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Monday, 23 December 2013

The Voice Part 3: I Didn't See that Coming

I do not usually enjoy reading autobiographies and I am especially suspicious both of 'triumph over tragedy' disability narratives and of autobiographies written in haste after the subject has been shot into the spotlight by winning a TV talent show like The Voice. So it was with some trepidation that I curled up with the kindle version of Andrea Begley's account of her rise to fame, I Didn't see that Coming. I have already written two posts about how Andrea Begley's partial blindness has been depicted and discussed: the first when I initially came across her in the show's so-called blind auditions and the second as she unexpectedly (and somewhat controversially) went on to win the competition. In both these posts I made the point that the public have a much more disabling attitude towards blindness in general, and Andrea's partial blindness in particular, than she herself does. I am delighted to report that Andrea's book is exactly what I hoped it would be: a humorous, clever and personal debunking of many of the myths of blindness which are still so inexplicably embedded in society's collective consciousness.

Andrea is refreshingly honest, practical and open not only about what she can and cannot see but, more interestingly, about how she feels about her partial blindness. She is never sad, self-pitying or mournful. Her partial blindness is never a 'tragedy', a 'hurdle' or a something to be 'overcome' or 'cured'. Mostly it is not even an issue and occasionally it is an 'annoyance' or a 'frustration' which Andrea approaches with a wonderfully self-depreciating mixture of mischief and fun. But Andrea is very careful to emphasise that she is not a superhero. She has no extraordinary powers of hearing and is not one of those relentlessly perky 'super-crips' who feel the need to over-achieve as a kind of 'compensation'.  She is simply hard-working, well-supported and ambitious and she has got where she is through a combination of an unforgiving work ethic, lots of luck and a fair bit of talent. Anyone who voted for Andrea to win The Voice out of misplaced feelings of sympathy and pity has completely misunderstood what her partial blindness represents.

It is hugely important to have disabled people in the public gaze. But this is not so that other disabled people can feel 'inspired' to 'overcome' their own particular 'struggles'. Such an approach serves only to further stigmatise disability by distancing it. Rather, we need people like Andrea to write their stories so that the so-called 'able-bodied' can begin to understand that disability is not a necessarily negative condition deserving of pity and condescension. I think Andrea's book should be required reading for anyone who has ever looked at a disabled person with sadness. Not only does it answer many of the 'Is it okay to...' questions which worry the non-disabled, it also completely demystifies life with sight loss.

If I have one criticism of Andrea, it is that she readily admits that she relates to the world in a sighted way. She went to a mainstream school and has always learned by sighted methods where possible. She would still rather not use a white cane and has never learnt Braille. She does now use audio books and screen-reading software but I suspect that she would rather describe herself as 'partially sighted' than 'partially blind'. Andrea's resolutely sighted approach to the world is further evidence that we live in such an oculocentric world that even the partially blind feel the pressures to conform to sighted ways of being. But now that she is in such a prominent and powerful position, Andrea has the chance to further dismantle the sight-based myths which her book begins to attack. I'd like to see her wield her white cane in public more proudly and celebrate the power of the tactile by learning Braille.

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