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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Reading in Detail

I have been working on my 'Blindness' research project for a few months now and this weekend I will be presenting my first paper on the work at the Tenth Annual Conference of the Society of Dix-Neuviemistes in Limerick, Ireland. The paper looks at ways in which accidental or apparently insignificant references to eye-contact might dismantle the prevailingly negative metaphors associated with blindness in nineteenth-century France. My paper is all about reading in detail and this approach has grown out of the specific way that I have always read. To read small print I use a very characteristic pair of glasses which magnify the text so that I can read even the tiniest print in relative comfort. I got my first pair of reading glasses when I was 8 or 9 and have had many pairs since.

The drawback of this way of reading is that because I have to hold the text so close to my eyes, I can only see one or two words at a time. I used to see this way of reading as a disadvantage. It is considerably slower than the skim-reading of the sighted and it also makes me feel isolated from the world around me and vulnerable when I do this kind of reading in public. But recently I have realised that my way of reading has its advantages. The fact that I am attentive to each word means that I sometimes notice things that other readers have missed. I am fascinated by a text's microcosmic detail and the way in which a word or phrase from one text might resonate with a word or phrase from another. This way of reading has developed into a methodology which now informs all the academic work I do.

 Helen Abbott's fascinating blog post on the musicality of poetry reminded me that that the other senses can also be used to 'read' in detail. In my paper, I assert that sight always comes at the top of the hierarchy of the senses. I wonder how Helen and our other fellow attendees will feel about that? I suspect Cheryl Krueger - whose wonderful writing on the smells of the Paris metro has made me pay much more attention to my own sense of smell - would disagree. Perhaps the conference will give us a way of re-evaluating the hierarchy of the senses and thus a means of challenging the negativization of blindness which seems so embedded in our society.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Paralympic Problem

Almost everyone I know applied for (and mostly failed to get, but that is a different story...) tickets for the London 2012 Olympics. But I am the only person I know who applied for tickets for the London 2012 Paralympics. On Saturday September 1st I am taking my family to see athletics, 5-a-side football, table tennis and wheelchair basketball at the Olympic Park in Stratford. I am looking forward to watching elite sportspeople compete at the highest levels. I am also looking forward to showing my children that disability is not a barrier to sporting achievement, and that the human body is an incredibly beautiful machine in all its forms.. But I am not looking forward to the moment when they ask me why the Paralympics is not as popular or important as the Olympics.  Why, in Trafalgar Square, is the clock counting down to the Paralympics a little bit less impressive than the one counting down to the Olympics? Why will there be not quite as much coverage of the Paralympics on television? Why are their schoolmates unimpressed by the news that Raffy and Zak are going to see paralympic athletics?

I am faced with a problem. I love the idea of the Paralympics: there is no doubt that it promotes disability awareness and gives athletes who could not otherwise the opportunity to compete in an elite sporting environment. But is the rigid segregation between able-bodied and disabled helpful here? I am worried that having an overtly separate sporting event encourages the general public to see the Paralympics (and thus its athletes and then disabled people generally) as second-best sportspeople and second-class citizens. The first incarnation of the Paralympic Games was the International Wheelchair Games which took place at Stoke Manderville in 1948 to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. Now that the Paralympics has become an established part of the Olympic calendar, perhaps it is time, in this year when the Olympics and the Paralympics return to Britain, to rethink their relationship with each other.

Why not run the Olympic and Paralympic events alongside each other, on the same day and in front of the same crowd? Better yet, why not let Olympic and Paralympic sportspeople compete together? South African 400m runner Oscar Pistorius has qualified (some say controversially) for a place in the 2012 Olympics. What about encouraging others to do the same? What would basketball look like if it was played by a mixture of able-bodied and wheelchair athletes? How would football change if blind and sighted players were on the pitch together? Or, why not blindfold ALL the players and see what would happen then?

**UPDATE** 28th Agusut 2012: on the eve of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony, these comments by Pistorius illustrate the changing relationship between the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the general public do not seem to take the Paralympics seriously, is a perception that it must be easier to qualify as a Paralympic athlete than an Olympic one. Unfortunately my only direct experience of disabled sport bears this preconception out. When I was 13 I was quite a fast runner. I wasn't good enough to compete for the school but I could do a pretty respectable 100m. Despite being only above average at running in school, I was deemed good enough to qualify for and compete in a nationwide Disabled Games at Stoke Manderville. I remember that I was the only person competing in my particular category, and that even though I did nothing like my fastest time, I still won a gold medal. I felt odd about this situation at the time and now I think I know why. I was a good athlete, but not a great one. I didn't deserve this medal. Had I not been registered blind, I certainly would not have won it. I think the powers-that-be were taking over-compensation a little bit too far by rewarding me in this way. Perhaps the Paralympic games would be taken more seriously if its selection criteria were more demanding. I would rather come last in a race with other able-bodied athletes than first in a race that I am the only one running.

I recently heard about a young blind athlete who is competing against her able-bodied peers with her guide dog. I'm sure that if she were running in events for the blind, Sami Stoner would win all the time. But this article suggests that it makes much more sense to see Sami as a runner who happens to have a disability, rather than as a disabled runner.

Annoyingly, this article occasionally falls into the trap of negativising disability. By saying: 'Stone is legally blind but competes...' and 'approaching life with uncommon verve despite her disability...', the writer suggests that her blindness is a hindrance to be got over or struggled against. Surely Sami is good enough to compete for her school because she has the stamina and discipline of a cross-country runner. Probably her uncommon verve comes from her personality, her upbringing and her parents' genes. But despite its flaws, this article is important because it gives a vision of what an Olympic race could look like. I hope I can get tickets for the Olympics the year that blind athletes with guide dogs first run alongside their sighted peers.

With thanks to Michael Gratzke for telling me about Sami.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf

Depictions of blindness are surprisingly common in film. But they almost always have a symbolic function. If cinema is a celebration of the visual, then blindness represents its opposite. It is a resoundingly negative state which stands for lack (usually of insight or understanding), marginality, exclusion.

 At first glance, this indeed seems to be the case with Leos Carax's 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Michele (Juliette Binoche) is losing her sight. The apparently incurable deterioration of her vision, and a failed relationship (whose end may or may not be related to her sight loss) have led to her living rough on the streets of Paris. As Michele's sight worsens, so does her physical state: she becomes dirtier, shabbier and more reliant on her vagrant boyfriend Alex (Denis Lavant).

Alex uses Michele's failing sight against her to keep her with him on the bridge. When a cure is found for her condition, and radio stations start broadcasting appeals about her, Alex deliberately moves the radio so that she will accidently knock it into the Seine. Michele angrily blames her worsening sight for this mishap: the viewer, who, like Alex, can see more than Michele, knows otherwise. Michele's blindness is transforming her into a lost and dependant victim who relies heavily on her selfish boyfriend.

If Michele's sight loss is equated with misery and abjection, the regaining of her vision marks her reinsertion into bourgeois society: after her operation Michele is prettier, richer, happier and once again in a successful long-term relationship - this time with her saviour-eye surgeon.

If the film had ended there it would be easy to criticise it for continuing the tradition of negative filmic portrayals of blindness. Blindness is something to be cured, eliminated, overcome. And what could be more natural than marrying the man who gives you back the gift of sight?  But when Michele meets Alex on the bridge at the end of the film, she throws away her stable middle-class lifestyle in favour of an unknown future with him. We cannot escape the uncomfortable fact that Michele's life is better when her blindness is eliminated. But the film's surprisingly impulsive ending does encourage us to question the assumption that regaining her sight will solve all Michele's problems.

This potentially positive (or at least not necessarily negative) depiction of blindness is substantiated by the film's interest in how and what Michele sees. It is rare to find films which show the viewer the world as a blind or partially blind person sees it. No cinema viewer wants to look at a blank screen or a series of blurry and fragmented images for any length of time. And film makers (for obvious and understandable reasons), are deeply invested in the primacy and the perfection of the visual. But it is precisely Carax's interest in the visual, and in what happens when the visual becomes impaired, which allows him to show us the world from Michele's point of view. One example of this is the scene in which Michele watches Alex performing his fire breathing display. Michele's eyes are dazzled and hurt by the sudden irruptions of bright flames into the night sky. Not only do we see her reactions to this discomfort, we are also shown, through the jerky camera movements and disorienting effect of the flames, what it might be like to see with her eyes.

My favourite example of Carax's clever approach to Michele's sight comes in the scene after she may or may not have shot her ex-lover Julien in the eye because he won't let her paint him one last time. It is Bastille Day 1989 and the streets of Paris are lined with spectators waiting for the traditional 14 July military parade. As Michele runs back to the bridge we are shown a military helicopter flying overhead which transforms into a flock of birds and then back into a whole squadron of helicopters. I had always read this scene (ignore the dubbing: dialogue is not important here) as a manifestation of Michele's guilt. If she has indeed just murdered Julien, she is imagining that she is already being pursued by the police, seeing threat where there is none.

But recently, I have realised that this scene demonstrates a crucial way that the partially blind relate to the world: instead of immediately knowing what things are, I see a vague shape and then use a mixture of guesswork, context and intuition to work out what it probably is. I do this instantaneously, almost without noticing, and most of the time I am right. If I see a tall dark shape standing on the pavement, I usually think it is a person. As I approach I get ready to give hm or her a friendly smile, until I realise it is in fact a wheelie bin. If I notice a small, round, black object in the bath I always assume it is a spider. I sumon my husband to rescue me from it and then try to laugh at myself when he points out that it is just a clump of hair. Michele sees some fast moving, dark specs in the sky. The context of Bastille Day, perhaps coupled with her guilt, makes her think they are helicopters. But the viewer thinks that they are more likely a flock of startled pigeons (especially as the traditional flight-past has already been shown in a previous scene).

The beauty of this scene lies in the fact that both images are allowed to co-exist. Through the way they merge into each other Carax asks us to think about how different people see. He reminds us that seeing is not just about looking, it is also (maybe mostly) about interpreting. This is certainly the case in the cinema. But Carax shows that it is also the case in life. Filmakers who, unlike Carax, simply perpetuate the tired stereotypes of blindness are surely missing the whole point of such a visual medium. Imagine how different Amelie would be if the world was (also) seen through the blind man's eyes.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Erotic Braille

I decided to learn braille in January. In fact it was my 2012 New Year's Resolution. I wanted to see what it would be like to read with my fingers rather than with my eyes. And I wanted to see if I could do it. I thought it would be really hard but in fact I found it surprisingly easy. But what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed learning it. I used the RNIB's Dot-to-Dot course which is a self-teach course for adult touch learners. What I particularly liked about the course was its sense of humour. It was written in a slightly quirky style and as I learnt more letters I found that most of the practise sentences were funny, and some were even a little bit rude. Every evening after work I would sit on the sofa, my eyes closed and my feet up, drinking tea with one hand and giggling out loud as I read slightly naughty sentences with the other.

But it wasn't just the subject matter which delighted me. Being able to read braille has given me another way of accessing words. It means that when I go to the British Museum I can read the labels myself rather than having to get someone to read them for me. It means that I can distinguish medicines inside the bathroom cabinet without having to put the light on. Like that Dr Seuss character, I can read with my eyes shut, I can read in the dark, I can read lying down, I can read in secret.

It has also turned reading into an engrossing and all-encompassing physical experience. Because I am still a braille beginner I have to decipher every letter as my fingers move along each line. And to do this my whole body seems to concentrate on the tip of the index finger of my right hand. I become still, focused and full of a kind of quiet serenity which reminds me of the feeling I got once at a meditation workshop.

Audio books are a great idea in theory, but in practise they always send me to sleep within minutes. This is because they turn reading into a passive experience. As a child my favourite audio book was The Railway Children and I knew the first paragraph off by heart. But I rarely got past the arrival of the men from the government before I was drifting off either literally or metaphorically. Reading braille is a whole different experience: it anchors me to the words as they resonate through my body.

Perhaps the very corporeality of braille reading is why the RNIB braille catalogue carries a surprisingly large selection of erotic fiction, including a very enticing collection of erotica for women. I am curious to know what reading erotica in braille would feel like. Until I get faster I imagine it would be a rather frustrating experience. But I suspect it would also lead to hitherto unsuspected realms of readerly pleasure.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Audio Description

Last night I watched a film for the first time in my life. I have been to the cinema hundreds of time and watched thousands of videos and DVDs, but yesterday I realised what watching a film really means.

We left the boys with Grandma and took the tandem out to the cinema to see Bel Ami. As I was booking the tickets, I noticed that the performance was audio described (it turns out that all Odeon films are audio described at every screening. Who knew?). It had never occurred to me to bother with audio description before. After all, I can see more than enough to get a great deal of enjoyment out of films and have been watching, teaching and writing about them for years. What could audio description give me that I wasn't getting already?

But I thought I'd give it a go, if only so that I could write about it here. As the usher handed me a headset I wondered if audio description was just a politically correct waste of time and money.

I could not have been more wrong. Hearing a little bit of extra detail as I was watching the film was a hugely enriching experience. It was unobtrusive, informative and engaging. And it made me realise that there are three elements of film that I have been missing.

Firstly, the describer helpfully told me who people were. The first time a character appeared they were referred to in a gently informative way:  'a young man enters a crowded bar' or 'a tired-looking woman climbs the stairs'. So far so obvious. But on subsequent appearances the character was helpfully named and usefully situated: 'Duroy is sitting in Forestier's office', 'Clotilde is lying naked on the bed in the love nest'. This elegantly overcomes my biggest problem with film. Just as in real life, I struggle to recognise people when they reappear in a new or different context, especially if they have changed their clothes or hairstyle. Bel-Ami features an array of handsome men all dressed alike in the ubiquitous nineteenth-century French habit noir. Without a friendly voice whispering their names in my ear I would have spent the film failing to tell them apart.

Secondly, audio description is extremely good at drawing attention to apparently inconsequential details. Without it I would not have known that Clotilde likes to have a cherry in her drink or that Duroy wept when Forestier died. Audio description isn't necessarily about the big picture, and it doesn't have time to recount the truly insignificant, but it does linger on the details which are hard to see but which add depth and meaning to the film.

The third, and most enlightening benefit of audio description is much more subtle. I was struck by the fact that the describer always paid a great deal of attention to how people communicated wordlessly, particularly with their eyes: 'Duroy looks at Madeleine with a mixture of sorrow and reesentment'; 'Clotilde's eyes flash with hatred and contempt'. I have never been very good at interpreting facial expressions and usually don't even bother trying. I judge people's mood by the sound of their voice and the way they behave. So I was amazed to discover how much facial expression can tell you about a person. I had no idea that facial expression was so important nor that people could pass messages in that way. I began to wonder how many silent conversations I had missed by not knowing that they were even going on in the first place.

Audio description is not a sop to accessibility legislation. It is a highly sophisticated supplement to the filmic experience which has the potential to become an art form in its own right. It has been cleverly conceived by someone who knows which parts of visual culture are particularly mystifying to the blind and partially sighted. Facial expressions are described not just because they are difficult to see, but also because their importance is difficult to understand. Audio description does not just tell you what is going on in the film, it tells you how the sighted use their eyes to engage in wordless conversation.

As we left the cinema I felt oddly bereft. I was already missing  my invisible friend interpreting the sighted world for me through my headset. How illuminating it would be, I thought, if audio description existed in real life and not just at the movies.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Fabulous Kindness of Amelie Poulain?

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, the eponymous heroine devotes herself to a succession of fairytale-Godmother-like good deeds. One such endeavour consists of guiding a blind man across a road and along a busy street before depositing him at the entrance to the local metro station.

Watch video (in French)

As they go along, Amélie gives him a gossipy audio-description of the people and shops they pass. On one level, this episode is a piece of harmless fun. It demonstrates the vibrancy of the rue Lepic quartier whilst highlighting Amélie's eye for amusing detail and flair for language. But this extract is also problematic. Not only does Amélie fail to ask the blind man where he wants to go, she doesn't give him the chance to get a word in edgeways. She points out the smell of the greengrocer's melon (a smell the man would surely have recognised for himself) without bothering to grab a piece for him to taste. She tells him what is on sale at the butcher's without checking that he has already done his shopping. And she describes delicious-sounding cheeses to him without asking him if he'd like to stop and choose some. I find food shopping in France a beguiling yet frustrating business: there is just too much choice and it all smells so wonderful. I love French cheese but always feel like I am missing out by not being able to read all the labels and make an educated selection - if I met Amélie in Montmatre, I'd insist (if she ever stopped talking) that she describe the cheese to me in mouth-watering detail rather than rushing me past the shop at dizzying speed. But here she keeps the blind man trapped in his own passivity, thus perpetuating the myth that the blind are helpless and vulnerable.

Amélie's actions are certainly well-intentioned, and the dazzling way that the blind man's face is lit up at the end of the clip suggests that Jeunet too thinks that this must have been a genuinely wonderful experience for him. But this way of thinking suggests that the blind are lacking something in their relationship with the world which they must rely on the kind-hearted to give them. That a world without sight is a world without knowledge, sensation and community. That sight is better than no sight. This is perhaps not a surprising reaction from a film-maker. But what if this blind man relates to the world in a wholly different way? What if the pictures he gets from hearing, touching, smelling and tasting the world are just as fulfilling as Amélie's and Jeunet's fetishization of vision? Or, more worryingly, what if Amélie's unsolicited arrival in his life has shown him a world that he was not even aware of? Will he be left happy and grateful to have experienced more fully the world around him? Or will he be left feeling miserable and inadequate, having discovered that others prize most highly a sense that he does not share.

The Association Valentin Hauy has recently produced a series of short films about how the sighted can best relate to the blind. I'd like to think that these films were made as a reaction to Jeunet's film. I like them for their humour and common sense. They deal with everyday situations in which the sighted might interact with the blind: on the street, at a restaurant, at work. Unfortunately these are in unsubtitled French but the message of these films is simple: treat the blind as independent and autonomous individuals rather than assuming that you know better than they do how best to relate to the world.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Michele Leggott

Michele Leggott is a poet from New Zealand who has lost her sight. On this page you can find a list of her poems. My favourite poem is 'Do you see me?' which is in the Audio section. It uses language to try and capture the pain of failing sight. I found this poem deeply moving because it is not a wholly negative account. The anguish evoked is immediately countered with 'no anguish'. In this poem, the poet moves from a profoundly visual place where the sky is a 'clear blue', to a different land. It is true that this move is described with the potentially negative 'falling'. But this is not a poem of exile or trappedness. Here 'falling' seems to be closer to the exhilaration of sky diving. The 'wide white threshold' that the blinded poet crosses opens up new possibilities in another world, where light has gone but where it has been replaced by something else. By what? The fact that this poem remains long after the light has faded suggests that transient and temporary luminosity is followed by the permanence of language. I like this poem for its measured hopefulness and for its suggestion of alternative, even enticing worlds. It dares to suggest that blindness need not be a bad thing. But I like it best for the poetic voice at its centre. It is rare to hear the blind poet speak, particularly the female one. As the title of the poem suggests, the blind are more often than not imaged as objects to be viewed, frequently clandestinely, by the sighted. But in this poem, the poet turns the question voiced in its title on its head. In a world where light has vanished, the question is meaningless because no-one needs to see anyone anymore. As I sit listening to MIchele Leggott read her poem I silently answer her question: 'No, I cannot see you, but I can hear you'.

Many thanks to Naomi Foyle for introducing me to Michele Leggott's work.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Cathy Kudlick

Four months ago I posted a request on the French Studies discussion list francofil. I wanted to find other academics working on disability in French Studies. I got several very interesting and fruitful replies which have led to productive e-mail exchanges and possible future collaborations. But I got one e-mail which quite simply changed my life. It was from Cathy Kudlick of the University of California, Davis. Cathy is a historian who has published extensively on the blind in France. She gave me lots of invaluable bibliographical leads and introduced me to the work of Zina Weygand and to the writings of Thérèse-Adèle Husson, thus helping to shape my new research project on representations of blindness in nineteenth-century French literature. She also told me about Georgina Kleege's marvellous book Sight Unseen  (Yale U.P., 1999) about which I will post soon. But Cathy also gave me something much more precious. By telling me her story, Cathy showed me that it was okay - more than okay - to be a partially blind person in a resolutely sighted world. I had never before come across a partially blind academic. Here was someone who had dealt with exactly the same challenges that I was facing. How do you involve students in a discussion when you cannot see their faces? How do you network at a conference when you cannot distinguish any of the colleagues in the coffee area even when you know them all personally? Her account of how she accepted, even embraced her blindness, how she stopped denying her difference, allowed me to finally think clearly about how I fit into the world. I am not sighted. Yet I am not blind. Like Cathy I occupy a 'special' in-between place. What I have realised, since reading this article, is that it is up to me how I define that space. By taking control of my blindness, by choosing when and how to use a cane, by relishing the challenge of learning braille, but mostly by seeing blindness as a positive thing, a thing of new possibilities and joys, I have become a different person.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

PC David Rathband

I was very sad to hear the news of David Rathband's death on the radio this morning.

Rathband was in the public eye since the day he was shot and blinded by Moat and he had to undertake a much scrutinised journey to adapt to life as a blind person. He must have thought that he was always being watched, that he was forever on display. The very fact of his own sight loss transformed him into an object of public scrutiny. The lexicon of bravery which inevitably surrounded his situation transformed his everyday life into a fight, a struggle, a battle. This insistence by society that blindness is something to be overcome, defeated, triumphed over is deeply unhelpful. It posits blindness as an insurmountable obstacle, something which needs to be 'got over'. If you listen to the interview with Peter White on the radio this morning, you will see how the repeated references to 'coping' and 'adjusting' stands out. Isn't there a way of seeing blindness is a more positive light? I do not want to deny the feelings of loss, mourning, bereavement that follow sight loss, especially when that loss is sudden and violently unjust. I have only very recently begun to come to terms with my own partial blindness, which I have been living with for 38 years. I still get inexplicably angry and frustrated when I spill a cup of tea or stumble over a step. I can't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to have your sight ripped away from you in such a traumatic manner.

But at least part of David Rathban's feelings of grieving came from society's insistence on the primacy of sight. It doesn't have to be that way. We have 5 senses. Why privilege the visual to such an extent? How have we contrived to create a world in which a blind person doesn't feel able to live?

I'd like to imagine a world in which touch and taste are no longer seen as second-best, back-up senses. What if children were taught to read braille at school along with print? What if the feel of clothes mattered as much as their appearance? What if we cared as much about how food tasted as we do about how it looks? What if the sound of a person's voice attracted as much attention as their appearance? Somehow our society has become a place which refuses to look beyond the visual. I wonder if PC David Rathband's death will shock us into reappraising our oculocentrism. I doubt it. But at the very least, I hope it doesn't send the far more damaging message that sight loss is destructive and ultimately life-destroying.

(March 25th: I have just come across this very funny and well-written blog post which brilliantly captures the general feeling that blindness is a hurdle to be overcome.)