Follow by Email

Monday, 15 October 2012

Night Vision


I have loved Suzanne Vega's music since I discovered it 25 years ago. Seeing her live at Newcastle City Hall on 1st June 1987 was my first experience of how extraordinarily moving seeing your favourite artist live can be. I've seen her live many times since then and can't wait to relive the experience again tomorrow when she celebrates the 25th anniversary of her platinum album Solitude Standing at the Barbican in London.

'Night Vision' is a beautiful and relatively unknown song from Solitude Standing. I had previously understood it in its literal sense, in the sense Vega meant it, as a description of a loved one falling asleep as night gradually fills the narrator's room. But earlier today I was listening to it whilst worrying about how to find my way to The Barbican in the dark. Suddenly the lyrics gained a new depth of meaning and it became a song about my own experience of partial blindness.

The opening lines: "By day give thanks, by night beware; half the world in sweetness, the other in fear" evoke the age-old myth that associates light and day with joy and happiness and darkness and night with danger and misery. Vega's lyrics frequently evoke received wisdom in this way before subtly overturning the listeners' expectations. (Think of the narrative of childbirth in 'Birth Day'; the unexpected sagacity of the unnamed lover in 'Gypsy', the beauty of asymmetry in 'Left of Centre' or the mischievous riff on misery in 'Straight Lines'.

The implications of the cliche evoked at the beginning of 'Night Vision' are familiar to the blind and the partially blind. Too often, blindness is seen as just as irrevocably negative as the darkness with which it is erroneously associated. As the song develops, however, Vega demonstrates that vision is not about seeing, but rather about using the available clues to fill in the gaps left by either partial blindness or nightfall:

"When the darkness takes you with her hand across your face,
don't give in too quickly, find the things she's erased:
find the line, find the shape through the grain,
find the outline and things will tell you their name."

This is a perfect description of the way my brain tries to make sense of the patchy, blurry world I inhabit. Like the narrator in Vega's song, I am always trying to make sense of edges, outlines, contours. I see a ghostly shape and my brain tells me what it is most likely to be. This song is - perhaps unknowingly - a celebration of the particular way the partially blind relate to the world. The narrator's promise to teach her child "night vision' ends the song. In this promise I hear a celebration of both literal and metaphorical darkness which invites the blind and the partially blind to enjoy and treasure their way of seeing in the dark.

(Vega's song may be exquisite and inspiring in equal measure. But it will not actually help me find my way to the Barbican in the dark. Luckily the Baribican provides an incredibly helpful and wonderfully detailed description of how to get to the venue on their site, complete with extremely helpful photo-maps of key points along the route.)

Monday, 8 October 2012

To the Buses

It is one of the horrible ironies of modern life that blind and partially blind non-car-drivers can also find it incredibly difficult to use public transport. Surely, the very fact that the blind cannot drive should have meant that public transport was designed especially with us in mind.
Not so.. According to a recent RNIB report, 9 out of 10 partially blind bus uses have trouble hailing buses whilst 8 out of 10 have missed buses as a result of their vision. I use buses almost every day and hate not knowing which bus is coming until it is pretty much already at the stop. I used to use a hand-held monocle to read bus numbers. But this is tricky to juggle with glasses, white cane, umbrella, bag, bus pass etc. So now I use a mixture of techniques.
Where possible I rely on the electronic displays which claim to count down the minutes until the next bus is due. This works on my usual relatively quiet route, but isn't great at a stop serving lots of different buses. Then I just flag down whatever comes along and smile apologetically at the bus driver if I accidentally hail the wrong bus. Apart from being embarassing for me and annoying for the driver, this has also meant that I have unwittingly flagged down the odd lorry too. Sometimes I ask other passangers (or my kids) to tell me what is coming. This can be a nice way of engaging strangers in conversation.
And bus numbers are not the only problem. Recently, Oxford station reorganised which buses use which stops. There are four stops on the station forecourt so I really need to know where my bus is going from. There was no additional signage or news alerts about the changes. Presumably the operators thought that passengers would notice the changes themselves.This is not easy to do when you can't see the numbers and rely on habit and precedent. I was halfway to Rose Hill before I realised my mistake.
The problem with all my techniques for working out the buses is that they take away my autonomy and put me in the position of having to ask. They make me feel apologetic for even wanting to get a bus in the first place.
The RNIB's 'Stop For Me, Speak to Me' campaign is aiming to make drivers and buses more vocal. Why not shout out numbers, destinations and stops as a matter of course? Why such a conspiracy of silence?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Flaubert and the 'Medical' Model of Disability

In preparation for a research paper I am giving at the University of Kent as part of their 'Cultural Pathologies' seminar, I have been thinking about how nineteenth-century French literature depicts disability. The nineteenth century is well-known for its enthusiasm for scientific and medical progress. It would therefore seem logical that its writers would favour the  'medical' model of disability. This model is similar to the 'tragedy approach'. Both these models of disability still exist today. (See this post for an example of the 'tragedy' approach.)  The 'medical model' sees disability as something inherently negative which must be cured, or, better yet, eliminated entirely. The most extreme version of this model led to the eugenics of Nazi Germany.

The club foot episode in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary can be read as an example of the 'medical' approach to disability. In the name of progress and patriotism, Homais and Emma convince Charles to cure Hippolyte's club foot using a new and complicated procedure. Hippolyte, who is perfectly happy with his foot the way it is, takes quite a lot of persuading. Like many disabled people, he does not see himself as in any way disadvantaged or inconvenienced by his difference and cannot really understand why the able-bodied are so eager to convince him otherwise.

When he eventually acquiesces, the operation seems to go perfectly, leaving Charles, and, more importantly, Emma to bask in the glory of his triumph. Unfortunately, however, Charles is not quite as talented as his wife would have him (and herself) believe. Hippolyte's leg soon becomes gangrenous and is eventually amputated by renowned surgeon Canivet.

The failure of Charles's attempt to cure Hippolyte is a wonderful illustration of the dangers of the 'medical' model. Homais and Emma believe in perfection, beauty and normality. Anything that deviates from any of these absolutes must be somehow lacking or inferior: a patient in need of a cure, a victim in need of pity. But their interference nearly costs Hippolyte his life. Why, rages Canivet, try and fix something that isn't even broken? Why mess with a perfectly happy and healthy man for no reason other than a misguided believe in progress for its own sake? Why indeed.