My day job brings me into almost entirely happy contact with dozens of talented young students. Magical musicians, sonorous singers, active athletes, serious scientists and anarchic artists abound. What makes them extraordinarily special is that they all have some sort of Visual Impairment, ranging from varying degrees of partial sight, to total blindness. Liam Midwood is one such individual. He’s a writer, among other things. This talented teenager is a wizardly witty wordsmith, who has already published many of his poems. I bought a large print copy of his book “My Life in Rhymes”, which he signed for me. This "CustomEyes" book works well as fund-raiser. It can be ordered through the National Blind Children’s Society. It is also available in braille and audio CD formats, from Liz Little, who I am sure, when she reads this, will almost certainly post her contact details in the comments section below.
In the above photograph you see Liam in full writerly flow. He was busy creating a poem, from scratch, entitled “Difference”. At least he was, until I interrupted him with my camera. His piece was inspired by some story-telling workshops, which were part of an end-of-academic-year, two-day “Creative Arts” project. The groups of young people taking part were charged with inventing seven separate, wholly imaginary islands, each with its own unique culture. Two and three-dimensional artefacts were manufactured, supporting tribal lifestyles, along with illustrative mythologies, music, movement, and dance. Fantastic ideas were coming to life in clay, paint and being shared in stand-up performances at the end of the second day at a gathering of the insular clans.
Liam and his family have been kind enough to allow me to use not only this image, but also the voice recording he made specially for me, which you should find embedded later on in this post. Frustratingly for me, photographing children is, today, an activity which must be managed beyond any possible hint of reproach in our Internet-influenced global village. I’d love to show you at least fifty other black and white images, ones through which I documented all the fun and excitement, but the law is very clear indeed: I simply cannot yet.
I do have a hope. It's the fragile embryo of a dream that one day I will have negotiated all the complex rights required to produce a picture book for you. It could be sold in aid of “my” school. It's a unique place where many special students interact with many equally special teachers, to raise, realistically, practically and successfully, the expectations of those who, had they been born but fifty years ago, would have faced very different prospects. They might have had to have been content with "safe" occupations such as basket weaving, typing, telephone operating or piano tuning. These were viewed by those in charge as sustainable ways of earning a living, allowing blind people to develop their self-esteem while contributing "usefully" to society.
The young adults I teach can become computer programmers, linguists, mathematicians, politicians, broadcasters –- in fact just about anything they want to be, if only they are prepared work at it. New technologies such as talking cell phones, voice operated word processing systems and moving braille displays on their computers empower them. Such is the difference today’s “special needs” education is making. Lives are being changed in diverse and positive ways at New College Worcester, and I'm proud to be playing my part in that work.
Pictured above is a fragment of the poem called "Difference", which Liam wrote on his Perkins Brailler, a manually operated machine which resembles a court stenographer's "shorthand typewriter". The middle line of dots, eight braille cells in all, reads "prisoners". Prisoners is a nine-letter word, of course. But Braille is another language: the letters "e" and "r" together are represented by one symbol. It's merely one of many "contractions" which speed up reading and writing. By the way, never ever play a game of Scrabble with Liam, unless, that is, you like to lose frequently. I strongly suspect he has memorised the entire Scrabble Dictionary. And boy can he argue a point!
Here's the MP3 recording he made: