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Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Ethics of Recasting: Audio Mistrust in The Archers

I have long been an avid listener of BBC Radio 4's epic farming soap opera The Archers. As I said on my post about 'Blindness and/on the Radio', what I love about spoken word radio is the way that it is automatically accessible to blind people. The Archers has to have audio description built into its plot lines so that characters' speech also fills in the details we cannot see: like a film's audio description soundtrack, The Archers' dialogue tells us who characters are with, what they are doing and where they are.
Just as (I imagine) sighted viewers recognise the characters in their favourite television soaps by their appearance, I recognise Archers characters by the sound of their voice. But recently, there has been a spate of re-castings on The Archers which leave me confused, disorientated and more than a little dissatisfied. Whilst television recastings are incredibly rare (Lucy in Neighbours, Miss Ellie in Dallas, and Sam Mitchell in Eastenders are the only examples I can think of in the last 40 years or so), at least four major Archers characters (Clarrie, Hayley, Tony and now Tom) have been recast in recent years.
I know there are always practical reasons for recasting and it is not a decision producers take lightly. But the expectation that listeners will quickly and easily accept a new audio incarnation of a beloved and long-standing character paradoxically undermines the importance of voice to the very medium which depends on it. Helen's effusive repetition of Tom's name is not enough to convince me that this interloper is in fact Tom Archer. Radio listeners - like blind people - know how to identify people by voice. This is a skill built on the assumption that people are who they sound like: radio drama can only function successfully if producers respect this assumption. When the sacred link between voice and character is broken by an unexplained voice change, the listener's trust in audio falters and The Archers loses some of its magic.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Practising Inclusive Access

As I become more involved in Disability Studies as a discipline, I find myself increasingly invited to attend disability-themed events at both my own and other institutions. These range from academic conferences where I present my work and discuss the work of others, to talks for a general audience about issues around disability, and meetings and workshops about improving support for both disabled students and staff across the HE sector.

The organisers of such events do a great job of ensuring that they are always wheelchair accessible. But disabled access is about a lot more than wheelchairs. Recently I have found myself in the somewhat paradoxical position of discussing the importance of disability awareness-raising during a number of events which were not fully accessible to me. Powerpoints are almost always used, but I rarely encounter a speaker who takes the time to describe the images on the screen. Handouts are often circulated but unless they have been sent round in advance, I am unable to access the information they contain.

Practising inclusive access is not as onerous as it sounds. In fact many of the suggestions I list below are incredibly easy to incorporate:

  • Offer large-print handouts a well as (or instead of) standard size ones.
  • Circulate ALL materials (including powerpoints) in advance, electronically if possible. If you must table last-minute documents, offer to e-mail them to attendees on the spot and always circulate them after the meeting.
  • Present at a comfortable pace 
  • If you incorporate Powerpoint slides into your presentation / meeting: 
    • use a high contrast colour scheme (i.e. white background, black font or the reverse)
    • use a templated slide format
    • use a sans-serif font, such as Arial, and maintain a large font size
    • provide minimal text on each slide (only a few points)
    • incorporate audio description of all images, graphs, charts on your slides
  • Introduce yourself by name every time you speak, especially when several people are involved in a discussion. 
  • Encourage others to do the same: during questions, ask audience members to introduce themselves as well; consider asking everyone in the room to say who they are at the beginning of a meeting.
  • Use neutral (or positive) language rather than negative language: for example, say ‘wheelchair user’ or ‘wheelchair rider’ rather than ‘wheelchair-bound’; say ‘non-disabled’ rather than ‘normal’ or ‘able-bodied’; avoid formulations like ‘suffers from’.
These simple measures will make many events more accessible to a whole range of attendees. Practising inclusive access is easy once we know how: convincing (and then reminding) people to keep on doing it is the tricky part.







Thursday, 18 September 2014

New Term; New Techniques

This academic year I am teaching two new courses which I have specifically designed to include Critical Disability Studies content. My new final-year option 'Blindness and Vision in French Culture' will use a range of texts, films and images to interrogate the French obsession with vision and the visual and what this might tell us about what 'blindness' means. I am also co-teaching a new first-year course, 'Decoding France: Language, Culture, Identity' for which I have designed my section around Jean-Dominique Bauby's fascinating memoir Le scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

The introduction of these new courses seems a perfect time to make my teaching experience - and my students' learning experience - more blindness-friendly. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher is recognising my students and distinguishing between them. I know all my students' names but I don't know their faces. So in the classroom I hardly ever know who I am talking to. My face blindness means that I sometimes do not even recognise people - like my husband or my children - whom I know extremely well. So I've been thinking about strategies to help me put names to faces in my classes.

I always ask my students to tell me their names before they speak in class, but this, like shouting out instead of hand-raising - is a difficult habit for them to get into. So this year I am going to sit my students in alphabetical order and ask them to keep the same seat in each class. This way I'll be able to work out who is absent and who is present by clocking empty chairs and I'll know which students to call on for answers. I'll also be able to use the position of their voices to match them with names and hopefully once I've made the voice-name connection, I'll start recognising them when they talk to me outside class.

My aim in thinking more proactively about how to manage my blindness in the classroom is not purely selfish. I also want my students to experience blindness as a creative way of being and doing rather than as a tragedy. I want them to study blindness in texts, but also to think about how their habits and assumptions unintentionally promote the kind of occularcentric world which I'd like my courses to critique.


Monday, 1 September 2014

Blind Creations conference - CFP issued

I am very excited to be co-organising the Blind Creations conference with Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba, Canada). This three-day international conference, which will take place between 28 June and 30 June 2015, seeks to explore the relationship between blind people and artistic creation. Our definition of ‘blind person’ is broad, encompassing anyone who might be defined as having ‘non-normative vision’ and / or who relates to the world using senses other than sight. It welcomes interventions from blind and non-blind academics (with or without institutional affiliation), practitioners, advocates, writers and artists (also broadly defined to include musicians, dancers and sculptors as well as visual artists). It sees blind people not only as subjects in their own right, but also as active creators; as such it rejects the ‘medical model’ of disability which posits blind people as passive objects of medical investigation and rehabilitation. In so doing it hopes to challenge and reconceptualise the myths and stereotypes of ‘blindness’ which continue to circulate by recasting ‘blindness’ as a multi-faceted and positive creative force which might be usefully explored by both non-blind and blind people.

The conference will take place at Royal Holloway’s campus in Egham, Surrey, UK, We are pleased to announce that the conference will feature two plenary speakers: Prof Georgina Kleege (UC Berkeley) and Dr Zina Weygand (Paris). During the conference, we plan to host a number of cultural events, including a Blindness in Fiction Writers’ Roundtable (featuring novelist and poet, Naomi Foyle), a tactile museum tour, and an audio-described film screening.

The conference Call for Papers can be found here and more information about the speakers is available here

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Outdoor Shakespeare or the Unexpected Drawbacks of Technology

One of the lovely things about living in Oxford in the summer is the quirky British traditional of outdoor Shakespeare. Every year, several theatre companies put on productions of Shakespeare's plays in various unusual settings across the city. Yesterday my husband and I were lucky enough to enjoy Creation theatre's thrilling production of Macbeth in the hugely atmospheric grounds of Lady Margaret Hall.

I was first introduced to the phenomenon of outdoor Shakespeare around 20 years ago when I was a student in Cambridge. I remember loving the inventive way in which the plays were staged to make best use of their unique settings, and enjoying the immediacy and intimacy of the productions. But I also remember being frustrated by the acoustic challenges often posed by outdoor spaces. Sudden gusts of wind or bursts of heavy traffic noise would easily drown out a couplet or two, thus making Shakespeare's already complicated language even harder to understand.

Things have clearly moved on since my student days. Once we were seated at our cabaret-style table, I was pleased to hear the reassuringly loud music being efficiently broadcast by a powerful sound system. And as the play began, it became apparent that auditory issues are a thing of the past: I could hear all the actors perfectly - indeed perhaps even more clearly than in the traditional theatre  - thanks to their powerful radio mics.

Unfortunately, this technological improvement brought with it an unexpected problem for me. When several people are on stage at once, I rely on the direction their voices are coming from to identify who is speaking. But because everyone's lines were being relayed to the audience via the sound system, I had no way of using the actors' voices to situate them on stage. And because Shakespeare - unlike Racine - does not routinely use auditory clues or verbal prompts in his verse, I often found it hard to tell not only who was talking but also who they were talking to.

 Worse still, the play's inventive staging, which created a gripping and engaging narrative, also meant that the actors made use not only of the space directly in front of the audience, but also places to the sides or even behind us. Without being able to use their voices to follow their movements, I completely lost track of the whereabouts of the actors on several occasions. I had to surreptitiously look in the vague direction that my husband's head was pointing in order to pretend to be watching the play, whilst in fact most of the time I was really only listening to it.

A similar thing happened when I was on holiday last year. During a visit to Pompeii, our guide provided us with WhisperSystem headsets through which she was able to describe the exhibits to us without disturbing other tour groups. At first I was enchanted with this kind of personal audio description which worked brilliantly when the guide was close enough to describe what I was actually in front of. But when I wandered away from her in a large open area, her insistent cries of 'I'm over here!' were of absolutely no use to me because I couldn't see her waving arms and had no way of using the direction of her voice to pinpoint her.

I certainly hope to be going to more outdoor Shakespeare again soon. But this particular technological advance means that it will never again be the experience it was when I was a student. Next time I'll go with the knowledge that I won't be able to use my sense of hearing to follow the play. I might catch some of its action in my blurry vision but mostly I'll sit back and enjoy Shakespeare's language, treating the whole performance as a lavish and enthralling open-air radio play.


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Fiction Featuring Blind Protagonists: A Bibliography

My academic research focuses on depictions of blindness in French literature. But I am also collecting examples of contemporary (ie post-2000) Anglophone fiction which features blind or partially blind characters. Below is the list of books I have read so far, along with links to blog posts I have written about some of them. More books will be added as I read them. Recommendations welcome.


  • Comby, Cristelle, Russian Dolls: The Neve and Egan Cases Book 1 (2013) Thriller featuring a sighted student and her blind professor as an unlikely detective team.
  • Doerr, Anthony, All the light we cannot see (Fourth Estate, 2014): epic, beautiful and moving World War II adventure set in Paris, Germany and St Malo. Highly recommended.
  • Ellen, Laura, Blind Spot (Harcourt Children's Books, 2012): young adult murder mystery featuring a partially blind protagonist / narrator.  Blog post here.
  • Foyle, Naomi, Astra (The Gaia Chronicles) (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014): sci-fi / fantasy eco-utopia novel featuring, amongst other things, a character with one eye. Blog post here.
  • Gillard, Linda, Star Gazing (Platkus, 2008); perceptive romance featuring a blind female protagonist and her sighted lover. Blog post here.
  • Green, John, The fault in our stars (Penguin, 2013): teenage cancer coming-of-age love story.
  • Halm, Martyn, V., The Amsterdam Assassin Katla Novels Series: Reprobate (2012); Peccadillo (2012); Rogue (2013): fast-paced and multi-layered thrillers featuring a professional assassin and her blind partner. Blog post here.
  • Harris, Joanne, blueeyedboy (Doubleday, 2010): dark cyber-thriller with a blind protagonist and a surprising twist. Blog post here.
  • Macgregor, Virginia, What Milo Saw (Sphere, 2014): sensitive and clever children's story where events are seen through the eyes of a boy with retinitis pigmentosa.
  • Nussbaum, Susan, Good Kings, Bad Kings (2013): honest and hard-hitting novel set in a care home for disabled teenagers. One of the characters is partially blind. Highly recommended.
  • Sedgwick, Marcus, She is not invisible (Indigo, 2013): young adult mystery thriller featuring a blind narrator. Blog post here.
  • Walliams, David, Ratburger (HarperCollins, 2012): children's adventure featuring a blind villain. Blog post here









Thursday, 26 June 2014

Smart Glasses Phase Two: Adding Detail


This image shows me shopping at the Oxford Cheese Shop in the indoor market. I am in the middle of the picture, gazing down at a mouth-watering display of goat's cheese (my favourites!) I am wearing a chunky black headset with some glasses mounted on the front. I am also wearing a black ruck sack (containing the laptop which is running the cameras on the glasses). To my right is another customer and behind me you can see the television camera which was filming me.

Last August I began working with a research team at Oxford University who are developing some 'smart glasses' which will provide additional information for partially blind users. As I explain here, I was hugely impressed with this new way of navigating and very excited that I could soon be walking around confidently (especially at night, in dappled shade, or in bright sunshine) without bumping into rubbish bins, bollards or other pedestrians. 

Not content with creating an image of the shape, size and position of solid objects, Dr Stephen Hicks and his team are now working on adding detail to the pictures displayed on the glasses. So, as well as telling me that I am approaching a pedestrian, the glasses will now reveal her facial features as well as what she is carrying or wearing. As well as telling me that I am approaching a shop, the glasses will now show me what is in the shop window and might even pick out the shop's name (although the team are still trying to find a camera accurate enough to capture small text).

This week I met up with Dr Stephen Hicks and his team again (along with a film crew from CBS) to discover how the latest version of the glasses might help me run some errands in one of Oxford's busiest and most visually confusing venues, the Covered Market.

I was astonished by the progress that Stephen's team have made in the past year. When I first wore the glasses nine months ago, I felt like I was in a science fiction film. This time it was more like being the heroine in Aha's iconic 1984 Take On Me video. When I put the glasses on I was plunged into an animated world where objects' outlines shimmered wonderfully in black and white.

I have always loved French cheese but tend to find market shopping frustrating. Labels and prices are impossible to see and I can never even tell which products the cheese-monger is pointing to when I ask for advice. I was eager to see if the experience would be any different in my 'smart glasses'.

The first thing that struck me as I looked at the cheeses on display was that I could, for the first time ever, distinguish their different shapes and sizes. My favourite goat's cheese, Crottin de Chavignol, has a distinctive cylindrical shape and I was delighted to discover three lovely Chavignols near the front of the display, all nicely highlighted by the glasses' clever use of dark and light:


This image is a screen-shot taken whilst I was using the glasses to choose my cheeses. Several white lines demarcate shapes on a black background. In the centre of the image, three cylindrical shapes - which I correctly identified as Crottins de Chavignol - are clearly visible.

After making my first purchase, I asked the cheese-monger's advice about another goat's cheese which would nicely complement the first. He recommended a milder one after tasting a sliver, I decided to follow his advice. Unlike Chavignol, this one was not sold in individual portions so I had to decide how much I wanted. Specifying this kind of detail has always been a challenge for me. Usually, when cheese-mongers hold up a piece of cheese, or make a 'bigger or smaller' kind of gesture with their hands, I can see neither the cheese itself, nor their hands. I generally just take what they are offering without being able to tell how much cheese I have in fact bought until I get it home. With the glasses, however, I could very clearly see the outline of the cheese-monger's hands as he held up a piece of Chabichou. I was confidently able to tell him that this was exactly the amount I wanted without running the risk of going home with far too much cheese (or, worse still, not enough!). After the glasses had also helped me check my change, I reluctantly handed them back to Stephen, I headed home with my cheese, satisfied, for perhaps the first time in my life, that I had made some informed shopping decisions based not only on help and advice from others, but also on what I confidently knew was in front of me.

This image shows my purchases with the
distinctive cylindrical Chavignol on the left
. Bon appetit!