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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Where has (all the) Braille gone?

The Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA) in Paris was the first recorded school for the blind and it is still operating today. The Institut, which was founded by Valentin Hauy in 1784, moved to its current location on Blvd des Invalides in 1843. Louis Braille was a pupil, and then a teacher, at the Institut and developed his famous reading and writing system there between 1821 and 1825.

Given the crucial role played by the Institut in blind history, it seemed fitting that the opening evening of the History of Blindness and the Blind Conference would be held there. After spending the afternoon learning about the tactile inventions of Hauy, Braille and Foucaud at the neighbouring Musee Valentin Hauy (rue Duroc) it was a real pleasure to be shown around this venerable institution. I have walked past the Institut many times en route to the Valentin Hauy archive but this was the first time I had found my way inside.

As I admired the original architecture, peeked through the door of the classroom where Braille taught, and flicked through books in the library, I wondered how much has changed at INJA since the British aristocrat Sir Francis Head described the School in 1851. In his charming collections of sketches of Parisian places, A Faggot of French Sticks (available to read on googlebooks) Head describes his visit to the Institut in absorbing detail. He is particularly taken with the Braille writing and reading system which the boys are proud to demonstrate and he is very interested in the music lessons which he overhears. Even though his unseen observations of the blind girls at work has something voyeuristic about it, I like his description because it is refreshingly matter-of-fact. Unlike many nineteenth-century writers I have come across, he does not linger over the pitiful afflictions of the pupils or the tragedy of their condition. Instead he recounts how they get around the school unguided with an admirable absence of condescension or astonishment.

Head's comments are memorable because they reveal an approach to the blind which is more enlightened than many present day attitudes. It would never occur to him to ask 'are you coping?' for example. Part of this positive attitude may come from the fact that Head had recently been diagnosed with an eye condition: 'blephamphthalie' for which he was receiving treatment in Paris. But perhaps part of it also comes from the happy and healthy atmosphere of the Institut itself.

During my visit to INJA I was struck most of all by the absence of Braille. In our local mainstream secondary school which my (sighted) children will probably attend when they are older, there are Braille labels outside all the classrooms. But I found no such helpful signage in INJA's buildings. I came across no Braille books in the library and the only tactile objects in the classrooms were maps and globes. I was expecting INJA to be a haven for Braille users, a place where Braille proliferates, but instead it was, for all its blind history, an oddly Braille-free zone. The teachers were vague about its absence. They cited lack of funding and the fact that after a few weeks at the school students find their way around just fine. It also seems that advances in computer technologies mean that children are less willing to learn Braille because they no longer rely on it to read and write.

But that is hardly the point. Braille is still the universal language of the blind. If we want to see Braille used in the sighted world as a matter of course in public places like restaurants, museums and hotels, then surely the first School for the Blind should lead by example. Surely an Institut devoted to the education of the blind should have a political investment in the proliferation of Braille?. As I felt for the Brailled number 7 button in my dingy hotel lift, I wondered what Head would have said if he could have returned to INJA today.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Are You Coping?

Today I went to the Oxford Eye Hospital for my annual check up. Although my underlying eye condition - coloboma - has been stable since I was born, I have cataracts growing in both eyes which are steadily reducing my already low vision. The size of the Eye Hospital means that I rarely encounter the same doctor twice and today I was seen by yet another ophthalmologist whom I had never met. He explained what I already know: if my eyes were the same shape and size as everyone else's, the cataracts would have been unproblematically removed by now. But the nature of my eyes turns this routine operation into a risky and complicated procedure which he does not want to perform unless he absolutely has to.

This consultant has never met me and he only has a couple of minutes to flick through my notes. These tell him a lot about my eyes but not very much about me as a person. Perhaps this is why, after the eye exam is over, he asks me if I am 'coping'. At first I do not hear him properly and ask him to repeat himself: 'Are you copying with your gradual sight loss?' he asks.

I reassure him that I am 'coping' fine and our interview is over. It is only as I drink my traditional post-appointment latte that I realise that his question has left me feeling upset and a little angry. 'Coping' is not a neutral word: it has very specific connotations and these are always negative. There is a suggestion of 'only just' or 'barely'; 'hardly' or 'just about'. It is the absolute minimum, the lowest common denominator, the barely satisfactory. 'Coping' is a state which is just past 'struggling', on a par with 'surviving' and not quite 'managing'. There is nothing aspirational, optimistic or ambitious about 'coping'. It is a patronising, condescending, word because it assumes that this mediocrity, this unremarkability is enough for me. As long as I am 'coping', my consultant is happy. I think it is his lack of ambition for me, for any of his patients, which upsets me. I wish I had explained this to him. I wish I had said, 'no, I am not 'coping', I am thriving, flourishing, celebrating. I am writing, travelling, living.

It may seem a little extreme to read so much into only one word. (Of course close-reading is what I do best). But my work on representations of disability reveals that societal attitudes are both shaped and expressed through language. The repeated use of words like 'coping' by health professionals will teach society that this is all the disabled can expect. And this reinforces the already widespread view that disability is a life-limiting condition which must be 'suffered', 'endured' or perhaps even  'overcome'.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Guide Dogs for the Blind

This signed photograph showing Blue Peter presenters in 1985 was one of the exhibits in the 'Who is Blind' exhibition organised by the College of Optometrists

One of the most interesting papers I heard at the recent History of Blindness conference in Paris, was Dr Monika Baar's fascinating and thought-provoking presentation: 'Guide Dogs for the Blind: A Transnational History'.

Anyone who grew up in 1980s Britain will remember the Blue Peter Guide Dogs for the Blind campaigns. Blue Peter was a popular children's television programme which encouraged its young viewers to collect silver foil and milk bottle tops to raise money for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the programme often featured reports on the work of guide dogs and their trainers.

Baar's presentation made me wonder about the unintended consequences of Blue Peter's work with Guide Dogs for the Blind. There is no doubt that guide dogs have changed the lives of thousands of blind and partially sighted people. Indeed I met several blind people in Paris whose mobility and Independence have improved thanks to their partnership with their dog. But the image of blindness conveyed by Guide Dogs for the Blind is far from positive. And this is in danger of having an ironically detrimental effect on the lives of the very people the association is hoping to help. As the sentimental music and condescending tone of this promotional video suggest, blindness is presented here as a pitiful, even tragic state which leads to depression, isolation and misery. Sighted children (and adults) who are exposed to such material might be forgiven for thinking of the blind as a sub-group of needy and pitiful individuals. But none of the dogless blind I met in Paris were anything like these stereotypical images. They were classic conference delegates: clever, funny, disorganised, sociable, irreverent and always up for a drink. Guide dogs certainly have their uses, but they also have their limitations. One blind delegate, an experienced and enthusiastic international traveller from the States, explained to me that he thought having a dog would limit his Independence because 'it would be like travelling with a clingy three-year-old child'.

I can understand why Guide Dogs for the Blind are the most successful UK Disability charity. Their Labradors are unfailingly photogenic and it feels both easy and good to give money to such an aesthetically pleasing cause. And on one level I don't blame them for using whatever material they can to get money for their cause. But if their mission really is about improving the lives of the blind and partially sighted, perhaps they need to think again about the way they represent blindness. But in the UK, generations of children have grown up thinking of blindness as a tragic condition which only a beautiful dog can remedy.