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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Melody: how (not) to introduce children to blindness

Melody is a new BBC show for preschoolers which is designed 'to introduce children to a variety of classical music through stories and delightful, colourful animation'. The title character is partially blind and according to the BBC's Grown-ups Blog, the show uses techniques such as vivid colours. exaggerated gestures and slower-than-usual camera movements to appeal especially to visually impaired viewers. 

It is always wonderful (and still rare) to find positive disabled role models on television and the great thing about Melody is that her blindness is part of the show without ever being made into an issue or a problem. There is absolutely no sense of tragedy, no talk of triumph. Neither is her blindness down-played or ignored: neither Melody nor her mother are in denial about what she can or cannot see. No danger of her wanting to 'pass' as a sighted girl in later life. At the same time, Melody is a little girl like any other: she loves flowers, butterflies, the colour pink and her cuddly cat Fudge. Each time she listens to the day's music, she carries the viewer off into an imaginary world where she flies with birds, dances with butterflies and re-enacts fairy stories.

When I first watched the opening sequence I was delighted to see that the cartoon Melody is drawn with her white cane. As she happily dances through her imaginary landscape the cane is no longer a sign of stigma, but an enabling device which also happens to be a pretty cool accessory. There is a problematic moment in the opening sequence when the cane disappears as Melody's imaginary adventures progress. Surely, I wondered, this isn't an ableist suggestion that Melody is freer from her disability in her mind than she can ever be in real life? I needn't have worried. In the most recent episode, 'Flying High', Melody's cane is present both during her real-life trip to the park and in the subsequent imaginary adventure in the treetops. 

As we saw with 'Notes on Blindness', it is never easy to depict blindness in a visual medium. The show needs to be accessible to the blind and the partially blind whilst at the same time also appealing to sighted viewers so that it can become the mainstream hit it deserves to be. Imagine if Melody became a role-model for both blind and sighted children! Unlike the directors of 'Notes on Blindness', the makers of Melody do not try and depict the world from Melody's point of view. We are not shown what she actually sees. Instead we are shown how she relates to the world around her. And in some ways this is more powerful because it shows sighted children (and their parents) that her way of being in the world is surprisingly similar to theirs.

The programme is not perfect. Melody's Mum is unrealistically chirpy and patient, their home is always wonderfully tidy and Melody is the best-behaved child I have ever come across. More worryingly, she never seems to play with anyone her own age and lives a weirdly isolated existence. And there is one aspect of the programme's premise which is in danger of reinforcing out-moded stereotypes of blindness. Melody loves listening to classical music and her imaginary stories are always triggered by the music she hears on her headphones. The power that music exerts over her is reminiscent of the myth which says that a blind person's other senses are somehow magically enhanced as a kind of 'compensation' for their lack of sight. This myth is dangerous because it posits blindness as lack, as something missing which needs to be replaced. In fact the producers handle this potential pitfall well: without falling into the trap of a mawkish triumph-over-tragedy narrative, the show manages to represent blindness in a wholly positive way. In fact, Melody's world couldn't be fuller and her blindness is celebrated as an exciting and creative force.

These minor misgivings notwithstanding, this is a truly ground-breaking programme in many ways. I have never come across anything quite like it and I hope it becomes a staple of preschool viewing for years to come. My only real regret? That it didn't exist when I was a little girl.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Blindness and/on the Radio

I have already written here about my exciting visit to Salford's Media City to be interviewed by Jenni Murray for BBC Woman's Hour back in September. Yesterday I was lucky enough to be back on the programme, this time talking about women and blindness.

My experience was still wonderful, but it was very different from my first time. Instead of travelling to Salford, staying over in a nice hotel, meeting the other guests and being surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a busy radio studio, I did the interview alone in a small room at Radio Oxford. Once I was connected to Salford, I exchanged a few words with the studio manager to check for sound levels, and then I tried to sit back and relax whilst I was waiting for my turn. The studio very kindly played me radio 4 through my headphones as I waited but I nonetheless had a lot of time to worry about what was going to happen. Despite the soothing effect of my favourite radio station, which has always calmed me in stressful or lonely situations, I had a hard job controlling my nerves and I was pretty relieved when my turn finally came.

As the presenter, Sheila McClennon, introduced our segment and asked me my first question, I suddenly went from being passive listener to active participant. Although I had done this before, I still wasn't prepared for how dizzying it feels being responsible for providing the content of a programme you have been happily listening to only seconds earlier. As the adrenaline started flowing my nervousness was replaced by a mixture of excitement and pride.

It is doubly fitting to be interviewed about blindness on the radio and over the phone. Radio presenters are brilliantly attuned to the non-visual nature of their medium. They build audio description into everything they say without even thinking about it and are always very careful to use interviewees' names each time they address them. This is primarily so that the listeners always know whose voice they are hearing. But it also helps phone interviewees know which questions are being addressed to them. When I described my long-distance intervention to someone yesterday, she immediately wondered how hard it must have been for me to respond to questions without being able to see the faces and reactions of Sheila McClennon and fellow guest, Denise Leigh. I resisted pointing out the irony of her observation. What she actually meant was how difficult it would have been for a fully sighted person. In fact it is incredibly easy for me to respond to questions put to me over the phone because I spend my life talking to people without seeing their faces. Where a sighted person might have noticed a lack of eye contact, I really love being able to talk without worrying about trying to see, or pretending to see, others' reactions. I am an expert at getting all my clues from sound: maybe this is why being interviewed on the radio feels like second nature to me. I went on Woman's Hour to try and explain that blindness is not a tragedy, a lack or a descent into darkness. It is just a different way of being in the world. If some blind people resent their sightlessness it is because we live in an occulocentric world which privileges sight over all the other senses. But it doesn't have to be that way. Anyone involved with radio, as listener, presenter, producer or contributor, already knows that blindness is not something to be feared, resisted or even necessarily cured. Whether we realise it or not, radio is a constant celebration of the power of blindness, a constant reminder that sight is not necessary in order to have a complete and fulfilling sense of the world.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Notes on Blindness

How can the medium of film illustrate blindness? British cinema adverts for audio description (such as this one), depict blindness as a blank screen where the soundtrack alone indicates what film you are missing. Going to the cinema with your eyes closed would have the same effect.

These ads might make a valid point about what audio description can add to the cinematic experience, but they do not give a very realistic representation of what it is like to be blind. Blindness is not at all like living with your eyes shut. Most blind people have some kind of visual perception and all blind people experience their lack of vision differently. Sight is one of five senses: but most sighted people have no idea how their other senses contribute to their perception of the world. A blind person's world is not a bleak world of darkness or blackness but a multi-faceted landscape informed by sounds, textures, smells and tastes. Blindness can sometimes feel like entrapment, but it can also sometimes feel like freedom. This is something that the makers of new documentary short Notes on Blindness have worked hard to capture.

Notes on Blindness, which premiers at the Sundance festival and on the New York Times website today, is a dramatisation of some of the original recordings of blind academic and writer John Hull. Hull lost his sight in 1983 after a long period of deterioration and his writings chart his responses to his own blindness. Notes on Blindness is a thoughtful and sensitive attempt to create a sense of what going blind might feel like. It would have been very easy to make this film into a heart-wrenching and tragic tale of Hull's descent into darkness. Instead, the film makers reject sentimentalism - even at the most poignant of moments - and (somewhat paradoxically) use the visual medium of film to emphasise both the bewilderment and panic felt by Hull, especially in the early days, and the subsequent richness of sense impressions which he comes to appreciate.

As the film progresses, blurry and disorientating images of pitch black coal mines and dizzying white snowstorms are replaced by scenes whose striking visuality is nonetheless secondary to their multi-sensory impact. My favourite part of the film is the rainfall sequence. Hull's words describe how he loves rain because he can use the sound it makes on objects to create an aural landscape where he gains a sense of size, shape and texture through sound. When he expresses the wish that rain could fall indoors, in a kind of constant watery audio description of sorts, we are shown a striking image of rain falling in his kitchen. This astonishing segment challenges the viewer's perception by asking her to think about rain - and thus about the blindness with which it is now associated - in a profoundly different way. 'Cognition is beautiful' says Hull at the end of the film. And this is a beautiful film which engages with blindness in a thoughtful and provocative way.

My thanks to the film's production team for letting me see an advance preview of the film and for sending me some stills to use in this post. A feature-length version of Notes on Blindness is now being made and you can keep up to date with developments on twitter (@intodarknessdoc) or on