Blindsight- Climb Every Mountain?

At the Chicago premier of the 2006 documentary film Blindsight I was reminded of Werner Herzog's The Land of Silence and Darknes (1971), on the work of German deaf- blind activist Fini Straubinger. It's disheartening to note the lack of substantive documentaries on blindness to follow Herzog's first feature length production. And Herzog can still be recognized as one of the first directors outside of the disability rights movement to cast actual disabled people in his films (as opposed to coddled Hollywood directors/ actors cloying grabs for Oscar nominations with their touching portrayals of disabled people's lives- a.k.a. the "Blackface" of Ableism). So, just in time and in the spirit of the season, here's my take on the new documentary film.

Blind people are no strangers to strories of overcoming- something producer Sybil Robson- Orr and director Lucy Walker (Devil's Playground) are certainly conscious of in their treatment of extreme sports enthusiast Erik Weihenmayer's bold concept for the film. Responding to an invitation to speak at Braille Without Borders following his historic climb to the top of Mount Everest (Weihenmayer is the first blind man to claim that distinction), Erik encouraged a group of six blind teens from the school to join him on an expedition to climb a 23,000 foot peak. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is its surplus of "firsts" competing for attention: Braille Without Borders is the first school for the blind in Tibet, where, prior to its founding by Sabriye Tenberken in 1998, blind children were shunned and denied access to education. The word "zhara," meaning blind idiot, is a common slur in the region despite the unusally high number of blind people living in Tibet.

Rejected by the German peace corps because of her blindness, Sabriye traveled on horseback to the outlying villages of Lhasa on her own to recruit students to attend school. In its short ten year history Braille Without Borders has expanded to include a massage therapy training program and a working farm in addition to offering traditional academics, Braille and Orientation and Mobility classes.. Many students undergo a process called "self- integration" wherein they enter the general school system. The school now operates under the leadership of BWB graduate Kyila, one of the students featured in the film.

It is against these dramatic backstories that the teens' thrilling climbing expedition unfolds. As the team begins training exercises each student is paired with an experienced mountaineering guide . Erik coaches the teens on alternative techniques like walking with two staffs on rugged terrain as opposed to the white canes normally used for mobility. Sabriye voices her concerns about common dangers such as altitude sickness but ultimately consents, hoping for a memorable learning experience for her students.

For me the most interesting passages in the film took place in the kids' homes where parents' reactions to the expedition subtly and succinctly reveal truths about family dynamics and the diverse attitudes towards blindness found in Tibetan culture. One father recounts the day that smoke from fish frying on the fire seemed to aggrevate his daughters' vision, adding that he knows that her vision had likely already been affected prior to the incident. Another parent casually jokes with his son that, of the 200 annually reported climbing accidents, "you'll be the one to fall off the mountain."

A couple of summers ago, I worked with blind teens at a training center in Colorado where rock climbing are popular confidence- and trust- building exercises. I carry a lavalier keychain to remind me of that summer in which I scaled a sheer cliff or two of my own- literally. Rock climbing is a great tactile sport when combined with good training in responsible alternative techniques. I can tell you that the ropes and harnesses supporting one's weight in case of a mistep (or grab) are reassuringly thick. It's a sport requiring teamwork, trust, guts and a respect for others' natural strengths and limits. It also challenges you to live in the moment in a way that few activities can.

That said, Blindsight is a film that examines hubris and acceptance in equal parts, and the personalities of Erik and Sabriye are well- suited to the task of examining our complex relationships to each. Tension plays out most vividly during the climb itself as the western- trained mountaineers and Sabriye debate the true measure of a successful expedition, brining to light the underlyuing cultural differences between the American adventurers and Tibetan teens. It's reasonable to add that blind people need not "climb every mountain" in order to acheive self- confidence, particularly in a country already having to contend with things like nationalist oppression, poverty and foreign influence.

Braille Without Borders is itself a western import, though ultimately a valuable one for the people of Tibet. According to the producer in a Q&A following the Chicago screening, the school now has to issue vision tests as its popularity has grown to entice sighted applicants.

Learn more about Braille Without Borders and how to support their efforts in Tibet and India. More information on the film can be found at blindsightthemovie.com.


Blindsight, Chicago Premier

Starts April 11 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago! Meet the Producer on Opening Night!

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas, Blindsight follows the gripping adventure of six Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The dangerous journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge -- made all the more remarkable by the fact that the teenagers are blind.

Believed by many Tibetans to be possessed by demons, the children are shunned by their parents, scorned by their villages and rejected by society. Rescued by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind educator and Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Germany who established the first school for the blind in Tibet, the students invite the famous blind American mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer to visit their school after learning about his conquest of Everest. Erik arrives in Lhasa and inspires Sabriye and her students Kyila, Sonam Bhumtso, Tashi, Gyenshen, Dachung and Tenzin to let him lead them higher than they have ever been before. The resulting 3-week journey is beyond anything any of them could have predicted.

Directed by Lucy Walker/Produced by Sybil Robson Orr

Released by Spark Entertainment/104 minutes/35mm/MPAA Rated PGIn English and Tibetan with English Subtitles.
For the trailer and more information please visit:


Starts Friday, April 11: MUSIC BOX THEATRE, 3733 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago, IL 60613, 773-871-6604, www.musicboxtheatre.com

Daily Showtime April 11-17: 7:20pm; Sat/Sun Matinee at 2:30pm
Audio Description for the visually impaired available at all BLINDSIGHT shows.
SPECIAL EVENT AT THEATER ON OPENING NIGHT:A discussion and Q&A will follow the 7:20 show on Friday, April 11 with Sybil Robson Orr, Producer of BLINDSIGHT.

For more information contact Karen O'Hara at
karenoh@aol.com or 520-326-0813


My Touch Lecture's Available from College Art Association

In February I had the pleasure of giving a talk on contemporary dis/ abled artists who explore the sense of touch in their work. I now have a copy of the panel discussion on cd for anyone interested in the topic. Maybe if I'm feeling ambitious I can figure out how to put it up on the blog. You'll get to hear me stammering away about the minor offenses of Derrida, the intrigues of Judith Butler and the awesomeness of artitsts Catheine Sherwood, Sandy Yi, Stepehn Lapthisophon and me. You might even be able to hear the old school chook- choocks of a slide projector in the background!

In Search of Vision's Body: the Role of Touch in the Practice of Painting and Architecture can be purchased online, along with the entire catalogue of events from the 2008 College Art Association Conference in Dallas. Be sure to check out my co- panelists and organizers Sanda Iliescu, Thomas Berding, Phoebe Crisman, Nathan Coleman and Derek Brueckner.


The Texture of Cyclops and Supernovas

I'm rereading a passage from James Elkins's chapter on blindness in The Object Stares Back. This piece was really important to me as an undergrad painter. It opens with this surprising observation.

Because we cannot see what we do not understand or use or identify with we see very little of the world- only the small pieces that are useful and harmless.

This statement had an odd impact on me at the time, perhaps it was the weight of 500 years of ocularcentricism lifting from my shoulders. Artists definitely pick and choose what themes will be central to their work though the single- mindedness of their choices aren't always harmless. In their own lifetimes, painterly obsessions are often treated as professional liabilites. I'm reminded of a 19th century critic's snippy comment about J. M. W. Turner's "cyclops-" those exuberant globs of yellow ochre and cadmium red suns stamped like a wax seal on his canvases.

When I was younger looking at reproductions of Turner's paintings I'd wonder, what's with all the seascapes? Turner's work isn't meant for remote viewing; standing in front of one of these paintings is the best way to explore physical evidence of the gestures that first ignited the chemical surf.

Painting has everything to do with residue, films, sheens, traces and other forms of pigmentary reffuse. Now that we're well into the second decade of digital imaging and with more than a century of photographic processes behind us, I'd argue that this textural alchemy is what makes painting great.

In Blindness Elkins' attention turns to the stars themselves when describing vision's remarkable exclusivity:

Perhaps ordinary vision is less like a brightly lit sky with one blinding spot in it than like the night sky filled with stars. He asserts that vision is immensely troubled. Sight is not merely partial blindness or selective seeing but a determinate trading of blindness and insights. I couldn't agree more, and I appreciate it when he positions blindness firmly in the physiological sense of the word. At least he recognizes that blindness exists on a continuum with vision; at one end is 20/20 vision, at the other, total blindness. Most of us (including most blind people) occupy a space on the bell curve falling somewhere between these two coordinates.


Supurban- thanks for asking!

I can't think of it as the suburbs- my apartment's only a couple of blocks from the El after all, but after ten blissful years in the city my street address no longer contains a Chicago zipcode. I'm still just 30 min from the Loop, and to my knowledge there are no kids picking banjos on their front porches. The public library, a 40's style diner and parks are all within a three block radius of my house and the big fur tree ourfront brings me disproportionate amounts of joy. I don't miss Pilsen- not yet anyway. I will miss my landlord, a Polish grandma/ architect who drove me home from the hospital once and brought me soup when I was sick- but I digress.

I haven't been homesick for any of my old apartments in Chicago, with the possible exception of my first, a historic women's international dorm in the Gold Coast which has since been turned into condos.

As for Alabama, well I'm always homesick for Cheahah and miniscule hillside towns swimming in pine trees. I miss the geophraphy of forest and foothills and indigo ridges in the distance. I do NOT miss the flatness of the prairie or the brown shrubs midwesterners stubbornly refer to as trees.



When I began this blog, I never imagined Id be reporting on hate crimes, but here we are. There are infinite ways for the heart to break over this stuff, a kaleidoscope of faces and stories that flicker across the Internet and are never heard from again. Documenting hate crimes against people with disabilities should be handled with the same swiftness and professionalism as crimes committed on the basis of race, sexual orientation or religion. We know this, so why hasn't the media gotten the message? It's unconscionable for a crime like the premeditated beating death of Brent Martin by three teenage boys to go unnoticed by the major networks.

Meanwhile, my friend "Saul" is concerned about going to a birthday party at a friend's house. He's afraid his sister won't let him go. He thinks she doesn't trust him to be on his own. It may be true that ableism clouds her perspective, but Saul's sister is also influenced by the very real fear that what happened once will happen again. Saul is the survivor of a hate crime. I doubt anyone in his neighborhood would classify it as such. They tell themselves, these things happen. Better keep him home from now on for his own safety.

Punishing the victim, restricting his freedom- this makes sense to some people. As solutions go it is a fairly low maintenance one. Apprehending the assholes who target people with disabilities, prosecuting them and raising awareness about such offenses takes work. It takes a zero tolerance attitude and cohesive action on the part of law enforcement. More importantly, it takes a commitment from the community to assert that these things don't just happen. When a person with a disability is assaulted- this is major news, because we should all be on the same page on this one! Is our culture really so degraded that we're incapable of acknowledging the thugs who do this, which, let me point out, is an attitude that is still painfully, pitifully, far from voicing public outrage?

When my friend Saul is discouraged from going out for fear that he will "get into trouble" or more accurately that trouble may find him, it sends the message that Saul's freedoms are held in lower regard than those of the punks who assaulted him. It suggests that there is no middle ground- no cell phones, for instance, that he could use to call someone if he happened to need assistance? It implies that there is no safe public space for people with disabilities. It smacks of the "women ask for it" myth. I'm loathe to even go into the various ways Saul could achieve his goal of traveling independently because that's so not the point of this post.

Look how easy it is to give into a lie when dissenting voices of those in the know are kept at the periphery.


Media Musings: Rock the Loud Minority!

Every blog carnival that I've had the pleasure to click through leads me to the same conclusion. I am thrilled at the range and depth of talent of the writers in our blog community- and stunned at how many of us type away each day delivering consistantly fabulous, illuminating contnet- for free and easyInternet consumption. I do believe that writers should get paid for their craft, but we all know the significant challenges involved in getting quality disability- related content out to the masses by means of popular media outlets- i.e. those that write checks.

The reason we invest our valuable time and limited resources- essentially reporting the news for free- is simple. We care about the issues that affect people. Regardless of one's position in life, the concerns affecting people with disabilities affect us all. Americans can no longer afford to hide behind an "us/ them" mindset. We in the community understand the nature of the dividing line, that it is infinitely porous, fluid. Maybe it changes its course as you enter your senior years, have kids, when new neighbors move in across the street. The line arches to encompass friends and relatives at all stages of life, colorfully winding its way through our communities. When did your "them" start to bear an uncannty resemblance to those you call friend, colleague, lover, parent, child?

If you are under 40 you likely shared a classroom with a disabled student. Maybe you hung out, went to each others birthday parties. You did not attend a segregated school system, why accept media that is one- dimmensional and lazy with the facts about a vital segment of your community? Take this as fact instead: disability issues influence YOUR legislators, YOUR community leaders, YOUR bills in congress, YOUR healthcare providers, YOUR school districts, YOUR places of business, YOUR economy.

It is my hope that disabled journalists, with or without a venture like [With-tv] will figure out a way to fill the gap created by popular media's consistant misrepresentation and cliche- ridden content. This week's blog carnival hosted at [With-tv] is a fine compilation of voices and a testament to the possibilites of engaging a broader audience.

With the current writer's strike network television is at a standstill. But writers in the disability blog community won't go silent because we understand that the price of media complacency is a debt of devastating proportion. Turn to this week's blog carnival to read some of the facts the mainstream media overlooked.


Happy Holidays!

Polar bear sculpture using "found" mosaic pieces- I love the teapot nipple on her belly! This expat Berliner Bear stands outside a popular Canadian restaurant where we retreated for a hearty breakfast during our stay in Berlin (Germans eat a lot of cold cuts for brekfast, this gets tiresome).

More of photos of my vacation to Berlin and western Czech Republic can be seen here.