Preserving the Heritage of Blindness

by Brian Bergen-Aurand


One of the accepted modern understandings of dis/ability is as a lack or shortcoming to be overcome. Being dis/abled is associated with loss, vulnerability, and dependence. Something to be avoided, especially because of its “nature” as less than normal. Rarely, if ever, has deaf culture, blind culture, dis/abled culture been thought of as something on its own, let alone as something of value, worth preserving. A new exhibition in London–HOW WE READ: A SENSORY HISTORY OF BOOKS FOR BLIND PEOPLE–is a significant gesture toward altering this accepted perspective toward being dis/abled. Dedicated to putting on display and preserving the heritage of blindness, How We Read demonstrates the materiality of blind culture, history, and heritage, challenging the boundaries and hierarchies between dis/abled and abled cultures and histories. In the process, it risks showing how abled culture depends upon these boundaries and hierarchies to define itself as “not-dis/abled,” rewriting what it means to be human and what it means to experience culture and heritage at all. What a fine risk, indeed!

(Now I just need to get to London.)

From the How We Read website:

How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People
When: 17-23 November 2014
Where: Peltz Gallery, School of Arts, Birkbeck, London WC1H 0PD
“How We Read” is a free exhibition of assistive technologies designed to help blind people read. From raised print to talking books and optophones, a fascinating array of historic artefacts will be on display from museums, archives, and other centres dedicated to preserving the heritage of blindness. For the past two centuries, such devices have made reading material accessible to hundreds of thousands of visually disabled readers in Britain.

This exhibition will introduce visitors to a range of reading formats beyond the conventional book whilst encouraging reflection on the ways in which different sensory modes have been privileged at certain historical moments and by changing communities of readers. Giving the public a chance to see, hear, and touch different types of books, “How We Read” aims to expand conceptions of what it means to be human, by exploring the many ways in which we do something as simple as read a book.

A series of hands-on activities, interactive workshops, and live performances will allow visitors to try out for themselves alternative ways of reading. These include: descriptive tours led by an experienced museum curator; a workshop in which participants learn how to read Braille and other raised types using their fingertips; a panel led by visually impaired readers who will share their experiences of reading books in different media; and a live reading by a professional actor who has recorded books for people who are blind.


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