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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Too Big to Feel

This image shows a sign with David Johnson's name printed on it.

Blind Creations, the international conference and micro-arts festival I am organising with Vanessa Warne, is only two weeks away. Yesterday I was delighted that David Johnson, one of the conference's exhibiting artists, installed his giant outdoor art work on Royal Holloway's beautiful campus.

This image shows David's concrete domes nestling amidst foam blocks in the back of the van he used to get them from his studio to campus.

Once David and his friend James had arrived on campus, their first job was to check that the domes had survived the journey. They then began the painstaking task of using string and tent pegs to mark out the exhibition space.

This image shows David and James dividing the grassy slope into sections using string and tent pegs.

The installation is in fact a common expression written in Grade 2 (contracted) Braille. So David needed to divide the grassy slope into 7 sections, each representing a single Braille cell. Each cell was separated by a small gap. The measurements had to be precise so that the domes were evenly spaced.

This image shows James guiding David along the path next to the grassy slope. David is using his white cane to check that the slope has been properly divided into equally sized cells.

Once David was happy that the string was in the right place, it was time to start installing the domes. David and James unloaded and placed each dome one at a time. They wored backwards, starting with the expression's final Braille cell.

This image shows David and James carefully carrying the first dome along the path. David cast each dome himself in concrete and each weights around 30 kilos.

It was crucial that each dome was placed in exactly the right position so that the symmetry of the Braille was maintained. David and James took a lot of time to ease each dome into place.

This image shows David and James carefully placing the domes on the grassy slope. They are using the pegs and string to ensure the domes are positioned in place.

This image is a close-up shot of David and James placing one of the domes in position 1 of a ginat imaginary Braille cell.

Once David and James had placed all 18 domes in position, they removed the string to reveal the final installation.

This image shows the finished installation with the College's Windsor Building in the background.... and the video below, taken by my friend Ruth, pans across the whole installation from left to right.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Travelling Blind in Japan

Recently I was lucky enough to visit Japan with my family. Like most tourists, we spent our time admiring the country's temples, palaces and pagodas, shopping for chopsticks and yukata and enjoying the wonderful food on offer. But I also spent some time thinking about what it might be like to be blind in Japan. Below I list my three favourite blind-friendly Japanese experiences, in no particular order....

This image shows the hustle and bustle of Shibuya crossing after dark, with its giant neon adverts overhead.

1) Multi-Sensory Tokyo 
Japan's capital city is well-known for its stunning sites and dazzling neon and we certainly found much of interest to look at in the city. But it is also a place which appeals to the other senses much more strongly than other cities I have visited. I was particularly struck by the way the smell of incense pervades the city. Temples, shrines and many shops burn incense at their entrances and this leads to a kind of olfactory beckoning: it felt to me like the wafting aromas acted as a non-visual window display inviting me in to pause and explore. Add in the enticing smells of cooking coming from all sides and a walk through the city becomes a richly evocative smellscape.

The image shows a group of people, including my youngest son Zac, lighting incense sticks outside a temple in Nara.

2) The Bath-House
Communal bathing is a favourite social activity in Japan and we were excited to discover a bathhouse next to our hotel in Tokyo. I'll admit that I was nervous about visiting at first. Not only would I have to visit on my own (my husband and sons were sent to the male side of the establishment) but I knew my glasses would be rendered useless by the steamy atmosphere. Once I had got my bearings though, I realised that the bathhouse is an environment where other senses take precedence over the sense of sight. I found that the ritual of washing and then immersing my body in a series of pools of varying temperatures (from very hot to very cold) was a holistic experience which spoke especially to my sense of touch. And the uninhibited way the Japanese women at the bath-house were happy to walk around naked suggested that unlike our obsessively body-conscious Western culture, Japanese people are perhaps more accepting of bodies of all different shapes and sizes.

3) Tactile Streets
From the moment we stepped off the plane at Haneda International Airport, I was struck by the amount of tactile signage provided. Paths of large raised dots on the ground indicated the routes to passport control and bag claim, and a Braille display even explained the layout of the airport toilets. These helpful floor markings continued throughout the city's public transport network and beyond. Even in small hostels and hotels, both indoor and outdoor flights of stairs were marked by tactile panels and many flights also had Braille on the handrails to indicate the start and end points. All escalators and lifts has audio prompts, as did traffic lights and many vending, ATM and ticket machines. As a pedestrian I felt both well-guided and safe and this attention to the blind person's ease of mobility made navigating unfamiliar places a surprisingly pleasant and relaxing experience.

This image shows me with my husband and eldest son Raffy standing on a bridge over the Sumida river. There are trees laden with cherry blossom in the background.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Can 'the dress' change our attitude to blindness?

The image shows a striped dress which may be gold and white or may be blue and black

Since the now infamous photo of 'that dress' was posted on the internet last week, millions of people have been arguing about whether the dress in question is in fact white and gold or blue and black. The subject even came up in my 'Blindness and Vision in French Culture' class this morning as we were discussing the role of colour in French artist Sophie Calle's series Les Aveugles (1986).

Once my students had all shared their views on the gold/white-blue/black controversy, we began to think more critically about why this dress has made such an impression on so many people in such a short space of time. And we wondered how we might use it to encourage people to reconsider their preconceptions about blindness and vision.

Most sighted people prize their sense of sight above all their other senses. They place it at the top of an imaginary 'hierarchy of the senses' and consequently cannot imagine life without it. This is why blindness is so often seen as a tragedy, a fate worse than death. This misguided reliance on the power of sight is encouraged by the sight-obsessed world in which we live. The images which bombard us send us two separate, but related messages: firstly, they constantly reassure us that most of our information comes to us through our eyes; and secondly, they consequently teach us that how we look matters because this is how people make judgements about us.

The arguments over the dress's colour scheme have caught our imagination precisely because they shake our trust in sight. They invite us to question our preconceptions about the power of the visual by demonstrating that two people can see the same picture in different ways. They demonstrate that sight is not an objective, perfect way of seeing the world: it is fallible, unreliable, and subject to change.

'The controversy over 'the dress' is important because it has the potential to undermine sight's privileged position in society. And one result of this challenge to what we think we know about sight, might be a renewed interest in what exactly we can (and cannot) learn about the world through all our senses. Aren't hearing, touch and smell more reliable senses in certain situations? Perhaps, therefore, blindness is not in fact the tragic, life-limiting affliction so often evoked in books, films and newspapers. No matter what our reaction to the dress tells us about colour perception, photo exposure, light waves - not to mention temperament, political views and even general outlook on life, -  it certainly invites us to rethink our fierce reliance on, and constant privileging of, our far from perfect sense of sight.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Why 'Non-Disabled' is better than 'Normal'

Earlier this week, I heard a well-known paralympic athlete talking about disability sport on the radio. After she made some very good points about the importance of volunteering, she struggled to find the words to describe non-disabled people. Initially she went with 'normal' and then she settled on 'able-bodied' but it was clear from the hesitation in her voice that she was happy with neither.

At first I was shocked to hear a disabled person using such overtly 'ableist' language. But then I realised that it is hard to find words which describe a person's lack of disability in a way which doesn't end up reflecting negatively on disability itself.

I make a conscious effort to avoid using the word 'normal' in a disability context. 'Normal' carries connotations of 'standard', 'regular' and 'usual' which immediately posits disability as something marginal, unexpected or undesirable. 'Normal' suggests a hierarchical judgement where disability is always irregular, out-of-step, different. And not in a good way.

'Able-bodied' is less contentious (but still, I would argue, inadequate). It too sets up a hierarchical binary where ability is more highly prized than its opposite. And it is also misleading. It puts the focus on a body's ability to do (or not do) certain things and therefore seems to privilege mobility-related disabilities over other kinds (such as sensory or cognitive). And it forgets that all bodies - including disabled bodies - can be 'able' in a whole variety of ways.

My favourite term for people who do not have a disability is simply 'non-disabled'. I like the fact that the negative in this expression is associated with the kinds of bodies which are usually described positively. This suggests that disability is something to celebrate and implies that non-disabled people are  missing out. Like 'partially blind' (rather than 'partially sighted'), 'non-disabled' encourages us to rethink the traditional deficit model which sees disabled people as lacking something. It allows us to celebrate 'disability gain' and gives us a way of talking about the differences between people, without making insidious value judgements about them.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

GUEST POST: Into the Woods

This morning I received an (unsolicited) guest post from one of the students on my new final-year course Blindness and Vision in French Culture. I am delighted to publish it below.

(this photo shows Christine Baranski as Cinderella's stepmother and Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her two blind sisters, complete with white canes and dark glasses, on set during filming of Cinderella's wedding at Dover Castle)

Into the Woods: A Review
A Guest Post by read_and_dream

While I loved Into the Woods on a superficial level for its fun songs, clever interweaving of various fairy tales, and its gentle mockery of Hollywood stereotypes; I found the sexual undertones of it interesting as well, and the implications of what “into the woods” actually meant. However, there was one thing that I found problematic, something that wouldn’t have bothered me before I started the course Blindness and Vision in French Culture: this was how blindness was presented. I was expecting the prince from Rapunzel to be blinded, as I already knew the original story, but I was not familiar with the Aschenputtel version of Cinderella, in which the two evil sisters are blinded by the birds that Cinderella has at her command. It is not so much that I have a problem with this (although considering blindness as a punishment is problematic), but it is the way in which the sisters are presented after they lose their sight. Their blindness is presented as comic, as they blunder around. Had they suddenly become deaf, or wheelchair using, we would not have felt permitted to laugh, so why laugh at blindness? I think it may lie in the theory that we laugh at things that make us anxious; in this highly ocularcentric world, most of us, deep-down, have a fear of losing our sight, as we perceive it to be our most important sense. Or it could be classed as dark laughter; laughter that comes from a sense of superiority over others who are suffering. Why do you think so many people watch Big Brother?  It is not because it is good television. Going back to the film, I definitely felt uncomfortable at the fact that people were laughing at the sisters. I also felt  uncomfortable at the tragic presentation of the prince’s blindness; yes, it is horrible to fall on thorns and have your sight removed in that way, but he still manages to find Rapunzel using his hearing, and yet we are hardly given time to appreciate this before she has healed him with her tears. He is not given the choice over whether or not he wants his sight back; just like Gertude in La Symphonie Pastorale, it is taken as a given.  For once I would like to see a film where someone is given the chance to regain their sight, but refuses. I think that this would challenge people’s perceptions about the tragedy of blindness and let them see that it is just another way of being. A way of being without seeing.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Why should I wear make-up?

Yesterday I was dismayed to find an article on the BBC Ouch Disability blog entitled, 'How do blind people put on their make-up?'. The first problem I have with this article is its title. This apparently innocent question in fact positions 'blind people' as curious objects with even curiouser habits. It invites the sighted reader to marvel at their 'innovative ways of doing daily chores' and seems to encourage the kind of inquisitive staring which comes from most people's total ignorance of what it is like to be a blind person in a sighted world.

(In fact the article's title is misleading. The piece does give some good advice on how to apply make-up by touch and I'm sure that some people will find it useful.)

The main problem I have with this article comes from what it does not say, rather than what it does.Throughout the article there is an unspoken assumption that wearing make-up is both important and necessary. It is what 'normal', 'successful' women do. Apparently, it is only whilst wearing make-up that women can 'look their best'!

I do not like make-up. I used to wear it regularly as a teenager (blame peer pressure) but now I probably wear it only once or twice a year, on very special occasions like birthday parties, weddings and funerals. I wear it on such occasions not because I want to 'look my best' but because I understand that it is a social convention to make an effort for significant life events. I wear it as a sign of respect, a sign that I have noted the momentousness of the occasion.

The main reason I do not like make-up is because it is dishonest. It covers up your flaws and helps you pretend to be something you are not. It is also shallow. It says I care how I look. I care how people see me. I want people to judge me by my appearance rather than by who I really am.

My face is far from perfect. My eyes are more like cats' eyes than human eyes. But I am proud of the way I look. I refuse make-up for the same reason that I refused to wear cosmetic contact lenses. It would be deceitful to artificially enhance my complexion; it would seem like I was ashamed of my appearance.

Our obsession with make-up is in fact an obsession with how we look and how we are seen. So perhaps it is understandable that I don't like make-up. After all, I can't see peoples' faces well enough to notice all those little imperfections that they may or may not be hiding. I value people for their spirit, their mind, their sense of humour. I don't care (or even know) if my friends wear make-up.

As a manifestation of our desire to look better than we are, make-up is an example of our privileging of the sense of sight. By caring more about how people look than how they sound, smell or feel, make-up wearers reinforce society's misconception that sight is the most valuable sense. But it is precisely this over-valuing of sight which encourages sighted people to see blindness as a tragedy. This article's no doubt well-intentioned assumption that blind people should wear make-up to boost their self-esteem, in fact ironically reasserts the very supremacy of sight which causes blind people to feel so bad about themselves in the first place.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Book Review: What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

This fascinating and enthralling novel is a fictional (auto)biography of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind American to be taught to communicate using the manual alphabet. Bridgman, who was educated at the Perkins School for the Blind by Samuel Gridley Howe, is now much less well-known than her more famous - and more photogenic- successor Helen Keller, but in mid-nineteenth-century America, Bridgman was one of the most celebrated women of her day.

As the book's 'Afterword' demonstrates, Elkins is a careful and respectful researcher who has used her detailed knowledge of both Laura's life and the wider historical context to recreate one version of Laura's 'most fascinating and complex inner life'. The novel's prose brings Bridgman to life in ways which are both touching and intriguing. Throughout the book, we gain a real sense of what Laura might have been like through the passages written in her own voice which express inner thoughts, feelings and desires which she might have kept from those around her. The novel's readability comes from Laura's complex, persuasive and compelling narrative style: she is at once both astonishingly naive and startlingly perceptive; deeply expressive yet stubbornly secretive.

Elkins's treatment of Laura's sexuality is a particularly intriguing element of the novel. Female sexuality was a taboo subject in Victorian America and many people still struggle to imagine disabled people with full and active sex lives. Rather than avoiding references to sex, Elkins celebrates Laura's uninhibited and unorthodox responses both to her own body and to the bodies of the people around her.

Laura's intimate first-person narrative alternates with the thoughts, letters and journals of the main people in her life - Gridley Howe, his wife Julia and Laura's teacher Sarah - to create a multi-layered narrative in which the reader is often shown several versions of the same event and asked to make sense of them. Through these other characters' chapters we realise that sightedness does not necessarily lead to insight and that blindness can be moral, emotional and political as well as physical. It would have been very easy for Elkins to fall into the trap of portraying Laura as a 'blind seer' (much like Victor Hugo's Dea) who paradoxically understands more than the metaphorically 'blind' sighted characters. Instead, Elkins uses her multi-perspectival narrative to show that no-one can truly know themselves or be known by others. Knowledge, like sight, is over-rated and misunderstood. We are never really visible.

As well as providing an enthralling tale of several interwoven lives, this novel also offers an insight into the political and religious tensions raging in mid-nineteenth-century America. Laura was used as a pawn by several factions and through both her responses and the thoughts of the other characters, we gain a real sense of the issues surrounding women's suffrage and emancipation, the abolition of slavery and the racial tensions which led to the American Civil War.

Bridgman was not only deaf and blind, she also had no sense of taste or smell. Elkins's focus on Laura's sense of touch can be read as a celebration of the tactile which emphasises that the absence of the other senses does not necessarily lead to a less-full existence. Indeed, Elkins's novel does an excellent job of refuting the 'blindness as tragedy' myth which circulated in Laura's time (as it still does today). Whilst the novel is full of characters who pity Laura, she never sees her blindness as a tragedy. She is sensuous and passionate, always wanting to experience more of life. If she is disabled, it is by her guardians and teachers whose words reveal how they sometimes see her as less than human - she is variously a burden; an embarrassment; a trophy; something 'special', fragile or volatile; a child to be protected; an animal to be tamed. What we see, from her own words, is an intelligent and responsible woman who is just as much of a person as those who both limit and judge her.

Above all, What is Visible raises important questions about how both non-disabled people and disabled people might relate to questions of pity, dependency and trust. As such it resonates with current debates around independent living, care-giving and the place and status of disability in society.