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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.