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.