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Thursday, 28 January 2021

AHRC Fellowship Annoucement: Inclusive Description for Equality and Access (IDEA)

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded one of 10 new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowships for my project on inclusive audio description at the theatre. In this year-long initiative, I will be working with audio-description providers VocalEyes and Mind's Eye, access champion Vicky Ackroyd from Totally Inclusive People, and theatre companies including Mind the Gap Studios, The Octagon Bolton, the Donmar Warehouse and Shakespeare's Globe.

This project developed out of the 2019-20 Describing Diversity research project jointly run by VocalEyes and Royal Holloway University of London with additional support from Shakespeare’s Globe and Donmar Warehouse. Its key output was a report, Describing Diversity: An Exploration of the Description of Human Characteristics Within the Practice of Theatre Audio Description. [download the report here].

Between March 2019 and May 2020, we investigated how diverse human characteristics might best be described in the audio introductions used by theatre audio describers to introduce blind and partially sighted audience members to a play’s characters before the play starts. Along with touch tours and live audio descriptions, audio introductions provide blind and partially blind theatre goers with essential information about the play’s setting, costumes, props and characters. Our research found that references to protected characteristics such as gender, race, disability and age are not always made in inclusive and ethical ways. Either describers avoid mentioning such characteristics for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’, or they inadvertently use loaded or negative language to describe them. In both cases, blind audience members are not given access to the visual markers of diversity available to their sighted peers. Our Describing Diversity project addresses this lack of equity by using the research findings, as well as consultation and workshops with audio describers, to develop a set of recommendations about best practice in AD for both audio describers and theatre professionals. These recommendations are designed to promotes equality, diversity and inclusion both for people being described and for people listening to the descriptions. The report was published in September 2020 and has already informed ITV’s accessibility policies.

This AHRC Fellowship project ‘Inclusive Description for Equality and Access’ (IDEA). will support and enable theatre professionals and audio describers to engage with and explore our findings in order to promote the creation of inclusive descriptions which celebrate diversity in ethical ways.  We will work with directors, casting directors, actors, access professionals, front-of-house teams at producing theatre companies as well as audio describers and blind and partially blind theatre goers, to promote the value of AD as both a communicator and a driver of equality, diversity and inclusion. IDEA will also seek to increase the diversity of audio describers, blind and partially blind theatre goers and theatre professionals by engaging under-represented groups with the creation and reception of inclusive audio description.

We will focus on the following key questions:
1) How can audio describers describe diversity characteristics, especially race and disability in an inclusive and ethical way?

Race was the diversity marker which attracted the most comments in our survey and interviews and integrated casting (sometimes referred to as ‘non-traditional casting’ or ‘colour-blind casting’) is a key issue to explore in IDEA. Whilst IC can refer to situations in which an actor’s age / gender / disability / body shape are not taken into account by casting decisions, in the survey responses it was most often evoked with reference to race. The recent rise to prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and the increased awareness of the effects of white privilege are further evidence that the question of how and when race is described to blind and partially blind audience members is a pressing issue which will be at the heart of IDEA. 

2) How can audio descriptions take account of the creative team’s vision for the play?
The importance of consultation with actors and directors at an early stage of the audio description production was frequently highlighted and practical difficulties such as cost and staff availability were cited as the key barriers to this happening. IDEA will facilitate better consultation between audio describers and the creative team by
  • Embedding an awareness of and interest in AD in the DNA of theatre
  • Helping theatres to understand what is at stake if AD is not inclusive and ethical
  • Raising awareness of and interest in aspects of diversity that ADs may not yet have direct experience of it
  • Connecting individuals and organisations through exploration of shared interests and initiatives
The aim of IDEA is to promote inclusive audio description by taking the report’s describer-led recommendations back to theatre professionals and blind and partially blind audience members in a series of workshops, discussions and performances.

IDEA will:
  • engage a diverse range of theatre professionals, blind and partially blind audience members and audio describers with the report’s findings and the practices of audio description more broadly
  • strengthen existing networks of audio describers and theatre professionals by creating a safe space for discussions and a shared set of resources on the project website
  • create new partnerships with theatre professionals and audio describers who were not involved in the preparation of the ‘Describing Diversity’ report but who are interested in developing their own understanding of and practice in inclusive audio description
  • provide support (through mentoring; training; peer support; access to resources such as a video and a MOOC; support for community engagement; help with audience feedback) to theatres, theatre professionals and audio describers who want to implement the recommendations of the Describing Diversity report
  • promote the value of inclusive audio description for a range of audience member groups beyond blind and partially blind audience members and in so doing increase the visibility of audio description in the theatre
  • encourage the use of inclusive audio descriptions, particularly audio introductions, in films and on television, for both live and pre-recorded content.
To achieve the above aims, we will work with a diverse range of theatre companies to produce 2 audio-described productions per partner. We include theatres outside the south-east of England; theatre companies who work with or represent under-represented groups; theatres who are interested in extending their audience base to under-represented groups and theatres who would like to strengthen their equality, diversity and inclusion practices.

The project will also employ post-doctoral researcher Rachel Hutchinson as Project and Community Engagement Manager. Rachel received her PhD from the University of Westminster in 2020. Her thesis examines the impact of inclusive audio description on engagement and memorability in museums for blind and sighted people. She is was a post-doc research assistant on the Describing Diversity project and lead author of the report.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse

Image description: a photo of my standing to the right of a poster for the Donmar Warehouse's production of BLINDNESS. I am smiling broadly. Dark glasses cover my eyes and the top of my white cane stands next to me. On the poster, the cast and creatives are listed. My name appears in the list alongside the description 'Production Consultant'.

When I heard from my friends at VocalEyes that the Donmar Warehouse was planning a production of Saramago's problematic novel Blindness my heart sank. The all-too-familiar alarm bells started ringing in my mind. 'Will this be yet another sighted peoples' depiction of 'blindness as tragedy'? I wondered. 'How dare sighted people tell us what our blindness feels like!' I fumed. I worried about whether this supposedly 'non-visual' installation would turn into a wrong-headed simulation of blindness which might have the dangerous effect of further stigmatizing blind and partially blind people.

Luckily, the Donmar team were very receptive to my concerns. After a Zoom meeting with them, I was appointed 'Production Consultant' for the installation. My job? To help them understand why many blind and partially blind people find Saramago's portrayal of blindness so offensive, and to work with them to find ways of using the production to think about blindness in different - perhaps more positive - ways.

Saramago's novel depicts a world where sudden, contagious blindness leads to the disintegration of society. As people go blind, they lose their dignity: they become violent, sexually aggressive and ruthless and the world descends into chaos. Eventually, one group of blind people are saved by the only sighted person left. She finds them food, gives them shelter and makes them clean again. At first I wasn't sure there was anything the Donmar would be able to do to redeem this unremittingly tragic depiction of blindness. The production is an adaptation of the novel, so it needs to use the novel's words and actions. But then I realized that that potential of the piece lies not in its content, but in the ways this content is presented.

Lockdown has made traditional theatre impossible because live actor performances are not allowed. So the Donmar created a socially-distanced sound installation with binaural audio recorded in advance. Aside from some powerful lighting effects (which are audio-described at every performance), the production is entirely reliant on our sense of hearing. As such, it is compelling evidence that we do not need our sense of sight to enjoy the theatre. By asking non-blind people to temporarily relinquish their reliance on visual sources of information and focus instead on their often-neglected listening skills, the production performs a re-calibration of the 'hierarchy of the senses' where vision is dislodged from its traditional place at the top. The most powerful moment in the show is when the audience is plunged into absolute darkness. In this instant we become completely reliant on the beguiling voice of Juliet Stevenson's narrator, and we strain our ears to capture every sound of her presence. We are suddenly alone, with the intimate whispers of the character as our only guide. I did not find this plunge into the dark frightening, although I suspect some non-blind people did. I found it liberating. Finally I could devote my whole being to listening without worrying that I was missing some of the visual information which is so highly prized by my non-blind peers. I could have sat in the dark all day listening to the mesmerizing drama unfolding around me.

But light did return, and the audience gradually became visible once more. I expect most people were relieved at this return of daylight. I felt oddly disappointed as I was forced back into the sighted world I have such a problematic relationship with.

It would be easy - but perhaps a little lazy - to criticize this production for reiterating Saramago's negative depictions of blindness. But this would be to miss the point of the Donmar's use of immersive binaural technology. This adaptation is the perfect place to challenge misconceptions of blindness because it gives us a powerful aesthetic experience without any need of sight. Unlike the negative depictions of blindness in Saramago’s novel, this installation delivers important messages about the value of the non-visual senses, the creative and aesthetic benefits of blindness and the ways that the concept of ‘blindness gain’ might encourage non-blind people to reconsider their own misconceptions of blindness.

For more on the depiction of blindness in the installation, as well as my thoughts on blindness gain, reading blind and trying to 'pass' as sighted, listen to the podcast recorded by me and writer Simon Stephens to accompany the production.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Audio Description at Royal Holloway

Image Description: The painting 'Man Proposes, God Disposes' by Sir Edwin Landseer hangs in its lavish golden frame among other paintings on a rich red wall in Royal Holloway's Picture Gallery. Read on for a link to a creative audio description of the picture.

Those of you who have been following Blind Spot Blog for a while will remember the 2015 Blind Creations conference and micro arts festival held at Royal Holloway, and organised by myself and Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba). One of the highlights of the conference was a live audio-described tour of some of the paintings displayed in Royal Holloway's famous Picture Gallery

Since the success of Vanessa's audio descriptions at Blind Creations, I have been working with the College Curator, Laura MacCulloch to explore innovative ways of making the College’s Art Collections accessible to a wider public. I have also been researching and writing about creative audio description and talking to a lot of people about my theory of ‘blindness gain’. Laura has been working hard to secure some funding to make the Picture Gallery more accessible and has been using the museum and gallery app Smartify to create virtual information panels for all the gallery's pictures. 

Earlier this year, Laura was able to employ an audio-description intern to help us run a crowd-sourced audio description project. We invited volunteers from across the College community (including students, staff and alumnae) to produce their own creative audio description of paintings in the Picture Gallery. Unlike traditional audio description, creative audio description (CAD) does not claim to offer an objective description of an image. Instead it recognizes that each beholder will see things differently. It welcomes non-normative gazes and encourages individual and inventive responses to art. It celebrates diversity of interpretation and asks people to produce a subjective response using whatever words speak to them personally. These creative audio descriptions give both blind and sighted visitors a new way of experiencing art. They highlight the describer's responses to each painting's aesthetic and emotional aspects as well as to its visual appearance and place in the gallery. They are an excellent example of 'blindness gain'.

Our project has been put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Laura and assistant curator Michaela Jones have used Smartify to create a free online audio-described tour of a selection of paintings from the Picture Gallery. Thanks to this tour, these paintings are now accessible to blind people around the world. You will hear a short introduction by me followed by creative audio descriptions of 15 paintings from the Picture Gallery, including famous works such as ‘Man Disposes, God Proposes’ and ‘Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St James’’ alongside some lesser-known gems. Some of these are located high on the Picture Gallery’s walls and are not usually spotted by visitors to the gallery. 14 of the descriptions are by current students and staff and we have also included one of the original recordings from Blind Creations, where the project originated.

As well as improving access to the Picture Gallery and adding to the range of online gallery tours available for free during lockdown, this project has also enhanced student employability through the creation of internships; strengthened links between different parts of the college community; and created a set of creative audio descriptions which I will be able to use as my research into the benefits of creative audio description for everyone develops. 

Special thanks go to Laura MacCulloch, Michaela Jones, Emma Hughes and all the staff and students who volunteered to be part of the project. 

Saturday, 21 December 2019

New Book: Discours et représentations du handicap. Perspectives culturelles

Critical Disability Studies is flourishing in Anglo-American academia but it is still an emerging discipline in France. Four years ago I was delighted to speak at a ground-breaking French conference on the subject. Now I'm equally pleased to have my work included in the wonderfully wide-ranging collection of essays from the conference. This collection is an important testimony to the diversity and vibrancy of Critical Disability Studies in France and will prove essential for anyone working on disability in a French context. The book (32 euros), or individual chapters (2-3 euros each) can be ordered here. The bibliography is available free of charge here. Most of the essays are in French with a couple in English.

Below I list the essay titles with their English abstracts. Bonne lecture!

Discours et représentations du handicap. Perspectives culturelles, edited by Céline Roussel and Soline Vennetier (Éditions Classiques Garnier, 2019)

Introduction (
Céline Roussel and Soline Vennetier)
This introduction, which critically examines the development of Disability Studies and draws on the definitions of the notions of discourse and representation related to social and cultural practices, explores links between the contributions by researchers from various backgrounds. Using an terdisciplinary approach, it investigates the methods and tools of analysis from Disability Studies and probes their adaptations and equivalents in the French academic field.

Tammy Berberi – The Role(s) of Art and Literature in (Re)making Disability 
These remarks explore the pleasures of the unexpected as they continue to shape the author’s experiences as an American traveling in France and a disability studies scholar working in French and English. In literature as in life, the spaces in which people live, work, and imagine shape how they navigate their communities and themselves: barriers that foreclose on some experiences give rise to others, enriching one’s identity and disability as lived and studied around the world.

Anne Waldschmidt – Conceptualiser le modèle culturel du handicap comme dis/ability : perspectives interdisciplinaires et internationales / Disability Studies and the Cultural Model of Dis/ability. Interdisciplinary and International Perspectives Drawing on interdisciplinary and international debates, this essay develops a cultural model of disability in order to provide a framework to analyse dis/ability with the help of methodologies and approaches from Cultural Studies. As a necessary supplement to the social model of disability, the cultural model can help to understand better the relationships between society, culture and dis/ability. With it the intersections of 'normality' and 'disability' become the actual object of research.

Pierre Ancet – Handicap et culture. La culture comme travail de réflexion / Disability and Culture: Culture as Reflective Work
Culture fosters encounters – encountering the other and the unknown within oneself. To be cultivated means to cultivate distance from one's own certainties, which may prove salutary when one is different, or when one believes oneself to be “normal compared to others.” Disability offers an unusual experience of both the body and the world. Disability will be examined in relation to scientific and artistic culture, the practice of arts, and the mutual discovery of people’s humanity.

Michael Schillmeier – Le handicap (visuel) – des perspectives exclusives aux différences inclusives / (Visual) Disability: from Exclusive Perspectives to Inclusive Differences
Drawing on the practices of blind people in a visual culture, this paper introduces the concept “inclusive differences” of disability, suggesting that disability is the outcome of historically specific, embodied human and non-human configurations fabricated within the conduct of everyday life. This concept question the attempt of exclusive perspectives that try to divide analytically “disability” into an individual (natural) bodily impairment or a purely socio-cultural attributed disability.

Sébastien Durand – Parole et musique d'aveugle : la correspondance de Maria-Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) avec Johann-Ludwig Weissenburg (1752-1800) / Blind People's Words and Music: the Correspondence Between Maria-Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) and Johann-Ludwig Weissenburg (1752-1800)
In the 18th century, an Austrian young blind woman, Maria-Theresia von Paradis, aroused admiration for both her musical talents and her social adaptability. She started up a regular correspondence with Johann-Ludwig Weissenburg, an erudite blind man, who became her tutor. These texts, partly published in the newspapers of the time, disclose a wealth of information about the lives of blind people from the affluent upper classes of European Enlightenment society.

Flora Amann – Disability Studies, histoire de la littérature française et histoire des représentations : surdité et Révolution dans le roman sentimental français / Disability Studies, Literary History and History of Representations: Deafness and Revolution in the French Sentimental Novel
This study of the figure of the mute aristocrat and his relationship to discourses on deafness in sentimental novels after the French Revolution offers an enriching analysis to the disciplines of Literary History and Disability Studies. It contributes to the history of representations of deafness through time, and it offers a better understanding of the ways that themes and forms in these novels are inflected with their social and political context.

Mathilde Villechevrolle – Donner corps à ses frayeurs. Discours médical sur la surdité et anthropologie de la démocratie / Embodying one's fears. Medical Discourse on Deafness and Anthropology of Democracy
Medical discourses on deafness in the 19th century France have to be analyzed in relation to the development of political post-revolutionary democratic ideals, and to the “passion de l'égalité” it nurtures. The junction between vitalism and empiricism on the one hand, and the political inclination for a non-hierarchical society on the other hand, cristallizes into the figure of the deaf, and reeducating his/her speech becomes an aim where the political and the medical mingle.

Marion Chottin – Les aveugles des philosophes de l’Âge classique aux Lumières : aléas d’une pensée de la cécité entre rationalisme et empirisme / Philosophers' Blind People from the Classic Age to the Enlightenment: Hazards of a Thought on Blindness Between Rationalism and Empiricism.
This paper proposes a solution to a paradox of the Enlightenment, a century when both the French Royal Institute for the Blind was created, and the Empiricist philosophers, including John Locke, argued that ideas came from the sense of sight. Although this philosophy did indeed produce a negative notion of blindness, Empiricism also generated an alternative view, specifically in the work of George Berkeley, Denis Diderot and  d’Alembert, that in fact favoured the education of blind people

Barbara Fougère-Danezan – Take Shelter (USA, 2011) : l'implant cochléaire au cœur de la tempête, ou la surdité comme prisme d'analyse cinématographique / Take Shelter (USA, 2011): Cochlear Implant in the Eye of the Storm, Or Deafness as Prism for Cinematographic Analysis
In his ecofiction titled Take shelter (2011), the American director Jeff Nichols sets up a parallel between an ecological disaster and a young deaf girl being fitted with a cochlear implant. By doing so, he sets up a narrative system which plays on the tensions between Nature, Culture and Technology, that will be approached drawing on methodological and conceptual frameworks from Disability studies.

Olivier Schetrit – Le théâtre tremplin des Sourds : enjeux identitaires et esthétiques à travers l'exemple de l'International Visual Theatre / Theatre as a Springboard for Deaf People: Identity and Aesthetic Issues Through the Example of the International Visual Theatre
The Deaf Awakening of the 1970s was a pivotal historical period. The creation of the International Visual Theatre in 1976 offered an important micro-space for the expression of Deaf culture through various ways of staging sign language, and for valuing Deaf identity. The stage remains a privileged space in Deaf art for expressing freely one's art and Deaf culture, beyond normative judgement.

Marie Astier – Mise en scène et mise en jeu du handicap mental sur la scène contemporaine française. L'Empereur c'est moi ! : un spectacle qui invite à un changement de paradigme / Mental Disability on Stage and at Stake in the Contemporary French Drama. L'Empereur c'est moi !: a Stage Adaptation Inviting to a Shift of Paradigm
This paper focuses on the analysis of L’Empereur c’est moi!, a stage adaptation of the autobiographical book written by Hugo Horiot, who defines himself as having Asperger’s. Performed by the author himself, and by the deaf actress Clémence Colin, these neurological and sensorial differences move the performance away from dramatic form, as defined by Peter Szondi, to draw closer to what Hans-Thies Lehmann has called “postdramatic theater”.

Nidhal Mahmoud – Les Emmurés de Lucien Descaves : un exemple de typhlophilie littéraire / Lucien Descaves’ Les Emmurés: An Example of Blind-friendly Literature
Though they appear in some great works of classical literature, blind characters are generally represented as cloaked in misfortune, deprivation and darkness. By associating them with the figure of the beggar, art and literature have often abetted their exclusion from social life. Lucien Descaves rebels against such depictions in Les Emmurés (1894), an engaged, playful and original novel in which he strives to rehabilitate characters whose damnation revolts him.

Hannah Thompson – Reading Blindness in French Fiction through Critical Disability Studies 
Critical Disability Studies’ desire to celebrate blindness for its own sake finds an echo in fictional representations of visual impairment. Two key French representations of blindness, Lucien Descaves, Les Emmurés (1894) and Romain Villet, Look (2014), show how these writers’ positive attitudes to blindness demonstrate the socially, and culturally, constructed nature of disability, offering a useful, and timely, means of disassociating blindness from its hitherto negative connotations.

Bertrand Verine – La nuit et le noir, clichés métaphoriques de la cécité / Night and Darkness: Clichéd Metaphors of Blindness
A survey of discourses and practices in French blind culture reveals the persistence of metaphors of “night” and “darkness” to signify perception of the world without sight. Analysis suggests that these are visual metaphors that convey primarily an obsession with discovering or recovering absent light. Yet this dominant imaginary is subverted by some writers who express the possibility of existing beyond visual perception and the binary opposition of light versus night.

Ella Leith – Performing "Hearing-ness": Representations of the “signing impaired” in Contemporary British Sign Language Storytelling and Signart 
This paper focuses on the way “hearing culture” (i.e. non-deaf and non-signing people's ways of being) is represented in British Sign Language (BSL) vernacular performance arts, otherwise called “Signart”, through four illustrative examples of BSL performance-texts from the repertoire of an Edinburgh-based performance group, Visual Virus. It considers how cultural hearing-ness is portrayed in a way which contests hearing-centred discourse on deafness.

Julie Chateauvert – Intermédialité et proxémie : propositions pour une méthodologie d'analyse de la création en langue des signes / Intermediality and Proxemy: Towards a Methodology to Analyze Sign Language Creation
Although currently referred to as “poetry”, narrative creation in sign languages draws on aesthetic devices which resonate with art forms other than literature such as bodies in movement, performing arts, and image work. Beginning with an epistemological contextualization, this paper provides a political and aesthetic study of Jolanta Lapiak's work in order to showcase a method of analysis, which is capable of responding to the complexity of works considered as intermedial objects.

Kyra Pollitt – La « langue » et la « poésie » représentent-elles la « poésie en langue des signes » ? / Do Language and Poetry Represent Sign Language Poetry?
What evidence shows that academic discourses can alter perceptions of real-world phenomena? Using the case study of creative language forms in British Sign Language communities, the analysis explores what difference a name makes. What are the real-world implications of using the terms ‘sign language poetry’ or ‘Signart’?

Anne-Lyse Chabert – De la nécessité de changer notre manière de regarder le handicap / How and Why we Need to Consider Disability Differently
Which is the most useful perspective when talking about “disability”? Is an external, internal, or combined point of view enough in itself? The analysis of these three different points of view suggests that one fails to recognize the plenitude of a disabled person’s existence. Shouldn'tt we try to reclaim this plenitude by beginning with what he/she has to offer, independent of “disability” and his/her point of view?

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Audio Description and the Oscars

I've been doing a lot of thinking about audio description recently. Ahead of this year's Academy Awards Ceremony, I wrote an article for The Conversation about why I think film awards like the Oscars and the BAFTAs should honour audio description alongside things like acting, sound effects and direction. Read the article here. And I wrote a review of Extant and Yellow Earth production Flight Paths - a play which uses integrated audio description in inventive and effective ways. Read the review here.

Monday, 19 November 2018

3rd International CAFE Conference, Bilbao

This image shows myself and fellow panel members Lyubomyr Pokotylo (CAFE Audio Description Commentary Network) and Julian Ronca (AD Commentator, Olympic Marseille) listening to Alan March deliver a live AD Commentary. Examples of Alan March's ADC can be found here.)

This week-end I was delighted to be invited to speak on audio description commentary at the third international CAFE conference at the Estadio San Mamès in Bilbao. CAFE (Centre for Access to Football in Europe) is a pan-European organisation supported by FIFA and UEFA. It aims to promote equal access to football for all and has been successful in implementing improved access features at recent European and World football tournaments. 

During my session, I was especially pleased to hear from Alan March, who is a hugely experienced audio description commentator. and expert member of the CAFE Audio Description Commentary Network and Training Programme. During his talk, Alan used a comparison between TV, radio and AD commentary of the same goal to reveal just how crucial properly delivered AD is to blind and partially blind football fans. Unlike the TV and radio commentary we are used to hearing, good ADC should enable anyone - whether they are blind or non-blind - to understand what is happening on the pitch (and off it) as it happens. We saw in Alan's examples that TV and radio commentary is often just that - it comments on the action without describing it, and thus relies on the listening public also having visual access to what is happening. That this assumption of visual access routinely happens in mainstream radio commentary is beyond disappointing. As I know from my own experience at the 2016 Euros in Toulouse, good audio description can transform the match-day experience. If I can imagine the movement of the ball I feel immersed in the action of the game. But if all I have is general reflection on the players' performance, I feel completely isolated from the fans around me. As Alan's demonstration showed, AD commentary is very different to the kind of AD found in the cinema (and which I discuss here, here and here). ADC is as unpredictable and spontaneous as the game itself. It takes effort, commitment and energy to deliver a successful ADC. Like the simultaneous interpreters who translated our panel into French, German, Spanish, Polish and Russian, AD commentators are performing a hugely difficult and skillful task of immediate translation. Whilst certain elements can be prepared in advance, such as the lists of players and descriptions of the stadium architecture, the bulk of the ADC has to be delivered spontaneously.  It is a thrilling addition to any game and is an example of what I call  'blindness gain' because it has the potential to add value to every spectator's experience. Like the audio book, ADC deserves to be taken much more seriously. It should be offered as a matter of course at all live sporting events and professional standards of training and accreditation should be developed to reward and recognize those who deliver it so well.

CAFE is passionate about all kinds of access. At the conference we also heard from football's governing bodies FIFA and UEFA about their access initiatives and there seemed to be a genuine commitment to make sure that major tournaments are accessible to all. Perhaps more importantly, we also heard from disabled fans about how better access has radically improved their experience. I was particularly struck by the testimony of Stephen and Morgan Parry who explained why it is crucial that all stadiums include Changing Places rooms so that non-ambulant disabled adults can access toilet facilities.

I was also interested in the conference for other reasons. This year I have been responsible for developing and delivering a new Translation Studies degree programme at Royal Holloway. With my linguist's hat on, I was fascinated to see the work of the simultaneous interpreters during the conference and frequently switched between English, French and Spanish channels on my headset to compare their translations. When the first of many videos was projected during the conference I also searched in vain for the audio description channel. Given that the tech was already in place for comprehensive simultaneous translation, it would have been very simple to include an audio description in the access provision. Indeed, if we think of AD as a translation service rather than (or as well as) an access service, all multi-lingual conferences might be more inclined to include it as a matter of course. I'm looking forward to seeing this put in place for the next CAFE conference in 2021 which I very much hope to attend. 

Friday, 5 October 2018

Blindness Gain and the Art of Non-Visual Reading

This is the text of my inaugural lecture, 'Blindness Gain and the Art of Non-Visual Reading', which I delivered at Royal Holloway on 30 October 2018.

An image of me delivering my inaugural lecture

When we think of blindness in nineteenth-century-French literature, we think first of its presence in canonical texts. We think of Gustave Flaubert’s grotesque blind beggar who haunts Madame Bovary; we think of Charles Baudelaire’s “awful” and “vaguely ridiculous” Blind Men from The Flowers of Evil who are objects of scrutiny, speculation and pity. We think of the dramatic ending of the first volume of Eugène Sue’s monumental serial novel The Mysteries of Paris in which the enigmatic main character Rodolphe decides to blind the escaped convict and murderer known as the School Master as punishment for the grisly crimes he has committed.

Le maitre d’école aveuglé pour ses nombreux crimes, par Staal gravé par Lavieille dans les Œuvres illustrées d'Eugène Sue, 1850. (wikimedia commons image)

This mage is for the visually dependent amongst you; those of you who seek something to look at whilst you listen to me. Audio description is usually provided separately for blind and partially blind people via headsets in cinemas and theatres and through special tours in museums and galleries. I am going to provide audio description for everyone because as we will see, an awareness of the pleasures and pitfalls of audio description, and the language we use when putting the visual into words has immense benefits for non-blind people. Here I am showing an engraving from the 1850 illustrated edition of Sue’s novel: the School Master is bound tightly to a chair as Rodolphe sentences him with his pointed finger. Rather than hand him over to the French judicial system, where he would be sentenced to death, Rodolphe decides that blinding the School Master is a more fitting punishment.  This is indeed a fate worse than death: the once formidable criminal is now weak, defenceless and isolated: he has only his guilt and remorse for company as he lives out his days as a pitiful and dependant invalid.

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I find this depiction of blindness both shocking and offensive. You will also not be surprised to learn that in French and English literature blindness has almost always been associated with a whole range of negative stereotypes – stereotypes which add up to what David Bolt calls The Metanarrative of Blindness. What is more surprising, and more worrying, is that most people (including some of you listening to me now) still believe that blindness is a dreadful affliction which reduces a person’s chances of a happy and successful life.

There is no doubt that blindness has its challenges. It is inconvenient, time-consuming and costly to be a blind person living in a non-blind world and sudden blindness, particularly in adulthood, can feel devastating. But blindness is not a tragedy and it is not a fate worse than death. Blindness is a valuable and important way of being in the world. As the protagonist of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sacred Night puts it, “I try to make blindness into an asset and I do not see it as a disability.”

My term "blindness gain" is inspired by the notion of “deaf gain” coined by Bauman and Murray as well as by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept of “disability gain” and Georgina Kleege’s reflections on “gaining blindness” rather than ‘losing sight’. Blindness gain is the idea that rather than thinking of blindness as a problem to be solved, we think of blindness as a benefit. Blind and partially blind people benefit from access to a multisensory way of being which celebrates inventiveness, imagination and creativity. Non-visual living is an art. But blindness gain is also about how blindness can benefit non-blind people.

The audio book is a powerful example of "blindness gain". Thanks to the activism of previous generations of blind people who worked to secure access to books in audio form, blind people now have access to thousands of audio books. As the audio book has become mainstream, non-blind people have gained access to the conveniences and pleasures of this new format.

Today I would like to share two other examples of blindness gain with you: close- reading and what that tells us about the non-visual text, and the art of creative audio description. When I read books rather than listening to them, I use magnification to make them accessible to me. This means that I read only a couple of words at a time.

Here I am showing an image of my kindle. The screen is set to maximum magnification and we read the following sentence: “They say - , you know, they say, ‘What’s the story? What’s the scoop with the blindness.” from Rod Michalko’s recent book Things Are Different Here.

This close-reading means that I focus on the details of a literary text’s use of language rather than its broader context or place in literary history. In his Literary Memoirs, nineteenth-century French writer Maxime du Camp divides literary description into two types, “the short-sighted school and the long-sighted school”. Camp’s formulation can just as easily be applied to reading. Indeed, his description of the short-sighted school is very like the way magnification mediates my own relationship with what I read:
Short sighted people see the tiny things, they study each contour, prioritize each thing because each thing appears to them in isolation; they are surrounded by a kind of cloud onto which each object is projected in apparently excessive proportions; it is as if they have a microscope in their eye which magnifies everything.

Camp’s description of the importance of detail to the short-sighted reader is an example of blindness gain because it encourages us to value non-normative ways of accessing information. French literature’s blind characters perform a similar function.

In Honoré de Balzac’s 1844 novel Modeste Mignon, the blind mother of the eponymous heroine announces to the family that she can identify a change in Modeste’s behaviour invisible to the novel’s non-blind characters. It is the mother’s detection and explanation of this change that allows the reader to understand why Modeste is suddenly behaving as she is. Without the perceptions of the blind mother, the story of Modeste’s secret passion for a Parisian poet would be unintelligible. Although Balzac’s use of the blind mother in this way mobilises two negative stereotypes of blindness – the blind clairvoyant and the myth of supernatural compensation - it also foregrounds the creative power of blindness by allowing a blind character to advance the novel’s plot with her non-visual observations. Nineteenth-century French realism, not unlike the French nineteenth century more generally, was a highly visual phenomenon. Balzac was France’s most prolific realist novelist and his work shares his country’s - and his century’s - ocularcentrism. Yet his novels are also a celebration of the power of non-visual reading. The eponymous hero of Facino Cane is also blind. His blindness makes him both more legible and more narratively interesting:
Imagine the plaster mask resembling Dante lit by the red glow of the oil lamp, and topped by a forest of silvery-white hair. The bitter and painful expression on this magnificent face was heightened by its blindness; for the dead eyes relived through thoughts; it was as if a burning light was emanating from them which was produced by a unique and incessant desire which was energetically inscribed on the bulging forehead criss-crossed by wrinkles resembling an old wall’s foundations.

The importance accorded by the narrator to Cane’s appearance, as well as his call for the reader to picture the figure in her mind’s eye, reinforces the ocularcentric notion that seeing leads to knowing. And because his pale face reminds him of a statue of Dante, the narrator assumes that Cane’s blindness has given him the talent for creative insight associated with the poet. Yet his words in fact undermine realism’s belief in the predominance of the visual by according the blind man a significance which the ocularcentric realist narrative should logically deny him. By inviting us to elevate the blind man to the position of author figure, Balzac paradoxically emphasizes that the ability to physically see is not a prerequisite for a realist narrator. By choosing to use a blind character as a fictional representation of himself, Balzac is erasing powerfully negative connotations of blindness. He is collapsing the gulf traditionally created by the hierarchical binary opposition which values seeing above not-seeing.

This description of Cane further challenges realism’s sight-based doctrine by suggesting that although Cane’s eyes do not function to gather knowledge about the visible world, they are not useless:  they have the power to communicate information about the hidden world. They can detect things which are inaccessible to the sight-dependant narrator and reader. This description of Cane thus reveals that blindness can represent a different way of thinking or even being, a way of gathering information which is more effective than the ocularcentric methods usually associated with realism. As the narrator points out: “I believe that blindness speeds up intellectual communication by preventing attention from wdering onto external objects”. By suggesting here that blind people can have a superior intellectual focus precisely because they are not distracted by the physical appearance of the world around them, this description undermines realism’s building blocks by questioning the detailed interest in appearance which is valued by both the narrator and by Balzac himself. Balzac’s blind man represents a different kind of narrator: he rejects straightforward seeing and instead offers us a celebration of the creative potential of the non-visual.

Victor Hugo’s late work The Man Who Laughs is an extension of this celebration of the creative potential of the blind narrator. Hugo tells the story of Gwynplaine, a street performer who was calculatingly disfigured as a child as a way of making money. Hugo’s representation of Gwynplaine’s blind love Dea again reveals that blindness can lead to more enlightened ways of seeing. At first glance, Dea conforms to a widespread nineteenth-century vision of the passive and malleable blind girl: she is beautiful, gentle, kind and utterly devoted to Gwynplaine. She also possesses some of the qualities of the traditional blind clairvoyant: she is spiritual and mystical and seems to have an uncanny connection with another world. Hugo uses a vocabulary usually associated with sight to describe Dea’s non-seeing eyes:
Her eyes, which were large and clear, were dull for her but strangely illuminated for others. Mysterious blazing torches which only lit up the outside. She gave out light, she who had none of her own.

By using the imagery of light to describe Dea’s blind eyes, Hugo challenges our understanding of the difference between light and dark. Familiar binary oppositions collapse as light becomes the concept most associated with Dea’s blindness. As well as reminding us that blind people are not necessarily engulfed in darkness, Hugo’s language suggests that Dea, like Balzac’s Cane, can both notice and communicate information not accessible to her non-blind peers.  Like Balzac’s blind characters, Dea fulfils the role of narrator-surrogate because she is able to provide information to her spectator-readers. Whilst non-blind people see things superficially and are thus first amused and then horrified by Gwynplaine’s deformed face, Dea sees below surface appearance to the elements of Gwynplaine which really matter and yet which most non-blind people remain ‘blind’ to: "Only one woman on earth could see Gwynplaine. It was this blind woman”. This reference to Dea’s second sight is yet another evocation of the myth of supernatural compensation as well as an example of the ‘seeing-knowing’ synonymy problematized by Bolt’s ‘metanarrative of blindness’. But Dea’s access to non-visual knowledge also emphasizes that the act of physically looking at someone is over-valued because it is not necessarily an effective way of gaining accurate information about them. For Victor Hugo, blindness is less about what a person does or does not see, and more about how a person exists in relation to other people. In a powerful foreshadowing of the social model of disability, Hugo recognises that blindness is a socially constructed phenomenon. Hugo’s novel, like my work, is a call for a redefinition of blindness which acknowledges its ability to both generate and communicate narrative.

Like Balzac and Hugo, Emile Zola is a very visual novelist. Unlike them, he does not include any blind characters in his work. But Zola unwittingly provides us with another example of ‘blindness gain’. Zola’s close friendship with Paul Cezanne gave him a passion for Impressionist painting. And this passion is translated in his novels into some of the best examples of creative audio description that I have ever found. Museums and galleries are increasingly providing audio descriptions for blind visitors. But their efforts are not always successful. Putting pictures into words is a difficult business. If every viewer looks at a picture in their own way, how can any description hope to capture not only how a painting looks, but also how it makes us feel? In his 1885 novel The Masterpiece, Zola describes fictionalized versions of some of Edouard Manet’s most famous paintings. His painter-protagonist Claude spends the early part of the novel battling to finish a version of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. As Claude paints he becomes another narrator surrogate, as he provides a series of creative audio descriptions of his work. Claude is an accomplished describer because he can capture different ways of seeing his art. In this first description Zola uses free indirect style to capture the joyful novelty of the painting:
As a sketch, it was remarkable for its vigour, its spontaneity, and the lively warmth of its colour. It showed the sun pouring into a forest clearing, with a solid background of greenery and a dark path running off to the left and with a bright spot of light in the far distance. Lying on the grass in the foreground, among the lush vegetation of high summer, was the naked figure of a woman. […] while in the foreground, to make the necessary contrast, the artist had seen fit to place a man’s figure.

This description does not necessarily allow us to see the picture in our mind’s eye. But does this really matter? Creative audio description is an attempt to capture how a picture makes us feel. Here Claude appreciates the fresh colours of the ‘open air’ movement. But when the picture is exhibited at the salon des refusés, it is laughed at by the bourgeois audience. As well as reminding us that a picture’s reception is influenced by its surroundings, this second description captures Claude’s disappointment when he sees the painting displayed in public for the first time:
It looked yellower in the light that filtered through the white cotton screen; it looked somehow smaller, too, and cruder, and at the same time more laboured […]; the man in the black jacket was all wrong, he was over-painted and badly posed; the best thing about him was his hand, […]. The trees and the sunlit glade he liked, and the naked women lying on the grass he found so resplendent with life that she looked like something above and beyond his capacities, […].

When taken together, these descriptions provide a multi-layered account of the painting which provides both blind and non-blind readers with a detailed impression of it. Creative AD is an example of ‘blindness gain’ whose benefits should be embraced for all museum visitors. The kind of creative AD modelled in these examples from Zola encourages discussion and dialogue about art and about the language we use to describe it; it breaks down barriers between visitors and the art on display; it provides creative content for museums and encourages conversations between blind and non-blind people. Until creative AD is as ubiquitous as the audio book, we could do worse than turn to Zola’s prose for a sense of what looking at Impressionism feels like.

If Balzac, Hugo and Zola all illustrate the art of non-visual reading in different ways, my final example, Lucien Descaves, wrote the best French example of a non-visual novel. Descaves’ 1894 novel The Trapped is a detailed and carefully researched account of how blind people live. The novel is minute in its attention to detail and includes information about practical issues which non-blind people tend to be interested in (but afraid to ask about) such as how a blind person reads, shops, threads a needle, plays cards, earns money and gets around Paris. In keeping with my myopic approach to texts, it is Descaves’s non-visual style which interests me here. The novel tells the story of blind musician Savinien. In order to provide his reader with a detailed understanding of how his blind protagonist relates to the world, Descaves’ descriptions are much more focused on touch, smell, sound and taste than they are on sight. The description of Savinien’s future wife Annette demonstrates that the novelist has no need to refer to physical appearance in order to describe his characters. Rather than tell us what Annette looks like, the narrator focuses instead on a description of her voice because this is what Savinien first notices:
Annette’s voice, […] evoked those everyday natural white wines which have a bouquet of gun flint and sandstone. At first it was surprising and not very nice. But, in the ear which had gulped it down it left a ‘refrain’, a feeling of sharpish coolness which was so exquisite that a second mouthful was enough to render it eminently quaffable. The expression ‘To drink in someone’s words’ which sighted people used, at last made sense to Savinien: he was drinking in this voice and reveling in every last drop of it.

This description is striking for the layering of sense impressions which Descaves uses to capture the intensity of Savinien’s feelings. Once his sense of hearing has been mobilised by the sound of Annette’s voice, its effect on him is described through a synaesthetic allusion to the sense of taste whose impression is then evoked through references to the sense of smell. The playful meta-reference to language in the expression ‘to drink in someone’s words’ foregrounds the narrator’s knowing use of this kind of multi-sensorial layering to evoke an effect whose immediacy it is difficult to capture in words. As Savinien’s attraction for Annette grows, Descaves adds his sense of touch to the senses of smell, hearing and taste already evoked. By encompassing all four senses within this extended metaphor of the violin player he further captures the intensity of his feelings without recourse to the visual:
The young woman’s bow had thus far only made the strings of smell, hearing and by extension the E-string of taste resonate within him. As she touched him, it was the turn of his sense of touch to gently vibrate. And as if this human violin had been awaiting the decisive participation of this particular note before speaking, the perfect chord was reached at last in the minor key characterised by the agreeably tart traits shared by his impressions of smell, sound and taste. These impressions were then combined with the sensation caused by the touch of that small hand which was both dry and gentle, delicate and firm, tart, yes, like the bewitching combination of her voice and her lilac perfume.

We are never told what Annette looks like. But this hardly seems to matter. These powerful multisensory descriptions provide us with all the information we need. Like Savinien, we operate without the sense of sight. And like him we feel no sense of deprivation or loss. Quite the opposite. By gaining blindness we are gifted rich and sensual access to deeply evocative prose.
As well as celebrating non-visual reading in his descriptions, Descaves also celebrates it in the material production of the novel. Whilst reading the first edition of the novel in the Taylorian Library in Oxford I made a surprising discovery. At the novel’s climax, Descaves took the highly unusual decision to include a page of braille in the novel itself.

Here I am showing a picture of the page of braille 
which I found bound inside the first edition. 

At the climax of the novel, Savinien returns home to an empty house. When his non-blind wife fails to return for supper, Savinien cobbles together some leftovers and sits down to eat at his usual place at the table. As he is eating, his wandering hand comes across a piece of paper covered in braille. As first he ignores it, thinking it must be some old notes he had left lying around. But then his fingers return to it and read it more carefully: he is shocked and shaken by its contents. In the 1894 edition of the novel that I read, this crucial letter is reproduced in braille and inserted into the novel just before Savinien’s discovery of it is described. The placement of the letter is significant because its contents are not revealed in the body of the text until four pages after Savinien first reads it. So, at this crucial moment in the story only a braille reader has access to information which is deliberately denied the non-braille reader. Descaves’s decision to include this letter is intriguing. The rest of the novel is in print and thus inaccessible to a blind person except via the intermediary of a non-blind reader. A braille edition of the novel was published in the late nineteenth century, but blind readers at the time make no reference to the extraordinary presence of the letter – presumably because it is not noticeable if the rest of the novel is also in braille.  Perhaps Descaves’ decision to include a braille letter in the print edition of the novel is merely a quirky celebration of the medium of braille or a kind of tactile illustration to give his non-blind readers a sense of what reading braille feels like. But given the practical and financial implications of the letter’s inclusion, as well as Descaves’ commitment to changing non-blind people’s attitude to blindness, I think that his decision to include the letter demonstrates his desire to undermine his non-blind readers’ dependence on, and privileging of the sense of sight. Throughout the book, Descaves depicts blind people’s struggles for equality and fair treatment in fascinating detail. He is particularly interested in the opportunities provided for blind people to earn a decent wage and to live independently and he is especially empathetic towards those characters who fight for the rights of blind people by challenging the assumptions of ocularcentric French society. But the non-blind reader’s own reliance on sight – which allows us to read the book in the first place - necessarily also contributes to, and perpetuates, the ocularcentric society which Descaves is seeking to criticise. The non-blind reader can thus only really understand this unfair exclusion of blind people when she experiences it for herself by being put into an analogous situation of exclusion. Descaves cleverly uses the braille letter as a means of purposefully withholding crucial plot-related information from the non-braille reader. The non-blind reader is excluded from information – because it is in a format inaccessible to her – and thus frustrated in her attempts to make sense of Savinien’s reactions to a letter which she cannot read. In this moment the non-blind reader understands what it feels like to be a blind person in a society that is heavily reliant on print as a means of communication. As well as describing the unfamiliar experience of blindness, Descaves uses this letter to transport non-blind readers into the world inhabited by the blind protagonists of the novel so that they experience – albeit temporarily – what it feels like to be excluded from an essential piece of information through no fault of their own.

This evening we have met several blind characters who have all provided us with non-visual ways of relating to the world. Their blindness has given us multi-sensory accounts of the world that are not usually available to visually dependent people. We have seen how non-visual reading is indeed an art-form. I hope that these examples of ‘blindness gain’ have encouraged you to reconsider your own preconceived notions of vision and its place in the hierarchy of the senses. I hope that you can think of blindness not in terms of loss but in terms of gain. 

With thanks to the eminent French researcher and doyenne of blind history, Zina Weygand, who delivered a vote of thanks after the lecture.