Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stamp collecting connects a Hoare with a Durer

The working title for this blog post was ‘A Hoare with a Durer’, but on reflection I thought it best to edit it …

I heard an interview with Sir John Sulston on Radio4 and he mentioned the pleasure he got in stamp collecting.  I had already introduced philately into the draft of the Durer painting but I realised that I had collected stamps from Senegal, Gambia, Togo and Dahomey (Benin) and in fact had visited these countries in the 1980s and 1990s.   

I went to my first National Portrait Gallery talk for the visually impaired. (They are normally at 2pm on the last Thursday of the month.)  On account of a mix up on times I was there too early and on discussion with the staff decided to wander around the Tudor and Elizabethan section of the galleries.  Many of the pictures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth were familiar as was Archbishop Cranmer.  I had to ask who someone was and it happened to be Sir Francis Drake.  I then had a fascinating discussion with two other visitors who were passing the time waiting for their timed ticket entry to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition next door at the National Gallery.  

The group of around 8 people gathered in Room 11 with chairs clustered in front of a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo painted by William Hoare of Bath in 1733.  ( We were given an A3 reproduction of the painting which is the centre piece of a group of portraits of Methodist movers and shakers of the time such as Whitefield and Selina, Countess of Hastings.  The painting has been purchased by a museum in Qatar and will be on show in the NPG until 2015. 

The painting is a ‘challenging’ one in several ways.  Diallo was a slave trader from the modern day Senegal and Gambia area, and had wandered across the Gambia River into a different tribal area where he was captured. Face and beard shaved, he was shipped to Maryland in the American Colonies.  While a slave he was noted for his appearance and demeanour and with some bad luck was shipped to England where he was bonded until released for £59. 

Diallo is said to be the first African ‘Moslem’ to be painted in England and the NPG wanted to keep the picture.  There is a lot of context to this painting and much of the records of Diallo exist in contemporary notes.  He is described as an Islamic priest and he did not drink alcohol or eat pork.  He is said to have been reluctant to have his portrait done for fear of it being idolatrous.  On the other hand he wanted to be painted wearing clothes appropriate to his status in Africa.  He is portrayed wearing a white turban with a red cap on top.  I could make out the turban though the cap eluded me.  I queried the robes said to be of silk as the Quran forbids men to wear silk - or gold for that matter.  Much was made of Diallo’s scholarship in Arabic and he is shown wearing a Quran suspended round his neck. 

Marion, our guide for the painting, was armed with the record of the time and we were able to discuss aspects of slavery, enlightenment, abolition and the portrayal of the “African” of the times.  With a small group and the real painting in view, it is possible to do repeated iterations between the reproduction and the portrait.  Marion was able to indicate triangles of the body and the rectangles of the neck and other features of portraiture. 

Was Diallo idealised as a noble foreigner?  It is delightful that one can have discussions such as these in a gallery space. Dallio was a slave trader who was captured and crossed the Atlantic before returning home.  A lot of moral relativism and an interesting subject matter.  Get there before it goes to Qatar. 

Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Marion and Lucy for the William Hoare painting description.  A list of upcoming talks can be found on:

The monthly Art through Words at the National Gallery was Vigin and Child painted by Albrecht Durer in 1500.  (

Durer first came across my radar as a schoolchild interested in stamps. Two of my cousins and my uncles were interested in stamp collecting, and at the time a lot of geography and history could be assimilated through philately.  Ordinary stamps can reveal more about a country than many think.  I remember German (Deutsche Bundespost) definitives portraying Durer and Goethe.  As an 8 year old I hadn’t a clue who they were and my father got me an encyclopaedia and I was told to “look it up”!

As a student in Munich I had access to the Alte Pinakothek and on a trip to the Zwinger in Dresden was told that Durer was unrepresented in London’s National Gallery.  So it was a treat to have the Durer painting ‘Virgin and Child’ in the description series.  There is only one other Albrecht Durer painting in the National Gallery.  It is displayed in a show case near the Virgin and Child and is of St Jerome.

Not much is known about the Durer ‘Virgin and Child’ and the painting could be said to have “form” in many senses of the word.  What struck me was not the red rose robed Virgin, but the shape described by an arch.  While many of those attending the talk were versed in Marian iconography, I could not help being attracted to what looked like a large scallop shell (shades of St James and Santiago).  Eventually the red/orange robed figure and the green background could be discerned.  There was much discussion about the Madonna being clothed in anything other than blue.  Someone said that perhaps the Durer studio had run out of blue (lapis lazuli).

Our guide for the talk was Steven assisted by Jos.  The geometry of the painting was described and we had two enlargements of some details.  The details show trellis work and irises and these lines provide a frame for the figure.  There is also an enlargement of the hair and veil of Mary and a signature showing AD mysteriously on top of the varnish. 

The painting had been authenticated by Lord Clark (father of Alan Clark and Civilisation) It was sold to the National Gallery in 1945 and some doubts as to its provenance arose and whether it was a Durer workshop production.  (  One of the group commented that it was a beautiful painting workshop or not.  Modern science came to the rescue with the use of X-Ray and Infra Red techniques. 

The handwriting of Durer as far as the drawing of the painting is concerned could be discerned by looking under the surface.  A lot of the detail of the painting, including the butterfly, moth, vines, lily of the valley and peonies, was noted and some were able to identify the likely symbology of the period.  The painting could be part of an altar piece and Durer was possibly influenced by an artist based in Colmar on the French border. 

The high point of the visit is the actual viewing of the painting itself.  With such clear detail in our minds it is possible to stand in front of a work of art and appreciate it for what one can see.  The image of the large scallop shell did not leave me, even when in front of the painting.  It seemed that Shell Oil had stuck their logo in the top left hand corner!  The next time you partake of Coquille St Jacques think of me staring at the Albrecht Durer painting.

Many thanks to the National Gallery, Steven and Jos.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Guest post: Concert in the Dark - Amadou and Mariam from Mali

I am pleased to introduce another guest post, this time from Dennis, who has agreed to answer comments on the post.  Dennis is sighted and we share similar views on world music. 

A few weeks ago Dennis said he was going to ‘The East End’ for a concert of some North West African music.  The performers were blind and the concert was to take place in the dark.  I probably muttered that Blind Restaurants were springing up everywhere (I think Zurich was the first in Europe) and that there was also blind football and blind chefs. I was ambivalent and wished Dennis a good time and hoped to hear more after the concert. 

The BBC Radio4 programme In Touch covered the concert very well, though I could detect some mild exasperation in the voice of the presenter and as we are both visually impaired, we are probably attuned to little voice nuances.

Anyone reading my twitter feed will see some comments on blindness awareness and how some organisations in the health, retail and even charity sectors are hopeless.  I had been told by a hospital trust (NOT one that I attend!) that their nurses experience blindness for a day, well a couple of hours.  Many professionals and those “experiencing” blindness as a learning gimmick are rather shallow. After all, the lights come on again and the simulated blindness glasses come off ...


I'm a sucker for aural stimulation and buy CDs by people I've never heard of on the off chance a track or two, or hopefully more, will transport me to undiscovered countries.  Thus I stumbled on "Sabali" by Amadou and Mariam on a DJ mix album.  The song appealed for its vocals and rhythm.  I had no idea the performers were from Mali, or that they were married, or that they were both blind.

Perusing upcoming events, I discovered they were playing at The York Hall in Bethnal Green in London in a presentation by The Barbican, so I thought I'd don my explorer boots and find out more about their music by going to the gig.  When I paid for the tickets, I learned there would be no "show" as such as the entire performance would be in the dark.  We were warned not to wear open-toed shoes, high heels or strong smelling fragrances.

On arrival at the venue, my companion and I discovered something that looked like an old school hall, but was actually the home for boxing matches, and we were given a card to hold up should we need to leave the performance at any time.  An usher with night-vision goggles would escort us from the hall and we would not be able to return.  We made sure we would not need emergency toilet facilities.

As we entered, a tape was playing of random sounds you could hear in any urban development anywhere in the world - voices, dogs barking, cars.  It was illuminated as if it were twilight and then the lights went out completely, so I could not see my hand in front of me, or the person next to me, and I only knew an usher was walking past by the spring in the floorboard under me.

A cock was crowing on the tape, the sound I associate with imminent dawn, but it remained oppressively dark and I realised I felt unsettled and anxious as daylight stubbornly refused to break.

A man began telling us the life story of the musicians in an intense African accent and I had to listen hard to understand what he was saying.  I realised at that point how much I rely on facial expression and body language to help me understand what people are saying.  The couple began playing their songs.  At first, the music added to the unease I felt.  It was a hybrid of North African Arabic sounds and rhythms with those of the sub Sahara, and jarred in my ears used to western scales and instruments.

Gaps between songs were interspersed with more sounds on tape, more narrative and wafts of intense scents which I assumed were native to the various cities the couple visited during their story and rise to international success.

It took some time for me to relax into the music and to enjoy myself and the event.  As we left, I told my friend that I was sure I had felt breathing on my hands at one point and was freaked out by wondering whose face could, or would, be so close to my lap where they were clasped.  He laughed and told me that the darkness had made his mind wander and at one point, he had saw something light and bent towards it to see what it was.  It proved to be the dial on my watch, so it had been he who had been breathing on me as he bent to look at the light.  I told him he was lucky I had not punched him.

Musically, the gig was, to be honest, nothing special.  They performed "Sabali"' so I was happy, but a lot of the material left me unmoved, positively or negatively.  As an event though, it gave me an inkling, an insight, in to what some people without sight may sometimes feel.  I'm not saying I now know how blind people feel all the time, but it made me realise how much I take sight for granted.

I'm not sure this was the intent of the gig.  Possibly, the idea was to allow the audience - which was capacity and a couple of thousand strong on a third successive night - to experience the music in the same way as the performers.  In the west, we are accustomed to lasers, lights, videos and optical illusions to accompany the sound at concerts, so by restricting us to using our ears and noses and touch, we were in foreign territory.  That's pretty much how I imagine a blind person must feel when going somewhere new for the first time.

If you want to hear "Sabali", you can find it on you tube at


Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wellcome Collection: a mix of serendipity and discovery

UPDATE (29 November, 2011)

You can hear more about the mapping of the human genome in the BBC Radio 4 interview with Sir John Sulston (  This is an excellent interview with physicist Jim Al Khalili in the series The Life Scientific broadcast on 29 November 2011. Jim Al Khalili mentions Rutherford's statement that only physics was science and the rest was mere stamp collecting.  In this interview, Sir John admits to being both a chemist and a stamp collector!  Sulston is critical of the market driven project which was in competition with the open access sharing of data model which in the end has won out.  He points to the inadequacies of patenting everything as it emerges from the laboratory. 


I’d never been to the Wellcome Collection before, though I had a rough idea where it was.  It’s not far from UCH and Euston Square underground station.  I had used Euston Square station before but had always left on the north exit of Euston Road.  Two tourists from New Zealand kindly re-oriented me from the platform and they were quite pleased that I introduced them to the Wellcome Collection as one of them was going back to New Zealand to study medicine after completing her science degree. 

Catherine from the Wellcome Collection had spoken to our local visually impaired group and having passed round some tactile specimens, including a plastic brain, I was encouraged to make a solo trip.  On entering the Collection there is a guard, who offered an accessible lift in case I couldn’t use the stairs.  I was taken to the desk and Catherine was found by one of the tourists who had brought me in.  Catherine took me up the stairs of the building, which was completed in 1936 to house Henry Wellcome’s collection.  Wellcome was a magpie for collecting all sorts of medical ephemera and there is a range of artifacts from the sublime to the ridiculous.  The collection has relatively few captions for the exhibits and there are many informative staff who will discuss items of interest which you might have and also which they themselves enjoy.  It’s very non-proscriptive and as I met Kate and Lizzy (in common with all museums, the staff move around the building) during my two hours at the museum. 

Catherine started off with a work by John Isaacs entitled “I cannot help the way I feel” ( .  It is a talking point and challenges us to treat those with obesity as somehow less than human.  We then went to an artwork by Andrea Duncan titled “Twenty three pairs” ( )  This shows the imagery of using an odd sock drawer containing mismatched socks in twenty three pairs to represent a set of human chromosomes.  (DNA genetics, genome)  This encourages a debate on nature vs nurture.  I asked Catherine about the pairing of X and Y.  The final pair were in fact two Xs, so it was a woman! 

Also in this area is a collection of books in a bookcase with the letters “GCAT” – representing the four bases of DNA, adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  Near the book of the genome is a robotic analyser which has been running more or less non-stop for 15 years.  The Collection then moves into some of the memorabilia of Henry Wellcome, including a portrait of him.  He has a remarkable moustache and there is a copy of a life mask of Henry Wellcome which can be touched.  I hit the nose first of all and then worked out the other features on his face.  There are several display cases with themes such as ‘the start of life’ and ‘the end of life’.  The end of life cases include reliquaries, and I was able to discuss my visit to the recent Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum and the Mony Musk reliquary on show in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh.  There are also several vanitas exhibits - )  These were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries during great religious revivals. 

Many types of ethnographic samples of ritual, life and death artefacts are also assembled.  Apparently, one section is quite popular with those on a date.  Whether they were on a blind date is a moot point.  It’s certainly more interesting hearing mechanistic descriptions of the start of life artefacts than listening to some football commentary.  I couldn’t make out much of the detail of the various exhibits, but Kate and Lizzy were only too keen to answer questions of the “what’s this” type.  I remember passing a memorial to children who had died in infancy and a book which had been bound with human skin.  There are tactile exhibits, one of which is the face of a doctor of van Gogh.  This doctor had a pronounced forehead and on reaching to touch the tactile model, the forehead was the first item I sensed. 

There is also a collection of paintings and I was attracted to one of a nun and asked who it was.  It turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of Galileo and she had been packed off to a convent.  In addition, the Collection has copies of works such as those of Bosch.

After saying goodbye to Catherine, I went to the busy coffee shop and got some coffee and cake, with the staff finding me a sofa as the café is very busy and popular.  It may be something to do with UCH being adjacent and the exhibits on the first floor but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on two women talking quite loudly and with abandon regarding their exploits (one of them was Scottish and probably not much younger than me).  How delightfully uninhibiting this place is!  It appears you do not have to be visually impaired to cast off inhibitions.  There is a friendly bookshop next to the café and I bought some postcards, one of which is an advert for a Burroughs Wellcome product.  The bookshop staff are equally uninhibited as the postcard selection was explained to me.  I had been attracted by a blue postcard and it turned out to be for “Tabloid Laxative Vegetable”.

Prior to my visit, Catherine had emailed me some information about the Collection as follows:

Here is a link to the accessibility page on our website 

With regards to our events, please do check the website. Unfortunately our events are very popular and do book up fast however we do have a few drop in events that you can attend. We are unable to provide audio description along-side our events at the moment but please do check some of them out and see what you think.

Many thanks to Catherine, Kate and Lizzy for a wonderful afternoon (19 November 2011).  I think I will attend some of the science lunchtime talks.

Tip:  Euston Square underground station is useful for UCH and there is an underground walkway with lifts to the surface.  The underground station staff are very helpful and on my way back into the station, was taken to the platform.  We discussed tactile markings on the way to the platform and the staff member accompanying me was interested in my comments on platform to train access and the lack of step free access to the trains. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Blind chemist - Marie Curie - Light Fantastic

1.  Through Twitter, I have learnt of a student of geology in Gainseville, GA USA.  His university worked out a scheme so that he could 'follow' the contours within a map.  This illustrates adaptive technology which may not be rocket science.

Gainesville State student inspires map for the blind

2.  Regarding solar energy, a talk was recently given at Imperial College by Professor James Barber on the occasion of the Ernst Chain lecture.  The subject was “The Big Bang of Evolution and the Engine of Life” and dealt with the concept of an “artificial leaf” in harnessing solar energy.  I was not at the lecture, but have been advised by a friend who attended it.  More information can be found at the following link:


I had been telling a friend about a blind chemist who had used Velcro in tactile models as a way of understanding chemical bonds and some reaction mechanisms.  ( My friend searched for blind chemist on a smart phone and was impressed by the tenacity and ingenuity in making some concepts accessible to the visually impaired.  I was at the eye clinic for routine eyelash removal (8 this time) and a medical student was being shown the ropes with my permission.  The ophthalmologist was giving a running commentary on what could be seen on a screen on my eyes.  I commented that I could make out dancing rhombus shapes on waking up. Apparently this is normal and the student was made aware of this phenomenon.  It then dawned on me that I had been talking about benzene rings and that I had been hopeless in drawing them.  At any rate this was hardly the time and place to discuss the epiphanic moment of Kekule and the benzene ring. 

I have been to two interesting talks at the Chemistry Centre in Burlington House.

Harnessing the light Fantastic was the subject of a talk by Dr Nick Terrill of Diamond Light Source Ltd, based in Harwell, near Didcot in Oxfordshire.  ( The UK’s national synchrotron facility produces intense light which can be used in researching complex molecular structures.  Various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum can be used to evaluate complex structures, and one of the research projects is looking at organic co-polymers or complex plastics which could be used in the “next generation of photovoltaics, which use plastics instead of silicon.”

Recently, the UK government decided to cut short the FITS (Feed in Tariff scheme) which stimulated a rapid growth in solar cell installations for a fixed period of time based on domestic installation of solar cells on roofs.  An industry had been building up on this and the government has been taken to task by some for abandoning an industry at its early stages.  The question which ought to have been asked was: Is it right that the tax-payer should subsidise an expensive way of generating electricity benefiting only those with the available roof area? 

This topic was very well discussed at a free-thinking talk hosted on BBC Radio 3 at Gateshead recently.  The talk was stimulating and the topic of the Scottish Enlightenment was praised and blamed in the same round for creating an industrial capitalism and the concept of consumption and greed.  I have sympathies with the views expressed by Colin McInnes, though the other speakers too had many good points.  You can hear the programme via iPlayer on:
'Radium' Marie & Pierre Curie
by JMP (Julius Mendes Pirece)
Vanity Fair, 1904

On a more reflective note, a lecture celebrating the centenary of the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Marie Curie was given at the Chemistry Centre by Dr Serge Plattard, the Counsellor for Science and Technology at the French Embassy in London.  ( ) The chairman of the meeting was Professor Peter F O’Hare (, with Marie Curie Cancer Care connections and research interests.  The lecture was sponsored by GSK.  The lecture was titled "The three lives of Marie Curie", including her formative years in Poland, her dedicated research in Paris and her application of both her discoveries and those of her husband to medical science.  Dr Plattard mentioned that Marie Curie had a mix of being gifted, obstinacy and serendipity.  Occasionally Dr Plattard used tenacity in place of obstinacy , but serendipity was a recurring theme.  During the questions, I asked about measuring serendipity.  There was a political edge to my question as it echoed some of the terminology shared by Sir John Cadogan and his being awarded the Lord Lewis Prize.  Professor O’Hare and Dr Plattard discussed this with me afterwards.  A very enjoyable evening.

The lecture should be available in the next few days to watch on the following link

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Frank Stella: Connections at Haunch of Venison, London

UPDATE: 1/1/2012

Haunch of Venison is operating from 6 Haunch of Venison Yard (in the Bond Street area of central London).  There is an exhibition until 18 February 2012  "featuring works by many great post war British artists such as Bacon, Freud, Coldstream, Andrews, Auerbach and Hockney."

** end of update

A few months ago I was walking past what used to be The Museum of Mankind and wandered in Haunch of Venison, the art gallery ( had taken over this space and I made a mental note of the location (Burlington Gardens), not far from Piccadilly Circus or Green Park underground stations. 

A week or so afterwards, I heard a programme on BBC Radio 3 describing the Frank Stella exhibition at Haunch of Venison and it sounded fascinating.  The discussion was about 2-D and 3_D effects and the sensation of being drawn into a painting or piece of sculpture.  I made a mental note to try this out as I had found the visual overload term of other artists to be useful in making some work of art visible to me with my peripheral vision. 

I passed by the gallery when it was closed and a poster caught my eye. (As it turned out, it was for another exhibition!) It looked like a giant red torus or doughnut.  So, I made another mental note that I ought to go when the gallery was open.  This I did yesterday and was thrilled when Charmaine at the desk took me to the installation and when I met my red doughnut, it wasn’t part of the Frank Stella exhibition at all!  It was an exhibition of the works of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. 

With one conundrum solved, Charmaine took me to the rooms where the Frank Stella sculptures and paintings are located. 

My peripheral vision picks up lines and stripes, especially if they are repeated and even fractured.  I had described one of the pieces as resembling an earthquake or subduction tectonic plate fault line as portrayed on a geological map. 

There are many examples of tricks of the eye, or trompe l’oeil, in this exhibition and one is never sure from a distance if the piece is 2-D or 3-D as a painting or as a piece of sculpture.  I mentioned to Charmaine that I had been to the Anton Henning exhibition in Edinburgh, and it turned out that Haunch of Venison used to show his work! 

Charmaine was really encouraging in explaining the objects and we shared our own impressions of what the eye could make out.  The gallery doesn’t do postcards, though catalogues are available.  Charmaine had said she would send me some email images of the pieces I enjoyed.  What I hadn’t expected was that Charmaine had made a mental note of some of my descriptions and sent a guide of the works I had enjoyed in an email. 

If you are in London and you have some spare time, visit this gallery before it closes; and if you have any specific requirement, contact them.   This was a piece of serendipity on my part and it illustrates the engagement of many in the arts world if you show an interest in some pieces of abstract art, which would otherwise be inaccessible or may not be on your own radar. 

The pdfs that Charmaine sent me opened straightaway and were read from front to back and all the images loaded without a problem.  They are stunning and while I usually avoid some images on the blog, if you have some residual vision and you like these images you can find out more from the gallery - Charmaine is certainly one of those inspiring and enlightened gallery contacts and a big thanks again! 


The first is: Barber Osgerby, Corona 1100, 2011, Painted steel wall light, 110cm diameter x 26cm deep

The second is: Frank Stella, Red Scramble, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 175 x 350 cm

The fourth is: Frank Stella, Bafq, 1965, Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 238.8 x 274.3 x 10.2 cm.

Let me know what you can make out from these images.

The third is: Frank Stella, Tetuan 1, 1964, fluorescent Alkyd on canvas, 195.6 x 196.2 cm, signed and dated '64 (on the reverse) (this is the Stella in particular that you liked, with the changing lines)

Friday, 4 November 2011

Sight Village, Kensington Town Hall, 1st and 2nd November ,2011

Update: 18/1/2012

Queen Alexandra College has announced the dates for Sight Village events during 2012.    I attended Sight Village 2011 at Kensington Town Hall in London and recommend this exhibition as useful for the visually impaired.  The exhibition is geared for the visually impaired market and it is important that the visually impaired themselves express their opinions directly to providers of services, whether through charitable organisations, businesses or government agencies.  There is always a danger that views expressed through third parties may miss out a vital link in communication. 

I have made some comments regarding some lack of blindness awareness by some of the exhibitors at the exhibition and trust that these ideas were at least taken on board and acted upon.  The more visually impaired people attend these forums themselves independently, the more relevant these will become. 

Edinburgh and Glasgow

The Sight Village Roadshow events in Scotland will take place in Edinburgh (Grosvenor) Hilton on April 24th and the Glasgow Marriott on April 25th. We look forward to welcoming visitors from throughout Scotland. (booking for exhibitors is now open)

Sight Village Birmingham

Our flagship event returns to the New Bingley Hall in Birmingham on 17th and 18th July 2012. It remains the largest exhibition of its kind in the UK. Plans include a number of Keynote speakers reflecting the issues of current importance to people who are blind or partially sighted. Sight Village Birmingham will aim to be of interest to people of all ages with features aimed at children and young people. The range of technology and services on display will enable visitors unparalled access to compare and experience the best of what is new and exciting and the range of support and services available. (booking for exhibitors is now open)

Visiting Birmingham - Need information?

If you are joining us for Sight Village in July and need some information or advice about the UK's second city, let us know. You can contact the Sight Village team by email and we will do our best to help.

Sight Village London Roadshow 2012

The London Sight Village Roadshow returns to Kensington Town Hall on November 6th and 7th 2012. Increasingly, people are choosing to visit both the Birmingham and London events, combining a shopping break in Birmingham and a London visit with attending Sight Village. Whatever you do either side of the show we know that you will find plenty of interest from our exhibitors.

(The above was taken from an email newsletter sent out by Queen Alexandra College.)

** end of update

I had included Sight Village on a previous post and was reminded of the event while at the RNIB shop last week.  I was further reminded of it with a tweet, so I decided to go and checked the website, got the instructions and tweeted my plans and set off. 

I knew that something was up when the Circle Line stopped at Royal Oak.  The announcement at Baker Street had said 'Circle Line to Hammersmith', but it failed to register with me which Hammersmith underground station.  I had to double-back and arrived at High Street Kensington and with a piece of information missing, took a wrong turning and got lost.  One retail outlet (footwear) was unhelpful if not downright rude.  However, a branch of Ryman’s couldn’t have been more obliging and said I ought to continue along to a McDonald’s at the corner, turn right and Kensington Town Hall was further up the road on the left (look out for scaffolding on the pavement). 

I got to the Sight Village exhibition later than I had intended and checked in.  I commented that my own tweet had a missing piece of information and it might have been an idea to have some alert at High Street Kensington or instructions should a visually impaired person arrive.  The check-in and registration people pinned my badge on, which is a nice gesture as it is too easy to wander around with a badge the wrong way round.  I was also asked if I wanted to see something specific and was taken there. 

I had a long day there on my own and only got round about 40% of the exhibition, which was in three rooms, one of which was downstairs.  This is not obvious on arrival. I went back the next day with a sighted friend in order to check out some of the items I had both tried out and some which I had obviously missed. 

I’ve been used to exhibitions and conferences most of my professional life and this was the first exhibition primarily aimed at the visually impaired market.  One could be cynical and say that visually impaired / stroke industry, as there were quite a few organisations busy networking and doing business, which is the primary purpose of an exhibition.  The charities were out in force, as were technology suppliers, user groups, interest groups, the Metropolitan Police, the DWP; outlets related to travel and communications, colleges, audio and audio description enablers plus digital switchover groups. 

Speaking as someone who has been both in front and behind an exhibition stand, I can honestly say that it is very hard work for both parties.  Many companies use exhibitions as a so-called treat with expenses paid for some of the staff but sadly some of the exhibition staff had poor awareness training in the needs of visually impaired people.  For example, I hadn’t a clue what a given exhibitor stand was about.  I didn’t know in some cases if there was anyone there, but in a few cases I was aware that in an otherwise empty and silent stand a pair of hands was realigning obsessively leaflets into neat piles.  I still don’t know what they were exhibiting.  The attitude of some exhibitors was different when I was accompanied and on a few occasions I was treated as an onlooker rather than being the sales target.  First rule of marketing: find the MAN.  This is not sexist, it stands for Money, Authority and Need.  Sales and marketing people ought to learn this first rule.  That said, I found the exhibition really interesting and apart from a few examples outlined above, got a lot out of it in terms of how technology is developing and how those with visual impairments can increase their participation in society without being marooned in “disability korner”. 

I found several inspiring people and as I have no requirement yet for a guide dog and can’t do Braille, I would like to mention Neil MacDuff from Blazie and Dee Beach from The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.  I learnt more from these two inspiring people in a few minutes than many so-called experts in social care/counselling.  It would be invidious to point out other people as anyone reading my twitter feed and blog posts would know that I have an interest in getting tactile maps and plans made more available; and an interest in audio description and its strengths and weaknesses, speech to text and text to speech technology.

I thought I would have had no interest in magnifiers but I came across several examples using CCTV where I could make out my name on the screen for the first time in 10 years!  This was more of a shock to the friend I was with as I had virtually given up on being able to read again from the printed page.  My eyes did hurt at the end of trying out several different approaches so I’m not sure if I’ll go down this way.  Still, the technology seems to have improved a lot in the 10 years since I lost my sight.  One hilarious event was when my name was picked up from the screen into a screen reader and predictably stuck an extra consonant in.  I’ve had this problem so Professor Whitestick became Professor Whitenstick for a brief moment.  This technology would be quite useful in skip reading applications and a normal flick through an item with residual vision and getting the screen reader to do the next.  Doing a search command is all very well, but keywords have to be known in advance so that the opportunity for something ‘catching your eye’ is lost.   

I was pleased to note that on the second day of attending Sight Village, Ray from QAC was at the station doing a great job of greeting and meeting.  My friend noticed quite a few independent cane users and visually impaired people with guide dogs, so it was encouraging to note that it is possible to do this exhibition on one’s own. 

Tip for attending exhibitions:
If you don’t have electronic ways of keeping your information and contacts, it’s a good idea to ask for a business card and get the person to date it with your recollection in a few words of what you discussed.  You can gather the cards and either keep them for scanning and getting your comments recorded by a third party, so that you have reference at least to the person who told you about the product. 

Tip for exhibitors: 
If someone is staring at your exhibition stand and has a dog or a white stick, they may not see you and you will have to both greet and welcome them to your company.  If you hear someone say, “Is there anyone behind this stand?”, you may have failed your disability awareness training.


This is a comment that I made in response to a Guardian article on disability issues, which as it says in the title, is more than just building wheelchair ramps:

I agree with much of the sentiment of Matthew Harper. As a blind person, I frequently have to use my hands to eat, am messy at a table and of course cannot read a menu. I don't consider being given a menu at a restaurant as being made to feel inclusive, when it ought to be clear that some alternative should be offered, or the menu read to me. The use of the word 'apartheid' is one which I have hesitated to use in disability circles, but I think the time may be right to use this word in terms of the 'disability korner' mentality, where 'we' tend to be grouped.

Recently, I was at an exhibition geared towards the visually impaired 'market'. At several stands I stood and had to ask: "Is there anyone there?" It wasn't a seance. These are so-called disability professionals. If a blind person has to ask at a reception desk, at a till or at a help point if there is anyone there, then someone has just failed their disability awareness qualification.

Being visually impaired means I can't judge the non-verbal communication of others who witness my appearance or even behaviour. The old maxim of "Does he take sugar?" still applies; it's something we get used to, but it always grates and it often hurts and seldom makes one smile.