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  • Andrew Scott

Notes on Blindness

This week I watched the extraordinary film, Notes on Blindness. It is the story of John Hull, an academic who lost his sight, and is based on audio recordings he made, with actors lip-synching his (and others') words.

The film is gentle and not very fast-paced, yet it packs a remarkable punch and has lived with me ever since I watched it. It documents John Hull's gradual yet remorseless loss of vision, and has a number of understated but heart-wrenching moments - such as hearing his young daughter suddenly scream in pain and not knowing why, nor being able to get to her quickly... and reflecting how useless a father that made him feel...

Overall, the film is about his struggle to make sense of, to find meaning in, his blindness. As a Christian and a theologian (he was Professor of Religious Education at Birmingham) he was not prepared to accept any easy or simplistic answer to this. His search, of course, reminds one of Viktor Frankl's extraordinary work on helping people to find the meaning in their suffering, and his wonderful apologia: Man's Search for Meaning.

Yet at the end of his wrestling, he finally decided that he had to accept his blindness as a gift, and the question that then presented itself was what to do with that gift.

What he did with it was extraordinary. His book, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, which was later expanded and re-published as On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness was reviewed in the New Yorker by Professor Oliver Sacks: There has never been, to my knowledge, so minute and fascinating (and frightening) an account of how not only the outer eye, but the 'inner eye', gradually vanishes with blindness; of the steady loss of visual memory, visual imagery, visual orientation, visual concepts... of the steady advance or journey... into the state which he calls 'deep blindness.'

He continued to write on theology, and on practical religious matters, with the additional perspective on blindness and disability that his own experience gave him; and was increasingly involved in training leaders in the Methodist and Anglican denominations, particularly in prophetic ministry: speaking out on issues of social justice.

He also initiated the very practical Cathedrals Through Touch and Hearing project, which provides Cathedrals with models of their buildings, along with audio commentaries, to allow people with impaired vision to explore them in a tactile way.

And I reflect that he had many stories potentially available to him about his blindness, and his choice - to believe the most positive one he could - made a profoundly positive impact on him, and led to his leaving a rich and potent legacy.

John Hull died in 2015. May he rest in peace.

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