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Friday, 23 November 2012

Offensive Portrayal of the Blind Goes Viral

What do Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, an image by photographer Paul Strand and a recent web-based publicity campaign have in common? They all exploit the stereotype of the blind beggar for their own ends.

As part of their 'Change Your Words, Change Your World' campaign, online marketing company Purplefeather made a video a couple of years ago which I have only just come across. This video has been widely circulated via e-mail and has had over 15 million hits on youtube. I am guessing that most people like its sentimentality and apparent happy ending. I think it tells an entirely different story.

In fact there is so much wrong with this portrayal of the blind that I hardly know where to start. Firstly, it suggests a natural association between begging and blindness, as if begging is all that the blind are good for. This may have been the case for some blind people in Scotland a couple of hundred years ago (and is still the case in some developing countries), but it is certainly not the case in the UK now. Blind people are no more likely to beg on the streets than anyone else. But this film insidiously suggests that being blind will limit your life-choices, career path and earning power. It will mean you can't make friends, have a family or buy a house. Blindness, it implies, will leave you lonely, poor and at the mercy of society's do-gooders.

This man's blindness has reduced him to a passive object of pity. All he can do is sit. He is not even given the power of knowledge. Unlike the sighted viewer he does not even know what has been written on his sign. For someone who believes in the power of words, the young advertising star is not very communicative. Not only does she rudely fail to introduce herself, obliging him to recognise her only by her shoes, she also refuses to read out the changed sign to him. She both undermines his autonomy by changing the sign without his permission, and also insults him by failing to properly answer the direct question he asks her. Maybe she thinks he is stupid as well as blind.

As well as assuming that the blind are prone to misery and helplessness, the film also suggests that being blind somehow limits your enjoyment of life. The incredibly lucrative new message, 'It's a beautiful day but I can't see it' reduces a person's appreciation of life to merely what they can see. True, the blind man cannot see the street which surrounds him, but he can feel, smell and hear it. Sight loss is not the tragedy this sign suggests. It means that people relate to the world in different ways, perhaps realising that the world is not quite as occulocentric as the sighted would have us believe.

It is a horrible irony that this film is almost entirely inaccessible to the blind. It relies completely on sight to tell its story, with only the sentimental music and sparse dialogue as aural clues to its atmosphere. It perhaps unsurprisingly does not come with audio description. Can you imagine how mortified the audio describer would be at having to describe these images of debasement and vulnerability for the blind?

I am pleased to see that I am not the only person who objects to this video. This blog post is a great example of its impact on the disabled community. And yet inexplicably this film is still in circulation, ensnaring more uncritical viewers in its pernicious lies of pity and pwerlessness.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Where Have All the Disabled People Gone?

I really miss the Paralympics. I used to love turning on the television and seeing all kinds of disabled people doing all kinds of impressive things. Disability was not just the new Normal, it was the new Cool. For those magical two weeks I was so proud to be seen out and about with my white cane. I looked at my non-disabled friends with an odd kind of pity: they suddenly seemed woefully unfashionable because their bodies were just so damn ordinary.

But the nation's enthusiasm for disability seems to have quickly waned. I was really hoping that the popularity of the Paralympics would lead to increased disability visibility on television. But it seems that the media is still obsessed with out-dated notions of the Normal.

Last night I went to see the majestic Francesca Martinez in her new stand-up show 'What the F*** is Normal?'. Inexplicably, I had only heard of Francesca earlier this year when she appeared on BBC Radio 4's 'News Quiz'. I was delighted and amazed to hear someone with a speech impediment on the radio. I instantly liked her witty and subversive take on current affairs. And I was pleased to hear Radio 4 fighting the nation's ingrained prejudices against difference by featuring a disabled comedian in one of its most popular programmes. Of course, my need to comment on this remarkable turn of events demonstrates how unusual it is. We still have a long long way to go before disability stops being marginalised.

If Francesca Martinez is funny enough to appear on the News Quiz (and she is), why have I not seen her on one of the BBC's many panel shows? Last night she suggested that the BBC thinks that she is too frightening to appear on TV. She might scare away the viewers, apparently. Now, what the BBC means by this is not that Francesca herself is frightening (she isn't), but that disability is frightening. And why is disability frightening? Because people do not understand it. And why do people not understand it? Because they have never been exposed to it: most people have never met a physically disabled person, much less had a conversation with them. So, if we follow the BBC's own logic, the only way to get Francesca on TV is to expose more people to disability. And a sure fire way of exposing  more people to disability is to get Francesca on TV.

The Paralympics made disability visible. Now the nation's broadcasters have a responsibility to enhance that visibility. It is only by seeking out disabled comedians, presenters, newscasters and writers that they will help position disability firmly in the mainstream.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Blindness in Fiction 3: Ratburger

I have always loved being read to. Recently I have got into the habit of snuggling up with my boys as their Dad reads their bedtime story. We are going through a bit of a David Walliams phase at the moment. I was sceptical at first, after all, celebrities do not always make good writers, but I've been delighted with all his books, and so have my boys. They are inventive and exciting tales which are suffused with a gritty realism which makes them thought-provoking as well as entertaining. We were the first people to borrow Ratburger from the local library and were soon gripped by its appealing mixture of comedy and yuckiness.

Spoiler alert!

As its title suggests, the novel features an evil fast-food seller-cum-pest control operative who turns rats into burgers (and cockroaches into ketchup). He is a horrible character who oozes filth, grease and murderous nastiness. He is also completely blind.

When the novel's heroine, Zoe, first discovers the rat-catcher's secret blindness, which he successfully conceals until chapter 24 (promisingly entitled 'Childburger'), my first reaction was anger. I thought that in a cheap trick borrowed from the horror film genre, Walliams was using blindness as shorthand for evil. There are hardly any blind characters in fiction, and almost none in children's literature. Most children who read Ratburger will never have met or even seen an actual blind person. All they know about blindness is what they learn from books, films and tv. And children's television is not exactly brimming with positive blind role models. So I worried that this association of blindness with evil will plant a seed of suspicion and terror in the minds of children. Blindness will forever be associated with sinister, creepy characters who are out to hurt innocent little girls. Burt's blindness stuck me as a gratuitous slur on the blind, particularly as it is not necessary to the plot. True, his uncanny sense of smell does make it harder for Zoe to hide from him in the warehouse, but he would have had just as much impact had he been sighted.

It would be easy to leave my critique there. But I'm not a fan of the kind of political correctness which demands that disabled people are always presented in a positive light. Of course there are evil blind people just as there are evil sighted ones. And Burt does shatter at least one myth of disability: there is no way that he can be described as a victim. He is neither passive nor self-pitying and has not let his blindness prevent him from pursuing his somewhat unsavoury career. He navigates exclusively through his sense of smell and even drives a van (albeit with sometimes disastrous results). If children are influenced by the images of disability they are exposed to, at least they won't grow up thinking that the disabled are helpless and should be pitied.

Burt is a deeply unattractive character. For me, his most unappealing characteristic is neither his questionable food hygiene nor his violent streak but the fact that he is ashamed of his blindness. He hides his empty eye sockets behind dark glasses and does everything he can to 'pass' as 'normal'. As Zoe points out, he refuses traditional trappings of blindness like a white cane or a dog. Burt hates his own blindness so much that he goes to considerable lengths to hide it. In fact his own self-loathing might well explain why he is so horrible to everyone he meets. By killing off this blind blindness-hater, Walliams is actually doing something remarkably positive for blindness. He is saying that hiding one's difference, being ashamed of one's own physicality is an easy route to misery and self-destruction. Burt does not die because he is blind, but his death is caused at least in part by his unhealthy attitude to his own blindness. By letting this character die in such a gruesome way, I'd like to think that Walliams is implicitly criticising a society whose occulocentrism is such that sight loss becomes something to be ashamed of, denied or hidden. Maybe in a future book, Walliams will give us a character who is proud to be blind. Now that really would be a book I'd like my children to hear..

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Blindness in Fiction 2: Adrian Mole

Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend's celebrated diarist, has been chronicling life in middle England for thirty years.

Adrian's best friend Nigel was registered blind in 2002 and Townsend describes Adrian's response to Nigel's sudden sight loss in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004). When I first read this volume, shortly after it came out, I was still in denial about my own blindness and so didn't pay any attention to 'poor blind Nigel' (p. 37). But I've recently gone back to look again at how Adrian deals with his best friend's situation.

Adrian's first reaction to Nigel's news (pp. 19-20) is a mixture of the inappropriate and the selfish. He makes quips about Nigel's love of dark glasses and is disappointed that his friend will no longer be able to advise him on interior decoration. Lovers of the Adrian Mole diaries will not be surprised by these apparently flippant comments. It is fair to say that Adrian has a rather self-centred approach to life and has a sense of perspective slightly out of kilter with those around him. He can struggle with the finer points of  empathy and is often awkward in social situations. Despite Nigel's shock, we find ourselves laughing at some of Adrian's responses precisely because they tell us more about Adrian's skewed priorities than they do about Nigel's sight loss.

But at the end of this same episode, on p. 21, Adrian lapses into the kind of patronising behaviour which all blind people will have experienced at some point. When Nigel's cab arrives, Adrian gives the address on Nigel's behalf. This might seem like a rather trivial incident; after all, Adrian is only trying to help. But we, like Nigel, interpret this genuinely well-intentioned slip as a manifestation of the widely-held belief that the visually impaired also lack other physical and mental capacities. Nigel's grumpy riposte: '"I can still speak, Moley!"' is misunderstood by Adrian. His response, 'I hope he is not going to become one of those bitter blind people, like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre' is revealing for two reasons. Firstly, it makes a sweeping generalisation about the blind which is rendered all the more erroneous because it is based on a fictional character (one, indeed, whose blindness has important metaphorical implications of its own). Secondly, it fails to notice that Nigel is not grumpy about his blindness as such. Instead it is Adrian's rather thoughtless treatment of him which has put him in such a bad mood. By both speaking for him, and subsequently failing to understand Nigel's irritation, Adrian unwittingly communicates his deep-seated belief that going blind somehow makes Nigel a lesser person. In this one incident, Townsend underlines one of the most common misconceptions faced by the blind.

Adrian certainly is well-meaning in his attempts to understand Nigel's blindness. Later on in the story, he decides not to help Nigel 'look' for his keys, coat and white stick because he "has often heard blind people on the radio going on about how much they resent other people doing things for them" (p. 94). Adrian's problem here, of course, is his inability to put his knowledge into context. Whilst Nigel does not need help to give his address to a cab driver, he probably would appreciate some help finding that pesky set of keys.

Several more episodes of this kind occur throughout the book. Aside from giving us additional insights into Adrian's character, they are significant because they allow Townsend to denounce the way people treat the blind. Townsend was registered blind in 2001 and given some of the reactions I've had, especially when out and about with my white cane, I'll bet she has been on the receiving end of similar comments. Putting such comments in Adrian's voice means she can demonstrate their dangerously negative reach without ranting or whining. (And we've already seen how any blind person who does that is in danger of being dismissed as 'bitter'.) Furthermore, by showing Nigel's reactions alongside Adrian's misreading of them, she (ironically unlike Adrian) gives Nigel his voice back and encourages the reader - who is already aware of Adrian' s flaws -  to see things from Nigel's perspective. By experiencing some of his outrage, readers will hopefully internalise how it feels to be treated as part of a generalised, marginalised and misunderstood group rather than as an individual. Perhaps this new-found knowledge will come into play next time they meet someone who is experiencing sight loss.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Night Vision

I have loved Suzanne Vega's music since I discovered it 25 years ago. Seeing her live at Newcastle City Hall on 1st June 1987 was my first experience of how extraordinarily moving seeing your favourite artist live can be. I've seen her live many times since then and can't wait to relive the experience again tomorrow when she celebrates the 25th anniversary of her platinum album Solitude Standing at the Barbican in London.

'Night Vision' is a beautiful and relatively unknown song from Solitude Standing. I had previously understood it in its literal sense, in the sense Vega meant it, as a description of a loved one falling asleep as night gradually fills the narrator's room. But earlier today I was listening to it whilst worrying about how to find my way to The Barbican in the dark. Suddenly the lyrics gained a new depth of meaning and it became a song about my own experience of partial blindness.

The opening lines: "By day give thanks, by night beware; half the world in sweetness, the other in fear" evoke the age-old myth that associates light and day with joy and happiness and darkness and night with danger and misery. Vega's lyrics frequently evoke received wisdom in this way before subtly overturning the listeners' expectations. (Think of the narrative of childbirth in 'Birth Day'; the unexpected sagacity of the unnamed lover in 'Gypsy', the beauty of asymmetry in 'Left of Centre' or the mischievous riff on misery in 'Straight Lines'.

The implications of the cliche evoked at the beginning of 'Night Vision' are familiar to the blind and the partially blind. Too often, blindness is seen as just as irrevocably negative as the darkness with which it is erroneously associated. As the song develops, however, Vega demonstrates that vision is not about seeing, but rather about using the available clues to fill in the gaps left by either partial blindness or nightfall:

"When the darkness takes you with her hand across your face,
don't give in too quickly, find the things she's erased:
find the line, find the shape through the grain,
find the outline and things will tell you their name."

This is a perfect description of the way my brain tries to make sense of the patchy, blurry world I inhabit. Like the narrator in Vega's song, I am always trying to make sense of edges, outlines, contours. I see a ghostly shape and my brain tells me what it is most likely to be. This song is - perhaps unknowingly - a celebration of the particular way the partially blind relate to the world. The narrator's promise to teach her child "night vision' ends the song. In this promise I hear a celebration of both literal and metaphorical darkness which invites the blind and the partially blind to enjoy and treasure their way of seeing in the dark.

(Vega's song may be exquisite and inspiring in equal measure. But it will not actually help me find my way to the Barbican in the dark. Luckily the Baribican provides an incredibly helpful and wonderfully detailed description of how to get to the venue on their site, complete with extremely helpful photo-maps of key points along the route.)

Monday, 8 October 2012

To the Buses

It is one of the horrible ironies of modern life that blind and partially blind non-car-drivers can also find it incredibly difficult to use public transport. Surely, the very fact that the blind cannot drive should have meant that public transport was designed especially with us in mind.
Not so.. According to a recent RNIB report, 9 out of 10 partially blind bus uses have trouble hailing buses whilst 8 out of 10 have missed buses as a result of their vision. I use buses almost every day and hate not knowing which bus is coming until it is pretty much already at the stop. I used to use a hand-held monocle to read bus numbers. But this is tricky to juggle with glasses, white cane, umbrella, bag, bus pass etc. So now I use a mixture of techniques.
Where possible I rely on the electronic displays which claim to count down the minutes until the next bus is due. This works on my usual relatively quiet route, but isn't great at a stop serving lots of different buses. Then I just flag down whatever comes along and smile apologetically at the bus driver if I accidentally hail the wrong bus. Apart from being embarassing for me and annoying for the driver, this has also meant that I have unwittingly flagged down the odd lorry too. Sometimes I ask other passangers (or my kids) to tell me what is coming. This can be a nice way of engaging strangers in conversation.
And bus numbers are not the only problem. Recently, Oxford station reorganised which buses use which stops. There are four stops on the station forecourt so I really need to know where my bus is going from. There was no additional signage or news alerts about the changes. Presumably the operators thought that passengers would notice the changes themselves.This is not easy to do when you can't see the numbers and rely on habit and precedent. I was halfway to Rose Hill before I realised my mistake.
The problem with all my techniques for working out the buses is that they take away my autonomy and put me in the position of having to ask. They make me feel apologetic for even wanting to get a bus in the first place.
The RNIB's 'Stop For Me, Speak to Me' campaign is aiming to make drivers and buses more vocal. Why not shout out numbers, destinations and stops as a matter of course? Why such a conspiracy of silence?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Flaubert and the 'Medical' Model of Disability

In preparation for a research paper I am giving at the University of Kent as part of their 'Cultural Pathologies' seminar, I have been thinking about how nineteenth-century French literature depicts disability. The nineteenth century is well-known for its enthusiasm for scientific and medical progress. It would therefore seem logical that its writers would favour the  'medical' model of disability. This model is similar to the 'tragedy approach'. Both these models of disability still exist today. (See this post for an example of the 'tragedy' approach.)  The 'medical model' sees disability as something inherently negative which must be cured, or, better yet, eliminated entirely. The most extreme version of this model led to the eugenics of Nazi Germany.

The club foot episode in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary can be read as an example of the 'medical' approach to disability. In the name of progress and patriotism, Homais and Emma convince Charles to cure Hippolyte's club foot using a new and complicated procedure. Hippolyte, who is perfectly happy with his foot the way it is, takes quite a lot of persuading. Like many disabled people, he does not see himself as in any way disadvantaged or inconvenienced by his difference and cannot really understand why the able-bodied are so eager to convince him otherwise.

When he eventually acquiesces, the operation seems to go perfectly, leaving Charles, and, more importantly, Emma to bask in the glory of his triumph. Unfortunately, however, Charles is not quite as talented as his wife would have him (and herself) believe. Hippolyte's leg soon becomes gangrenous and is eventually amputated by renowned surgeon Canivet.

The failure of Charles's attempt to cure Hippolyte is a wonderful illustration of the dangers of the 'medical' model. Homais and Emma believe in perfection, beauty and normality. Anything that deviates from any of these absolutes must be somehow lacking or inferior: a patient in need of a cure, a victim in need of pity. But their interference nearly costs Hippolyte his life. Why, rages Canivet, try and fix something that isn't even broken? Why mess with a perfectly happy and healthy man for no reason other than a misguided believe in progress for its own sake? Why indeed.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Superhumans at the Wellcome Collection

Lord Sebastian Coe was right when he said that the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games means 'we will never think of disability the same way'. Outmoded notions of 'normality', 'beauty' and 'perfection' have been shattered, or at least called into question, by the sheer diversity of the elite bodies competing during the Games.

Oscar Pistorius's Blades
Shaun Botterill, Getty Images

The controversy over the 'Cheetah' blades used by T 44 sprinters Pistorius and Oliveira at the Paralympics brought the issue of 'normality' to prime-time television. The prosthetic running legs used by these athletes are designed for their optimum performance. Unlike early prosthetics - such as those produced for the Thalidomide children in the sixties - Pistorius's legs do not try to blend in or 'pass' as actual legs. They privilege functionality over 'normality', announcing rather than hiding Pistorius's difference from the 'norm'. As such they force us to question why we hold the 'norm' in such high regard. Why should disabled people feel compelled to hide their differences behind artificial replicas of a perfect body part? Why shouldn't a children's television presenter have one arm? Why would contact lenses be used for cosmetic reasons to hide a deformed eye?

The Superhuman show at the Wellcome Collection demonstrates that human beings (both able-bodied and disabled) have been enhancing their bodies for thousands of years. In a provocative exhibition which includes a bronze statue of Icarus, an iphone, packs of Viagra, false teeth, eyes and noses, films about cosmetic surgery and details of how Thalidomide children refused clunky prosthetics in favour of their stumps, we are asked to rethink the ethics of enhancement and the reasons why we feel the need to strive towards a bodily perfection which rarely, if ever, exists in nature.

Superhuman is on at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London until 16 October 2012.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

La Ligne Droite

Régis Wargnier's 2011 film La Ligne droite is a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of how young athlete Yannick (Cyril Descours) learns to run with a guide after losing his sight in a car accident.
It is extremely rare to find positive responses to blindness in film. As my comments on Amélie and Les Amants du Pont Neuf demonstrate, blind characters are most often portrayed as victims to be pitied, looked-after and eventually saved.
In this film, Yannick's over-protective mother embodies the patronising attitude illustrated in Jeunet's and Carax's depictions. She treats Yannick like a sick child, denying him any autonomy and refusing to let him take responsibility for his own actions. More despicably still, she uses his blindness to trick him into unknowingly becoming complicit in her kindnesses: in one scene she lies about the dice he has thrown so that he can win the game they are playing; in another she secretly pays a prostitute to seduce him.  Wargnier's depiction of these duplicitous actions offers us an extremely well-observed account of how those who do not understand disability treat the disabled. Yannick's mother means well and thinks she is acting kindly. But her behaviour is in danger of imprisoning Yannick in a muted world of caution and care. 
Unlike Carax and Jeunet, Wargnier embeds a critique of this attitude in the film - indeed it is this, even more than the exhilirating race scenes (filmed at an actual Diamond League meet at the Stade de France) that makes the film so compelling. Yannick's encounter with runner Leila (Rachida Brakni) signals the beginning of his liberation from his overbearing mother. It also marks the point where the viewer begins to understand that pity and over-protection are not the most helpful reactions to blindness. It is no coincidence that Leila has just come out of prison: this is a film about liberation. We, like Yannick, spend the film learning how to break free from the negative images of blindness which are still commonly found in both fiction and reality.
La Ligne droite was shown by the Institut français de Londres as part of their Beyond the Body season timed to coincide with the London 2012 Paralympic Games. My thanks go to the Institut français for inviting me to this special screening and giving me the chance to question Cyril Descours (and meet the French Paralympic Judo team).

Monday, 3 September 2012

My Perfect Day at the Paralympics

Waiting for the athletics to start at the Olympic Stadium
I spent Saturday 1st September at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with my husband and our two sons. I was expecting an informative and interesting glimpse into disabled sport: it turned into an amazingly moving and hugely exhilarating adventure.

The fun started as soon as we got off the Jubilee Line in Stratford. The crowds pouring into the Olympic Park were good-natured and exuberant and we were soon captivated by the atmosphere. The boys especially were made really welcome: their cuddly GB Mandervilles (see above) were petted by volunteer after volunteer and they loved high-fiving the giant pointy fingers directing us into the stadium. My white cane and I don't usually like crowds but I found navigation relatively easy thanks to the numbers of helpful volunteers and the mindfulness of other spectators.

It felt both comforting and liberating to be in a crowd made up of a healthy mix of disabled and non-disabled sports fans. Usually my cane attracts stares and sideways glances but here I blended in so much better than usual. It felt great to be carrying a cane and yet not be the centre of attention.  I have never felt prouder to be using a white cane than during the Paralympics.

So why was it such an amazing day? Here are my top 10 moments (in roughly chronological order):

  1. Cheering on Team GB's Richard Whitehead to Gold in the T42 200m final and then singing our hearts out at the Victory Ceremony. I momentarily lost my voice afterwards!
  2. Wishing I could run as fast as the super speedy blind runners and their guides in the women's T11 200m and T12 100m heats. 
  3. Chilling with friends, cider and live music at the Bandstand
  4. Meeting Manderville the Paralympic Mascot
  5. Eating yummy food from around the world including fish, chips and mushy peas, sushi, thai green curry, mango and melon salad and ice-cream.
  6. Shouting with joy at the Big Screen in Park Live as Ellie Simmonds won her Gold in the S6 Women's 400m freestyle.
  7. Dancing the Macarena during 'Fan Time' at the Copper Box.
  8. Being initially mystified and then quickly enthralled by fast-moving Goalball: the women's match between Denmark and Finland was especially thrilling.
  9. Watching the Olympic Stadium turn all the colours of the rainbow as night fell.
  10. Reading the water-words created by Julius Propp's bit.fall art installation under the Stratford Walk bridge on the way home.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Paralympic Opening Ceremony (both good and bad)


Something changed last night. It became cool to be disabled.

A large-scale reproduction of Marc Quinn's sculpture 'Alison Lapper Pregnant'
(from BBC Website)

The Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games was a powerfully moving celebration of the human body in all its forms. It used music, technology and a re-writing of Shakespeare's Tempest to dare anyone who thinks disability is about tragedy, pity and self-loathing to 'be curious' and embrace the differences which make us who we are.  A multimedia evocation of the complicated multiplicity of the universe, represented by the iconic figure of Stephen Hawkin, called for a radical rethinking of the way disability is represented and understood. It used the theme of 'Enlightenment' to demand a more enlightened approach to disability, an approach which does away with outmoded notions of beauty, perfection and wholeness.

British physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking speaking
at the opening ceremony
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Some of the performers encountered on stage were startling at first sight. The media's obsession with perfection has left us unused to wheelchair dancers or limbless bodies. But the power of the ceremony lay precisely in the way that this initial shock was transformed not into horror, but into wonder and pride. There was a real danger that this ceremony might become a kind of twenty-first century freakshow, a parade of extraordinary bodies to be stared at from a distance.  Instead it was a joyous celebration of the power of disability.

The Paralympic flame is carried by Royal Marine Joe Townsend
into the stadium on a zip wire
Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Yet despite its celebration of the differences which make up the world, the ceremony still emphasised  the centrality of sight to our understanding of it. Miranda was told to look, to read, to see. The giant eye, the lack of braille reading during the book scenes and even the theme of Enlightenment itself all suggested that a consideration of blindness was oddly absent from proceedings.
It feels churlish criticising an event which has undoubtedly done more for disability awareness both on and off the sportsfield than any other.  But these odd incongruities remind us of the hold the sense of sight has over us. Most people cannot even conceive of a world without it.
I have had my doubts about the ethics of holding a separate Paralympic Games but after last night's ceremony (and my quibbles notwithstanding) I am convinced that Paralympic Sport deserves both its own Games and its own Opening Ceremony. This did not feel like a second-best, or second-rate echo of the Olympic Opening Ceremony. It is the second, and most important, act in a drama which has captivated London and the World.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Ethics of the 'Tragedy' Approach

Since I started thinking critically about blindness, I have repeatedly argued in this blog against the widely held view that blindness, or indeed any disability, is a tragedy. I have become interested in the 'personal non-tragedy' approach to disability and in March 2013 I am organising a study day to explore issues around tragedy and disability.

I thought that seeing disability as a tragedy perpetuated society's view of the disabled (and thus disabled people's view of themselves) as inferior, somehow lesser people. In a post on Tina Nash - the woman ferociously blinded by her boyfriend Shane Jenkin in 2011 -  I noted how Tina herself resisted the media's attempts to assign the traditional disability labels of 'brave' and 'courageous' to her. I was trying to argue that this resistance demonstrates that disability is not inherently tragic and that Tina's refusal to see herself as a victim was empowering not just for her but also for other disabled people. 

I recently received a very angry response to my Tina Nash post from Maria Brody. Maria's comments, which I found shocking and hurtful, accused me of being more immoral, more evil, than Tina's attacker. Maria's argument is that by refusing to see disability as a tragedy, I undermine the severity of Jenkin's crime and make disabled people feel guilty for wanting to be 'whole' again. Her comments, as well as demonstrating the alarming pervasiveness of myths of blindness and disability amongst the general public, raise important questions about the ethics of my 'personal non-ttragedy' approach. Maria sent me her comments by e-mail and I include them in full below in italics, with my responses in bold.

You do realize that it is a mindset such as the one you describe that contributes to torturers like Shane Jenkin getting only six years in prison? After which he can happily go out again and pluck out someone else's eyes. Creating more blindness. More tragedy, yes.
I think your post is a massive insult to victims of violence.

I did not intend to insult anyone nor to belittle Jenkin's actions. He subjected Tina to a brutal and violent assault and should be punished for it. How Tina is living with her blindness is a completely separate issue. She is living her life in a way which shows that blindness is not a tragedy and does not signal the end of life as we know it. Are you suggesting that she should give up on her life, her children and her self-esteem so that perpetrators of violence receive longer sentences? Surely this would signify a further triumph for her torturer.

Rape is probably also best responded to by "laying back and enjoying it", according to your morals?

Rape, like assault, is a violent act inflicted on somebody against their will. As such it is reprehensible and wrong. My post does not suggest that Tina enjoyed her attack. It argues that once blinded, she adopted a positive attitude to her new way of being in the world.

It's all in the mind, there's no difference really between good or bad, it's the victim's own fault if she thinks blindness is a tragedy, if only she'll stop constructing herself as a victim she'll be just fine.
I do not blame anyone for thinking that blindness is a tragedy. After all we are constantly bombarded by this message in language, in the media, in film and in literature. My post on David Rathband's blinding reminds us that feelings of mourning and depression are extremely common when affected by sudden sight loss. But might blindness feel less tragic if Western civilisation stopped fetishizing the eyes, vision and the sense of sight?

Oh yeah, does it really make a difference whether you see your loved one's faces or not, or a sunset, or a tree, or the sky?
You are asking the wrong person. I really don't think it does make a difference. But then I didn't lose my sight suddenly like Tina and David so there are lots of things that I've never seen and never missed seeing.  My life doesn't feel empty because I've never seen them. Unlike most people, I've never seen sight as the most important of the senses. I use touch and smell extensively in my contact with the world.  

Or permanent darkness.

All the same, of course!

"Black is just another color, full of possibilities."

"Rape is just another form of sex, stop calling it a problem."

Why these parallels between rape and blindness? How do you think this makes blind people feel? 



You are the one acting blindly here,
This is an interesting turn of phrase. Do you see how even the metaphoric language we use constantly tells us that blindness is negative? 
 denying that reality can sometimes be horrific. And that evil does exist.

I am not denying that Tina suffered a violent and painful attack. But I am saying that she is refusing to let Jenkin's act ruin her life.

If you believe you are benefitting disabled people, and victims of violence, by denying their feelings and the hardships of their reality, think again.

I have had first-hand experience of the negative feelings having a disability can cause. Remember that I have been living with my blindness for 39 years. But I know now that these feelings are the product of society's negativisation of disability. This in turn is a result of an occulocentric society obsessed with conventional notions of beauty and perfection and with sight, vision and the eyes. Having a disability is often annoying, inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive. But it is not a tragedy.


Look again at what you wrote:

"It is significant that Tina rejects the epithets of 'courageous' and 'amazing' that the interviewer dangles in front of her. By doing so, Tina does much to demonstrate that blindness in itself is not a tragedy: rather, it is the sighted world's view of blindness which might be described as 'disabling'. If I described Tina as 'an inspiration' I would be undermining my own argument by buying into the 'disability as tragedy to be overcome' mindset. So I'll just say that hearing her voice on radio 4 this morning made me glad to know that she is there."

The last sentence must, judging from the preceding argumentation, mean: "hearing her voice on radio 4 this morning made me glad to know she is blind."

The last sentence means that I am glad that she is handling her blindness in a refreshingly positive way.

Really? That is disgusting.
And if this was not what you meant, what is it then making you so glad? Tina was "there" too when she had eyes, remember? - But that did not give you any thrill, did it?

True. But only because I had never heard of her before her blinding. I am not glad that Tina is blind. I am glad that she is showing other people who lose their sight suddenly that life can go on.

The real significance of Tina's rejection of the description "brave" is exactly what she is saying: She is just surviving. Praising her for bravery would in a way absolve the assailant who tortured her, making the assault "meaningful" or "OK", "not so bad after all". And Tina wants, of course, to hold on to the truth: to keep insisting that this was wrong, that this was entirely horrific and should not have happened to anyone. And that we should do our utmost to prevent similar evils from happening. To deny that is as great an insult as what he did to her.

I think we are saying the same thing here. I agree that what Jenkin did was horrific. But it would have been just as horrific - no more, no less -  if he had cut off her hands, her ears or her legs. By saying that his crime is worse because it led to blindness you are fetishizing the sense of sight and thus perpetuating the myth that says that gouging out the eyes is the most horrific punishment. Jenkin went for Tina's eyes because of society's fetishization of them. Without this privileging of the sense of sight, he might have turned his attention somewhere else.   

You, in my view, are trying to do to her mind, and everyone else's minds, what he did to her physically.

No, I am trying to do the opposite. I am trying to ask people to think again about blindness and the sighted world's understanding of it. I am trying to metaphorically open people's eyes.

One is doing disabled people no favor by denying reality and placing upon them the addition burden of guilt for still feeling deep down that they would rather be whole.

I agree. By constantly telling disabled people that they are somehow less than whole, society makes them yearn to be whole again. This creates a struggle between acceptance and self-loathing which can lead to depression or even suicide. But the burden of guilt for this lies not with disabled people but with those who constantly reinforce the 'disability as tragedy' myth, thus encouraging self-pity and immobilising the disabled in a stagnant victim culture.

It is one thing to keep a positive attitude to life in difficult circumstances - and an entirely different thing to blatantly lie about the difference between ability and disability.

I am not lying. I am questioning received wisdom and trying to go beyond superficial appearances.  

True, one can choose to use whatever one has to the best of one's abilities, and that is an inspiration to us all. But that does not mean that being disabled is not a tragedy.

Nor does it mean that it is a tragedy.

Do not deny Tina her own language of ghostliness and death. Blindness does have similarities with these conditions. You can describe your own life exactly as you like. But don't try to blind others to the truth of life. Perspective is part of reality, but not all of it.

I am not denying Tina her language or her feelings. I am celebrating her own description of her situation. It is completely understandable that Tina is in mourning for her sight. But this is the fault of a society which privileges sight over the other senses.

You are not helping, but committing a form of violence with this invasive morality of yours.

I am not a disability activist. I am an academic working on disability studies. No one is obliged to read this blog if it offends them.

That demon, Shane Jenkin, had at least a shred left in him of true morality - he said he expected to get 20 years for the gouging out of a woman's eyes. In other words, he knew he was guilty, and evil.

Whereas you, madam, try to deny both these facts.

No I don't. I agree that he is both guilty and evil.

My advice to you is to not let your mind become clouded by the present academic faith (as it really is more than a science) that language and perspective can change reality a 100 percent.

We can only hope to change the world by understanding how it works, by unpicking the myths and cliches which govern how people think.

It can't. And thank God for that, for if it could, there would be no place outside power, and no room for true love, which can only live by freedom.

Language is not an absolute, nor a magic stick which can make all your worries go away. The world is real after all. Your body, your emotions, your mind are realities beyond your representation of them. Other people are real too. And the tragedies that happen to them are real tragedies.

It is precisely because language is not an absolute that its use can be so insidious. Your own use of metaphors of blindness has shown how misuse of language can led to the confusion of myth and reality.

Here is a test whether I am right in saying that there is a real difference between being blind or seeing, or not:
You write that you are partially blind. Now, if a new technique was created which would give you perfect vision - would you use it or not?

This is a good question which I have thought about a lot. It is an academic question, a theoretical one really because there is no cure for coloboma and there never will be. But if a cure was found I would not use it. My reason for this is simple: the way I see is part of me. It has defined the way I think, behave anf feel since I was born. I cannot imagine myself without my blindness. If I suddenly regained my sight I think I would experience the kind of mourning that the sighted feel when they suddenly lose their sight. I bet you don't believe me. I bet you think that I am just saying this to further my argument. But you are wrong. I am proud of the way I look (in both senses). I never wish I could see perfectly. Sometimes I wonder if seeing better would make my life less complicated but I have never longed for sight and I'm certain that I would refuse a cure.

With regards, Maria.

Oh, and a PS: It is not "literature" which has taught us that "intentional blinding" - as you euphemistically rename this form of torture - is atrocious. What teaches us this is

1) personal experience with pain

2) compassion.

We agree that intentional blinding is atrocious. But it is impossible to separate fiction and reality, or literature and life: Jenkin got the idea for this form of torture from a film he saw. This film, in turn, was probably inspired, either knowingly or unknowingly, by Western civilisation's fascination with intentional blinding, a fascination both nurtured by, and reflected in literature.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Running Blind

Blind Runner and Guide Speeding Past the Sage
(photo courtesy of Steve Garrett / SportyPix)

My Dad started running marathons and half-marathons 32 years ago. As a child, I remember standing shivering on pavements around Tyne and Wear trying to spot him as he sped past en route from Morpeth to Newcastle (in the  New Year's Day road race) or from Newcastle to South Shields (in the now world-famous Great North Run). Little did I know that years later he would be running alongside me as my guide runner.

I took up running a couple of years ago but have only recently started running with a guide runner during races. Races are crowded and frantic affairs. I find it bewildering trying to run amongst thousands of runners who are constantly jostling for a clear piece of road. But with a guide runner by my side, I feel much more confident. Dad described the route to me as we went along, pointing out kilometre markers, water stations and, most movingly, the seven famous Newcastle-Gateshead bridges that I grew up with. It felt amazing to run past the Sage with the man who first took me to concerts there (and who now takes my children).

This is the first race I've done wearing my very bright RNIB tabbard. At first Dad and I were both worried about feeling self-conscious: it feels odd to advertise your disability in such a public way. But my travels with my white cane have shown me that announcing my blindness is only ever a positive experience. And so it was during the race. Runners were without exception courteous and mindful of our presence. And marshals and spectators along the route were enthusiastic in their applause and encouragement. And on a hilly course like the Great North 10k, every little helps.

In May I ran the Oxford Town and Gown 10k with another guide runner, my colleague and friend Cathy Thorin. She was a brilliant guide on a course that was narrow and very busy in places. But we were not wearing anything which told runners who we were. My recent run with my Dad suggests that fellow runners and spectators alike respond better to more obvious signs of blindness. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Clash of the Canes

Clash of the Canes:
Old Cane goes right to left, New Cane left to right.

I was given my first long white cane a couple of years ago by Oxfordshire's sensory deprivation team. It is a functional and workaday kind of cane, solid and (until recently) reliable. But you couldn't call it elegant or sophisticated. When I was in Paris a couple of months ago, the roller-ball tip on the end of the cane got stuck in a metro pavement grating and came off. Once a kindly Frenchman had helped me locate it and stick it back on I continued on my way, anxious that my cane was no longer quite as robust as it had been.

So on my most recent visit to Paris I decided to treat myself to a new white cane. It felt good to be taking the decision to buy one (as one might buy a new handbag or hat), rather than having one thrust upon me at the taxpayer's expense and with no discussion of accessorisation. Fellow cane user Cathy Kudlick had told me that the Association Valentin Hauy sold some remarkably stylish French canes, and she was right. I tried three different ones and settled on a thin, sleek and lightweight model with a nifty folding device and a comfortable, yet attractive handle.

The following day I was walking home from the library. As I passed a particularly busy pavement cafe, something black and person-shaped zoomed out in front of me and I heard an oddly familiar sound. My new cane makes a comforting rattle as it goes along and the sound I heard was of another, similar, rattle, colliding with my own. Another cane user had come out of the cafe and our two canes had clashed. I didn't know whether to laugh or apologise so I clumsily did both. He grumpily accepted my apology as i would grudgingly accept an apology from someone who had carelessly walked into me because they weren't looking where they were going. I realised then that he hadn't noticed that I too had a cane. How embarrassing to be mistaken for an unobservant sighted person! I can't imagine what the beer and kir drinkers in the cafe must have made of our bizarre encounter.

In the heat of the moment I didn't explain his mistake, but gathered my wits and my cane and moved out of his way. Off he went down the pavement, oblivious to my own blindness and the things we might have had in common. I wish now that I'd gone after him and introduced myself. But I like to think that maybe one day he'll come across this blog and recognise himself.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

How not to welcome the Olympic Flame

Torchbearer 133 Malcolm Fretter carrying the Olympic Flame on the Torch Relay leg through Oxford. Credit: Danny Lawson/LOCOG/PA Wire

On 6th July 2005 I was sitting on the floor of a rented house in Oxford. I was holding my seven-month-old baby boy in my arms, watching a live announcement on TV and explaining to him why it was such great news that the 2012 Olympic Games would be held in London. I spoke a message of hope, equality and peace into his tiny ear.

Yesterday I took my boy, now an exuberant seven-year-old, to greet the Olympic Flame as it arrived in Oxford. We cheered and clapped as it reached the stage in South Park. But this truly once-in-a-lifetime moment was spoilt for me even before I managed to catch a glimpse of the flame. It wasn't the mass of promotional material for a soft drinks company, a bank and a mobile phone manufacturer that spoiled it (although that certainly did not help), it was one sentence of the welcome speech delivered by the Leader of Oxford City Council just before the flame arrived.

The torch was carried into South Park by sports coach Malcolm Fretter. As he introduced him, Bob Price said something along the lines of, 'Malcolm is in a wheelchair, but has made a huge contribution to sport in Wantage'. The problem with this sentence is the word 'but'. It seems such a small and insignificant word. Yet it conveys a deeply troubling message. The assumption behind this sentnece is that Malcolm is an inspirational coach and community leader because he does his work from his wheelchair. Every day he struggles to overcome the adversity that is his disability, every day he fights, and wins, a battle against his impaired body.

This assumption posits disability as something negative which has to be overcome, triumphed over, defeated. It sets up a hierarchy between the able-bodied and the disabled in which the disabled are second-class, always struggling to do things that the able-bodied take for granted. It implies that we would be better off without disability altogether.  It suggests that disabled people who manage to live a 'normal' life are heroes who should be celebrated for their bravery and tenacity.

I have absolutely no doubt that Malcolm has done great work in his community. And I'm sure that being in a wheelchair must be annoying, frustrating and inconvenient at times. I have no wish to denigrate him or his achievements. What I object to is the persistent assumption, by most people, that disability is a hardship, something that we would be better off without. How do you think that makes the permanently disabled feel? Every time someone makes this kind of assumption, especially in public, in front of a 20,000 strong crowd, the negative image that disability has is strengthened. And the disabled become less integrated, more marginalised.

What if we looked again at disability? How might seeing disability in a positive light be better for both the disabled and the able-bodied? It would remind us that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. It would show us that no-one is perfect: some people's imperfections are more visible than others, but everyone has a weakness. And that is fine. It would allow everyone to be happy with their own body, valuing rather than either hating or denying its particular limitations. And it would remind us that surface appearance can be deceptive, that our most interesting and significant characteristics aren't always visible to the naked eye.

I am taking my seven-year-old boy to the Paralympics in September. I want to try and counter the negative images of disability that he is constantly bombarded with despite my very best efforts. Perhaps Bob Price should try and get hold of some tickets. I hear they haven't quite sold out yet.

** UPDATE **
I sent Councillor Bob Price a link to my blog and a letter objecting to his choice of words. I received the following reply which he has given me permission to post on this blog. I post it unchanged and without comment:

Dear Dr Thompson

I am truly sorry if my use of that particular construction has given rise in your, or anyone's mind, to that negative interpretation.

It was not a carefully constructed speech, having been asked to do it only two hours earlier. And in the two minutes max that was allotted I was seeking to to hold up Mr Fetter as one of the 8000 'local heroes' ,as someone who had continued to work very extensively with sports and community groups despite the limitations deriving from his illness.The 'but' was intended to denote admiration and worth.

Thank you for your consideration in drawing this to my attention. I will be more careful in future.

Good wishes

Councillor Bob Price
Hinksey Park Ward
Leader of the Council

Friday, 29 June 2012

Thérèse-Adèle Husson

As part of my research project into Disability Studies and French Culture I have been reading the novels of nineteenth-century blind writer Thérèse-Adèle Husson (introduced to me by Zina Weygand). Next week I will present my first findings on Husson's work in a paper entitled 'Monstrous Messages: Representations of the Disabled Body in Nineteenth-Century French Literature' at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Society for French Studies at the University of Exeter. In my paper I use contemporary Disability Studies to look again at depictions of blindness in French. I use examples from Baudelaire, Flaubert and Hugo to argue that blindness is almost always used in literature as a metaphor for something other than itself. The experience of blindness, how it feels to be blind and how it changes the blind person's relationship with the world, is rarely, if ever, touched upon.

Not all Husson's novels are about blindness but in Les Deux Aveugles et leur Jeune Conducteur (The Two Blind Men and their Young Guide), published posthumously in 1838, she tells the poignant story of blind brothers who are disowned by their family and forced to wander France trying to make a living. The story is told from the first-person perspective of one of the brothers. Late on in the narrative, the brothers unexpectedly encounter their neglectful father. As they suddenly realise who they have in front of them, the blind narrator utters the seemingly incongruous line: 'Son regard a rencontré le mien' (his gaze met mine). When I first came across this line I thought it must be there by mistake. Clearly a blind narrator, imagined by a blind writer, could have no understanding of the notion of the 'gaze' or the importance the sighted attach to eye contact. Surely his must be an authorial slip, a careless addition which Husson must have heard read aloud and unthinkingly transported into her text.

Contemporary Disability Study's resistance to the metaphorization of disability made me think again about this sentence. What if Husson was well aware of the incongruity of the phrase as she wrote it? What if she was trying to make her readers, both sighted and blind, think again about the alleged supremacy of sight?  Might we read this reference to the blind gaze as an insight into the way the blind relate to others in the world? The shock of this sentence invites us to separate blindness from its metaphoric baggage and put ourselves in the place of the narrator. As we do so we realise that the blind are not cut off from the world, living tragically in a bubble of isolation and self-pity. They are fully engaged and involved citizens who use their other senses to achieve the same kind of contact with others as the sighted manage (or think they manage) with their over-determined gaze.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Shouting at the (Blind) Ref

I love watching football on TV even though I agree with Tim Unwin that sport can sometimes sound better on the radio. In the past I have watched matches in bars, cafes, student common rooms and hotels but this year I expect to be mostly watching from the comfort of my sofa.  My boys are now old enough to watch with me and are taking a keen interest in my wall chart. Yesterday I subjected them to my armchair commentary during the England-France game. After abandoning an attempt to explain to them why I was giggling every time the English player Wellbeck was mentioned (a joke only really suitable for fellow French literature enthusiasts....), I had to try and tell them why I thought that the referee was failing to properly acknowledge the fouls inflicted on the English by the French. In the heat of the moment my first response was "Because he's blind". Luckily, and much to my husand's amusement, I managed to stop myself just before these words left my mouth. Instead I explained that the referee cannot possibly spot every misdemeanour which takes place on the pitch: after all he only has one pair of eyes whereas we have the benefit of many TV cameras zooming in on the action.

Once the boys had accepted this explanation, I began to wonder at my original response. What does it mean when someone who identifies herself as 'blind', someone who is working hard to be proud of her blindness, uses this word as a term of abuse? I'd like to think that the years I've spent listening to football commentary have left me with a stock of easy and un-thought-through phrases to trot out on such occasions. Perhaps I also talk about 'games of two halves' and 'tired legs' without even noticing.

But I worry that my response reveals something more sinister. What if society is so ready to accept the negativity of blindness that even the blind find themselves using it as an insult? How can I hope to celebrate my blindness, let alone encourage others to do the same, when the emotion of a football match triggers this kind of mindless comment? Football fans are not known for the subtlety of their insults. Indeed this particular tournament has already been marred by accusations of racist language. I am delighted that racism at football matches has at last been identified as an issue and is being addressed. I wonder when (or rather, if) the misuse of the language of disability will be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny. I for one am now going to be paying a lot more attention to the kind of language I use when watching football.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Reading the White Cane

What does my white cane mean? I have enough sight to notice the sideways glances my cane attracts. (This post by another 'blind blogger' gives a great idea of what cane users can see). I don't use my cane all the time and quite often carry it neatly folded in my bag. So it must look odd when I unfold it and transform from sighted to blind.
So why do I only use it sometimes? And what does my using it signify?
After dark or around steps and other obstacles I use my cane to feel my way around. I sweep it in a wide arc in front of me to find kerbs, bollards, puddles and lamp posts. This is the kind of cane-use most readily associated with the blind but it is not the most important way I use my cane.
I have a long cane but mostly I use it as a symbol cane. (You know that a cane is being used in this way when it is carried so that it does not touch the ground). When held like this my cane has no practical function: it is purely symbolic, a sign saying "I don't see as well as you so you might like to move out of my way / use non-visual ways of communicating with me / expect me to step off the pavement in front of you if you are a car or bike / tell me who you are even if I know you really well or we had a conversation this morning." I tend to use my cane like this in busy or unfamiliar places and / or when I'm on my own. I'll always have it with me at conferences, in stations, airports, supermarkets and busy city streets. Once I took it with me to the library. This turned out to be pretty confusing for the librarian who couldn't quite grasp the fact that I needed help finding a book but that I was more than capable of reading it. I can see why my cane might cause a kind of interpretive panic: after all, I clearly have some sight (otherwise why bother with bifocals?) Stereotypical images of the blind always feature a white cane but actually only about 5% of cane-users have no sight at all. So a symbol cane says "I am happy to acknowledge my blindness to the world and in return you can feel free to talk to me about it."
It is a kind of visual shorthand which not only signals blindness, but also signals a willingness to talk about it. It is an offer of a conversation as well as permission to offer help. The problem is that the general public don't always know what my cane is trying to say. So every time I take my cane out and about I try and tell someone what it means. And now you know too.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Changing the Face of Disfigurement

Yesterday I saw a cinema advert that will stay with me longer than the film I watched afterwards. A man with a badly scarred face is sitting in a car. Outside it is dark and rainy. He is watching a house. A pretty woman enters the house. She is alone. She goes upstairs and starts cooking dinner. The man in the car can see her through the window. She doesn't know he is watching her. The music she is listening to on the radio is the same music that the man is listening to in the car. She pours herself a glass of red wine. The sound of the door knocker startles her. She goes downstairs and opens the door cautiously. She sees the man with the badly scarred face and stares at him in horror. If you want to see what happens next, watch the advert here.

What did you think was going to happen next? This ad is part of campaign for face equality on film. it is fighting against the ease with which the film industry uses facial disfigurement to represent evil. When a character with a disfigured face appears on screen, he or she is almost always a baddie. Cinema is incredibly lazy in the ways  it uses bodily appearance. Anything which departs from the perfect Hollywood body generally becomes part of the character's essence. But facial disfigurement is only skin deep: it doesn't change the way a person loves, laughs or thinks. How can the facially disfigured expect to be treated equally in the street, at school,  at work, or on the beach when there are no positive images of disfigurement at the cinema?

As the Face Equality on Film website points out: "these long-held and inaccurate beliefs are completely at odds with the reality for most people with disfigurements - who are lawyers, teachers, comedians, DIY lovers, parents, feisty teenagers, doting grandparents. They worry about their children, love cooking programmes, have affairs, worry about the rent, dye their hair, hate commuting - just as other characters do who are portrayed on the big screen."

This advert was shown at the cinema. But perhaps it should also be shown behind the scenes. For it is only when casting directors, producers and writers stop obsessing over stereotypical ideas of beauty that the cinema-going public will have the chance to see disfigurement presented in a more positive light.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Paradox of Bravery

Yesterday I did something I have wanted to do for a long time: I went to tree-top adventure "Go-Ape". In Delamere Forest. This involves climbing 12 metres up a tree on a rope ladder and then crossing various bridges made of decidedly wobbly bits of rope and wood. My favourite crossing was the "stirrups", where you place one foot at a time in little rope loops: This was rated "extreme" and not everyone in my group was brave enough to try it.

I have always been a dare devil. As a child, my favourite things were gymnastics, trampolining and climbing trees. I still love roller and ice skating and at a recent children's party I might well have been the most confident mum on the ice.

I can't see well enough to see people's expressions but I expect they were looking at me with a mixture of alarm and astonishment. How can someone who uses a white cane to walk to school possibly manage to launch herself off a platform into a cargo net or go zooming round an ice-rink?

Conventional wisdom says that you need bravery to tackle adrenaline fuelled activities like "Go Ape". And we have all heard the myth that the blind who get on with life show courage in abundance. So does that mean I am doubly brave?

Actually it doesn't. I find activities like tree-top climbing and ice-skating easy precisely because I don't use my sight to do them. They are about balance, touch and instinct. Sight just doesn't come in to it.

Thirty years ago I went to a birthday party at Lightwater Valley. The main attraction at this theme park was the "death slide": a sheer and highly polished wooden drop which you had to launch yourself off. All my sighted friends were terrified of it and not many of them were brave enough to try it. But I happily flung myself off the edge over and over again. One friend was so cross with my annoyingly smug exuberance that she pointed out that it was easy for me because I couldn't see how high up we were. I remember that she got into a LOT of trouble for saying that. My eyes were a taboo subject back then and no one was allowed to mention them.

But it turns out that my friend was right. I am not scared of heights because I have absolutely no idea how high I am. As long as I have something to hold on to I really don't mind where I am. I love the sensation of falling, swinging or bouncing precisely because this is something I can do as well as -
If not better - than my sighted peers. It gives me a sense of power, confidence and liberation which I don't often experience in the sighted world.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Would you rather be blind or fat?

A recent US survey revealed that 1 in 6 women would rather be blind than fat. The more I think about this statistic, the more I wonder what it is actually saying.

At first I was outraged by the superficiality of these women: how dared they compare the massive hassle of blindness with the trivial issue of body shape? But of course it is much more complicated than that: obesity has health and well-being implications that blindness does not; but, on the other hand, obesity can often be treated where blindness usually can't. Because people think that obesity can be self-imposed, the obese are often labelled as greedy, compulsive, lacking in self-control, lazy. In contrast, because society sees blindness as a tragedy which happens to someone through no fault of her own, the blind are seen as victims and are pitied rather than criticised. None of these labels are accurate or helpful, but this is the way these conditions are usually seen.

As I thought more about this tricky statistic, I found myself agreeing with this blog which argues very convincingly that the assumption behind this response is that the women questioned see blindness as a condition which although tragic, would have a less negative impact on their body-image than obesity. Presumably these women are imagining themselves as one of those stunningly beautiful blind women you find in films. They probably don't know any actual blind people. If they did they would know that blindness doesn't necessarily lead to beauty: indeed being blind can cause feelings of self-hate very similar to those provoked by obesity. (Or maybe they were wrongly thinking that blind people doesn't care about their body-image because they can't see themselves, and are thus immune to low self-esteem issues...)

Of course there is a different way of reading these statistics. What if these women are right? What if being blind is preferable to being fat? Not because of something as superficial as appearance, but because blindness is an exciting and interesting way of being in the world. Without my blindness I would not have discovered erotic braille, experienced the kindness of strangers or embarked on my current research project.  Sure, blindness has its inconveniences, but it is certainly not a tragedy.

After much thought (and discussion with my statistic-cynic husband) I have decided that the biggest problem with this survey is that it happened in the first place. The very fact of asking such idiotic questions posits both blindness and obesity as negatives. This survey perpetuates the assumption that a woman's value comes from the way she is seen, and consequently the way she sees herself. What about paying a little less attention to appearance and a lot more to what is going on in the inside?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Tina Nash

Literature has taught us to think of intentional blinding as an atrocious  punishment, a fate worse than death. Samson had his eyes gouged out by the Philistines, Gloucester's eyes are removed in punishment in Shakespeare's King Lear and perhaps most famously of all, Oedipus scratches out his own eyes when he realises the extent of his guilt. In her wonderfully clever Sight Unseen (Yale University Press, 1999, pp. 68-73) Georgina Kleege lists more modern books, from Bronte's Jane Eyre to Shreve's Eden Close which associate blinding with punishment. Kleege argues that this persistent association contributes to the negativity still associated with blindness.

She might be right. Given the unremitting negativity associated with the always vindictive act of intentional blinding, it is not surprising that Tina Nash, who was blinded by her boyfriend last year, said she felt 'buried alive' and 'like a ghost' after the attack. Tina's choice of words is revealing. For her, as for the characters Kleege describes,  life without sight was a kind of living death.

But unlike the victims of blinding found in literature, Tina has not succumbed to these associations of blindness and death. This interview describes how Tina now feels. She describes herself as 'surviving' because she has decided to get on with her life, to not let her blindness stop her from bringing up her children. It is significant that Tina rejects the epithets of 'courageous' and 'amazing' that the interviewer dangles in front of her. By doing so, Tina does much to demonstrate that blindness in itself is not a tragedy: rather, it is the sighted world's view of blindness which might be described as 'disabling'. If I described Tina as 'an inspiration' I would be undermining my own argument by buying into the 'disability as tragedy to be overcome' mindset. So I'll just say that hearing her voice on radio 4 this morning made me glad to know that she is there.

UPDATE: August 28th 2012: Click here to read an angry response to this post and my response.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Seeing Electricity: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

 It is tempting to believe in the old adage that 'seeing is believing' and that the way the sighted see the world is the best, and only, way of seeing it. That the world is made up only of what we can see of it. This is certainly the approach of most opticians who try and use artificial means such as glasses and contact lenses to mimic the workings of the eye, thus helping the visually impaired to see as well as their perfectly sighted peers.

But what if there are better ways of seeing the world? What if the model offered by the normal human eye is not the most desirable one? Why don't opticians offer us different kinds of sight rather than always striving to replace what we are lacking with an artificial reproduction of it?

 At first this seems like the stuff of science-fiction. In fact in his 1923 novella L'Homme truqué (The Phony Man), French writer Maurice Renard describes what happens when electroscopes are implanted into a blind man's eyes. This operation gives the novel's hero Jean an initially alien, and highly perceptive view of the world. After his operation the first thing he sees is a hideously misshapen monster standing before him. It is only when this monster speaks that he realises that this is in fact his (human) doctor: the pulsating nerves, electrical impulses and brain waves that Jean can see are no less part of the human body than the skin and bones we are used to seeing. They seem alien to Jean because he is not used to looking at the body in this way. But once he becomes accustomed to this new way of seeing, he can relate to the world in a much more detailed way than his normally sighted friends.  He can see electrical impulses inside the human body, electricity flowing far underground, lights shining behind walls or energy fields several miles away. His ability to see through solid materials and across vast distances means that it is impossible to hide anything from him. The concept of secrecy loses all meaning as the plot develops, just as day and night and light and dark lose all signification for him for what we call darkness has no effect on his vision.  As the novel progresses, the reader is obliged to reconsider the very way we think in order to take into account Jean's new way of seeing. Traditional novelistic twists involving concealment, mistaken identity or suspense become impossible in a world where the protagonist can see inside and through people, buildings, the earth.

I read this story a couple of weeks ago and was enchanted to discover that this way of seeing is not limited to science fiction. On this morning's Start the Week, 'The Digital Future' (at 23 minutes), Anab Jain from futurology company Superflux describes exactly the kind of sight Renard evoked in 1923. She is developing a kind of  'prosthetic vision' whereby the blind can have a virus injected into the back of their eyes which would enable them to see electromagnetic spectrums that are not visible to normally sighted people. Apparently, the blind community has not been overly positive about Jain's project. But surely this kind of 'supersight' is the perfect way of rethinking the myths about the predominance of the ocular. I hope Jain's project succeeds. I hope it helps people see in a new way. But most of all I hope it reminds the sighted that their highly prized way of seeing the world is neither as powerful, nor as necessary to human happiness as opticians would like to have us believe.