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Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Day My Glasses Broke

Last week I was pleased to be invited to speak on 'Blindness in French Fiction' at an international colloquium on 'Representations and Discourses of Disability' organised by two PhD students from the Sorbonne, Céline Roussel and Soline Vennetier.

This colloquium, the first of its kind in France, brought together around sixty researchers working on the emerging field of 'études sur le handicap' (French Disability Studies). As well as catching up with a number of old friends, I was particularly pleased to meet a range of young French researchers, both disabled and non-disabled, whose work suggests innovative and thought-provoking ways of combining the highly philosophical nature of French academic discourse with an Anglo-American interest in embodiment to take Disability Studies in new and fruitful directions. 

As I was getting ready for bed after a long day of papers and discussions, something happened which in retrospect seems to capture this tension between French philosophy and Anglo-American embodiment - or between French theory and Anglo-American practice - perfectly: my glasses broke. My first reaction was one of panic. Here I was, in a foreign country, far from home, without a spare pair of glasses or the means to acquire one, suddenly deprived of my ability to read, shop and navigate. How would I manage during my last two days in Paris? How would I find my way back to the gare du Nord? More importantly, how would I buy the cheese and chocolate I absolutely had to take back to England with me?

Thinking back now, I am ashamed and embarrassed by this ableist reaction to my broken glasses. In my paper, which I had delivered that very morning, I argue that Lucien Descaves's 1894 novel Les Emmurés and Romain Villet's 2014 novel Look are important depictions of blindness because they invite us to celebrate blindness for its own sake. They do not lament their protagonists' lack of vision. For them, blindness is not a tragedy, it is just a different, albeit slightly inconvenient, way of being in the world. 

Since I 'came out' as partially blind four years ago, I have often said that I do not see my way of not-seeing as a problem. And yet as soon as I found myself with even less vision than usual, I started worrying about how I would cope. I even found myself evoking precisely the kind of ableist language which I criticise health professionals for using.

In fact, it turns out that this sudden almost-blindness was indeed far from tragic. I actually quite enjoyed living without any glasses for a day or two. How nice to walk from outside to inside without everything getting all steamed up. And how restful not to be able to check e-mails or facebook every five minutes. And it turns out that I am actually pretty good at being blind. I found myself confidently using my white cane to get around the uneven streets of Paris and I became much more ready to ask for help in shops, at busy junctions and on the train. I used to pride myself on being able to get across Paris un-assisted. Now I realise that knowing when to ask for help is actually an art in itself. And my new talking book reader (a blog post about which is coming soon) proved particularly valuable on my long journey back from Paris to Oxford.

I picked up my repaired glasses this morning and there is no denying that I am delighted to have them back. But being obliged to function without them was a good thing. Not only did it make me think more closely about my own internalised ableism, it also reaffirmed what I already knew: blindness does not stop us from doing things; it just makes us do them differently.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Blindness and Art: An Interview

This week I was interviewed by Paul Hammond of UCB UK. You can listen to the full interview below. Provided courtesy of UCB Media UK.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Exploring Human Rights in Winnipeg

I spent last week in Winnipeg, Canada where my tireless Blind Creations collaborator Vanessa Warne had arranged for me to give lectures and teach classes at the University of Manitoba and the Université de Saint-Boniface. I also enjoyed sharing experiences and insights with the Manitoba Disability Studies Network before exploring Vanessa's fascinating 'Books without Ink' exhibition.

On my last day, Vanessa gave me a tour of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which has recently opened in Winnipeg. We had passed the imposing building several times during the week and I was eager to look inside.

This photo (taken by Vanessa) shows me 
standing outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Behind me is the windowless metallic shell of the lower part of the building and the imposing glass and steel tower above it.

The museum begins by exploring various definitions of human rights. It goes on to focus on some historical moments when human rights were violated and ends with a look at what present and future generations can do to keep human rights abuses in the past.

In the gallery devoted to the Holocaust, I was interested to find a display on Nazi propaganda which includes a 3-D model of a head amongst its exhibits. The head, which represents a man with stereotypically Jewish features, was used by the Nazis to teach blind students how to recognise (and then presumably denounce) Jewish people.

This image shows a model of a stereotypically Jewish man's head in a display case. Next to the head is a beer tankard  with an anti-semitic slogan. Below the exhibits is the museum's explanatory text. 

As well as demonstrating Nazi Germany's racist attitude towards Jewish people, this head also reveals much about their somewhat contradictory attitude towards blindness. Although the existence of the head suggests that the education of blind people was taken seriously in Nazi Germany, it also problematically assumes that blind people go through life feeling people's faces. This assumption reveals an offensive lack of knowledge of the lived experience of blindness. Unsurprisingly, in a later display in the same room, we learn that disabled people were targeted by the Nazis because they were seen as an unproductive burden on society.

The museum is highly interactive but its multi-media emphasis means that much of its information is conveyed visually, through graphics, films and photographs. Vanessa and I were keen to know how the museum accommodates blind and partially-blind visitors. As we bought our tickets we met a very helpful staff member who was delighted to provide us with Braille maps, an iphone with an audio overview of each gallery (run with Voice Over) and a set of earphones which I could connect to individual displays for more information. This was undoubtedly my favourite accessibility feature and one that I have not come across elsewhere. Stations next to some exhibits allowed me to listen to audio descriptions of the displays whilst also providing audio versions of the printed labels. After a little bit of practice the tactile buttons were easy to use and it was even possible to accelerate the speed at which the text was read.

In this photo (another of Vanessa's) I am exploring a tactile keypad with my left hand whilst holding my white cane in my right. 

Although this feature was not available at every display, and some audio tracks worked better than others, the provision of earphones allowed me to appreciate the museum's content at my own pace and in my own way. This is not always possible with traditional audio guides which often rely on the visitor locating numbered labels within a gallery and which, because they are intended primarily for sighted visitors, can be unhelpfully visual in their use of language.

Given its subject matter, it makes sense that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights wants to be the world's most accessible museum and I would say it is certainly the most accessible space I have visited. But there is one aspect of the museum which betrays an oddly ableist approach to blindness and sightedness.

This photograph shows the museum's motto, 'From Darkness to Light'/'De l'ombre à la lumière' on the wall behind the ticket counter.

Both the museum's architecture and its narrative are built around a hierarchical binary opposition between darkness and light in which the 'darkness' of ignorance is replaced by the 'light' of knowledge as we progress from a past full of human rights abuses to a more enlightened future. As we walk further up the building's ramps (no stairs here!), the space becomes lighter and lighter until we reach the Tower of Hope, a glass viewing area overlooking the city of Winnipeg. Although it is tempting to see this darkness-to-light trajectory as an effective, if simplistic, representation of humanity's progress, I am tempted to see it as a more sinister demonstration of society's abiding belief in the superiority of sight in the hierarchy of the senses, a belief which leads to the privileging of sightedness over blindness. By celebrating the triumph of light over dark in the building's very fabric, the museum sends its visitors a powerful, albeit subliminal, message. Not only are we told that sight is synonymous with knowledge, we are also told that it is better to see things than to not see them. Such a message is dangerous because it reinforces a belief that most people do not even realise they have until it is challenged - that is, the belief that a blind person's lack of sight is, like the human rights violations to which it is unwittingly compared, a tragedy which should be eliminated by progress.

It is ironic that a museum which is so clearly committed to equality of access and opportunity - and which has got a lot right on that front - appears to embrace such an ableist message without even realising it is doing so.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Book Review: Look by Romain Villet

The image shows the front cover of Look by French author and musician Romain Villet which was published by Gallimard in February 2014. It has been reviewed in French on the vues interieures blog.

When Romain Villet discussed his work at Blind Creations, he made the point that it is difficult to talk in English about a book written in French. This made sense to me because since reading Look (in French) last year, I have been struggling to write about it in English here. This is because Look is not only written in the French language; it is also about the French language. French is not merely the medium through which the narrator - Lucien - expresses himself, it is also the subject of much of what he says. Lucien is a blind musician and avid reader who eschews visual description. Instead he recounts his life in Paris, his love affair with the elusive Sophie and their trek in the Atlas mountains through a mixture of clever word play, erudite literary references, poetic fragments and obscure allusions to musical scores. Whilst I found the novel by turns funny, moving and beautiful, I also found it frustratingly dense: there are so many intellectual references in it that I'm sure that I, like Sophie, don't properly understand everything the narrator is saying.

But as I listened to Villet discussing his work during the conference, I realised that this is the novel's point. A little like Herve Guibert's Des Aveugles [translated as Blindsight], Look uses deliberately difficult references to oblige the reader to question her relationship with the world. Just as Lucien often feels excluded from the sighted world in which he is forced to operate, so we feel excluded from his world of musical and literary references. And so we are forced to discover a wonderfully non-visual way of being in the world which is as rich, absorbing and stimulating as anything I've ever read.

As well as being a meditation on how blindness might create a different kind of writing, Look is also about how blind people read differently. (And as such it reminds me of my own way of reading in detail.) I particularly like the way the narrator describes how the digital revolution has changed his reading habits. Before text-to-speech software made some books accessible to blind people via the internet, Lucien would read Braille books borrowed from specialist libraries. Apart from never being able to own the books he loves, Lucien resents the fact that he can never annotate this reading matter with comments, underlinings or marginalia. He can neither personalise nor re-read but must commit every sentence to memory as if he would never encounter it again:
C’était, au fil des pages, la nécessité de se forger dans l’instant des souvenirs impérissables, c’était vivre chaque ligne avec l’intensité d’un adieu.
It turns out that Villet feels much the same. In a fascinating radio documentary (also in French), 'Victor et Moi' (available here), he demonstrates how his portable reader has changed his relationship with books. It feels particularly fitting that in the documentary he visits several places which provide accessible books, including the Association Valentin Hauy, where Blind Spot started.

Look is an important book - which deserves to be more widely known - because as well as these meditations on writing and reading blind, it offers a realistic, humorous and intimate portrait of life as a blind person. Lucien is wonderfully at ease with his blindness; he shares my belief that blindness is neither a drama nor a tragedy; it is just a (slightly inconvenient) way of being in the world. One example of his dry humour is his point that because blind people take longer to do certain things (like peel carrots), they should be given a third extra time in life as they are for their exams:
S’il y avait une justice, pour leur rendre le temps que leur volent leurs yeux, les aveugles auraient droit dans l’existence, comme pour passer les examens, à un tiers-temps supplémentaire.
But until Look is translated into English - an almost impossible task but one which I'd love to have a go at - its celebratory view of blindness will remain the preserve of the Francophone reader. Such readers will appreciate Lucien's thoughts on the intranslatability of blindness, a sentiment which the book's very existence ironically undermines:
Car la cécité est moins un enseignement dont j’aurais à tirer des conclusions, qu’une expérience indicible, intime, singulière, intraduisible dirais-je au risque d’enfoncer le clou, sinon en décrivant dans le détail ses manifestations. Il faudra, un jour, dépasser la noblesse du gâchis, il faudra raconter par-delà les brouillons invisibles, s’en donner la peine, s’en faire un devoir.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Blind Creations: Pride, Nostalgia and the 'Economy of Trust'

Since the Blind Creations conference ended on Tuesday, I have been trying to decide how to write about it here. The event, which I organised with Vanessa Warne, was three days of fascinating insights and new encounters from which I emerged at once energised and exhausted; delighted yet already nostalgic and a little sad. For most of the time, I was so busy running the conference, that I didn't have time to attend the sessions. I have yet to hear the fascinating panels on audio description, haptic art and tactile books, although I did catch most of the wonderful plenaries. Happily, we will soon have an audio archive of the conference on the site, so I will be able to discover everything I missed.

Until then, my imperfect knowledge of the conference means that in this post I want to discuss other things. Whilst I am not yet ready to comment on the academic side of the proceedings, I can focus on the incredible community which developed during the event. What struck me as I flitted from person to person - welcoming, explaining and answering questions - was the amazing warmth, generosity and open-mindedness of the attendees.

I was particularly struck by the exchanges between non-blind people - or SVDPs (Severely Visually Dependant People), as Georgina Kleege described them in her plenary - and blind people, which proliferated during the event. Almost half of the 116 delegates were blind and negotiating unfamiliar spaces was logistically complicated. So we quickly established what Ryan Knighton referred to as 'an economy of trust' where blind people were happy to be guided, described to and generally supported by non-blind people whom they had never met. The constant elbow proffering and taking which went on created a thrill of public intimacy which I have never encountered before. And how lovely it was not to be the only blind person in the room. What a relief to know, for once, that I was not the unsolicited focus of an (often pitying) sighted gaze..

An outsider observing the conference might have thought that the blind people being led about were dependant on their sighted guides. This may have been the case sometimes, especially on the first day when everything was new to everyone, but as the conference went on, it became clear that the sighted attendees were just as, if not more, reliant on the blind conference goers.

The non-blind delegates did not need to be physically guided, but they did need help of a different kind to negotiate blind culture. By engaging with blindness both as the subject of the conference and as the way of life for many attending, non-blind people were constantly forced to challenge their own misconceptions of blindness and rethink their personal sensory hierarchies where sight almost always dominates. Time and again I overheard conversations in which non-blind people were enthusiastically extolling the virtues of touch, hearing and taste. For a few short days, we created an alternative world where vision became the least important of the senses.

It was not only the conference delegates who were changed and challenged by their creative encounters with their own and others' blindnesses. Across Royal Holloway, staff and students were confronted with more blind people than they had probably ever seen. Everyone who had anything to do with the conference or its delegates very quickly learnt how to give audio rather than visual clues, how to describe in a non-visual way, how to guide with respect and humour. I like to think that  'Blind Creations' touched many people who will probably never think of blindness in the same way again.

Most of all, this conference made me proud. I am immensely proud that Vanessa and I managed to create such a unique event and I am proud that we gathered such an extraordinary group of people around us. But more than that, I am proud to be part of the vibrant, intellectually demanding, passionate, hilarious and deeply generous creatively blind community. I have never felt so glad to be blind.

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.