Saturday, 26 February 2011

Art Challenges

Coloured etching of waterfall
All the way through school and college I was fascinated by art and  drew and painted every day.  I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult career as a blind person. However, the miniaturisation of video cameras in the 80s provided me with the opportunity to paint and etch, because without it I wouldn’t have had enough vision. The camera allowed me such powerful magnification, I was able to paint detail like never before. I was even able to see the end of my brush and pencil for the first time. 
However, due to this  majorly focussed method of drawing, I was never able to see my art work in its entirety. I had a video camera pointing at a table, on which I laid my art work. On my left there was a monitor at head height where the work was shown. While looking at the monitor I was able to paint or draw anything under the camera. To complicate matters further, I was totally blind in my right eye and in my left there was only a little vision out of one section. 

It was like painting a jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time. I had to constantly maintain the total picture in my head so that the complete image would make sense.
As with all students leaving, college many years ago, I met with the careers adviser. He read a list of all the classic blind jobs of the day. piano tuning, audio typist, masseur, physiotherapist, and telephony.  I shook my head and rejected them all.

He could have saved some time at the beginning if he had only asked me what I wanted to do?
   Despite having very poor vision, I had found that I was good at the “dual” arts of drawing and pontification! I was determined to pursue my art. When I told him this, it was as if I had suggested brain surgery. I’ll give him credit, he did his best to try and dissuade me. “Your sight isn’t good enough. There’s not any money in it. Do you know how fierce the competition is?” All is true and I considered his views carefully and then rejected them!.  

Consequently, I went off to become an artist - in later years, when what little vision I had failed, I became a journalist. Where I get to pontificate on a daily basis, great!  
black and sepia coloured stones steps going down to the river
When I think back it’s hard to believe that I worked as an artist for nearly sixteen years, until I lost what little vision I had.  The artist and reporter of today seem like two different people. However, I’ve now put a number of prints for sale on to a website. It is best that these etchings get aired, rather than sitting in the loft gathering dust.

The difficulty is, the artist is effectively dead as I am now totally blind and unable to create any more etchings, but I want people to enjoy the work I have completed.
Have a look and tell me what you think, see the link to the right and below.  

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Renton goes Tweeting!

For the next couple of weeks I've allowed Renton to control the Tweets, while I focus my attention on the Blog....

Pic. of Renton at window looking for inspiration!

Ian Hamilton is not responsible for the content of Rentons Twitter views 

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

It is Award season and "The Worst Guide" In the World goes to......

Pic. of guide dog lead and harness hanging on chair
The main differences between the canine guide and the human guide are: humans don’t sniff strangers in embarrassing personal places, (in general that is!) nor do they attempt to pick up discarded kebabs from the gutter. [Well, most of them don’t.]
To be a good guide. requires more than dragging someone from “A” to “B”, a guide needs to be aware of; differences in walking surfaces, how wide a gap is to walk between and the height of over hanging obstacles like low branches and signs. When I’m being guided I take the guide by the elbow or shoulder and walk half a step behind. So as long as the guide takes into account any imminent dangers it should be simple. Well.. you would think so. For some people however, this appears to be beyond their capabilities. Labradors with pea brains can cope and neurotic German Sheppard’s manage, surely, a human could do it effortlessly. I can split bad guides into three categories.
Pic. side view of Renton ears at the ready!
The first is the ethereal guide: so busy describing the wonders of the world they often fail to communicate the basics. Potential fatal obstacles, like cliff edges are often over looked in favour of the descriptions of the surrounding scenery. My partner Christine falls into this category. 
She is five feet and I’m six feet tall. A factor that Christine forgot as she led me along the beach once on holiday.  She was so preoccupied with her new surroundings and describing the beautiful turquoise sea, that, she forgot the row of coconut trees that I was bouncing my head off of as we walked along the beach. 
The second type is the over zealous variety.  They can be a menace by taking their job so seriously. They describe every potential hazard within a mile radius in infinitesimal detail that overwhelms me with irrelevant information. Every small crack in the pavement, a tree, and leaves on the tree, a wall and anything else within view, is audio described. I am suffering from complete information overload and it’s impossible to take it all in. So I just stop listening. Inevitably I’ll walk into something, much to their displeasure. 
The third is the lackadaisical guide, my Artist friend, Andy is a good example.  We were in Paris working on a joint sculpting project, and we had to get around on public transport. To discover that he had the guiding ability of a disoriented Lemming was a shock. It became apparent very quickly, that Andy just couldn’t guide a blind person. 
One of his main problems was being able to tell his right from his left hand... For long periods Andy would guide me along the wide streets of Paris when he would terrify me by unexpectedly shouting “run left, now!,” we crashed into each other like some kind of keystone cops scene as he shouted again, “no I mean right” I then sprinted across one of the busiest roads in Paris against the traffic lights hanging on in terror.    

Dressed for the award season Close up Rentons fur, all wavy and textured

These days I’m very choosy whose arm I’ll take. So don’t be offended if I stick with Renton .  He might be young  and inexperienced, but at least he knows roughly what he’s doing. 

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Valentines Day.

No-ne has mentioned my hairy elbows!
Black/white picture of Renton with loving haze surrounding it!

People have asked me in the past; “How do you meet someone romantically if you’re blind, it must be so difficult?” Which is true, as so much of human communication is through body language and eye contact. A glance from a stranger across a crowded bar accompanied by a smile is lost on me. In the past, the only way I could meet someone in a pub or club, would be if I tripped over them on the way to the toilet. Being blind I had to discover other methods to meet that ideal partner.
When I did meet someone, the two things that struk me most were; did they smell nice and more importantly, did they have an attractive voice? I’m not saying what they looked liked wasn’t important. I would ask one of my friends to check them out. After all, I do have an ego and had absolutely no intention of walking into a bar with a gorilla on my arm… even if she did sound like Mariella Frostrop and had a well brushed coat!.  
However, I couldn’t get rely only on the information only from the tone of someone’s voice or sweet scent to make a judgement. So if David Attenborough wasn’t around to audio describe my prospective date, there was only one option left - the elbow test. The eyes might be the window to the soul for the sighted, but for me, the elbow tells me everything I need to know about a persons character and body shape. The elbow is the part of the anatomy I hold on to when I’m being guided. There are the obvious signs like height and weight... thin elbow = thin person, fat elbow = fat person and it can also tell me about someone’s personality. Some people are very nervous when guiding a blind person - and I can feel that anxiety in their arm. Others push their arms out from their bodies keeping me at a safe distance.  As if they are trying desperately to disassociate themselves from the horrifying experience. Others will clamp my hand so tightly to their waist, it makes my fingers go numb, making escape impossible. [I expect at this point you’re checking your elbow.]  
 When I was fortunate enough to find someone who passed all the sound, fur, scent, and elbow tests, it was time for that first meal together.
it’s a rule of mine to avoid certain foods, for example spaghetti. It’s bad enough when you can see, but when you are blind, it’s a disaster. I end up flicking it across my face and around my ears. Peas, Brussels sprouts and boiled potatoes can become lethal missiles as they are fired across the table at my date.   
The other dangers are candles. If I’m not burning my wrist, as I make a romantic gesture, I’m sticking them up my nostril as I lean across the table to pick up the salt.  

Fortunately, that particular first date turned out well, as the lady in question is now my partner. Oh yes! And she also has the most fantastic elbows and a strange addiction to bananas!. Have a happy Valentines Day

Friday, 11 February 2011

I’m blind, but there’s no need to talk to my dog

I'm worn out with people constantly asking how I became blind. I'm 47 and blind since birth, and you would think by now I would be used to this question.
If anything, I'm getting more impatient with the same old questions. "Have you been blind all your life?” Answer: "Not yet".
"Your hearing must be so much better than mine?" Answer: "Pardon?" "That's a lovely  Shepherd you have there." Answer: " Shepherd? My dog is a  Labrador."
Not original answers, but they always make me and Renton, my Shepherd, chuckle.
It always happens when I'm trapped and unable to escape. Like, when I'm on a bus, train or taxi. People are naturally interested and I understand this, but they can't resist going that little bit too far.
"Couldn't you get an operation to get your sight back?" Answer: "No! I like walking into walls."
"My auntie was blind. She had to stay in bed. You're so brave going out and about." Staying in bed. Umm, now there's an idea I never considered.
"How do you find your mouth when you eat?" Answer: "In the same way you find your bum when you wipe it."
"If I was blind I would kill myself." Answer: "Why wait?"

These questions and many more are the reasons I've come up with a plan. For years, various organisations have been providing Blind Awareness Workshops. In fact, I've delivered a few. These workshops show the public how they should behave if they meet a blind person. Topics such as, don't go up and shout at blind people, they are not deaf , ASK, if they want to cross the road? DON'T drag them across the road by the ears. When you are giving directions, DON'T waggle your finger in some vague direction and say: "It's just over there next to the post office. SEE, you can't miss it."  "Well do you Wanna bet?

My training session will teach blind people how to cope when faced with this kind of attitude. When people come up and say: "You are a lovely boy" - when talking to the dog. Say, "Thank you very much but I'm spoken for."

Another tip is always to have a pair of headphones in your pocket. It is awful to be trapped on a train with someone going through all their fears and traumas about being blind. Just say that you are going to listen to an audio book. Pop on the headphones and put the jack in your pocket. They'll never know the difference.

I Promise you using such techniques is the only way to survive if you are blind. 

Thursday, 10 February 2011


Renton with his smokey bone and view over the River Clyde, lying beside my desk
In the past week Renton and I have been out filming for our BBC documentary. For a year now the film crew have been following the process of working with a new guide dog. 
As part of the programme, I've been posing the question, "why in this day and age,  are blind people still relying on an animal to guide them?"

You would have thought, that by 2011 we would be using far more sophisticated means of mobility. Like: very accurate GPS systems, echo methods and implants. Sadly no. We are still a long way away from finding reliable high tech replacements for the guide stick and dog. Perhaps even several decades away. 
However, a dog like Renton is not just a form of mobility, he's also a fantastic companion. People approach me for a chat when I’m with Renton,  who  would normally be either to shy or embarrassed to strike up a conversation. Yes! It can be a pain, but at least I’m not ignored. 
I also use a satellite system for the blind, which is totally speech enabled, but I would never use it on it’s own as it isn’t accurate enough.

Renton supervising my work at the BBC

 For the foreseeable future I can’t imagine working without my dog. 

                      So, I’m sticking with Renton.