I promise to get a life after I get to the very end). The reason I decided to include this last image is to tackle the old “my other senses more than compensate” bit (though this has been done before, as you might recall). If you’ve sort of agreed with what I’ve said thus far this should go without saying, but just because Daredevil’s circle of abilities and perceptions is bigger than that of “average sighted guy,” it doesn’t mean that Daredevil isn’t blind and it most definitely doesn’t mean that he’s not disabled. While his super-senses are great for detecting lies and gas leaks and beating up ninjas, it doesn’t go all the way in meeting the criteria for what society expects the average person to be able to do (as indicated by the arrow). While efforts to make society more inclusive are ongoing, it’s undeniably true that the world is built around the needs and abilities of our typical sighted guy and not someone who operates by means so vastly different from anything we can imagine. On the other hand, I do think it makes sense for writers to emphasize how much Matt enjoys being Daredevil – something he seems to be getting back to now that Waid’s the one writing him – since that’s where he can use all of his strengths to maximum effect without being held back by the things he can’t do.
Wow, I think that was just about the most anal post I’ve ever written. The good news is, I’m definitely done with this subject. I’ve said all there is to say. To recap, I argue that claiming that Daredevil isn’t really blind is inaccurate for at least three different reasons. 1) He’s undoubtedly technically blind, 2) his visual/pseudo-visual limitations are sufficiently major to qualify him as functionally blind (despite the obvious complexities of the situation), and 3) even the things he’s able to excel at are achieved by mostly non-visual means. Just because he’s able to do things totally blind people shouldn’t be able to do, it doesn’t mean that he does them in the same way a sighted person would.
Daredevil can take out a band of ninjas, but can’t read a street sign, and that’s just one of the many things that make him insanely interesting. 🙂