In April I wrote about Andrea Begley's 'blind' audition for UK TV show The Voice : in that post I wondered how the judges - and the voting public - would deal with the presence of a partially blind singer in the competition. Would they reward her for her voice, or would they vote for her out of a misplaced sense of condescension and pity?
I have enjoyed watching Andrea's progress in the competition. Her folksy, melancholic, guitar-strumming, female-acoustic, singer-songwriter vibe is my favourite kind of music. But in a way I've been more interested in how the show's producers have dealt with her blindness. And I've been pleasantly surprised. In the clips which precede each singer's performance they have focused on Andrea's sense of humour, wit and independent spirit rather than her disability. They showed her at work, travelling with her white cane and chilling with friends and family. There was absolutely no talk of triumph or tragedy. The judges have been less careful in their choice of words. Their repeated use of adjectives like 'inspirational' and 'brave' verge on the patronising and speak more of their own disabling attitudes than of Andrea herself.
Last night I had mixed feelings when Andrea unexpectedly beat favourite Leah McFall to win the show. On the one hand I was of course delighted for her. Not only because this might be her way in to a notoriously shallow and judgemental business, but also because we are desperately in need of positive disabled role models. But even as I type those words I worry that by giving Andrea the responsibility of being a role-model for the visually impaired, I am celebrating her not for her voice, but for her disability. And this is exactly the opposite of what she wanted to achieve by being on the show in the first place.
I hope that Andrea's unexpected win was down to the fact that all those who love her voice voted for her. And also, perhaps, that Leah's fans were lulled into a false sense of security and thought her victory was so guaranteed that they didn't need to bother. But I worry, despite the production team's brilliant handling of Andrea's disability, that there were some people who voted for her out of pity, some people who felt sorry for the poor blind girl. If this is the case, and I fear it is, then attitudes to blindness, indeed to disability in general, have not changed as much as the success of the Paralympics led us to believe. As I prepare to leave for Paris to speak at the International Colloquium on the History of Blindness and the Blind, I am glad that Andrea has earned herself a place in the history both of blindness and of popular culture. But I await the next chapter in her career in the hope that it will put my nagging doubts about the motives of the voting public to rest.