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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.

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