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James Risdon: Let’s talk about visual impairment

About the author

James Risdon is a freelance recorder player and also works as Access Coordinator at ABRSM. He worked for nearly ten years as the Music Officer at RNIB, where he took a particular interest in curating the programme of professional development workshops for blind and partially sighted musicians. This article draws partly on his own experiences, but also the collective wisdom, thoughts and ideas of the many blind and partially sighted musicians and workshop leaders with whom he had the pleasure of working.

Prelude

This article is aimed at blind and partially sighted musicians, though much of it could apply to other fields. 

In this short article, I thought it would be helpful to consider how we talk about our visual impairment when engaged in work as a musician. Inevitably some of what I will say may resonate with you, and some things may be irrelevant. You may even strongly disagree. That is fine. My aim is to lay out some approaches and offer some ideas for your own reflection. The main thing is that you make a conscious decision about whatever approach you take.

Language

Those of us who have sight problems often have strong opinions about language and how we like to be described and referred to. I don’t. Moreover, we rarely agree among ourselves. In a sense this disputed linguistic territory is fine and disabled people should be the arbiters. But the unintended consequence of this is that sighted people are left anxious and confused about the words they can use. At best this can be mutually embarrassing. At its worst, this can discourage conversation and social interaction altogether. Unless people feel confident to engage verbally, it’s unlikely they will offer us work. So, I am going to use the term visual impairment (VI) throughout.

Background

I’ve always been aware of people’s reactions to VI. Two specific occasions before I had reached the age of 10 made me realise that people didn’t always think about me, or talk about me in ways I felt comfortable. The first was after an afternoon concert when tea and cake was being served. A well-meaning old lady pointed at me and asked my mother “does he take sugar?” to which my mother replied simply, “why don’t you ask him?” The second was a local newspaper write up of my performance in the Exeter Festival competition. “Blind virtuoso” screamed the headline. I didn’t mind so much that I was blind, but was morally offended by the notion that my performance had anything to do with the fact I could not see. My nine-year-old self was just beginning to learn that the world sometimes saw me differently to how I saw myself. I could have called this article “Thank you, one sugar would be great.”

Even as adults, we are sometimes imbued with mystical powers of wisdom, hearing or memory, yet at other times assumed to be incapable of the most basic human functions. That, in itself, can make it hard to know where we fit in as people and musicians. One day we might be hailed as genius for being VI and taking to the stage, and the next we may struggle to find work precisely because we are VI and may fall off the stage.

These assumptions and attitudes date back centuries if not millennia, so we are not going to change them overnight. What we can do is consciously consider our reaction, take control of how we tell our own story and ensure we leave people with the impression we would wish them to have. This can be tiring. It can be draining. It can be intrusive. We don’t always wish to be role models; we don’t always have the emotional energy to explain our VI and how we deal with the challenges it brings. Sometimes we just want to turn up, do our job and leave again and not have to engage with the topic of VI at all. But, giving some time and consideration to how we talk about our VI is necessary if we are to influence what people say about us, write about us and what they assume about us as VI musicians.

Disclosing a visual impairment

This is the decision about whether, how and when you tell someone that you have a VI. For many of us, it’s pretty obvious as soon as we meet. We probably use a white cane, require accessible formats, or rely on access technology. We may just require some assistance in an unfamiliar venue. 

Of course, if you feel your VI is no barrier to the work you are hoping for, the decision about whether and when to disclose is more relevant. But, for most of us, the question is much more how we disclose our VI, not whether or when. I’ll leave the topic of disclosure for a future article, so let’s focus on how we talk about our VI.

How we talk about vision impairment

How we talk about our VI is a personal matter. It may also differ depending on the context: job application, audition, application to a funding body, or letter to a promotor or venue.

We each have intellectual copyright over our own story and how we talk about ourselves. In my experience, people will take their steer from us, but they will also fill in the gaps if we don’t tell the story. 

Things to consider

So, while there are no rights or wrongs, here are some of the ideas and approaches I and others have found helpful.                    

Solutions not problems

It’s worth remembering that many people will have had limited interaction with anyone with a VI, especially in the context of work. They may therefore have limited understanding of what we can achieve, what the challenges are and how to solve these. Leading on what you will find difficult or impossible, or what you will need in place, is likely to engender fear, uncertainty and hesitation. By contrast, explaining the challenges and then offering practical solutions, or explaining what worked well in previous settings is likely to meet with a much more positive response. 

Imagine you are going to do some work experience in a recording studio. You are blind and have been asked to tell the company about your access needs. You are the first blind person they have ever worked with. Before you write back, it’s worth considering that this is not just about you setting out what you need in place to function, but also about setting up a productive and positive relationship where you can thrive, or even be offered a paid position. So, rather than listing your requirements, you could be proactive:

  • You could suggest visiting before your placement starts to learn the route from the station, to orientate yourself around the building and the studios. 
  • You could offer to give staff a demo of what software and hardware you use and the access features that enable you to work independently. This sets you up as positive and your future colleagues may even find what you say interesting and valuable. 
  • As well as explaining any parts of the process that are not accessible, you could suggest discussing workflows to get around this.

Rights and responsibilities 

It’s important for us as disabled people to know our rights. It’s important so that we can challenge discrimination if it occurs. We can be our own strongest advocates. But with rights come responsibilities, though you could equally think of these in terms of compromise, cooperation, being reasonable, or fostering positive working relationships.  

Imagine you have a job in a large office with a culture of hot-desking. It may well be a reasonable adjustment that you are offered a static desk in a convenient location, perhaps near the lift, or near a window for natural light, or in a quieter area so you can hear your screen-reader. You may have a claim to a larger desk to keep equipment. These are all things that an employer should happily consider. But the flip side of this is that you are more obviously the odd one out and may end up missing out on positive aspects of working in the office. So, before dismissing the idea and claiming your right to a fixed desk, you could make an effort to learn your way around the office and engage in discussions about changes to the office layout. It may actually prove possible or even beneficial for you too. It could open up really positive discussions about how it’s helpful for your colleagues to introduce themselves by name when saying hello, for example.

What’s your hook? 

We all tend to remember people by a particular hook. It may be a physical characteristic, a personality trait, a particular talent or skill. It’s usually something unique to us, or that is sufficiently unusual to distinguish us from the next Peter, or the next drummer. As VI musicians, it is inevitable that we are sometimes remembered by the hook of being blind or partially sighted. That may be fine for you. You may wish to set up your whole identity and personal brand as the blind bass player, or the partially sighted cabaret artist; you may write songs about your personal experience of losing your sight, or use your music to campaign for raised awareness. There’s nothing wrong with this and there is definitely work to be had in this area. 

But if you  are less comfortable with your VI being your defining characteristic, you need to take control. That is not as easy to do as it is to write. So how can you do this?

Start by considering how you write about yourself. Consider the following two openings to a fictional bio:

“I am a blind singer songwriter available for gigs and events. Music has been the thing that has kept me going through the difficult times.” 

“I’m a singer songwriter available for gigs and events. Music has been my constant companion through life.”  

The first makes an explicit link between blindness and difficult times. It sets up certain assumptions about the subject matter or type of songs this artist may write.

The second is more vague. There is an implicit assumption that ‘life’ might include ups and downs, but we don’t know. These songs could just as well be about waiting for a bus as being VI. Importantly, the focus is more on music than life or blindness.

It may be that you wish to use your VI as a means of distinguishing yourself from other singer songwriters, but in a less obvious way.

“I’m a singer songwriter available for gigs and events. My songs are often influenced by my own life experiences, from growing up in Glasgow and losing my sight to falling in love and rock climbing.”

This version places sight loss in the context of wider life events. It also leaves room for intrigue and to challenge perceptions: Who did she fall in love with? Can blind people really do rock climbing? Obviously you shouldn’t write this if you are yet to fall in love or suffer from vertigo. 

Horses to courses

How we talk about our VI might depend on the particular project we are working on, or organisation we are working with. I might never mention my VI in the general course of my music work, but if I am asked by a sight loss charity to give a talk or performance, and my VI is the reason they have asked me and not any other musician, then I will change my approach.

As your career progresses, you may feel differently. At the outset, when you are trying to get established, your sight loss may be a useful hook by which people mark you out – any publicity is good publicity. As long as you manage that carefully, it can be a pretty engaging unique selling point. However, you may eventually wish to break free of that identity. That can be difficult, especially if some of your main achievements have been related to your VI. In that case, it comes down to how you tell the story and the relative importance you attach to it.

For instance, I never describe myself as a blind recorder player, but my bio usually references the fact I was runner-up in an international competition for blind musicians. I keep this in because it tells people enough, but with a positive spin.

Actions speak louder than words

It’s not just about what you say. If you want your music to take centre stage and not your VI, think about how you can influence the narrative. Are there some small things you can do to keep control and keep attention on your music? For example, rather than be the object of someone’s attempts to offer help you don’t need, be proactive in explaining what you would find helpful. So, if you are performing in a new venue, make arrangements to visit before the performance and ask if you could be shown around. Better still, go with someone and ask if you can look around. If you are performing with someone else, plan in advance how you will walk on, walk off, acknowledge each other and your audience. In fact, choreographing what to do during applause is one of my top tips. Nothing draws attention to your VI more than being left standing without knowing where to face, or offering a hand to shake when nobody is there, or fumbling around for the stand for your instrument or mic.

Explore and be comfortable in the performing space. This will stop you being nervous, but even more importantly, it will prevent your audience being nervous on your behalf. I remember performing in an orchestra years ago in a church. My chair was inches from a large drop off the makeshift stage. I knew about this and was happy with the set up, but several people told me afterwards that they had spent the whole concert terrified I might fall backwards into oblivion. As a performer, that is my issue, not the fault of the over-anxious audience because it leaves them with an impression of me, of any future VI performer they may meet. 

Similarly, consider what you do with a white stick or a guide dog during your performance. You can be definite in any decision you make, but it’s helpful to think about it in advance. And not just in terms of your own practical ability to move around, but in terms of what impression you convey to your audience. A guide dog will inevitably draw attention away from you and at least one person in the audience will be wondering how the dog is so well behaved or if and when it is going to bark.

Coda

Having said all of the above, the most important thing you can do is be the best you possibly can be at what you are being asked to do, whether that is singing, recording or composing. Ultimately, your music is what you are (hopefully) being paid for and what may land you your next gig. If you arrive fully prepared, confident in what you are doing, and ready to deliver, your VI will naturally become less of a focus. Again, that is easier said than done. It requires planning, practise, preparation and precautions. It may not always be possible. It may require a little more planning and preparation than it might for others. But, your efforts will be rewarded. You may be booked again; you may be booked somewhere else; other performers, employees, sound engineers with a VI may be recruited as a result of the positive impression you left. Gradually, some of the age-old stereotypes and prejudices may just be left behind.

Whatever your approach, very best of luck.

Edited by Jay Pocknell

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