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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.