Swedish society went through a large-scale transformation at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. These changes had conflicting consequences for blind people. On the one hand, their opportunities for education were improved, while, on the other hand, their traditional way of making a living as artisans was undermined by industrialization. This situation gave rise to a debate among both blind people and politicians at the beginning of the 20th century about the possibility of reducing the economic problems through the contributions of social policy. The result was the 1934 decision providing for compensation to blind people. The discussions leading up to the decision contain elements of social political thinking characteristic of the period: that “the blind” should be educated to be industrious and conscientious citizens, and that behaviour divergent from current norms should be punished.

According to the Swedish historian Anders Berge, the Swedish social political reforms at the turn of the century 1900 emanated from a clear value premise. His interpretation is related to social scientific neo-institutionalism, which argues that the way in which social policy is shaped exposes underlying values characteristic of the period. Berge distinguishes three angles of approach: in the first place the research task can be directed to the normative importance of the central social political actors. Secondly, the researcher may assume that the organization of society is based upon normative structures. The third and last way of tackling this area is by focusing on the defined meaning of the public organization of moral education. Following this line of thought, whatever direction you may choose leads to the conclusion that social policy must be interpreted as claiming that rights should be fulfilled by certain personal duties (Berge 1995a:68–69, 77). This line of reasoning corresponds well to the principles of the compensation for blindness suggested above, which implied industriousness and conscientiousness.

At the beginning of the 20th century an important part of the effort of the social political actors to educate blind people to be useful citizens consisted of creating identities. By judging blind people according to predominant norms, a division was created that demonstrated both that the way of living of blind people differed from current ideals and that blind people by their exceptional position could be identified as a special group. The compensation for blindness therefore may be seen as a way of transferring current norms to the group of blind people.

In order to be able to understand the norm-creating function of the social policy, I build further upon a discussion about the identity-making process. A fundamental concept here is that introduced by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: his division into “we and them”, in-groups and out-groups. The “we” feeling arises in the in-group, which has common notions and values. The sense of community, in turn, gives rise to a common group identity. A consequence of inclusion is exclusion, which will automatically be associated with “them”. The other group, the out-group, will be identified as something differing from that supposed to be normal, as something strange and even threatening (Bauman 1992: ch. 2). The in-group in the question of compensation for blindness comprises politicians and experts, while blind people belong to the out-group.

To Bauman's conception of identity may be added the more complex theory developed by the sociologist Richard Jenkins concerning how identities are created. Jenkins emphasizes that the making of identities should be looked upon as a process. There is always a possibility that an identity may change. Jenkins works not only with groups, but also with categories. Groups and categories initially have two different functions, but group identity naturally grows as a result of an experience of community. The affinity emphasizes both what unites the members of the group and what demarcates them from another group. Categorization, however, is a fictitious division, which can be made for different reasons. The explanations may be bureaucratic, scientific or personal, for example. For the division to be characterized as social categorization, which is the interesting point here, the premises have to be obvious not only to the categorizer, but to others, as well. At the same time, according to Jenkins, an identity-making process begins through categorization in which a group will be crystallized and characterized. In short, according to Jenkins, a collective, internal definition – group identification – can lead to an external, collective definition – social categorization. At the same time, he emphasizes that the two definitions of group and category exist in a dialectical relationship to each other. Group identification always demands social categorization (Jenkins 1996:4–5, ch. 9). In the debate that preceded the Swedish parliamentary decision in 1934 concerning compensation for blindness, “the blind” may be understood as an administrative category formed for special political reasons (Stone 1984:4).

As the Norwegian sociologist Per Solvang emphasizes, the relationship we–them constitutes one of the discourses associated with studies of the social circumstances of disabled persons. Solvang's discourses constitute parts of a theoretical model that includes three mutually dependent pairs of opposites. First, there is the pair “normality–divergence” that is associated with questions about normalization and integration. In connection with studies of economic welfare and equal rights the second pair, “equality–inequality”, should be emphasized. Thirdly, Solvang sees a need for studying the identity-making process. Here the pair of opposites, “we–them” is important (Solvang 2000:3–9).

In the following, I will analyse more closely the political debate that led to the 1934 decision concerning compensation for blindness in Sweden. The discussion includes many technicalities that I will try to avoid as much as possible. It is the values and attitudes I am looking for, and these may be reached by adopting a contextual analysis of the debate. It should also be pointed out here that, for practical reasons, I have chosen to use contemporary terms for disabilities in the text that follows. This is one way of avoiding the pitfalls that translation to modern terminology may constitute.


The Swedish general retirement pension scheme of 1913 included some possibilities for people who lacked the capacity to earn their own living to receive public support, but the provisions were not considered satisfactory by blind people. Therefore, special social measures were demanded in order to compensate for the limited opportunities for making one's own living. In the wake of the international economic depression of the beginning of the 1930s, this situation led up to the decision in 1934 concerning compensation for blindness. The compensation would be paid in addition to the general retirement pension scheme, and it was not to be regarded as “poor relief”.

In the 1913 decision the concept of limited public responsibility was formulated for those who for various reasons did not qualify for the state pension. The right to state pension was accepted for everyone who had paid the necessary pension fees and reached the age of 67 years or those who had earlier suffered a permanent disability. By definition, a permanent disability existed when someone “because of old age, or [who] was physically or mentally ill, crippled or defected” was not able to earn his or her living in a way that “his strength and skills” gave reason to expect. The law also included directions specifying that those with a permanent disability who did not meet the requirements for state pension should still be given some support in the form of a state pension supplement (Statute book 1913:120, §1, 2, 6, 33).

The directives in the state pension law of 1913 were changed five years later, so that local authorities were given the right to pay this supplement in money or commodities. They were also allowed to subsidize both a reduced capacity to work and occupational rehabilitation. An important qualification was that the additional pension contributions by local government should not be considered poor relief. With support from the accident insurance law of 1916, blindness caused by accidents at work could also lead to economic compensation to the worker from the employer (Statute book 1918:423; Höjer 1952:91, 103–105). The ideas of limited public responsibility for persons incapable of working returned in the reform of the general retirement pension in 1935. What is interesting here, however, is that the provision concerning care for long-term work disability was removed from the state pension law and was given the status of an independent ordinance concerning invalid support (Statute book 1935:435).

In addition to social policy, special education was also an important part of the conditions for blind people at the beginning of the 20th century. During the 19th century special schools were founded for blind people in Sweden. The primary task of these schools was to prepare blind people for working life with assistance from specially designed education. A Swedish national investigative committee appointed at the end of the 1870s, which consisted of both politicians and educational experts, recommended compulsory education for blind children. The recommendations led gradually to a parliamentary decision concerning the question in 1896. In its report from 1881 the committee especially emphasized the need for occupational training in addition to elementary education. The investigators argued that blind people had certain difficulties finding adequate practical training outside the school. Were they not assisted in that regard, they would “generally feel condemned to live their lives in listless activity”.1 The quoted passage also shows that, beyond the practical benefits for society resulting from public efforts, the investigators referred to humanitarian motives. At the same time the committee held it necessary to supervise educated blind people. For example, their ability was not to be misused for begging (Förhammar 1991:166–172 (quotation p. 166); Förhammar 2004:52).

First Steps

Union for the Blind

The background to the 1934 decision concerning compensation for blindness is found in the discussions in Sweden that arose early in conjunction with the possibilities for blind people to assert themselves on the labour market. The demand in 1901 by the Union for the Blind (De blindas förening; DBF) for a state pension for blind people constituted a first step towards public intervention (Ek 1938:112–114, 136–137). Another early action on the part of the DBF was a demand directed to the prison system to avoid competition with blind artisans. In this case the union was met with sympathy, and the prison system was requested to limit the production of baskets and brushes (Letter from Riksdag 1904:103, 6; Statute book 1904:30; Ek 1938:114). At this point the DBF received support from the liberal politician Adolf Hedin. In 1904 he proposed that prisoners should not be employed in basket-making. The state ought not, Hedin maintained, compete with blind people “for those earnings, with which those, our so unfortunately favoured fellow beings, try to support themselves”. “Basket-making is practically”, he continued, “the only suitable work, moreover, where the hand can be accustomed to replace the eye, that through this you may receive enough profitable employment, which can be obtained without means. But, of course, the competition for these workers will be still more difficult, moreover, than for free workers […]”. In this way the state obstructed the purpose of occupational training that was part of the education of blind people, he argued (Member's bill 2nd Chamber 1904:217, 2–3 (quotation p. 2)).2

A member's bill in the second chamber of the Riksdag in 1926 presented by Gerhard Strindlund (Agrarian Union) had the same purpose as Hedin's action in 1904. In his memo he stressed the anxiety found in the DBF committee, he referred to the problems blind artisans had competing with mass-produced goods, and he proposed that state institutions should give preference to products from blind people when purchasing. The arrangement had the potential of being profitable in terms of the public economy, when otherwise well-educated and skilled disabled persons with seriously reduced vision might run the risk of being dependent on poor relief in the future. This, in turn, could have negative psychological consequences, it was pointed out, as a blind person in such circumstances could easily lose their self-confidence. If such occurred, begging would become a possible source of income for some (Member's bill 1926:345, 2nd Chamber). The Strindlund proposal was also met with sympathy from the Riksdag (Letter from Riksdag 1926:236).

Through the collaboration between politicians and the DBF accounted for above, the union became known and accepted as an organization that aimed to protect the interests of blind people. This was especially true in the area of making a living. A parallel to these actions may be seen in how the union through its chairman, or director, as his title was, Alrik Lundberg, proposed that society ought to step in and compensate blind persons for the loss of income caused by their disability. Lundberg used the special Nordic meetings that took place in Stockholm and Helsinki in 1903 and 1912, respectively, for this purpose. In Stockholm the deliberations had been limited to questions dealing with education, while the task in Helsinki was extended to include questions concerning the care of disabled persons.

In 1903 Lundberg pleaded the case for the compensation of blind artisans by society for the loss of income his disability caused by means of an official state lottery. At the meeting in Helsinki the DBF chairman called for a state guaranteed pension for adult blind people, which would relieve the consequences of reduced competitiveness and capacity for work. Lundberg's opinion met with sympathy at the so-called “abnormal school” meeting in 1912; the special section for education and care of blind people expressed the wish for a more just pension system, which could “improve the currently too unsatisfactory and insecure position of the destitute blind” (Förhammar 2001:124, 129–131 (quotation p. 131)).

A Government Study

In 1920 the Social Democratic government appointed the “investigative committee on blind care” – the experts on “blind care”. Alrik Lundberg was one of its members. The experts hoped that future educational efforts would increase the capacity for support. At the same time the investigators, however, were united in the view that even in the future, blind people who had become disabled as adults in particular would have difficulties earning their living. It certainly held true for blind persons who were active in business. The investigators saw two possible ways out. The exercise of a trade could be facilitated by special measures, but economic compensation could also be made for the difficulties caused by the disability. These discussions gradually led to the proposal for special state compensation for blindness – a supplementary income. The experts suggested that the local subsistence level for an able-bodied person was an adequate measure of the size of the supplement. The investigators did not believe it possible to build further upon the pension insurance: blind people were not incapable of working, and the law was intended for those unable to work.

The purpose of the committee's proposal was to provide blind people with annual support “as compensation for the difficulty at work and moreover in daily life, that this defect led to”. In that way the independence of blind people could also be increased. The compensation would not, however, be general but would be subjected to a means test. This provision was intended for blind persons who were capable of working. In addition to those who lacked satisfactory working capacity, blind people with good incomes would be excluded. Idleness and alcoholism constituted moral grounds for disqualification. The investigators defined blind persons as those “who suffered from such an important limitation of the faculty of vision, that considerable difficulty arises in performing adequate work”. The experts argued that public economic support could also be justified for other groups of disabled persons. Chronically ill and “feeble-minded” people were, however, served better by institutional care than by support for subsistence, and, as the experts saw it, the “deaf and dumb” were not influenced in the same negative way by their disability as were blind people. Perhaps the condition of the “crippled” demanded special public effort, but their conditions did not belong to the area the investigative committee had been commissioned to evaluate. A system with state compensation for blindness would probably both reduce local costs of social efforts and equalize the local economic disadvantages (Utredning och förslag1922:VII–VIII, 114–120 (quotations pp. 117, 118)).

The proposal for “blind care” had no immediate political consequences, even if objections were made both by blind people and by the authorities (Ek 1938:138–139). In some quarters, however, there was obviously interest in keeping the question alive, and reminders of the proposed compensation for blindness were brought to light on several occasions during the latter part of the 1920s. In 1926 the newly founded organization the National Federation for the Blind (De Blindas Riksförbund) turned to the government with a letter concerning the question which emanated from the proposal of the experts on the care of blind people. The federation recommended to the government some modifications in its approach. Above all, the federation reacted against the proclaimed principle of a means test. Instead of income insurance for blind persons capable of work, the federation wanted economic compensation for difficulties generally caused by blindness. The compensation, accordingly, would be connected with the disability as such and not with the capacity for maintenance. The capacity to work was limited in time, the federation stressed in the letter to the government. “The blind must, in short, sooner or later become ‘paupers of maintenance’ – throughout life we are haunted by the terrible thought of being obliged in our old age, as the expression goes, to, ‘be a burden to poor relief’.” The federation further argued that certain practical circumstances pointed towards the state being economically responsible for compensation (Petition 1928:, April 14, 2004). Further reminders of the importance of compensation for blindness came in 1927 from the DBF, and in 1928 a number of blind people turned directly to the prime minister with a petition in which they agreed with the viewpoints that the Federation for the Blind had formulated two years earlier (petition 1928; Ek 1938:139).

Parliamentary Initiatives

Looking back at the political discussion concerning compensation for blindness, it may be said with some validity that the question came to a decisive point with the 1929 Riksdag. Two identical Social Democratic bills concerning compensation benefits were delivered in the two chambers of the Riksdag. The bill in the First Chamber was signed by Harald Åkerberg, editor-in-chief of the Social Democratic newspaper Örebro-Kuriren (Member's bill, 1st Chamber 1929:109; Members’ bill 2nd Chamber 1929:167, Tollin 1967:135). He referred to the demands in the petition from the previous year and further argued that compensation for blindness, at least on a limited scale, could function as “help to self-help”. In other words, the economic support would contribute towards activating persons who had been made passive and who then were dependent on public maintenance. At the same time the strengthening of income would facilitate living in more tolerable conditions without the same obvious risk of undue strain (Member's bill 1st Chamber 1929:109, 18).

The bills from Åkerberg and others were treated by the Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation, which expressed sympathy for the reasoning of the bills. Therefore the committee in principle supported the necessity of public efforts “in order to ease the heavy burden” caused by blindness. The committee preferred, however, to move for rejection of the bills, as the committee did not regard the question as satisfactorily studied. Important instances to which the work of the experts on “blind care” had been submitted had still not commented on the proposal after seven years. The parliamentary committee also found it inappropriate to give special treatment to the question of compensation for blindness, since it constituted an important part of the proposal made by the investigative committee on blind care and also touched upon several areas that the 1928 investigative committee on state pension insurance was commissioned to study (Report 2nd Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation 1929:7, 4). The Riksdag accepted the negative line of the standing committee, but, considering the final result, it is interesting to note that Social Democratic party secretary Gustav Möller defended the bills in the first chamber. He was both the former and future Minister of Health and Social Affairs, and he also was the one who five years later signed the government bill that finally led up to the positive conclusion of the treatment of the question of compensation for blindness. He also belonged to the pension insurance investigative committee of 1928. Möller regarded the coupling of the compensation for blindness and state pension insurance study suggested by the standing committee to be extremely unsuitable. Möller preferred rather to place blindness on an equal footing with accidents at work, and a state pension insurance, as he saw it, would hardly be able to offer a reasonable level of economic compensation for the consequences of a disability (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1929:11, 18, 20; Riksdag 2nd Chamber 1929:13, 48).

Möller returned in 1930 at the head of a multi-party bill in the First Chamber. In addition to Möller and Harald Åkerberg, the bill was signed by 27 members representing both the Socialist and the non-Socialist camps. At the same time an identical bill signed by 21 members was presented in the second chamber. It was again an appeal to the government to prepare a proposal on how the question of compensation for blindness would be resolved. There were no longer reasons to postpone this, as the National Pension Board had now expressed its opinion. The proposers of the bill, however, dissociated themselves from the Pension Board's idea of comparing the conditions of blind people with the conditions of, for instance, “the crippled and the deaf”. A number of occupational training possibilities were open to the latter, “While the blind because of their defect were limited to a couple of occupations” (Members’ bill 1st Chamber 1930:197, 5; Members’ bill 2nd Chamber 1930:257).

This time the proposers received support in the Riksdag (Letter from Riksdag 1930:70, 8). The Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law legislation, which could no longer maintain that the settlement of the question had to be postponed while waiting for decisive comments from various instances, did not put forward a definite demand for a decision concerning compensation for blind people, but rather asked for a governmental proposal on how to come to grips with the conditions of blind people. The comments from the authorities, however, were in most cases negative. They justified the negative standpoint by considering the consequences of a special solution for blind people. According to a number of comments, there were good reasons for other groups of persons with reduced work capacity to maintain that it was their disability that caused limited opportunities for income. For this reason, the public economic consequences of a special compensation for blindness would be extraordinarily difficult to judge, they argued. Besides, in their comments the authorities aired fears that compensation would reduce interest among blind people for increasing income through their own work efforts (Report 2nd Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation 1930:13, 5–7).

In the first chamber Gustav Möller expressed his discontent with the cautiously formulated standpoint of the committee (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1930:16, 53). The conservative Hjalmar von Sydow, chairman of the Swedish Union of Employers, tried to deny that the committee had played down the importance of the question of special compensation. The committee had chosen to transfer the decision to the government, as to whether the conditions of blind people should be treated specially. At first, however, the question was whether the conditions of other disabled persons should be considered. “Since there are”, von Sydow continued, “other invalids to be pitied to an equally great extent as the blind, such as those who are completely lame, […]” (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1930:16, 53–54 (quotation p. 54)). Möller did, however, interpret the extended care as tactically determined, since it constituted an effective way of blocking a limited proposal of reform. He also referred to the study made of blind care. As mentioned above, the experts had held that blind people suffered greater harm from their disability than other disabled persons in a similar position, as they usually were dependent on trades that had increasing economic difficulties (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1930:16, 54).

Renewed Investigation

In 1931 the National Board of Health and Welfare finally presented its views in the matter of “blind care”. The board advocated that compensation for blindness should be looked upon as compensation for the defect and not as economic compensation. The board emphasized its disapproval in principle of transferring the economic responsibility for some needy persons from the local authorities to the state in order to erase the stigma of “poor relief”. It was after all, argued the board, local poor relief that had the responsibility for care, and poor relief had, in their view, become less repressive than before. Development would not be favoured by transferring responsibility for care in some specific distressing cases. The number of able-bodied blind persons was, however, so few, that this objection should be abandoned. In addition, the economic consequences for the state would be so negligible that the National Board for Health and Welfare thought it fit to reject the means test for blind people. Instead, compensation could be connected to the disability as such, the defect. The proposal was also justified by the fact that, with some few exceptions, blind people were dependent on public or private support to make an adequate living. The conditions became so much more obvious to blind people themselves, as they “physically and intellectually speaking were on a relatively high level”. The individual test, which the board held to be necessary, therefore implied control of the general status of blind people, that is, whether, except for the disability, he or she fulfilled the general demands that society made on a normal, healthy, conscientious and gifted citizen. A further reason why the National Board of Health and Welfare advocated that the state take on economic responsibility for blind compensation was that the group of blind persons was unevenly distributed in the local districts (Report from the National Board of Health and Welfare 1931:8–13 (quotation p. 9))

Before it was once again time for the question of compensation for blindness to come up on the roster of the Riksdag, it was subjected to two further investigative studies. In 1931 the Ministry of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs in a Liberal government appointed the headmaster of the institute and pre-school at Tomteboda, Gustaf Ek to head a study. The committee's mandate included a renewed inquiry into the conditions within blind care. However, in 1930 the need for a renewed overhaul had already been proclaimed by the Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs in a conservative government as a result of the Riksdag decision that same year concerning the question of compensation for blind people.

In principle, Ek repeated the 1922 proposal of blind care experts concerning means tested compensation. Ek argued that the conditions should perhaps be formulated somewhat more generously than in the earlier investigative proposal. It would be rather difficult to create complete justice among blind persons as they were dependent on local authorities whose judgements could vary on the need for support. Ek also argued that compensation should not be allowed to go to persons who had become blind after having reached the age of 60 years, a view also held by the National Board of Health and Welfare. He also sympathized with a reservation against the proposal of the experts on blind care for public economic reasons. The reservation stressed the responsibility of close relatives to supply support (Report and proposals (Ek) 1931:2–3, 27–29, 31; Utredning och förslag1922:155–156). To take into account the possibilities that relatives could provide support was a policy in line with Swedish poor relief legislation (Höjer 1952:97). In Ek's version the financing of compensation for blind people would be distributed in such a way that the state would be responsible for half of the costs, while the other half would be evenly distributed between county councils and local authorities. Towns outside county councils would, of course, also be responsible for part of the costs of the county councils (Report and proposals (Ek) 1931:30–31).

At a meeting in Stockholm in June 1932, representatives for blind people in Sweden criticized Ek's proposal, and in a resolution to the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs the meeting expressed its opposition to the means test, on grounds similar to those formulated by the National Federation of the Blind in 1926. In 1932 it was still compensation for the disability as such that comprised the principal line of reasoning of blind people. According to the resolution, mean-tested compensation would primarily benefit “the listless, less conscious elements”. The meeting in Stockholm also opposed putting the costs of compensation for blindness in the hands of local authorities. Financial responsibility should instead be evenly distributed between the state and the county councils, it was argued. Because the number of blind persons varied greatly, unjust local taxes could result if left to local authorities (Resolution 1932 (quotation p. 1)); Government bill 1934:79, 13).

The demand from blind people for a “defect compensation” was met in the study within the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and its office for Civil-Law Legislation in 1933. The resulting proposal, which in principal was accepted by the authorities consulted and by organizations for blind people, made it clear that the economic level for blind compensation should not be higher than earlier calculations. Thus, in 1933 the recommended means test was replaced by a certain reduction of general requirements, including a specification of the concept of blindness.

The 1920 experts on “blind care” and Ek's report had related compensation for blindness to the capacity to earn one's living. The 1933 study placed blindness on an equal footing with partial vision, which was defined in a rather pragmatic way. In the proposal of the Office for Civil-Law Legislation this definition replaced the economic definition as grounds for support. The Office for Civil-Law Legislation referred here to the proposal of the Board of Health and Social Affairs and also considered it had met demands that blind people had expressed since the 1920s. Another advantage of leaving the principle of support was that blind people were excused from the temptation of giving erroneous information about the economic conditions. It was also argued that means tests would be expensive, since they would have to be repeated annually. If an economic foundation for compensation even could, as some critics earlier asserted, be used by other vulnerable groups, according to the Office for Civil-Law Legislation the connection to a specific serious disability made it easier to justify a special form of support for blind people. At the same time the Office for Civil-Law Legislation recommended the limitation of the scope of the compensation as the experts on blind care had proposed, excluding blind people in good economic circumstances. The statement was also clarified to include the restrictions in Headmaster Ek's proposal concerning the obligations of relatives to provide support.

The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs estimated the number of recipients of compensation for blindness at about 1800 according to the 1930 census taken by the Swedish Central Bureau of Statistics. The department also envisioned just one level of compensation. In correspondence with the National Board of Health and Welfare, the Office for Civil-Law Legislation advocated that the state take upon itself full economic responsibility for compensation. The proposal could then be further justified by the abolition of the means test. The local authorities with their close knowledge of the local conditions were held to be best suited to make a correct judgement of the conditions of blind people, which should be understood as a restrictive judgement, that is, as a way of keeping down the costs of compensation for blindness (Report on compensation for blindness 1933:6–9, 13–14, 18; Government bill 1934:79, 15). The proposal that the state should take over also corresponded to the demands from the 1932 public meeting.

The National Pension Board was supportive of the specification of the group of those entitled to compensation proposed by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, since it became easier to justify the compensation solely to blind people (Report from the National Pension Board 1933:2). The board had, as indicated above, advocated a broader solution. This solution implied that the conditions arising from both “physical and psychic disabilities” should be considered within the framework of the state pension legislation (Report from the National Pension Board 1929:2; Report from the National Pension Board 1932:2–3). Criticism of this revision came instead from the National Insurance Board, which argued that a form of compensation connected to the disability as such differed from the fundamental principle of the state pension insurance. In their view, it was the economic consequences of the incapacity for work that had to be compensated, not chronic disease or the disability per se. Consequently, they argued that the compensation should also be preceded by an income test. At the same time the board did not favour the proposed definition of blindness, since it could exclude persons who, due to partial vision, had difficulties in earning their living. It was a point of view that organizations for blind people partly agreed with. The importance of the objections of the board was, however, reduced by the fact that not all the signers agreed with the criticism. One of the senior administrative officers with some hesitation defended both the proposal to presuppose partial vision and the idea of special legislation (Report from the National Insurance Board 1933; Government bill 1934:79, 19).


With the proposals from the Office for Civil-Law Legislation and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, by 1933 the question of compensation for blindness had been sufficiently prepared, and it was time for translating words into deeds. Certainly the design by the Office for Civil-Law Legislation had not been spared objections, but, as indicated above, they were minor. There were therefore strong reasons for Gustav Möller as Minister of Health and Social Affairs in the Social Democratic government in 1934 to solve the question of compensation for blindness once and for all.

The major points in the debate had been especially related to the principal design of the compensation. Blind people had demanded support related directly to the disability per se. Experts and politicians had to the very end maintained that the allowance should be dependent on a means test. The resistance to compensation related to a defect was, however, weakened in the beginning of the 1930s when a more general solution began to be advocated. A general design could be held to be both more just and more useful, since it more distinctly delimited the group in question. The clear boundaries were further assumed to be able to hinder future abuse of this kind of support.

The government bill that Möller presented to the 1934 Riksdag was based upon the 1933 proposal by the Office for Civil-Law Legislation, but with some modifications that are of no great interest here.

The proposal presented to the 1934 Riksdag was designed in such a way that it in many respects was connected to the pension insurance legislation. It was also the pension authorities who would administer the compensation for blindness, and local pension committees had to take care of the individual matters. A glance at the proposal shows that, with exception of the immediate connection to the disability and the transfer of the whole economic responsibility to the state, the major part of the legislation still rested on the foundations that the 1920 group of experts on blind care had laid down. The principal points of the 1934 bill provided that compensation would amount to 500 Swedish crowns a year and that it would go to blind persons who had reached the age of 16 years. Those who acquired their disability after they reached the age of 60 years would not be eligible, and poor vision would constitute the criterion for blindness. After a comment from the National Medical Board the definition was complemented with the requirement that possible imperfections in light reflection should be corrected. The law proposal included several additional regulations that I shall not deal with here. It is worth mentioning, however, that the government kept the restrictions that excluded blind persons who, as a result of own resources or with assistance from close relatives, could acquire economic independence. Another exception also reveals that Swedish social policy still had not left the concept of moral education completely behind. One condition for eligibility was that blind people should try to earn their living to the best of their ability. A blind alcoholic, for instance, was not considered to meet this criterion. Nor could blindness that was “self-inflicted or caused by considerable negligence” be grounds for eligibility. If a person failed to come to the compulsory treatment by special medical experts, then they would also be disqualified from compensation (Government bill 1934:79, 2–4, 26).

Möller's foremost reason for presenting the proposal for compensation for blindness was that the question had been subjected to such a lengthy investigative process. Therefore it was high time to satisfy the demands of blind people. He was not sympathetic to the viewpoint that a special form of support to blind people would constitute an injustice to other vulnerable groups of disabled persons. Even if the conditions of other disabled persons might be difficult, this constituted no important grounds for postponement of the proposed legislation. According to Möller, the conditions of other groups had not been studied investigated. “In my opinion”, continued the minister, “the difficult defect with which those [the blind] are burdened constitutes a valid reason to apply certain rules to them.” In the bill the minister further recommended a transfer to the so-called “defect compensation”. The application of the concept of partial vision should, however, he pointed out, not be taken too literally. At the same time the minister wanted to play down the importance of pushing the means test aside. It was obvious to him that blindness had consequences for their capacity to earn a living, since blind people were primarily relegated to traditional spheres of activity, such as basket-making and brush-making. The importance of these occupations had obviously decreased by that time (Government bill 1934:79, 22–25 (quotation p. 24).

In addition to the government bill, the 1934 Riksdag also received a private bill sponsored by the Socialist Party. The party constituted a group that had broken out away from the Swedish Communist Party. The bill was signed by six members of the Second Chamber, headed by the miner Verner Karlsson. The document demanded a more generous and just form of compensation, including a higher amount than the government had proposed. The group who introduced the bill supported the connection to the specific disability as proposed by the government, but argued that the definition of blindness was too narrow. The capacity for getting work on the open labour market should be used as the criterion instead of poor vision. Furthermore, the upper age limit ought to be increased from 60 years to at least 67 years, they argued. By means of the two amendment proposals, a greater proportion of blind people who had difficulties in earning their living would be included (Members’ bill 1934:533, 5–6).

The bills were delivered to the Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation in the Riksdag. The committee turned down the private bill. The committee accepted the governmental definition of blindness and argued that economic reasons spoke strongly against both an increase in the upper age limit from 60 to 67 years of age and support more generous than the proposed 500 Swedish crowns a year. The government bill was approved with just one amendment that is not relevant here. In correspondence on the government bill, the committee further stated that it was high time to satisfy demands put forward by blind people. Nor would the passage of the proposed reform make a future revision of the state pension system more difficult, as the National Insurance Board majority had asserted (Report Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation 1934:14, 5–12).

The proposal from the Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation passed the two chambers of the Riksdag with almost complete support. The only objections were those presented in the second chamber from the man who had introduced the private bill, Verner Karlsson. He chose to interpret the references to the government's financial situation as a subterfuge. He continued that it was a way of arguing that was always used where society's vulnerable groups were concerned. Karlsson also took the doubtful stand that society in fact reaped an economic benefit by restraining compensation for blindness, since the low level of compensation would lead to increased stress on local resources (Riksdag 2nd Chamber 1934:21, 48–50). In both chambers Minister Möller chose to emphasize the limited extent of the proposal, and he hoped that it would be possible to increase the scope later if experience so demanded and circumstances were more favourable. Möller himself pointed out that the proposal considered the different local economic conditions in earning one's living. At the moment this could only be compensated for by support from the local authorities. In spite of the modest improvement that the proposal constituted, the minister still argued that he in principle had won understanding from the group in question. He therefore believed that many blind people would come to “show their gratitude” to society for the care that had been shown them by responsible political directives (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1934:20, 2; Riksdag 2nd Chamber 1934:21, 46–47). Möller added in the second chamber that, as a result of the reform, blind people “with good reasons”, would come “into a better position than any of the other groups of people that are in difficulties because of defects or other circumstances” (Riksdag 2nd Chamber 1934:21, 52).

A contribution to the discussion from the conservative chief magistrate Gustaf Adolf Björkman shows that the notion of blind people as potential beggars still existed. He hoped that due to compensation for blindness the economic situation would be such that blind people would no longer be tempted to use their disability to gain the compassion of their surroundings. Björkman was referring to the restriction in the reform proposal that blind people should not be allowed to avoid the opportunities available to support themselves in order to be eligible for compensation (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1934:20, 3).

On April 7, 1934 the positive decision of the Riksdag was forwarded to the government, which on April 20, the same year, transformed the proposal into law. The new law was to go into force on January 1, 1935. At the same time changes were made in the statute of 1918 concerning local supplementary pension contributions. It was made clear that the compensation for blindness should not be regarded as poor relief (Letter from Riksdag 1934:132; Statute book 1934:105, 106).

Values in the Debate

A study of the debate dealing with compensation for blindness up to the decision in 1934 confirms Anders Berge's picture of Swedish social policy at the beginning of the 20th century. Social policy was built upon a combination of individual rights and obligations. It dealt not only with the question of supporting vulnerable persons, but also with fostering them as good and useful citizens, and this was to be done by enabling them to help themselves. According to the 1934 law blind people had the right to public compensation because of the complications the disability caused in connection with work. At the same time blind people were expected to show that they were prepared to bear public duty and were willing to make an effort to support themselves. If during the 19th century it was thought that blind people could be rehabilitated by education, the legislation concerning compensation for blindness also included tools for a public sanction against disabled persons who did not measure up to the public demands for individual obligations. These obligations consisted, not least, in trying to support oneself to the best of one's ability.

Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Jenkins argue, as I have accounted for above, that group identity will be created by means of a fictitious boundary drawn between two groups – the in-group and the out-group. The drawing up of the boundary, here done for political reasons, leads, in turn, to the stereotyped characterization of the members of the out-group by the in-group. In the debate presented here, blindness constituted the roots of the identity – the group identification – allotted by experts and politicians. The identification was mainly built upon the same kind of stereotypes and attitudes toward blind people as the American sociologist Robert Scott still found in the USA in the 1960s. Popularly held conceptions of blind people included such traits as dependency, melancholy, docility and personal dignity. Scott holds, however, these supposed characteristics of blind people as not natural, but rather the result of a socialization process (Scott 1969:4, 14).

Blindness was the criterion used by the in-group, “experts and politicians”, to categorize the out-group, “the blind”. On the basis of its meaning and its consequences, a specific group identity for blind people was designed, which they themselves accepted. That blind people adhered to the approach of experts and politicians may, of course, be understood as due to tactical motives, but it may also be looked upon as an example of how an out-group, according to Jenkins’ reasoning, both was able to understand the foundation for social categorization and to convert it into their own identity.

It was normal for politicians, experts and spokesmen for blind people during the period studied to assume that all, to the best of their ability, had to earn their own living. All the parties concerned seemed to agree that persons with various visual impairments were not able to live up to the demands of this expected normality under the conditions that existed. This normality was deeply entrenched in a culture marked by Lutheran ideals. Culturally, a lack of equality was still accepted at the beginning of the 20th century. In line with Per Solvang's reasoning, it is possible to speak of an inequality discourse. The discourse especially included an us–them relation, but the concepts of normality–divergence and equality–inequality were relevant elements as well. These conditions are evident in the debate concerning the compensation for blindness. Society had the right to claim conscientiousness from groups considered for public support, and it had the right to expect gratitude in return from those receiving support. In the words of Professor Karl Gustaf Westman (Agrarian Union) in 1929, blind people constituted a group among persons “to be pitied” (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1929:11, 18). One year later the conservative Hjalmar von Sydow described disabled persons in the same way.

The discussions concerning compensation for blindness upheld the view that by creating a special solution for compensation, in spite of the extra difficulties caused by the disability, blind people would be able to approach the norm. In other words, politicians, experts and blind people agreed that persons with serious visual impairment stood outside society. At the same time the political discussion indicated that there was a hierarchical point of view concerning the need for public support of disabled persons. Many debaters had obvious problems in backing a system favouring one group, blind people, when there were also other disabled groups with apparently justifiable demands for public assistance. The support of the special solution was therefore justified by claiming that the proposed reform constituted only a first step and by referring to the fact that disabled persons with serious visual impairments were hit especially severely by society's transformation, those who Adolf Hedin characterized in 1904 as “so unfortunately favoured fellow beings”. The situation of blind people was described as a heavy burden by the Second Standing Committee on Civil-Law Legislation in 1929 and later by Gustav Möller. Experts on the care of blind people in their 1922 report and Headmaster Gustaf Ek in 1931 did the same thing (Utredning och förslag1922:3). Möller also characterized them as “poor people” (Riksdag 1st Chamber 1929:11, 19). The Office for Civil-Law Legislation stated in 1933 that it was reasonable to regard “persons with such a severe defect” as partial vision in a class by themselves (Report on compensation for blindness 1933:14). In 1934 the socialist Verner Karlsson recommended his collegues in the second chamber to think of “the dark destiny of our fellow beings” (Riksdag 2nd Chamber, 1934:21, 51). He also spoke of blind people as “this severely depressed group of citizens”. (Riksdag 2nd Chamber 1934:21, 48).

With reference to a letter from the directors of the institute and pre-school for blind people at Tomteboda and DBF to the experts on blind care appointed in 1920, the directives from the Social Democratic Minister of Education and Ecklesiastical Affairs mentioned the limited capacity for work as “the natural consequence of blindness” (Utredning och förslag1922:1). In his investigation 10 years later Gustaf Ek maintained that the disability generally led to both to an obvious limited capacity for work and an inevitable dependence upon sighted persons around the blind person (Report and proposals (Ek) 1931:20).

Blind people, especially, argued for a reform that would to the greatest possible extent avoid social exclusion. Nor did they wish to be labelled as dependent upon poor relief, which was regarded as negative stigmatization. Politicians and experts gradually agreed to an ever-increasing extent with this viewpoint, but they seem to have thought that strings needed to be attached to the public offer of limited social integration (cf. Söder 1981:31). There may have been an ambition among blind people to live according to the directives of public normality, but for safety's sake, a helping hand was needed. The 1922 experts on blind care argued that many blind persons needed support “not to sink into a deep destitution with subsequent downheartedness and indifference” (Utredning och förslag1922:68). In the long run this could lead to increased begging and increased stress on local poor relief. Therefore it was important, according to the investigation, to resist the abuse of musical abilities by blind persons in connection with begging (Utredning och förslag1922:68, 138). The Office for Civil-Law Legislation emphasized in 1933 that compensation only could come into question for those who were not “asocial” (Report on compensation for blindness 1933:15).

In addition to the hesitation among politicians and experts concerning the ability of blind people to be able to take decisive steps away from the main furrow of the out-group, the debate shows that among politicians and experts there still remained the old fear that a blind person would use his or her disability in order to find an easier and less strenuous way of living by begging. Thus it became possible for those who wanted to preserve the social order to support compensation for blindness.

Accordingly, there were other possible reasons for supporting the government proposal for compensation for blindness in 1934 than improvement of conditions for blind people. To sum up, it is still possible to say that, at that time, considerable consensus existed as to what characterized the category of the blind. Blind people themselves concurred in principle with this characterization. In other words for “the blind” there was a generally accepted group identity. Its meaning has been brought to light by the debate concerning the question of compensation for blindness. At the same time it is possible to establish that this identity had moved in a positive direction since the end of the 19th century. It was no longer necessary to watch over blind people in order not to avoid their abuse of public support, as the Committee on Education of the Blind had argued about 1880. The level of ambition for social participation had according to the debaters later been increased for blind people. The changed understanding was early delivered by the DBF chairman at the Nordic meetings in 1903 and 1912 that were designed to discuss the conditions of disabled persons, but the approach was also gradually accepted by educational and social political experts, as well as by politicians. The restrictions that were formulated in connection with the debate on compensation for blindness were in tune with the demands for fulfilment of obligations that were built into the contemporary social policy for the rest of the population (Berge 1995b, ch. 2). There was also a latent fear among the debaters of the negative consequences that could result if public support for the conscientious blind was not satisfactory. If these persons received support, they would not be tempted to break against the existing norms of a good citizen.

According to the debate, blindness put obvious obstacles in way of a normal life. Normality in principle was determined by being able to support oneself by own efforts. Those difficulties had been amplified as a consequence of the development of society in which traditional occupations for blind people had become unprofitable. At the same time the nature of the disability made an adaptation to the new situation more difficult. This situation did not necessarily apply to other disabilities. At the same time a certain displacement of understanding took place as to how the group of “the blind” should be defined in the question of economic support. It may be said that the relative, means tested concept of blindness from the 1920 investigation of blind care was transformed into a more physical and more delimited definition based upon the disability itself. The relative viewpoint was defended to the very end by the majority of the National Insurance Board, which preferred that the consequences of blindness be noted. The bill from the Socialist Party argued along the same lines. A step was taken away from the suggestion of a relative concept of disability, which was implicit in the means testing principle. The investigators in the beginning of the 1920s took into consideration both the conditions for work and everyday life. The concept of blindness also meant a restriction of blind people in great need. This was a reduction, which in principle seems to have been assented to by blind people themselves, even if the Socialist Party bill in 1934 tried to maintain something else.

The debate further reveals no political disunity concerning the view on the conditions of blind people. The same general view turned up again in the bills from 1904 and 1926 by Hedin (Liberal) and Strindlund (Agrarian Union), as among the debaters in 1934. The conservative Björkman in 1934 and Strindlund, acting as a mouthpiece for DBF, in 1926 especially pointed out the problem of begging. The same phenomenon was noted by the 1920 experts on blind care. In the case of Strindlund and the experts on blind care the remark ought to interpreted as a warning about what could happen if necessary action was not taken. A general theme of the argumentation by politicians and experts in favour of positive efforts also consisted of the need to resist the risk of dissipating the public capital invested in occupational training of blind people.


The 1934 decision with regard to a special kind of compensation to blind people fits well into the contemporary view on what could be done to change society with the help of social policy. It constituted the cornerstone of the Swedish welfare state – that the society could and would step in and direct the development towards a society without marginalized groups. At the same time the construction of the reform was ill-suited for the contemporary norms of social policy. Allowances were still considered to be means tested. General allowances did not become the rule in social policy until after the Second World War (Ahlberger & Kvarnström 2004:315–317, 346). The discussion about the compensation for blindness at the same time reveals that, in spite of the sympathy towards blind people, many debaters among politicians and experts expressed a unified view of what the measure of integration was allowed to cost, and they agreed that the proposed effort at best would lead to limited exclusion. The meaning of the exclusion was made clear in 1934 by choosing to interpret the concept of blindness absolutely – partial vision. This made the we-and-them relationship more obvious than earlier and made social integration more difficult. Today the focus is on disabled persons and their individual needs, but in 1934 the decision for compensation above all recognized the collective characteristics of blind people as a group.