Constance Alexander: Tackling the many stereotypes, misconceptions about blindness

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If you think a film festival exploring Hollywood’s take on visual impairment leads to a blind alley, you’re missing the big picture. But if you had been at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville Saturday, you would have had the opportunity to gain some insight into stereotypes about blindness, as well as the countless ways that — regardless of physical differences — people are pretty much alike.
 

For the second year in a row, the museum is presenting a summer series of films with leading characters who are blind. All the films include audio description that verbally fills in visual details that cannot be discerned solely through dialog and sound effects. Brain-child of educator and former Murray resident, Katie Carpenter, this year’s festival launched on Saturday with a screening of the 1972 film, Butterflies Are Free.
 

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Oscar-winning actress Eileen Heckart is an overprotective mother, determined to get her 24-year-old son Don, played by Edward Albert, to move back home. Don, who was born blind, has defied her by renting an apartment in a seedy section of San Francisco so he can live on his own. It is the late 1960s, the Age of Aquarius, featuring every parent’s nightmare: flower children, free love and funky attire.
 

Don befriends Jill Tanner, a loopy young woman in the adjoining apartment, an aspiring actress who, at 19, has already been married and divorced. Played by Goldie Hawn, with wide-eyed ditsy-ness tempered by occasional flashes of common sense, Jill holds some typical misconceptions about blindness. When, unthinkingly, she asks Don if he has read any good books lately, for instance, she wilts with embarrassment.
 

“Just ask me if I’ve felt any good books lately,” he replies, a line that got a laugh from the audience.
 

Throughout the screening, moments of levity were interspersed with occasional good-natured criticism. For instance, when Don said he could feel Jill’s face and tell what she looked like, an audience member called out, “Someone sighted wrote that line,” and others chuckled in agreement.
 

In follow-up discussion facilitated by Bellarmine professor Nancy Urbscheit, there were more observations about the face-touching scene, pointing out that such gestures are acts of intimacy. In addition, someone who has been blind from birth, as Don was, would not have a frame of reference to determine how a person looked based on touch. It was mentioned, however, that one who lost sight later in life might find touch helpful in piecing together an impression of another person’s appearance.
 

“It’s like listening to a sunset,” an audience member remarked, a reminder that people who are blind or visually impaired perceive things differently than sighted people.
 

Discussion explored other persistent misconceptions about blindness, including when the sighted talk very loud, as if a person who is blind cannot hear.
 

The audience also had mixed reactions to the scene where Don counted steps to find his way around his new neighborhood. “My life is way too full to be counting steps wherever I go,” one member of the audience said, while another person piped up, “There’s an app for that.”
 

In the end, the audience agreed that Butterflies are Free was less about blindness and more about romance, but with some serious overtones. The group seemed to agree that the mother’s transformation from smothering to encouraging was satisfying and that all the characters had changed in some significant way.
 

“It was an honest ending,” someone remarked, while another added, “There was a lot left up in the air.”
 

“To be continued is the real ending,” was another comment, quickly followed by the best audience line of the afternoon: “All other things being sequel…”
 

The festival continues on Saturday, July 26, at 12:30 p.m. with See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and ends on Aug. 16, again at 12:30, with a screening of Ray. To register, call 502-899-2213, or email kcarpenter@aph.org by noon the day before the screening.
 

The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind is located at 1839 Frankfort Avenue in Louisville. Admission is free, and the exhibits and programs are informative and compelling. Outreach programs for schools, scouts and youth groups are also available. For more information, check out the website here.
 

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Constance Alexander is a faculty scholar in the Teacher Quality Institute at Murray State University. She is also a freelance writer.
 

To read more from Constance Alexander, click here.

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