Monday, December 2, 2013

The Media's Single Story about the Blind [a post for my Multicultural Education class]

As I searched YouTube for individuals that are represented as a group in the media, I came across the following bit from the Jimmy Kimmel Show about allowing blind people to purchase and use guns.

Now, I understand the purpose of Kimmel's sketch; it does seem inappropriate to allow blind individuals to carry guns, and Kimmel is a late-night comedian/talk show host, so he makes his living off making fun of people. The way that Kimmel treated these individuals, however, left me with a sour taste in my mouth. He leads them extremely slowly and deliberately across the screen towards their positions as each individual holds tightly onto the person in front of him or her. He makes jokes about them (telling them all of their shots hit their targets, for example) that they do not know to laugh at because of their lack of sight. I see a problem with Kimmel's bit, not because I believe people with visual impairments should be allowed to carry guns, but the way Kimmel and his team represented their blind subjects as individuals without a sense of humor who cannot take care of themselves.

The single story that I expected to see of people with visual impairments in the media was that of individuals in need of assistance and pity, or individuals like Helen Keller who were heroes in spite of (or perhaps because of) their disability. Jimmy Kimmel's short video certainly was an example of the first, with a good bit of negative humor included. In my research, I did come across several more of these representations; however, a greater majority of media touted the capability and attempts at normalcy of visually impaired people.

In October of this year, a renowned author of young adult fiction named Marcus Sedgwick released a book called She Is Not Invisible, which features a blind female protagonist named Laureth who is attempting to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance with her younger brother. Their travels as a duo are obviously much more difficult because of Laureth's disability, but Laureth is strong and capable and will stop at nothing to find her father. In the two months since the book was published, 899 individuals have rated the book on GoodReads with an average of 4 out of 5 stars. I have not yet read the book, but reviews state that Sedgwick's use of the four senses (other from sight) is powerful and realistic; one reviewer of the book was blind herself and stated that Sedgwick represented the daily life of a blind person very well. Another review quoted the main character, who "criticises [sic] the way blind characters are portrayed in books and films as either 'pathetic helpless figures of woe' or 'superheroes.'"

The Braille Project, a collaboration between poet Faye Harnest and artist Devon E. Sioui, was created for the purpose of exposing the seeing world to the beauty of braille, as well as opening the conversation to the voices of the blind and visually impaired. With the tagline of "Please DO Touch," Harnest and Sioui encourage, even beg, sighted individuals to recognize the blind world as legitimate. Though very different, another artifact that I found works on a similar project. Just this morning, Jacqueline Ober published an article on The Huffington Post website called "Training Program That Not Only Teaches Independence Skills to Blind Youth But Gives Back to the Community." The Work to Independence program in Maryland helps young adults with visual impairments to obtain the skills needed to live on their own and become employed. Though Ober is asking for donations in this article as part of The Huffington Post's #GivingTuesday series, where they highlight an organization to which readers can donate, the tone of the article is one of pride in the steps that these young people are taking to become a contributing member of society.

In this modern, technological culture that the United States currently runs on, individuals who deal with visual impairments have a presence online and are able to answer questions and make known their opinions about their world and the way others perceive it. Hannah Thompson, a partially-sighted woman who lectures at Royal Holloway, University of London, regularly updates her blog called Blind Spot. In her recent post about BBC's grant program for projects to help Britain's disadvantaged infants and children called Children in Need, she discusses the projects that have been recently done for those with visual impairments. The types of services and resources that these grants are providing for children, Thompson claims, are things that the children should be receiving from the government. Thompson, like the fictional character that Sedgwick created for his novel, argues against the way that BBC's Children in need "uses the language of tragedy, pity, bravery and sympathy to get the British public to happily pay for services which our government should be providing. [Furthermore, they use] photogenic images and tear-jerking music to blur our critical judgement so that we stop asking why." Thompson attempts to confront through her writings the way not only blind, but underprivileged and disabled children are being used in the media to create a feeling of empathy in the viewer or reader, who will then donate money. Another blind individual who has created a strong online presence is Tommy Edison. He is most well known as a the Blind Film Critic on YouTube and has 138,400 followers of his channel. Edison has been blind since birth. Not only does Edison critique films, he answers the basic questions about blindness and visual impairment that come from sighted people in very comedic ways. In the following short clip, he jokes about the perks of being blind.

By creating these types of videos, Edison is also attempting to change the perceptions of the world toward the blind and visually impaired.

Now, of course there are representations of individuals who are visually impaired in the media that are demeaning, as was shown in the clip of Jimmy Kimmel. Recently, however, there has been a great push from within and without the visually impaired community to change the way these individuals are portrayed and seen. Thus, the single story that I have found threaded through each of these artifacts is one of a group who is trying to convince the seeing world that individuals with visual impairments are neither superheroes nor people in need of pity. Instead they are simply hard working men and women who are attempting to integrate themselves into the seeing culture and educating them about visually impairment. However, even this single story can be limiting, because certainly not all of the individuals who could be included in this group would agree with the ideas that are being pushed today.

Because there are so few visually impaired protagonists in young adult literature, it would be wonderful as an English teacher to introduce Sedgwick's She Is Not Invisible to a group of students. There is always the potential, however, for those students to think that once they have read that book, they understand the world of the visually impaired, and make judgments based on the story. Furthermore, if I as a teacher believed that all blind students were like Tommy Edison, with a sense of humor and love for film, I certainly would not get to know my students very well. To help my students and myself avoid making these types of judgments in the classroom about visually impaired individuals, it is absolutely necessary to recognize and critically analyze the types of information we take in about any group of people. This is a skill all individuals need, no matter what they plan to do with their lives, so I will create lesson plans that point out the single stories we create about people, then explicitly model and teach ways to recognize the single stories that are portrayed in the media, even by those groups themselves.

  • Harnest, Faye and Devon E. Sioui. The Braille Project. The Braille Project, 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
  • Jimmy Kimmel Live. "Jimmy Takes Blind People to a Shooting Range." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. 
  • Ober, Jacqueline. "Training Program That Not Only Teaches Independence Skills to Blind Youth But Gives Back to the Community." Huffington Post. 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. 
  • Sedgwick, Marcus. She Is Not Invisible. New York: Indigo, 2013. Print. 
  • Thompson, Hannah. "My Problem with Children in Need." Blind Spot. 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013. 
  • TommyEdisonXP. "Best Things about Being Blind." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 3 July 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.