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Expert Comment: Challenging the RNIB's new See the Need campaign

David Bolt 150 x 150 Friday 9 October 2015

Writing for The Conversation, Dr David Bolt, Associate Professor in the Department of Disability and Education at Liverpool Hope, has criticised the RNIB's new See the Need advertising campaign, which involves celebrities such as Dame Shirley Bassey and Barbara Windsor imagining what it is like to be blind.

Dr David Bolt: 'Shame on you, RNIB: you see the need of blind people but omit our achievements' 

Negative to the extreme, the RNIB’s new See the need campaign couldn’t be more offensive to people who have visual impairments if it tried. Viewers of one of the advertisements are presented with a head-and-shoulders shot of a middle-aged woman as a voiceover explains: “This is the moment your doctor says you’re losing your sight. You’ll fear for your job, your home, your life.”

As someone who’s been registered as blind for more than three decades and has written extensively on the subject, I find it simplistic and damaging to so reduce the experience to deficit. My great concern is that this kind of negative portrayal contributes to the very desperation on which the new but nonetheless outdated See the Need campaign depends.

In a second advertisement, singer Shirley Bassey is asked if she can imagine what it would be like to lose her sight, to which she replies: “It would just be devastating. It would be like telling me I’m going to die!” In a third advertisement, actor Barbara Windsor says: “I’d hate not to see. I couldn’t bear that.”

The gloomy words of these two national treasures serve only to confirm the idea that sight is the supreme sense – from which it follows that other means of perception are meagre. How is this terrible logic meant to support people newly diagnosed with a visual impairment?

The big irony is that the campaign focuses on sight rather than the recognition of people who perceive by other means. The very name of the campaign, #seetheneed, employs the verb see in a rather trite regurgitation of the age-old metaphor for knowledge.

In a similarly clichéd vein, portraits of actor Neil Morrissey, Shirley Bassey and Barbara Windsor have been shot by photographer Alistair Morrison. I use the word cliché advisedly here. To my absolute dismay, in the portraits these well-known celebrities all close their eyes, supposedly to: “raise awareness of the challenges facing people who lose their sight.”

But can anyone really believe that to close one’s eyes is to empathise with people who have visual impairments? If so, my own understanding of empathy is at fault here.

It’s important to acknowledge that there’s a very good reason for the See the Need campaign. Currently, only one in three eye departments in the UK has a sight loss adviser, according to the RNIB. The aim of the campaign, is that all of these deficient hospitals gain access to a “specially trained member of staff who can provide practical and emotional support to patients who have just found out they’re losing their sight”. It goes without saying, almost, that I fully approve of this aim and am appreciative of much of the support provided by the RNIB more generally.

The problem is that this regressive campaign is purely negative and so insulting to people who experience the world via other than visual means. I understand that the early stages of sight loss are often difficult and so must be represented as such, but this is only one part of a highly complex experience. The RNIB’s new campaign focuses on fear at the expense of reality. Where’s the balance? Perhaps the time has come for a campaign against so-called charitable campaigns that are based on negative representations.

The See the Need campaign must be updated or else abandoned completely before it contributes to the broader issues the RNIB endeavours to address. Rather than only seeing the need we should also get to know the great achievements and potential of people who have visual impairments.

Originally published on The Conversation 

About Dr David Bolt:

Dr Bolt is the Director of the Centre for Culture & Disability Studies in the Faculty of Education, where he also teaches Disability Studies and Special Educational Needs. He is founding Editor  in Chief of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (Liverpool University Press), co-editor of the book series Literary Disability Studies (Palgrave Macmillan), and has places on the editorial boards of both Disability & Society and the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Dr Bolt's book The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability (Ohio State University Press, 2012) was recently reissued in paperback. Dr Bolt is author of The Metanarrative of Blindness: A Re-Reading of Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing (University of Michigan Press, 2014) and editor of Changing Social Attitudes Toward Disability: Perspectives from Historical, Cultural, and Educational Studies (Routledge, 2014).

Listen to BBC Radio 4's The World at One, where Dr Bolt discussed the issue further (40 minutes in).  

Full profile - Dr David Bolt

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