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Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Braille Legacy: the irony of (lack of) access

When I heard that a French musical about the life of Louis Braille was opening in London my heart sank. How, I wondered, could the production possibly avoid the stereotypes of blindness in a genre which thrives on cliche-ridden songs of sentimental pity or triumphant overcoming? Luke-warm reviews of the show confirmed my fears, as did the director's controversial decision not to cast a single blind or partially-blind actor. Disability activist MIchele Taylor criticised the show for its 'spectacular cripping-up' of blindness as well as for its failure to employ any blind cast or crew: she boycotted the show for these reasons. Despite not being able to attend an AD performance - out of 90 performances, only 2 were audio described and they were both on the same bank holiday weekend when I was out of town - my curiosity got the better of me...

...and on one level it was rather better than I was expecting. An outstanding performance by Jack Wolfe as turbulent, intelligent (and actually quite sexy) bad-boy Braille and some pretty good tunes led to an enthralling and moving evening: on the whole the play did a very good job of telling an important and little-known story. But there were also some serious problems....

From Vocaleye's helpful introduction to the play I learnt about the over-complicated glass and wood two-storey set, the unnecessarily detailed period costumes and the fact that all the blind characters in the play wear blindfolds to symbolize their blindness. 

Wait. Blindfolds? Really? 
Yep. Blindfolds. 

In their introduction, the describers explain that 'All the actors in the production are sighted.  Blindness is indicated by gauzy black cloths worn as blindfolds.'

This use of blindfolds to represent physical blindness is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it suggests that blindness is these children's only defining characteristic; their blindfolds stigmatize them, positing them as a homogeneous and marginal group who are diametrically opposed to their sighted teachers and carers. Secondly, it suggests - wrongly - that blindness is always total and always in both eyes. This use of blindfolds reminds me of the controversial use of blindness simulations to allegedly teach sighted people about blindness. Researchers have recently found that simulating blindness can in fact do more harm than good, and I fear that the show's use of blindfolds may have a similar effect. 

But as the play progresses, the blind children sometimes remove their blindfolds, particularly when they are celebrating the invention of the braille alphabet or protesting against the Institute's refusal to let them use braille to read. This removal suggests that the blindfolds do not in fact signify physical blindness at all. Instead they stand for the metaphorical blindness which comes from being denied access to literature and knowledge. This association between blindness and lack of knowledge is of course equally problematic. As David Bolt explains in The Metanarrative of Blindness, the ‘seeing-knowing metaphor’ (p. 18), like the ‘blindness-darkness synonymy’ (p. 21) and the odd idea that people are either fully blind or fully sighted (pp. 69-70) all contribute to sighted society's view that blindness is an affliction in need of a cure or a tragedy in need of a happy-ending. But at least this metaphorical dimension allows the director to make the point that the children are 'blinded' less by their physical lack of sight than by society's insistence on using sighted means to communicate information. 

Importantly, as well as telling the story of the invention of braille, the plot of The Braille Legacy includes a sinister suggestion that an over-zealous ophthalmologist at the Institute was secretly conducting dangerous, even fatal, experiments on the children's eyes in a bid to find a 'cure' for blindness. Happily, this medicalization of blindness is countered by the play's more sympathetic characters who argue that blind children do not want or need a cure: instead all they need is a simple and universal way of accessing information. This tension between cure and societal change echoes the tension between the 'medical' and 'social' models of disability which still exists today. By associating the cure with the death of innocent children, the play controversially argues against medical intervention and in favour of improved access to literature, culture and the arts. 

Given this insistence that the blind children deserve access to knowledge, it is unspeakably ironic that the play itself was not made accessible to blind audience members. If audio-described performances are too expensive then why not include AD in the show itself? Surely this production would have been ideally suited to the kinds of integrated audio description deployed so effectively by theatre company ExtantWhy not use a simple set rather than a confusing structure with reflective surfaces and glaring spot lights? Things off-stage were no better. Despite the fact that the production was supported by the RNIB, I saw no evidence of braille or large-print programmes. This is a shocking omission as is the fact that the video about the play on the RNIB website is captioned but not audio described. If the RNIB can't lead by example then how can other organisations hope to improve access? To be fair, the front-of-house staff had clearly had some training in how to act as sighted guides, but their techniques, whilst enthusiastic, were clumsy and patronizing in places. Perhaps the play's overall lack of accessibility meant that they did not have many blind audience members to practice on...

Overall, this production represents a massive missed opportunity: whilst the play's script convincingly calls for the emancipation of blind people, this optimistic message is completely undermined by the failure to make the production accessible. Like the embossed books which frustrate Louis in the opening scene, the play was designed by sighted people who have put no thought into the best way for blind people to access its content.