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Why Italy’s media hysteria over the ‘fake blind’ is misplaced

by Maurizio Molinari

 

Italy, as everybody knows, is currently experiencing more crises than one.

Politically, we are scrambling to form a new government and economically, Europe’s financial crisis has hit us hard.

While our general unemployment level is at 10.7 per cent, that figure rises to 35.3 per cent among young people.

The atmosphere in Italy is a mix of chaos and decay.

And at a time when every penny counts, people start spying on their neighbours, eager to find someone who has falsely declared a degree they didn’t earn, someone who is claiming benefits they’re not entitled to or anyone who is enjoying any kind of undeserved privilege.

Journalists are not exempt from wanting to play Big Brother.

Some years ago, a blind man named Ivano was at the centre of media storm.

He was followed by the police, who suspected that he could in fact see and was pretending to be blind to claim a disability allowance.

They cited the fact that he could enter a tram without needing to feel the sides or that he would lift his watch close to his eyes as proof that he was a ‘fake blind’ person.

Eventually, after thorough investigation, Ivano managed to prove that he was not pretending to be blind but it took many years to prove his innocence.

Ivano spent thousands on lawyers and his daughter was ridiculed at school because he had been portrayed by the local media as a fraudster.

This had a terrible impact on Ivano’s self-esteem – especially because when he was finally declared innocent, the media paid no or very little attention to the real story.

 

Time for outrage!

But Ivano’s story is just one of many stories of its kind in Italy.

More recently, the media reported on three people in Sicily who were identified as pretending to be blind by the tax authorities since, and I quote, “they had a Facebook profile, owned a car, could go shopping independently… and led a normal and active social life.”

When I read those articles I was startled. I have been blind since I was a baby and yet, according to the checklist that those articles compiled, I am also pretending to be blind.

I have a Facebook profile – even a Twitter account. I own a car as it is perfectly legal to do so, and in Italy, you can even claim tax reliefs if you are blind car owner (it goes without saying, that I don’t drive it).

I do all the things these ‘fake blind’ people did and more. And so I said to myself, thinking of a famous pamphlet, it’s time for outrage!

I wrote to the authors of the articles and of the TV programmes, and I encouraged other people to do the same.

A protest by Italy’s visually impaired and partially sighted community spread across the web.

Our slogan was: “We are all pretending to be blind!”

Journalists were made aware of the fact that even though we cannot see, we can still use social networks, surf the web and do sports – even the most extreme ones.

We can travel, even to uncomfortable places such as the Sahara Desert or the South Pole. We can have very rewarding social lives, fix household appliances, we can cook, iron clothes, make love and after that, we can even make the bed. Need I continue?

Some of the media took heed and as a result, reported on the protests, but I would be lying if I said that I was satisfied with that.

 

A witch hunt

Words are very important to journalists and they should be used carefully. It is one thing to say that someone is pretending to be blind because he or she has a Facebook profile, and it is another thing to look at their profile and deduce that they can in fact see.

Even so, sometimes it can be difficult to tell a sighted person from a partially-sighted one, hence the extra caution that should be given when reporting on such investigations.

We all know journalists like big stories. But the narrative around unveiling alleged fraud is often misleading and over-simplistic.

Even more worryingly, in times of financial crisis there’s a feeling of smug satisfaction when outing those who are thought to be stealing taxpayers’ money.

But journalists must be careful to make sure these stories are true.

The Unione Italiana Ciechi (the main Italian association representing the visually impaired) was recently accused of being involved in activities concerning trusts in tax heavens.

But despite the media attention when the story first broke, it later emerged that the story was untrue.

However, the media doesn’t care that 70 per cent of the ‘fake blind’ people discovered in recent years were actually really blind.

These journalists don’t care about the shame and ridicule these erroneous reports have caused people.

There is a witch hunt going on, and it’s not only against the visually impaired. It’s against all people with disabilities. It’s against migrants, against Roma, against homosexuals, against women and all vulnerable groups.

It’s vital that the media puts an end to such dangerous and defamatory campaigns. It’s even more important that the media correctly reports about the real lives of visually impaired people.

There’s a lot of ignorance and the media shouldn’t add to it.

If someone is pretending to be blind it’s in the interest of no-one more than people who really are blind that these fakes are sentenced but we have to put a stop to this new form of McCarthyism.

 

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