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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Book Review: 'Je veux croire au soleil' by Jacques Semelin

Jacques Semelin, Je veux croire au soleil (Paris: les Arènes, 2016)

Part travel journal, part guide to living creatively with blindness, Jacques Semelin’s humorous description of his stay in Montreal is a charming and honest account of the day-to-day annoyances and joys of life as a blind academic.

Readers familiar with Semelin’s first memoir, J’arrive  je suis étranger (which I write about here) will remember that his gradual journey from sightedness to blindness was not an easy one. Semelin's internalised ableism meant that he spent many years doing his best to 'pass' as a sighted person before finally 'coming out' as blind. In Je veux croire au soleil he celebrates the new creativeness which his blindness has given him and reflects on how to make sense of his non-visual life for a sighted reader:
Je me suis mis en quête d’un autre vocabulaire, de métaphores, de mises en scènes, bref, de tous les moyens de mieux saisir le réel par l’imaginaire.

I found myself identifying particularly strongly with Semelin's description of the 'saut psychologique' (psychological leap) he had to make from independence to dependence. Like him I spent years finding ingenious ways of doing things for myself. And like him I resisted asking for help for as long as I could:
Se faire aider conduit bien plus tôt à reconnaître un effondrement de soi. On ne peut plus faire ceci ou cela. […] Se faire aider revient ici à devoir admettre son infériorité physique en quelque chose, une infirmité en somme.

Whilst the wealthy willingly pay for assistance as a way of asserting their dominance, Semelin recognizes that asking for - and knowing how to graciously accept - help is one of the hardest things a blind person must do. Having to be helped can feel like a loss of personhood and an acknowledgement of inferiority. But knowing when to accept help can feel like a liberation. I recognise in Semelin's references to pride and honour my own (sometimes unhelpfully stubborn) reluctance to ask for help. Perhaps this explains my dislike of taxis and my preference for public transport.
Il faut trouver la force de se pousser dehors. Quand on n’y voit pas il est toujours tentant de rester bien au chaud dans un lieu clos. L’extérieure reste angoissant. Mais la volonté de se prendre en charge et la curiosité de la découverte peuvent aussi vous attirer vers l’inconnu de la rue.

As well as learning how to fight his natural urge not to ask for help, Semelin also describes how he forces himself to leave his cosy flat and explore Montreal. His description of his solitary adventure down the busy rue Saint-Denis is a powerful illustration of the appeal of the sensual world he inhabits. His descriptions of snippets of conversation, cooking smells and the changing feel of the air on his face provide a non-traditional - but equally valuable - visitor's guide to one of Montreal's most famous streets. Semelin's sensual appreciation of Montreal is an evocative celebration not only of non-visual travel but also of the unexpected pleasures of being blind and alone in an unfamiliar environment. Semelin's wanderings are often punctuated by encounters with strangers and these chance meetings, and the stimulating and rewarding conversations which ensue, are a reminder that blindness's enforced dependence on others is a gateway to a shared humanity which is often denied the more self-reliant sighted traveller.
Les personnes qui n’ont pas l’habitude de côtoyer des non-voyants ont souvent tendance à craindre le pire pour leur sécurité à tort.

One of the most appealing aspects of Semelin's memoir is that it is not unremittingly cheerful. He is frustrated and annoyed by his landlady's pessimistic prediction of the problems he will have with dustbins and domestic appliances. Whilst appreciative of the new technologies which make his academic work possible, he is also right to point out that screen readers and talking smart phones are hampered by their reliance on sight-dependent software:
Ce sont les instruments quotidiens d’une dictature qui ne dit pas son nom et qui transcende les régimes politiques, celle de l’image.

In both Montreal and Ottawa Semelin was disappointed that museums - especially those dealing with the persecution of minorities - were largely inaccessible to him. I wonder what he would make of Canada's new human rights museum which recently opened in Winnipeg and which I write about here.
Pourtant une certaine amertume ne m’a pas vraiment quitté. Cette promenade a-t-elle ravivé la mélancolie que je sais toujours au fond de moi comme une nostalgie pour ce monde dont j’ai dû abandonner les rives voici bien longtemps ? Cela fait des années et des années que j’en suis exclu mais quoi que je fasse, une vieille douleur se réveille de tems en autres, comme en ce moment.

Semelin's work made me both smile and cry out in recognition. But it also made me nostalgic. Unlike him, I do not miss the sighted world, but I do miss the time when I too was a lone traveller in a francophone land. Maybe I'll go alone to Montreal one day. And maybe like Semelin I'll do battle with a recalcitrant microwave, relish the sounds and smells of the rue Saint-Denis and explore the wonderfully multisensory Cour des Sens at the Jardin botanique.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Jacques Lusseyran colloquium

I have recently been reading the work of blind academic Jacques Lusseyran in preparation for the one-day colloquium about him which I am honoured to be speaking at along with several friends and colleagues. The day is taking place at the Fondation Singer-Polignac in Paris on 28 June 2016 (coincidentally, and rather wonderfully, the first anniversary of Blind Creations at which Zina Weygand spoke so eloquently about him).

Although I do not necessarily agree with everything he says about blindness, I would argue that Lusseyran's celebration of 'inner vision' paradoxically celebrates the non-visual senses. He also advocates a no-nonsense approach to physical activity for blind people which echoes my adventurous approach to skiing.

This image shows the poster for the colloquium

The colloquium is free to attend and is open to all, but pre-registration is required. Click here for more information.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

In Praise of Screen Reading

Ever since I learnt to touch type at age 11, I have preferred writing on keyboards to using a pen. I could not function without my computer and I usually use Microsoft’s accessibility features (such as zoom, magnification and high contrast colour schemes) to help me read what is on the screen. But since my second cataract operation last week, I do not have enough vision in my left eye to read using sighted methods. So I have begun working using a screen reader.

Screen readers are not entirely new to me. Thanks to Blind Creations I have learnt about the practical and creative benefits of using screen readers. Artist David Johnson presented a fascinating screen-reader art installation at Royal Holloway earlier this year, and French writer Romain Villet has produced a playful and clever screen-reader dialogue. Both of these artworks exemplify the creative potential of blind technologies and celebrate blindness for its own sake.

I started using a screen reader myself last week because I knew that after my operation I would have at least a few non-visual weeks. Most blind people I know use JAWS but this software is expensive and complicated to use without training. I decided instead to install the free NVDA software (although I did make a donation to support their excellent work). I had heard that NVDA has less functionality than JAWS but it is working well for me and is more than enough to allow me to comfortably navigate around my laptop and use outlook, word and internet explorer.

As I still have some sight, although not enough to read with, I am using NVDA to read me what appears on the screen and to tell me where to click. As well as speaking the content of dialogue boxes, notifications and documents, it also transforms the cursor into an aural guide whose tone varies in an incredibly intuitive way as I move it around the screen. This is the easiest way for me to navigate around windows but it only works because I am familiar with the visual layout of my screen. If I didn’t know that the file menu was at the top left hand corner of the screen in word, I would never be able to find it with the cursor. I really like the way that NVDA caters for people who are partially blind and want to use a combination of sighted and blind methods.

Another bonus of NVDA, and one which I was not expecting, is that it knows when I am writing in English and when in French and adjusts automatically as word does. This avoids the incomprehensible and frankly hilarious franglais which is produced when VoiceOver reads me French text on my Anglophone iPhone

So far I am finding NVDA surprisingly easy to use: I haven’t mastered all its subtleties yet but I know which keyboard commands (usually CAPS LOCK plus one or two keys) will read me letters, words, paragraphs or the whole text. This is the first blog post I have written using NVDA and It is no more effort than my more usual sighted approach. It does take longer because I am still learning, but the advantage of this is that I have more time to think about what I want to say and my prose is more accurate thanks to the built-in typo detector. As has been the case before with other blind technologies such as audio books and my white cane, I am wondering why it has taken me so long to embrace the screen reader. What a relief to be able to use my computer without hurting my eyes. I'm sure too that my posture will be better now that I don't need to sit with my face so close to the screen. I know lots of people who persist in using sighted methods even though screen readers would help them. A lot of people would find some screen reader features would combine well with a sighted approach. But our ocularcentric world dictates that our default technologies are often visual despite the clear practical (and artistic) benefits of blind ways of doing things. I am delighted that I have discovered NVDA and am sure that I will carry on using it even if/when I can use my left eye to read again.