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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.

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.