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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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'People always say my dad is amazing. He's not, he's just blind'

A new play aims to challenge perceptions about people with disabilities.

GROWING UP, PEOPLE told me my Dad was amazing, which didn’t make any sense to me. He’s pretty boring, he works a 9-5 and watches Coronation Street in the evenings. I soon realised they were only saying this because he was blind.

Those are the words of Anna Sheils McNamee, who has written a play called My Dad’s Blind. It’s a work of fiction but is inspired by her family’s real-life experience.

Anna (30) said she wrote the play “to challenge people’s perceptions, specifically our default setting being to infantalise people with disability”, adding: “People are more than their disability.”

Anna is now based in Dublin but was born in London before moving to Derry at the age of 11.

MyDad'sBlind_HiRes1 Anna Shiels McNamee in a promotional shot for the play. Source: Ste Murray

Her father John had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in his late teens and gradually started to lose his sight in his 20s.

“The process of losing your sight is way harder than being blind because you know what you’re missing,” he told us.

‘People would stare’ 

“When I was born dad was pretty much already fully blind,” recalled Anna, adding that she and her siblings “never felt sorry for him or made exceptions”.

“We used to leave our school bags on the floor … It would drive him crazy, he was falling over. He would shout, ‘You do know I’m blind?!’,” Anna said.

John said this behaviour was annoying, but positive in another way.

“They used to drive me mad. It’s a good thing in a way, they weren’t precious about it. They weren’t jumping up saying, ‘Oh, there’s something in your way.’”

John said, when she was younger, his other daughter Nuala assumed that because he didn’t drive, no fathers did.

Nuala’s assumption was that all dads did not drive, it wasn’t the case that her dad was blind.

“Once when she was about six she asked a friend how she was getting somewhere. They said their dad was driving them and she wondered how this could be the case, ‘Dads don’t drive.’”

Anna said that while she and her siblings “hardly acknowledged it in the house”, their father’s blindness became more apparent when they were outside.

“When we were out and about it was different – you’d guide dad around and quite a lot people would stare at you, a small child guiding a man around,” she said.

“That was quite intimidating, I was a shy child.”

Speaking about this, John said: “No child wants their parent to be different – whether it’s the type of jacket they wear of the fact that they’re blind.”

Anna said that, when she was seven or eight, she told her dad she didn’t want to guide him anymore.

“I said, ‘Look, have a think about it’,” John told us.

“Dad was really good about it and a month later I told him I wasn’t embarrassed anymore,” Anna stated.

John was working as a bookkeeper when he began to lose his sight and knew he had to switch careers.

“At that time when you were blind you could be a basket weaver, a telephone operator or a physiotherapist. He became a physio,” Anna said.

John retrained as a physio at the age of 26 in London, where he worked for about 20 years.

Treating adults like children 

Her father is very independent but people often treat him in a childlike manner or are unsure of how to speak to him, Anna told us.

“When you’re in a shop some people might say to me, ‘Does he want a bag with that?’ rather than ask him himself. That kind of makes me angry.

I know a lot of that is people’s nervousness, they don’t mean to offend and you have to forgive them.

John agrees that people don’t mean to offend but can end up saying or doing the wrong  thing. In his experience, he said, it’s better to “take the lead” in this type of situation.

“You need to let a sighted person know how to deal with it, they’re embarrassed. The blind person doesn’t want to give the shop assistant a hard time either…

“The handiest thing is to say to the person beforehand, ‘Don’t make eye contact with the shop assistant’ so the shop assistant has to engage with the blind person.

“Wheelchair-users would have the same complaint. People will engage with someone else if they’re with them. That’s a societal thing that’s changing all the time.”

While other characters are referenced, the hour-long play just features Anna as herself and Darragh Kelly as her father.

John said he’s “nervous but really looking forward to seeing” the play, adding that he thinks coming at the topic in a humorous way is the right approach.

“I hope she get a few laughs out of it. You can’t make that a heavy topic, the place would be empty.”

Anna said the play is “very irreverent” and will challenge people’s perceptions.

In the play I say a lot of un-PC words that you’re not supposed to say, the whole point is to reclaim vulnerable words.

“People are so afraid of what to say and not say … There always should be a dialogue, you can say ‘hot’ words while being respectful.

“I have reasons for saying the riskier things, it’s not that I just want to shock people.”

Anna said she’s somewhat worried people may not like elements of the play for this reason but added: “It’s impossible to please everyone.”

My Dad’s Blind will be performed at the Project Arts Centre as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival from 18 – 22 September.

The play is co-produced by Pan-Pan Theatre Company and is supported by the Arts Council, and Arts & Disability Ireland. More information can be read here.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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