Paralympian Georgie Bullen explains how important it is for visual impairment to be understood by the sighted world, and discusses new BBC Four documentary Notes on Blindness.
It was such a privilege to be part of the 2012 Paralympics and to witness what felt like a breakthrough at that time. Disability was no longer swept aside in subdued tones but talked about openly. Even celebrated! It was amazing to see the pride everyone had in the athletes and their incredible achievements.
Now, more than four years later, another amazing Paralympics has passed and both events have left a much improved legacy. But sadly, there remains an awkwardness surrounding disability. Especially, from my perspective, of visual impairment. I hope it’s true that more people have now been encouraged to approach the person in a wheelchair. But my personal experience tells me that there is still a vast lack of understanding when it comes to blindness.
I have always been a passionate advocate of open discussion and the promotion of visual impairment awareness and this is clearly what John Hull has done with his remarkable film. I’ve seen and read much that tried to make visual impairment understood by the sighted world, but I have never found any to be as effective in humanising visual impairment as the BBC’s Notes on Blindness.
The onset of my gradual sight loss began when I was five, bringing with it a huge range of emotions to deal with – along with people’s reactions. I had to come to terms with my sight loss as I entered my teenage years. I do not appear visually impaired, and at times I have been treated as an imbecile, or a fraud.
So hearing John Hull explain, in his own words, the sensation of going blind and the internal battles that come with it was incredibly moving for me. As John lost his sight, so many of his stories and moments resonated deeply. I understood when he said “Every time I wake up, I lose my sight”, describing how he had more sight in his dreams. I often find I wake feeling sure that in my dream I was fully sighted, like when I was a child. I was so pleased to hear it so eloquently described by John.
When John describes a strange incidence of meeting a faith healer, who told him that his sight was ‘dependent on his will’, this felt familiar too. It is one of the more extreme reactions to finding out someone is visually impaired, but actually far more common than you think. I myself have been ‘healed’ three times!
But this and more common suggestions like “Can’t you just wear glasses?” remind me how important it is to keep pushing to create an awareness of visual impairment.
I was thrilled to see this insightful programme and feel the BBC have managed to create something that makes visual impairment relatable. I wish that, rather than making uninformed comments people would feel free to actually ask about the extent and nature of my condition and John Hull has helped to open that door.
It showed the daily practical battles we fight – which for John, was being unable to access books and data in an accessible format, and for me include being unable to drive to fetch a pint of milk, or the fact that reading takes me four times as long as my fully sighted counterparts. And it evocatively highlights how people of all ages can struggle with accepting their visual impairments.
Over a third of older people living with sight loss suffer with depression, which is an issue not often discussed or considered. And more than two million people in the UK live with sight loss. That’s 1 in 30, and the figure is rising.
But I was pleased that the film also showed really positive things that many with disabilities will understand – like their relationships with family and friends. When an able-bodied person is married to a disabled person, it doesn’t mean that they take the roles of ‘carer’ and ‘patient’. It was incredibly refreshing to see the marriage between John and Marilyn as a partnership – often how it is in real life.
John completed his film with a simple quote, which I’d like to share to complete this blog “To gain our full humanity blind people and sighted people need each other.”