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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Disability in Fiction: Astra

Astra by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014)

Astra by Naomi Foyle is a beguiling and absorbing sci-fi/fantasy novel set in a post-apocalyptic eco-utopia. It tells the compelling story of what happens when a young girl's inquisitiveness, bravery and innocence collide with an adult world of distrust, manipulation and secrecy.It also happens to be an uplifting celebration of bodily diversity and an illustration of the 'social model' of disability in action.

Astra is full of characters with what our society might call 'imperfect' or 'incomplete' bodies. One of Astra's shelter mothers, Hokma, is missing an eye, Astra's shelter father Klor has a prosthetic leg and her primary school teacher uses a wheelchair. But in Is-Land none of these characters are disabled. The hi-tech yet resolutely natural world in which they live is perfectly  accessible to all of them because it has been created with bodily difference at its core. Many of the features which Foyle has invented for her fictional world could be usefully deployed in our real one to make homes, offices, gardens and information technology more welcoming spaces for all the people who use them.

The character of Hokma is particularly interesting. Although she is offered a prosthetic eye after her injury, she prefers to wear an eye patch. Like my teenage self, she refuses to hide her 'impairment' so instead she celebrates it by wearing a variety of beautifully hand-made patches which she co-ordinates with her moods. Hokma is one of the book's pivotal characters. She is powerful, brave and intelligent. Beyond reference to her eye patches, her half-blindness is barely mentioned. This is not because she is ashamed of it. Nor is it because others find it difficult to talk about. It is because blindness is not a tragedy in Is-Land. It is a bodily difference like any other, neither negative nor positive, just there. 

Hokma is clever enough to know that not everyone sees her blindness as a simple fact. Her sinister brother is so unenlightened that he still sees her missing eye as a tragedy, something he should feel guilty about. Hokma has no qualms about using his misguided feelings against him: when she needs his help she uses references to her damaged sight to manipulate him. She is wise enough to know that disability can be used as a kind of emotional blackmail against those too weak or stupid to truly see it for what it is.

It is no coincidence that, like Hokma's brother, the book's other evil characters are those most wedded to the controversial 'medical model' of disability. The shadowy government who controls Is-Land is using a kind of high-level genetic re-coding to rid the country of birth defects of all kinds. This is a sinister and malevolent move which has echoes of both Third Reich eugenics and more recent kinds of ethic cleansing. But what I find most fascinating about this extraordinary book is the way that all the 'good' characters, including Astra and Hokma, share a refreshingly enlightened approach to bodily difference. It is as if Foyle has used her characters' attitude to disability as an indication of their importance, a kind of code which tells us which characters we can trust and which we should despise.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The LEGO Movie: Being Blind is Awesome!

[Spoiler Alert: Read with caution if you haven't seen the film]

The LEGO Movie is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is clever, funny and beautifully designed. It is also a wonderfully surprising celebration of the power of blindness.

One of the film's main characters, Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), is a wise and heroic wizard who guides the other 'Master Builder' characters, in particular the troubled hero Emmet, through the film. Like Dumbledore, (who in fact makes a cameo appearance in the film) he even returns in ghost form to help his charge. Vitruvius loses his eyesight early on in the film and as well as containing elements of Dumbledore (and his alter ego Gandalf), he is clearly created as a homage to Tiresias, the 'blind seer' whose lack of actual sight gave him clairvoyant powers. Some Disability Theorists might argue that this association between blindness and insight (an association which we also find in Victor Hugo's character Déa from L'Homme qui rit), downplays or even denies the physical experience of being blind by privileging blindness's symbolic meaning above its lived reality. And it is true that aside from his glowing eyes, it is hard to tell that Vitruvius is blind. He does not have a guide dog or a white cane (although his lollipop-stick staff might double as the latter) and his blindness is conveniently forgotten by the film-makers during a visual gag when he confuses Dumbledore with Gandalf because they look so similar (but importantly sound completely different). Perhaps this is why members of the LEGO online community fail to appreciate the positive side of blindness when they describe Vitruvius as 'a talented piano player, despite being blind'.

Braille cell or LEGO brick?

If the film's central blind character may not immediately appear to function as a celebration of the positivity of blindness, the overall message of the film is resoundingly anti-sight and pro-touch. Like 'The Man Upstairs' (Finn's father), the film's evil villain, Lord Business, wants to create a perfect LEGO world where each construction is permanently glued into place. This idealised LEGO landscape is adorned with 'Do Not Touch' and 'Hands Off' signs. In this impossibly perfect universe everything is made exactly according to the instructions, touching is not allowed, LEGO is to be admired not handled, the visual is celebrated and the tactile scorned. On the other hand, the Master Builders - who are of course led by Vitruvius - believe that LEGO is made to be played with, not glued into perfection. As Vitruvius's presence reminds us, you do not have to be sighted to enjoy LEGO. Indeed LEGO is essentially a tactile medium. Surely it is no coincidence that the iconic 2 x 6 LEGO brick has the same pattern of dots as the Braille cell. Despite the film's failure to produce a positive blind role model in Vitruvius, the LEGO Movie's celebration of the potential of tactility certainly suggests (to paraphrase the film's catchy soundtrack) that 'Being Blind is AWESOME!!!'.