A blind Shakespearean debut
A blind actor on joining the RSC, and a visually impaired therapist on getting mental health support.
William Phillips is a visually impaired cognitive behavioural therapy specialist who works to make CBT accessible to others with sight loss. He lays out how blind people can go about getting mental health support that suits them.
There was a huge response to last week’s programme with Ashley Cox’s story about struggling to find a counsellor. We read a selection of your emails.
Visually impaired actor Karina Jones stars in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current productions of As You Like It and Measure For Measure. She describes how they gave one of her characters a white cane, what reasonable adjustments are in place for her at the RSC and why she’s excited that blind people will see themselves represented on stage in the future.
Presenter: Lee Kumutat
Producer: Emma Tracey
Pictured: Karina Jones playing Sister Francisca in Measure for Measure. Photographed by Helen Maybanks. Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Measure for Measure
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In Touch Transcript: 09-07-19
THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
IN TOUCH – A blind Shakespearean debut
TX: 09.07.2019 2040-2100
PRESENTER: LEE KUMUTAT
PRODUCER: EMMA TRACEY
Welcome to the programme. “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” So says Helena in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Blind actor Karina Jones isn’t playing Helena but does have a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Measure for Measure. And if you’re wracking your brains to remember who the blind character is in that play, you haven’t forgotten them for this production one of them has been given a cane. We’ll talk to Karina and find out who a bit later on.
But before that, Helena’s words could be applied to a story we covered on last week’s In Touch. Ashley Cox contacted eight different counsellors in his search for help with depression. Each time he mentioned his blindness he was told they didn’t feel comfortable taking him on as a client or weren’t sure they’d be able to help him, despite some of them claiming on their online profiles they were trained to counsel disabled people. The ninth counsellor agreed to work with him.
You start wondering if it’s you or if you’ve – somehow you’ve said something or done something. For me, as a disabled person, I’ve kind of developed quite a thick skin, so I tend to just laugh things off and I don’t know, I try not to think about it really, it’s a sad reality, I suppose.
Before looking for counselling himself, Ashley had gone to his GP for help and was given a brochure for Action for Blind People, now absorbed into the RNIB. We asked them what emotional support they can provide and they told us:
RNIB provides practical and emotional support through its sight loss advice service, over the phone, face-to-face at many hospital eye clinics or through online information. Our sight loss advisors and eye clinic liaison officers receive specialist training on living with sight loss and many have personal experience of sight loss themselves. We are proud to have developed specialist training sessions for counselling professionals based on years of experience from our sight loss counselling team and current academic research to equip them to work with people with sight loss.
They also say they will have trained in excess of 70 counsellors by the end of this year.
William Philips is one of the many moved to write to us on hearing Ashley’s story. He’s visually impaired himself and director of Think CBT. CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, is an evidence-based therapy which aims to help people to recognise negative thoughts and how to deal with them.
What sort of mental health problems do you see visually impaired people dealing with on a regular basis, is there a thread that runs through them?
First of all, loss. So, probably the most common issue that I would work with are people who’ve experienced sight loss either through an accident, through a deterioration of an existing condition or through some other form of illness. And in those circumstances the emphasis tends to be around trauma but also issues related to the physiological effects of trauma, so, high levels of physical hyperarousal, so people feeling very anxious in their body and depressed mood. The other areas that we work with can include, I guess, problems with self-esteem or low self-value, where people tend to compare themselves as a visually impaired person, maybe, with their sighted counterparts at work or maybe with their partner, if their partner can see, negatively comparing what they can or can’t do, their own perceptions about themselves with other people. And then just coping, I think it’s true to say that if you can’t see, just getting around, working, performing daily tasks have additional challenges and that in itself can impose additional stress but can also lead to other conditions – interesting – like social anxiety, so a tendency to be anxious in an unfamiliar environment or when dealing with other people.
What advice would you give somebody who was thinking of trying to find the right kind of therapy for them? And that is not giving us a plug for CBT William, that is actually saying what should that process be and what should it look like.
The headlines are pretty clear. If you have a visual impairment, you’re up to three times more likely to be experiencing a problem with anxiety or depressed mood. You are astonishingly twice as likely to experience problems with self-harming or even suicide. And co-morbidity, which is a clinical term that really means experiencing more than one problem at the same time, such as anxiety and depressed mood is much higher if you have a visual impairment. So, I think as a potential patient or as a client, it’s about approaching your GP or your clinician and asking them to refer you to somebody that has experience of working with visual impairment. If you find that you’re working with somebody that doesn’t have experience of visual impairment then I think the next step is to take responsibility yourself and to ask them to engage in supervision or to obtain support, so that the process can be more accessible.
One of the things that I find, as a blind person, and I’m assuming you do, making assumptions here William, is that when you go into a new situation like that, whether it be a new therapy situation or even with a new GP, you find that you have to educate them about your disability, do you think we should be able to expect not to have to do that when we look into pursuing therapy for ourselves?
I’m not sure that I’ve come across that personally and certainly the people that I’ve worked with, with a visual impairment, haven’t experienced the need for special education for the referring GP or the clinician. I think what has happened is there’s been a tendency to assume that because it’s because sight loss or because it’s about coping with may be a pre-existing sight loss problem, that the solution is about counselling, that there’s a sort of tea and sympathy kind of idea around – well if you’re coping with this, you need somebody to talk to. I think…
But surely there is a space for that, surely there is…
I think that’s right.
…a point at which talking things out and even verbalising them to some degree can help, I mean isn’t that proven?
I think that’s absolutely right and I’m certainly not indicating that counselling is unhelpful. I think what we’re talking about is equality of access. So, if you’re a visually impaired person you should have the same access based upon the same starting point as a normally sighted person and if that means CBT is going to be helpful for you, let’s say, with a problem with PTSD or a problem with social anxiety, then pursuing that is appropriate. That isn’t to say that talking to somebody or reflecting on loss or normalising your experience just by sharing with another human being isn’t also incredibly value.
I wonder whether there is the risk of if somebody who’s visually impaired meets a therapist for the first time, and the therapist is kind of looking at that person and thinking – well of course you’re going to heightened anxious, of course you’re going to feel that you’re not coping very well, you’ve got a visual impairment. Whereas there might be a disconnect between that and what the people who – the person who is blind is feeling and that actually they don’t feel that their visual impairment is having the impact on their mental health and it’s clearly down to something else. Could that be a tension that’s difficult for people to traverse?
You think about the process that we go through therapeutically it all starts with an initial meeting and during that first appointment you would expect a thorough and full assessment of the presenting problems. So, my advice to visually impaired people seeking therapeutic support is to hold off and meet with the therapist, go through the assessment process, be really clear with the person that you’re working with about the issues that you specifically want to address, suspend any judgements or biases until the assessment process is complete and if you’re working with a good therapist, in that first appointment, you’ll identify a problem list quite objectively and you’ll also identify some specific goals for therapy to work on.
And I guess that would also be the same advice that you would give to a counsellor – suspend any biases or prejudice is they were looking to deal with a visually impaired person?
Well I think that’s right, Lee. I would hope that anybody who works professionally within the counselling, psychology or psychotherapeutic environment is not only trained and practised to focus on problem solving, on listening, on insight, on support rather than judgement but that they’d also be working to their own ethical standards, which would mean that we would – we wouldn’t be in that first session making assumptions based upon anything other than what the individual is presenting with.
My thanks to William Philips.
And here’s just a small selection of your thoughts. Andrew Walker, a recently retired counsellor, emailed to say:
I was appalled at the way in which this young man was treated. There’s no justification for refusing therapy to someone on the basis of blindness. As far as I’m concerned, and believe that the professional bodies would agree, it would be the duty of a counsellor who did not feel able to offer their services to a client to find someone who would be prepared to undertake the work. Unfortunately, people in psychological distress are least able to challenge therapists about their conduct.
Dian Wilmington-Foley is a psychotherapist with a visual impairment, also retired, and she has a suggestion:
There are a great many therapists out there and not all of them are ignorant with regard to sight loss or other disability. It may be beneficial to all parties if a list of therapists who are confident enough to deal with sight loss and visual impairment was compiled and retained in each geographical area.
Well you’ll be pleased to know Dian the RNIB is looking to post a list of counsellors trained in visual impairment on their website.
Jonathan Fisher, however, feels that coping with depression is largely down to a person’s own resources.
Any slight or massive bouts of depression I’ve had were resolved entirely by my own inner mental resources. I can admire Ashley for his resilience and persistence, we visually impaired people need it. The telephone support line from RNIB is inadequately resourced and I feel little better than a tea and sympathy service.
And thank you to all who emailed firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned to leave us a message on 0161 8361338.
Now eyes and blindness are used by Shakespeare as metaphors for wilful ignorance or unwillingness to recognise truths. Most tellingly in King Lear and most violently too with Gloucester having his eyes rather unceremoniously removed. But artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gregory Doran, didn’t have any of those motives in mind when he cast Karina Jones in this season’s plays Measure for Measure and As You Like It.
Here he is talking about what he wants to achieve.
Hamlet says that the purpose of playing, the point of theatre if you like, is to hold a mirror up to nature. If you’re a young kid, black kid in Tottenham or an Asian kid in Coventry say, and you don’t see your face reflected in that mirror, you don’t see yourself up there on those stages or on those screens, then why should you engage in that cultural offer. So, we wanted to make a particular effort to just check ourselves, in terms of our casting processes, to see whether we were reaching all the communities that are out there and reflecting those communities.
Gregory Doran there.
So, his idea is to reflect society in its diversity on the stage. One of the ways he’s tried to do this is to add visual impairment to Sister Francisca, a mother superior figure in Measure for Measure. Well Karina Jones, I’m aware you’re speaking to me from the Royal Shakespeare Company now, probably surrounded by its people but how well do you think it’s worked?
I think that it’s working very well and in a way why wouldn’t it? It’s something that the disability community of actors have been banging on about for years that yeah, we can play anything, it doesn’t specify that any character in Shakespeare is sighted, so why can’t anyone play any character. I’m doing two plays, I’m doing As You Like It and I’m doing Measure for Measure and the lighting is something which makes a difference to me personally when I’m acting. And As You Like It is a very light play and Measure for Measure is a very dark play, literally, and the lighting is very dark and there’s lots of mirrors around. And I have some vision around the edges. So, that’s proved a bit more challenging for me but it’s nothing that we haven’t worked out and found ways of changing and making work really easily.
So, how obvious will it be to the audience that you’re visually impaired?
When I’m playing the nun in Measure for Measure the costume department and the design department had a look, if a nun was visually impaired in the time when the play was set, which is in Vienna 1910, something like that, what would be used. And so, I’ve got kind of – it’s a long cane, it’s like a stick, like a brown coloured wicker stick, I have that and I’m kind of assisted on by Isabella, who plays a novice nun.
So, it is fairly obvious that you’re visually impaired and how did you feel about that adaptation to the character for you?
A visually impaired woman in those times would have been very vulnerable and may be that would be a place that she’d go to – a convent.
You’re playing Sister Francisca, who is a sort of mother superior type character, we’ve got a clip of her, i.e. you, speaking to Isabella.
Clip – Measure for Measure
Ho-o, peace be in this place.
Who’s that which calls.
It’s a man’s voice. Gentle Isabella, turn you the key and know his business of him. You may, I may not, you are yet unsworn. When you have vowed, you must not speak with men but in the presence of the prioress, then if you speak you must not show your face or if you show your face you must not speak.
When was the first time you saw someone like you on stage?
I never have. I’ve seen times, since I’ve been on stage, where there’s been a visually impaired woman on stage, very rarely, not at all often enough but I never saw a reflection of myself on stage ever, no. I think in a film, I saw the film that I absolutely fell in love with, was Marilyn Monroe – How to marry a millionaire. Her character didn’t wear her glasses, so she couldn’t see anything and she’d follow the wrong man, she’d have to put her nose right up to the number of the door to see what number it was. And that was the only person that I saw being anywhere near like me on screen growing up.
And did you relate to that at all?
Absolutely, yeah, yeah.
So, masking your visual impairment and being – and having that displayed on stage.
Yeah, yeah, totally because I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t see anyone like me being an actor, so I thought well, I’m just going to have to be like everybody else. And it’s only recently that I suppose I can get employment being myself. And I think it’s sad that I didn’t have anyone growing up who I could look up to, but I think it’s really brilliant that now visually impaired young people are going to have role models who are doing things on the stage and on the telly.
Are there any visible adjustments in place for you in order for you to be able to do this work?
Yeah, I have a support worker with me and the support worker will have my script, so if I don’t know my lines yet, I’ll have the lines fed to me, so she’ll speak the lines and then I’ll repeat them. And when I’m working if the director gives me a note, the support worker will write the note down for me and then type them all up and then I’ll get them as a document later on that day. Going off stage, at the RSC, is quite daunting because it’s a really, really big stage. So, to make sure I’m off at the right place they wave a torch to the side of the stage, so I fix on the torch and then I can get off into the wings safely. So, there’s lots of little things that we’ve been working to find a way through.
My thanks to Karina Jones.
Details of Karina’s performances can be found on the In Touch website. And before I go just a quick word about the blindness concession for the TV licence.
Margot James, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, has confirmed that the government has no intention to change the blind, severely sight impaired, licence fee concession, regardless of the age of the recipient.
And you can find more information about that on the TV licensing website – tvlicensing.co.uk.
That phone number to leave us a message at In Touch is 0161 8361338. And the email address again is: email@example.com.
The producer today is Emma Tracey. My thanks to the team. Have a lovely evening.