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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Blind Creations: Pride, Nostalgia and the 'Economy of Trust'

Since the Blind Creations conference ended on Tuesday, I have been trying to decide how to write about it here. The event, which I organised with Vanessa Warne, was three days of fascinating insights and new encounters from which I emerged at once energised and exhausted; delighted yet already nostalgic and a little sad. For most of the time, I was so busy running the conference, that I didn't have time to attend the sessions. I have yet to hear the fascinating panels on audio description, haptic art and tactile books, although I did catch most of the wonderful plenaries. Happily, we will soon have an audio archive of the conference on the site, so I will be able to discover everything I missed.

Until then, my imperfect knowledge of the conference means that in this post I want to discuss other things. Whilst I am not yet ready to comment on the academic side of the proceedings, I can focus on the incredible community which developed during the event. What struck me as I flitted from person to person - welcoming, explaining and answering questions - was the amazing warmth, generosity and open-mindedness of the attendees.

I was particularly struck by the exchanges between non-blind people - or SVDPs (Severely Visually Dependant People), as Georgina Kleege described them in her plenary - and blind people, which proliferated during the event. Almost half of the 116 delegates were blind and negotiating unfamiliar spaces was logistically complicated. So we quickly established what Ryan Knighton referred to as 'an economy of trust' where blind people were happy to be guided, described to and generally supported by non-blind people whom they had never met. The constant elbow proffering and taking which went on created a thrill of public intimacy which I have never encountered before. And how lovely it was not to be the only blind person in the room. What a relief to know, for once, that I was not the unsolicited focus of an (often pitying) sighted gaze..

An outsider observing the conference might have thought that the blind people being led about were dependant on their sighted guides. This may have been the case sometimes, especially on the first day when everything was new to everyone, but as the conference went on, it became clear that the sighted attendees were just as, if not more, reliant on the blind conference goers.

The non-blind delegates did not need to be physically guided, but they did need help of a different kind to negotiate blind culture. By engaging with blindness both as the subject of the conference and as the way of life for many attending, non-blind people were constantly forced to challenge their own misconceptions of blindness and rethink their personal sensory hierarchies where sight almost always dominates. Time and again I overheard conversations in which non-blind people were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of touch, hearing and taste. For a few short days, we created an alternative world where vision became the least important of the senses.

It was not only the conference delegates who were changed and challenged by their creative encounters with their own and others' blindnesses. Across Royal Holloway, staff and students were confronted with more blind people than they had probably ever seen. Everyone who had anything to do with the conference or its delegates very quickly learnt how to give audio rather than visual clues, how to describe in a non-visual way, how to guide with respect and humour. I like to think that  'Blind Creations' touched many people who will probably never think of blindness in the same way again.

Most of all, this conference made me proud. I am immensely proud that Vanessa and I managed to create such a unique event and I am proud that we gathered such an extraordinary group of people around us. But more than that, I am proud to be part of the vibrant, intellectually demanding, passionate, hilarious and deeply generous creatively blind community. I have never felt so glad to be blind.


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  2. My son, Aravinda Bhat attended the conference and presented a paper. He was very happy to have got this wonderful opportunity. Thank you, Lakshmi Bhat