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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Palindrome or Left of Centre?

I am a palindrome. Or rather, I have a palindromic name. A palindrome is a word or phrase that can be read backwards as well as forwards. I have always been very proud that Hannah is one of these magic words. Palindromes work because they are symmetrical. When you reach the mid-point of the word, it becomes a perfect reflection of itself. Symmetry is immensely satisfying. Think of the beauty of rainbows, butterflies, snowflakes, the human eye.

We usually expect the human face to be symmetrical too. The nose represents the mid point or the mirror line and symmetry dictates that the right and left sides of the face should be perfect reflections of each other. Traditional notions of beauty seem to prize symmetry extremely highly. And I once heard Robert Winston explaining that humans are most attracted by pleasingly balanced countenances: this is why the most popular children at school tend to be those with the most symmetrical faces.

But where does that leave those of us who do not have a reassuringly symmetrical appearance? My right and left eyes do not look or behave the same as each other. I know that this can look odd and make people I am meeting for the first time feel uncomfortable. I blame the frequently perfect symmetry of the natural world for this reaction.

But my asymmetry is not limited to my appearance. I have almost no sight in my right eye and do almost all of my looking out of my left. As a consequence, I do not see my nose as the centre of my face, but its edge. Indeed, I have never seen the right-hand side of my nose. My left-of-centre approach to life is emphasised by my left-handedness. My palindromic name sits uneasily with my bodily asymmetry. And I think this tension is an interesting reminder than symmetry is not always a good thing. Like the narrator of Suzanne Vega's 'Left of Centre', I relish my own marginality:


When they ask me
"What are you looking at?"
I always answer "Nothing much" (not much)
I think they know that
I'm looking at them
I think they think I must be out of touch.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Blindness in Fiction (1): Star Gazing

Novels featuring blind protagonists are surprisingly rare. Of course there are countless blind characters in fiction but they tend to be minor figures like the blind man in Amelie. They are not of interest for their own sake but only for what their blindness tells us about plot, meaning or other characters. This is in part because blindness is always on the verge of becoming metaphorical. It is also because the blind are always subject to the intrusive gaze of the seeing other. Sighted writers and readers are used to staring at blind characters. The blind beggar in Flaubert's Madame Bovary is such an example. He is not a character of any substance in his own right. Instead he is a hideous caricature who functions both to undermine Emma's romantic dreams and to emphasise Homais's blend of self-satisfaction and condescension.

I am finding it difficult to find novels where a character's blindness is treated as an incidental detail rather than as their novelistic raison d'etre. But recently I came across a novel which looks at blindness in a completely different way.

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard is a love story featuring blind protagonist Marianne. The novel's narrative perspective is shared between Marianne, her (sighted) sister and the (sighted) third-person narrator. The beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Marianne is allowed to talk about her blindness in a wonderfully frank and matter-of-fact way. She is not afraid to confront the reader with their own misconceptions about blindness from the first pages of the novel. Unlike the vast majority of descriptions of blind people (either real or fictional), Marianne is not depicted as a tragic or courageous figure. She does not elicit pity or sorrow. She is sharp, articulate, inventive and slightly cantankerous.  Her life is just as full as a sighted person's. Her descriptions of how she navigates outside are particularly striking. The attention she pays to the smells and sounds she encounters on her walks through Edinburgh inspired me to pay much closer attention to non-visual clues as I walk (or run) around Oxford. Marianne's accounts of the world, like Cheryl Krueger's magnificent Parisian smellscape, shows us that sight is not necessary in order to interact with the world.

There are some problems with this book. Marianne's stubborn refusal to use her white cane in some situations suggests she is not yet proud of her blindness. Indeed the fact that she worries that her unborn child will inherit her condition suggests that on some level she has internalised the widely held believe that blindness is a tragedy.

But despite this, Star Gazing manages to present blindness as an exciting, even enriching state. Anyone faced with sight loss, or curious about what life without sight is like, should read this book.

With thanks to literatea for telling me about this book.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Braille ad invites readers to 'achieve their vision'

A recent issue of The Economist contains a striking advert for investment bank UBS. The advert consists of a double-page spread of uncontracted braille. The text of the braille advert is reproduced in print on the right-hand page. It matches the braille text exactly (I checked) and reads as follows:

What lessons can a financial institution draw from a chance encounter in 18th century Paris? Valentin Haüy watched in dismay as unfortunate members of a home for the blind were subjected to public humiliation. Rather than shut his eyes, he was inspired to found what became the National Institute for Blind Youth. The very school at which Louis Braille was to develop his eponymous reading system. To succeed, Braille required Haüy's persistence and commitment. At UBS, our client advisors fulfil a similar role. Using our dedication and knowledge to help you achieve your vision.

UBS think that this advert brings to life 'the story behind the development of the Braille reading and writing system'. I'm not so sure. Apart from the fact that the history of braille is much more convoluted than this text makes out, the ad omits to mention the controversial circumstances surrounding Haüy's first encounter with the blind inmates of the Hospice des Quinze-Vingts in Paris. As this post from the Wellcome Library shows, Haüy's decision to found an Institution for the Blind was inspired by his encounter with a particularly vulgar and raucous group of blind musicians, whom he described as 'an atrocity'.

Haüy wanted to establish an Institute which would educate the blind in a more regulated way, making them both more decorous in their appearance and more harmonious in their music making. I'm not sure whether he was doing this for the benefit of the blind or so that the good people of Paris would no longer have to be confronted with the unsavoury sight and sound of an unruly gang of blind musicians. Haüy no doubt did a lot of good. And the Association which bears his name is still changing lives today. But I can't help thinking that he was acting out of a misguided belief that the sighted world knew better than the blind one.

Funnily enough, a similar sentiment can be found in the final line of the UBS text. Their use of the word 'vision' is a jarring reminder that no amount of well-meaning braille can compensate for the fact that most people prize vision over the other senses. This belief in the supremacy of sight is so widespread that presumably it did not occur even to the RNIB, who produced the braille used in the advert, to object to this unfortunate turn of phrase. But it is precisely the perpetuation of such assumptions which makes sight loss such a traumatic event. I don't want to suggest that the RNIB are complicit in the perpetuation of negative myths of blindness. But I do think that an advert about UBS's 'dedication and knowledge' should have been more careful in its choice of words.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Audio Description (2): Be careful where you sit!

My first experience of audio description completely changed the way I think and feel about film. My second experience was underwhelming to say the least. Last night Simon and I went to see The Hunger Games. I was looking forward to seeing how audio description would work in a fast-paced film set in an unfamiliar world. Would it be limited to the most essential information: 'Katniss is running away from a wall of fire', or would there be time to fit in some of the more interesting details: 'Katniss uses one of the silver arrows she took from Glimmer to shoot a groosling perched high in a tree'.


I will never know. At the beginning of the film I switched the headset on and was met not with the friendly voice of the previous visit, but with a disconcerting wall of static. By the time the film had started I didn't want to stumble around in the dark trying to find an employee so I quickly gave up fiddling with the controls, watched the film as best I could (helped immensely by the fact that I had read the book) and nudged Simon in the ribs each time there was something I needed him to explain.

At the end of the film I told the staff that the headset hadn't worked. Without a trace of irony, the manager explained to me that audio description works best when you sit towards the back of the auditorium. Hmm. I don't think they have thought this through. I politely pointed out that since I don't see very well, and since we were in one of the smaller screens (Screen 4, Odeon George Street, Oxford), I needed to sit near the front. In fact I always sit near the front - the middle of the second row is generally my preferred spot - and, as I also pointed out, when I went to see Bel-Ami the reception was fine from the front.

Ah. Apparently, each screen is different. So how, I wondered, am I supposed to know where to sit for each film, or even if it is worth trying to see particular films on particular screens at particular cinemas? The manager was reassuring. All I need to do is consult with the technical team on arrival at the cinema and they will tell me where best to sit. But what if they point me towards the back of the auditorium? Do I choose to have audio description but a less good view of the screen, or no audio description but a better view. Why should I have to make this choice? Surely the whole point of audio description is that it enhances the cinematic experience. I don't want it instead of the film itself: in that case I might as well save the money, stay at home and listen to the radio. Also, I like buying tickets in advance on my iphone. It saves queueing and means I can make sure I get the seats I want. Why can't I book in advance from the comfort of my sofa AND be guaranteed audio description?

I could tell the Manager was getting perplexed. I don't think he had ever really thought about the point of audio description and it certainly hadn't occurred to him that someone with some sight might use it to give an extra dimension to the film. Especially not someone who can use an iphone. I think he was probably beginning to wonder why an (annoyingly vociferous) blind person would even want to come to the cinema in the first place. Running out of options he suggested, again without irony, that next time I try the premium seats. Apparently reception is always best in the middle of the auditorium. I pointed out, as patiently as I could, that I didn't see why I should be obliged to pay more to guarantee that I get good reception.

As stalemate seemed to have been reached at this point I went off to find Simon and the tandem. On our way home I enumerated the differences between the film and the book. I might have missed some of the film's subtleties, but I had noticed that some significant changes had been made. At the moment I still prefer the book. I wonder if audio description would have changed that?

Friday, 13 April 2012

How my Kindle changed my life.

I have always loved reading but I spend a lot of time on public transport. Isn't there something odd about this statement? Surely public transport is the perfect place to indulge in hours of uninterrupted reading? Not for me it isn't (or at least it wasn't until recently).

Reading in public is something which I used to find very hard to do. The glasses I use for reading mean that I have to hold books extremely close to my eyes. They almost completely block out my peripheral vision and make me feel both isolated and vulnerable. My reading glasses are unusual enough to attract (mostly unwanted) attention and unsightly enough to highlight me as an object of scrutiny, pity, or horror. But four months ago I bough a Kindle. I was going to a conference in the States and wanted to be able to read whenever and wherever I wanted: at the airport, on the plane, over breakfast, in the queue for coffee. I didn't want to have to fumble in my bag for my book and my glasses, clumsily take off one pair of glasses, replace them with the other pair, and then take up an uncomfortable position (back hunched, arms bent, head down) before even reading a word. By the time I'd done all that I would have got to the Starbucks counter or check-in desk and the moment would have been lost.

With my Kindle I can increase the font size so that I can read comfortably and for long periods of time with my everyday glasses. Sure there aren't many words per page but who cares when turning Kindle pages is almost effortless? Suddenly I can sit unobtrusively on the metro, in a cafe or in the park without feeling like I am on display. I no longer have a handbag stuffed full of different pairs of glasses and I can carry a much lighter (and more stylish) bag now that all my books are stored on one incredibly slim, light and portable device.

I had no idea how much changing the way I read would change the way I feel. I have become a much more confident, independent and purposeful commuter since starting to carry my Kindle everywhere I go. I seek out comfy seats and coffee opportunities in order to be able to lose myself in my latest book for a few minutes and have even stopped minding so much about the inevitable delays which occur on the Oxford-Reading-Egham journey.

But it turns out that Kindle reading isn't just for fun. Last month I gave my first Kindle conference paper. This was a complete revelation. Even when I used to print out conference papers in 20 pt bold I would still have to hold them pretty close to my eyes to read them out. And I'd frequently get lost in my wad of 60 or so sheets of paper and fail to acknowledge my audience at all. But reading my paper from my Kindle was a completely different experience. I finally felt like I was communicating with the audience and not just reading my paper to myself. Next I'm going to try giving all my lectures and seminars by Kindle. I'm looking forward to seeing how my Kindle will change my teaching as well as my students' experience of learning.

Monday, 2 April 2012

White Cane Magic

I was given my first white cane when I was 12 or 13 years old. The powers that be suggested that I carry a short 'symbol cane' to let everyone know that I might need help crossing roads and finding my way in busy areas. I think I took the cane out with me once. I could see well enough to notice the stares of pity or mockery which I was getting from all and sundry. Adolescent girls are sensitive enough about their appearance; I was not ready to be an object of public scrutiny. I hated this cane. It was a tangible sign of the stigma of blindness which I was doing all I could to distance myself from. My aim was to 'pass' as a sighted person. I would rather appear clumsy, absent-minded, stupid, drunk than blind.

(Portrait by James Kent, March 2012)

But when my cataracts stared to impede my already very limited vision a couple of years ago, I was advised to use a cane at night for my own safety. Not a 'symbol cane' this time but a 'long cane' which I would use to sweep the ground in front of me, checking for obstacles, curbs, steps. I have almost no sight in the dark and so I reluctantly agreed. I began cane training with a lovely and very patient teacher who understood why taking the cane out always made me cry. Funnily enough, I was a natural apparently, and soon began using my cane, under cover of darkness, and only when alone, to get myself home from work or out at night.

About four months ago I realised something that I wish I'd known when I was 12 or 13. I discovered that blindness isn't a bad thing. Sure, it can be annoying in lots of little ways, but it is not a disaster or a tragedy. In fact it is an exciting and interesting way of being in the world. This liberating realisation made me see my cane in a very different way: not as a sign of stigma but as a magic wand. When I have my cane with me I feel like I am enclosed in a wonderful bubble of kindness. I use it most of the time now, day or night, with others or alone. People who probably used to think I was shy or standoffish now know that the reason I haven't said hello to them is because I have no idea who they are. Strangers who once tutted at me for being clumsy or not looking where I was going, now thoughtfully move to one side to let me pass. Some people say that using a cane makes them feel vulnerable. But it makes me feel much safer. I was walking through a decidedly dodgy area of Paris in February when a Parisian youth offered to help me across a busy road. A couple of years ago I would have been terrified by such an encounter, but with my cane I knew that if he tried anything untoward, a dozen passers-by would immediately leap to my aid.

Using a cane is not a sign of weakness or helplessness. It does not make me feel isolated or stigmatised. It is a liberating and eye-opening experience which has shown me a much nicer side of human nature. It has also given me the confidence to travel alone and to strike up conversations with strangers. I had at least three interesting conversations in Paris that I would not have had otherwise. It also functions as a reminder, to the world at large, that disability is not something to be ashamed of. I am proud of the way I look and I want everyone who sees me with my cane to think again about their own (mis) conceptions of disability.