Last week I was pleased to be invited to speak on 'Blindness in French Fiction' at an international colloquium on 'Representations and Discourses of Disability' organised by two PhD students from the Sorbonne, Céline Roussel and Soline Vennetier.
This colloquium, the first of its kind in France, brought together around sixty researchers working on the emerging field of 'études sur le handicap' (French Disability Studies). As well as catching up with a number of old friends, I was particularly pleased to meet a range of young French researchers, both disabled and non-disabled, whose work suggests innovative and thought-provoking ways of combining the highly philosophical nature of French academic discourse with an Anglo-American interest in embodiment to take Disability Studies in new and fruitful directions.
As I was getting ready for bed after a long day of papers and discussions, something happened which in retrospect seems to capture this tension between French philosophy and Anglo-American embodiment - or between French theory and Anglo-American practice - perfectly: my glasses broke. My first reaction was one of panic. Here I was, in a foreign country, far from home, without a spare pair of glasses or the means to acquire one, suddenly deprived of my ability to read, shop and navigate. How would I manage during my last two days in Paris? How would I find my way back to the gare du Nord? More importantly, how would I buy the cheese and chocolate I absolutely had to take back to England with me?
Thinking back now, I am ashamed and embarrassed by this ableist reaction to my broken glasses. In my paper, which I had delivered that very morning, I argue that Lucien Descaves's 1894 novel Les Emmurés and Romain Villet's 2014 novel Look are important depictions of blindness because they invite us to celebrate blindness for its own sake. They do not lament their protagonists' lack of vision. For them, blindness is not a tragedy, it is just a different, albeit slightly inconvenient, way of being in the world.
Since I 'came out' as partially blind four years ago, I have often said that I do not see my way of not-seeing as a problem. And yet as soon as I found myself with even less vision than usual, I started worrying about how I would cope. I even found myself evoking precisely the kind of ableist language which I criticise health professionals for using.
In fact, it turns out that this sudden almost-blindness was indeed far from tragic. I actually quite enjoyed living without any glasses for a day or two. How nice to walk from outside to inside without everything getting all steamed up. And how restful not to be able to check e-mails or facebook every five minutes. And it turns out that I am actually pretty good at being blind. I found myself confidently using my white cane to get around the uneven streets of Paris and I became much more ready to ask for help in shops, at busy junctions and on the train. I used to pride myself on being able to get across Paris un-assisted. Now I realise that knowing when to ask for help is actually an art in itself. And my new talking book reader (a blog post about which is coming soon) proved particularly valuable on my long journey back from Paris to Oxford.
I picked up my repaired glasses this morning and there is no denying that I am delighted to have them back. But being obliged to function without them was a good thing. Not only did it make me think more closely about my own internalised ableism, it also reaffirmed what I already knew: blindness does not stop us from doing things; it just makes us do them differently.