Eye-opening common sense

26th May 1995 at 01:00

LIFE SKILLS. Age group: 14-plus. BBC Radio 3 FM. Mondays 2.00-2.15pm. Also on cassette fromBBC, 201 Wood Lane, London W12 7TS Tel: 0181 752 5252

Carolyn O'Grady reports on a lively series about living with visual impairment. There is a fine balance between programming for groups with a specific disability and creating a ghetto, but this series treads it well. Life Skills is targeted specifically at visually-impaired young people but, as the notes make clear, it also represents an opportunity to introduce and discuss disability issues in a general studies or personal and social education class, and there is a lot other teenagers could learn from it.

Programmes are snappy, lively and short. Designed to trigger interest rather than provide in-depth information, they include a group studio discussion, a guest and music and soundbites from films and other programmes. First and foremost they aim to give visually-impaired young people a chance to discuss and confirm their experiences and to challenge stereotypes.

Of course, as the many young visually-impaired participants demonstrate, many of their interests are exactly the same as the average teenager (dancing, music, films, football) but there are also perspectives and practical and other problems they have in common, many of which, it emerges, have to do with the attitudes of sighted people.

The first programme begins with some statements from sighted people about blind people. And jolly patronising they are: "They can't do very much, can they?"; "Traditionally they do telephonists' work"; "I know one who was a piano tuner"; "They can do repetitive work" and that sort of thing.

Also revealed was the tremendous ignorance about visual impairment. Few realised that of all registered blind persons in this country only three per cent are totally blind.

Yes, the group of young people agreed, sighted people did think "we're stupid or have got the lurgie or something". But at a deeper level, and here the discussion entered the realms of literary stereotypes, blind people are also considered sinister (take Blind Pew in Treasure Island), very wise (like Gloucester in King Lear, who gains insight with blindness), or endowed with heightened senses of smell or touch like the character played by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. It's a lot to live down, or up to, and none of the studio group wants it. Like everyone with a disability, they wish above all to be treated like normal people.

It is this normality which is underlined in the third programme on arts and leisure, in which visually-impaired young people discuss their hobbies including art, snooker, football and going to the cinema all interests which sighted people might think are denied to the visually impaired.

The group also looks at how their enjoyment of these areas might be improved by such schemes as audio description in cinemas and a scheme recently introduced by Liverpool Football Club which enables blind people at football matches to listen to descriptions of the game through Walkman-like radio sets. Trying out some of these schemes, most of the young people approve, but not all are enthusiastic many consider they are managing fine anyway, a confidence which may come as a shock to sighted people whose tendency is to pity and over-protect them.

These are entertaining programmes, mainly because of the humour and common sense of the young people. It's their comments which provide the insights for sighted people and to which visually-impaired listeners will probably best relate.

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