World Agenda

Last updated: 4 january, 2011 - 14:54 GMT

Working as a blind journalist

Peter White attends a baseball game in San Francisco, US, while recording Blind Man Roams the Globe

Peter White attends a baseball game in San Francisco, US, while recording Blind Man Roams the Globe

BBC’s Disability Affairs Correspondent Peter White explains how he overcomes the practical problems of travelling abroad and recording, and the different approach he takes to describing the world around him.

From the moment I reach an airport, a harbour or cross a border by road, it’s the voices I’m listening for – their lilt, timbre, rise and fall.

And that was really the idea behind my series - Blind Man Roams the Globe - to share with the listener what I get from a town or city.

It’s a perfect concept for radio, of course. In fact, some might say too perfect.

After all, you could argue, how else do you provide a radio portrait of a city other than through sound?

The point is, though, that much radio travelogue is people describing what they see.

I’ve avoided that because I avoid it in real life. I personally don’t want people describing views to me because, having never seen, they don’t mean much.

What you will hear in this series is what I hear and when you hear the voices of people, they will be talking to me, not at me.

Window of radio

Peter White profile

Since 1995, Peter White has been the BBC’s Disability Affairs Correspondent.

He first presented In Touch, BBC Radio 4’s programme for visually impaired listeners, in 1974.

He was also the first completely blind person to produce reports for television news and over the last decade has written four series of autobiographical talks for BBC Radio 4, as well as the acclaimed series No Triumph, No Tragedy.

Other BBC Radio 4 programmes Peter has presented include Pick of the Week, You and Yours and a series of 15-minute features called Blind Man on the Rampage.

Having been born blind, I’ve always travelled blind – and for me, sightseeing is more a case of ‘sound-hearing’.

Put simply, things that don’t make much noise aren’t much use to me. Views, paintings, buildings (unless they’ve got a good echo), leave me rather cold.

And yet I’ve always loved travelling. As a child we didn’t have much money, so I dreamed of the places I was fascinated with – the US, China and Africa.

So how did I imagine them, if not through pictures? Well, largely through the medium of radio.

It was the voices from around the world that I picked up tuning round the radio dial - the discussions, music, snatches of sports commentaries.

Different approach

I rarely go on formal guided tours – except perhaps to eavesdrop on the snatches of conversation which happen on them.

And I even try to avoid the helpful friend who offers to take me round the city, which can still result in a succession of meaningless descriptions.

I’d much rather – as I did in San Francisco – board a bus and listen to and join in with the conversations. Listen to the languages change as we move from district to district in such a cosmopolitan city.

Or go to a baseball game and ask the crowd around me to talk me through it. I want to know why they are there, what they get out of it, where it stands in the city’s experience.

Or in Istanbul, full of history, I’d rather stand on the Galata Bridge on a Sunday afternoon, talking to the children as they catch fish, later to be grilled at the nearby restaurants or just there in the open air; or wander through the bazaars, captivated by the tactics of the stallholders as they reel in the tourists like a different kind of fish.

Realistic experience

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There are some logistical difficulties with this approach.

For a start, in real life and in this series, many of my best moments come when I’m looking for help – which for a blind man travelling alone is much of the time.

But for a number of reasons, both editorial and practical, it was necessary in this series for me to be accompanied by a producer, Sue Mitchell.

So what to do with Sue when I needed her to be invisible, so that people would voluntarily help me?

For the situations we recorded to be realistic, I had to be hands-free – in the absence of eyes, a blind person relies on their hands to function.

Generous strangers

Our first recording in San Francisco required me to ask about how to reclaim my luggage from the carousel.

It was clear that the rather snarky airport worker, who was quite willing to help me, was wondering what a rather vacant-looking English woman was doing with me and why she wouldn’t help me herself.

It’s a problem we never completely solved and it says something for the generosity of people all over the world that we got away with it.

Finding a solution

Peter visits Istanbul in Turkey

Peter visits Istanbul in Turkey

Another common problem I encounter is that it’s very difficult for people with sight to give advice without using visual references – they just don’t tend to mean very much to me.

One solution is to find at least one other blind person in the city, for whom it comes naturally to talk to me in terms of the senses which we share.

Marilee, for instance, told me how in San Francisco she often located herself by the direction of the local breezes blowing off the bay.

The blind university lecturer I met in Istanbul had become very familiar with the city’s garbage bins, which apparently gave off different odours in different areas.

I am still learning as I go, but this formula lends itself to bringing people out of their shells and making them generous with time and information.

People all over the world like to help and particularly like to share the places they love with visitors.

Listen to Blind Man Roams the Globe by clicking click here and to Peter’s Radio 4 programme In Touch by clicking click here

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