Great Britain

Comic Jamie MacDonald on being creative and blind: ‘It’s triumph with – not over – adversity’

I’m a blind standup comedian, currently co-starring in the BBC Two documentary Blind Ambition. As the title suggests, the show is about blindness. But please don’t think this is a violins, tissues at the ready, “oh didn’t they do well” type of documentary. The show creator and Essex wide boy Jamie O’Leary wanted to make a different kind of show about disability.

You’ll know the classic disabled show formula: person has a dark phase then overcomes their disability and achieves something wonderful. In this paradigm the disability is a hurdle that needs to be jumped over. Or, if there are mobility issues at play, an obstacle to get around. In the Blind Ambition paradigm, blindness – a disability readers of the New York Times voted the worst thing a person could have in the world (which is bollocks as blind people can’t read the flipping New York Times so couldn’t vote) – is positive.

Opera singer Lizzie Capener.
Opera singer Lizzie Capener. Photograph: Flux Photographic Ltd/BBC/Television Repairs

Jamie O, as I call him, has got bad eyesight. Nothing like as bad as mine. If he wears his mad quadruple-glazed specs he can see pretty well, whereas I can hardly see a thing. That’s why I was hired. I provide the credibility so Jamie O can give us the jeopardy. Jamie O’s eyes have come to the point where he needs surgery to maintain the sight he has. Problem is, if the surgeon is not on top form, or just doesn’t like the look of him, he could end up balls-to-the-wall blind. He’s quite concerned about this, and this concern is what inspired Blind Ambition. Jamie O wanted to see if there were other blind creatives out there and – SPOILER ALERT – there are loads! So in March 2021, during Lockdown 2 (my personal favourite of the lockdown series), we set off around England to meet some fine examples of blind creatives or, as is more accurate, creative people who are blind.

First up was blind photographer Ian Treherne. The reason we met him was twofold: to find out how a blind person could take good pictures on purpose, and to try to swindle some free production stills from him. I’m happy to say that both were achieved. Ian has a tiny patch of clear vision, which he uses to great effect. I was assured the pictures he took were fantastic. He told me that even though I couldn’t see I could still be a great photographer.

Next up on our blue badge, Covid-secure, magical mystery tour was the young rapper Stoner. This aptly named weed smoker lost his sight as a result of meningitis. As a 41-year-old middle class Glaswegian I don’t think I’m Stoner’s target market, but his music sounded pretty good to me. At the other end of the musical spectrum was opera singer Lizzie Capener. She has been performing nationally and internationally for more than 20 years. She gave us a singing lesson and the less said about that the better.

Then we met Chris Fisher. He is the UK’s only certified blind wood turner. This guy is incredible. He lost his sight rapidly in his 30s. With zero vision he took up wood turning. He has modified lathes and wood turning tools and, at the time of writing, he’s still got all his fingers.

Wood turner Chris Fisher.
Wood turner Chris Fisher. Photograph: Nicola Fisher/BBC/Television Repairs

At the end of documentaries there’s always the “What did you learn?” bit, isn’t there? What I learned was that Jamie O’s snoring can keep me awake through a Premier Inn wall. But I think Jamie O realised that if the worst happens and he does lose his sight then it’s not the end of his creative life. What was also confirmed to me is that these brilliant people aren’t looking to be considered inspirational. They are talented people excelling in their fields regardless of their disability. Each one of them has had to come to terms with losing their sight as I have done myself. Wood turner Chris described losing his sight as being like a bereavement.

What all the guys had in common was positivity. They don’t wake up each morning longing to see. They each incorporate their blindness into their creativity and get on with it. The show is not triumph over adversity, it’s triumph with adversity, and everyone who voted in that stupid New York Times poll should watch and learn!

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