Taking the World Apart: Some reflections on touch and tactility

Taking the World Apart:
Some reflections on Touch

If I want to describe my living room at home, I first have to re-collect a mental image. I imagine the dining table covered with its cloth; I picture the Victoriana china cabinet against the wall, topped with a haphazard arrangement of candles, some in glass jars, some in tins, a Swarovski crystal hedgehog, an antique-looking candle snuffer whose purchase seemed like a good idea at the time. The mental image solidifies as I add the Kawai digital piano, the hi-fi system supported on the wooden cabinet that is now almost 40 years old and looking it, and the assortment of CDs and records on the turntable lid that Ill tidy up some day.

For me as a person who is blind, the world of out thereness takes shape through the interplay of sound and smell and taste and touch. It is not a world of sensory impoverishment or deficit, but its form and texture become most real and permanent when my various senses collide and combine to produce, phoenix-like, a multi-layered and new experience. I dont live in a world of Platonic forms. My world is not one of pure sounds, or pure fragrances. When I imagine a donut, I imagine the sugar coating on my fingers and the texture on my tongue as much as the warm oily aroma. When I want to replay the memory of a Chanel fragrance, I imagine the bottle that contains it as much as the perfume itself. And if you tell me that a character is sitting in a chair, the scene remains vague and blurry until I can relate this particular chair to other chairs that Ive touched.

Sound, smell and taste reveal my world with its infinite nuances and tones, but touch is the duct tape that holds it all together. Without touch, the world for me as a person who is blind would be much less three-dimensional, much more intangible and forgettable.

Without touch, the world for me would, in fact, be largely a world apart touch is, more than any other sense, my entrée into the world the vehicle that brings the world up close and helps me feel a part of it. If I were to lose the capacity to touch or make meaning out of those touches, the world would, in a very real and irrevocable way, be taken apart. Touch also seems to be necessary for memories to stay sharp. Im sure Ive spent time in dozens, probably hundreds of living rooms, but the only ones I can pluck from the web of neuronal connections now are the ones whose walls and furniture I have touched, whose carpet Ive felt under my bare feet. Ive been to the Sydney Opera House many times, but because Ive really only touched the seats and café tables, the mental image of it that I can call to mind is much less distinct and well-formed than the image I have of the paper recycling room in my apartment block. I know in my head that the Opera House is a harbinger of culture and an icon of human achievement, but because Ive touched so little of it, I dont know it in my heart.

Touch is important for people who are sighted, of course. Its the most impulsive of our senses thats why there are signs in our galleries and museums commanding us not to touch. Those signs arent installed to ward off roaming blind people (unless theyre in braille we cant read them even if we suspect that they are there). Without the signs it would be sighted people who would do most of the touching.

Several years ago I was involved in an art project during which we coated the streetfront windows of a Sydney gallery with sheets of braille writing. Almost every person who walked past that gallery (and it was on a busy street) stopped to touch the braille they couldnt read it, but they were impelled compelled to touch it they were seduced by its tactility, not its visuality. Western, increasingly visual, culture has done its best to suppress that impulse to touch, especially in the presence of art. A gaze (even a downcast one) is thought to do less damage to an artwork than the most fleeting feather-touch, even though the artwork was almost certainly touched incessantly during its creation.

When I attend a theatre performance, I can listen to the dialogue. Increasingly, I can also benefit from audio description, which gives me real-time information about the visual aspects of the performance. I recently attended a performance of the Sydney Festivals Semele Walk (more-or-less based on the Handel opera Semele but featuring models in sequined costumes parading on a catwalk, and other post-Baroque touches). For those of us who are blind, the Festival arranged an audio tour prior to the performance, and this was useful. But what really made that performance come alive for me, and what I remember now, was the tactile tour that the Festival provided of the costumes. Its one thing to be told that the performers are wearing sequined costumes, but its another thing entirely to actually touch those costumes and really know what a sequined costume is. The tactile tour brought the performers up close: it caused my world to intersect with the world of the performance in a way that audio description alone cannot do; I felt a part of the world of that performance rather than being apart from it. And in keeping with the co-creative process of art-making, I believe that it felt a part of my world too.

As you read the opening paragraph of these reflections, you would have inevitably formed a mental image of my living room. Did you imagine a circular dining table, or a rectangular one? Its actually oval. Did you know what a Kawai digital piano actually looks like, with its sloping wooden organ-style lid and music stand? Did you notice that some of the CDs on the turntable lid arent in their jewel cases? And did your image of the china cabinet include the leadlight on the front glass, or the key in the lock? If I had attached a photograph you would have been able to flesh out those details. Without the photo you have to rely on the same audio (or in this case written) description as I do. If my living room were the set for a theatre performance, there wouldnt be much time to provide an audio description, so only the most important details could be described, and by the time the play had ended, you would have forgotten most of the description anyway. But if you had a tactile tour of my living room, youd have, like me, a much richer image of it. You would be able to connect with the performance rather than feeling like a distant spectator. Touching an object gives you different information from listening to a description of it a fingerful is not the same as an earful.

Ive always enjoyed live theatre and other arts-related events. However, as a blind person, Ive almost always felt like that distant spectator. The addition of audio description is certainly reducing the tyranny of that distance. But what really allows me to take that world apart and make it mine is the inclusion of touch.

Lecture to UNsW Community Work Students

I thought I’d post the text of a lecture that I gave earlier this week to 2nd-year students studying community work at the university of NSW. The guiding topic is Cyberspace, Social Media, and Disability.


Interview about braille literacy

Earlier this year I did an interview with Sydney radio station 2SER-FM in my role of Chair of the Australian Braille Authority. The topic was braille literacy, seen in the context of the growing popularity of audio books, both

in the mainstream and among blind people. The link to the program is http://finaldraft.podomatic.com/player/web/2010-04-12T02_00_34-07_00

My Final Annual Report as Chair of the Australian Braille Authority

Here is the 2009-2010 Annual Report for the Australian Braille authority. It

summarises the year’s activities, including events celebrating the Louis Braille Bicentenary. The report concludes with some personal, and I hope optimistic, reflections on the living experience of braille.

ABA Annual Report 2009-2010.doc

Uncoiling the Serpent: A reflection on disability and spirituality

I thought I’d post a presentation that I gave almost nine years ago to a conference in Melbourne titled Exclusion and Embrace. This title tried to capture the tension that many people with disability have experienced in attempting (with varying degrees of success) to become part of faith communities. I wonder how much that tension is still felt today.

uncoiling the serpent.doc

It’s a Dog’s Life

Here are two photos of my dog Belle. She’s a 3-year-old German Shepherd/red Cattle Dog cross (although most of the time she’s not cross at all). She could lose a few pounds (must be the water here, because I’m in the same position).

Tina and the Cheeseburger

I was culling my email archives earlier this year when I came across a short

article that I wrote in November 1998 titled TINA and the Cheeseburger. The original stimulus was an incident whose details elude me now other than that

it had to do with a person’s guide dog being repossessed by the training agency. The article touches on themes such as learned helplessness, the dangers of passivity, and why people make the choices they do in their lives, that I still reflect on a lot, so I thought it would be worth republishing this article, with some slight editing.

“About this time last year I began to get some stirrings in my head about writing a paper for presentation at the forthcoming ANZAEVH conference (ANZAEVH is the Australian and New Zealand Association of Educators of the Visually Handicapped, and they are having their biennial conference in Sydney in January 1999).
For several reasons, the paper languished, but I am taking this opportunity to revive the tile by way of offering a few thoughts prompted by current discussions.

Recently a new word has been coined to describe a process of uniformity of thinking – MacDonaldisation. No matter where you go in the world, when you go into a MacDonalds restaurant and order a cheeseburger, you know you will get the same thing. Even if you might hanker after variation, you probably won’t ask for it because – introducing the first part of my title – you will have come to believe that there is no alternative. One of the linguistic additions for which we have to thank the Thatcherite politics of the 1980’s is the introduction of TINA – There Is No Alternative. Putting

these two ideas together, TINA and the Cheeseburger refers, then, to a way of thinking that sees no alternative to the present situation; a pattern of

behaviour characterised by inaction, by passive acceptance of the status quo; in short, a way of life based on the belief that we are victims of our situation and remain helpless to change things.

I believe that many of us, as blind people, have embraced the TINA-and-the-Cheeseburger ideology with a vengeance – with a delight that borders on ferocity, and this belief has been strengthened as I reflect on the events surrounding the seeing eye dog repossession incident. Such events

have a pre-history:
they do not suddenly arise out of a vacuum. In this case, at least part of this pre-history has, in my view, a lot to do with us as blind people – with

our collective passivity in the face of flagrant and clear abuses; with the failure, too, of agencies and organisations to name such abuses for what they are and demand their cessation. In short, I believe that when we remain

silent in the face of blatant discrimination and transgression of the accepted norms of social, ethical and moral conduct, then we become just as culpable as the perpetrators.

I suggest that the recent incident – regardless of the veracity of the media

reporting – is the tip of an iceberg that threatens to engulf us in a truly Titanic fate. I use the word “titanic”
deliberately: perhaps the major factor that led to the tragedy in 1912 was the belief that the Titanic was unsinkable, so that when the iceberg struck, no-one took much notice until it was too late. Similarly, I wonder whether very many of us as blind people have a true conception of just how precarious is the basis for our so-called independence. I know people who have been emotionally abused by staff who should know better, but they do nothing; I know of people who receive poor advice that has cost them money, but do nothing; I know of people who are struggling to come to terms with technology in the face of professional indifference, and do nothing – they all think there is no alternative. Perhaps the thing that has

appalled me the most is my discovery that the ownership of dog guides does not reside with the user, but ultimately with the providing agency. I may be

the only person in Australia who didn’t realise that this was the situation, but in any case, such a state of affairs seems to me to epitomise

the worst excesses of the TINA mentality. Would we, as a society, accept a situation where an amputee was told “well, here are your new legs. Just remember that if you don’t look after them we’ll take them away and give them to someone who will”? I wonder if the thousands of people who have had

artificial lenses inserted in their eyes to replace cataracts would have been as quick to act if they had been told “Now you have to bathe your eyes for the first week, and if, on your next visit, I find that you haven’t been

doing this, I’ll take the lens out and you won’t be able to see anymore.? Would we describe such behaviour as emotional blackmail? How about the following hypothetical conversational fragment: “Well, here’s your new means

of mobility
– your key to independent and stress-free living. But remember, we’ll be watching you, and if we don’t like what we see then we’ll take it away, and we can do it because you’ve just signed the consent form”? Would we be outraged? Would we be stirred to action? Would we lobby politicians and community leaders? The answer is that no, most of us have not, and are not –

there is no alternative. We thus become willing participants in the perpetuation of a cycle of fear, dependence, and helplessness.

For the past 23 years, I have used an Optacon to read everything from the telephone directory to the labels on tins and the little bottles of spirits

that you find in hotel rooms. Some of you may not have heard of the Optacon,

let alone had the opportunity to use one. Don’t worry, they’ve stopped making them now so you won’t have to decide if you could benefit from one. But the reality is that when my Optacon breaks, it will be unrepairable, and

I will be less independent – I will be “blinder” than what I am now. And you

know something: the Optacon passed into history with little more than a whimper of protest from the people that are supposed to be safeguarding and proclaiming my right to independence as a blind person. Most blind people with whom I have discussed this issue say “well, the Optacon was only really suitable for a few people anyway, and you’ve got to remember that it’s all about the market – there’s really no alternative.” And then they tell me that every day, in every way, things are getting better and better for us as blind people. On the other hand, sighted people are incredulous when I tell them that the Optacon (and other devices that liberate people) are no longer made. I ask: who is the enemy?

The answer is, in my view, that the enemy is our lethargy; our inactivity; our passivity; our contentment with being victims; our proclivity for much talk but little action; our tendency to dismiss technologies, strategies and

philosophies that challenge our assumptions and habitual ways of thinking. Indeed, the enemy is us, and I wonder what it’s going to take for us to recognise and deal with that enemy.

Lest I appear to be too pessimistic, I must conclude by saying that I do sense that a new breeze is starting to blow amongst at least some of us; I feel a growing awareness of the wisdom of Margaret Mead’s statement that we must never think that a few committed individuals cannot bring about profound change. There is an alternative, and I sense that more and more of us are starting to articulate and claim that alternative. Let us learn from this latest example that has rightly shaken us, and let us go forward together with renewed vigour, mutual trust and solidarity. We have nothing to lose but our canes – and maybe if we read the fine print we’ll find that we don’t really own them anyway.”