Until We Get More Blind Actors On Screens, We Should Work With Those Like Natalie Dormer Who 'Get It'

In her new film In Darkness, Dormer portrays a blind pianist - she was keen to do sensitively and accurately
Hannah Mckay / Reuters

This week a new film, In Darkness, featuring A-list actor Natalie Dormer as a blind pianist, is released in UK cinemas. It has reignited a debate about the media’s portrayal of blind characters, and in particular, sighted actors taking on the role of someone with sight loss.

The organisation which sparked the debate was RNIB, which I chair. RNIB tweeted about how it had worked with Natalie to help her prepare for the role.

The tweet proved controversial, with dozens of blind and partially sighted people taking to their keyboards to express their frustration that a blind character was going to be played by a sighted actor, yet again.

I completely agree that it’s high time we saw more people with sight loss on TV and in films, taking on roles behind the camera as well as in front of it.

RNIB weren’t involved in the casting decision for the film. On many occasions, they have advised producers and researchers to cast blind or partially-sighted actors. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of talent out there!

But RNIB was right to engage with Natalie to give her the advice she asked for to help her portray the character, which I know she was keen to do sensitively and accurately.

There are tons of myths and inaccuracies out there about being a blind or partially-sighted person. Lazy and ill-informed portrayals do huge damage and only perpetuate these out-dated ideas. Refusing to engage on a point of principle would have made RNIB part of the problem.

RNIB worked closely with Natalie and several blind and partially-sighted people, as well as eye health experts, over many months to give Natalie the advice and insight she was looking for, which included being shown how to use a cane, by a partially-sighted person.

It sounds like Natalie found the experience thought-provoking: she pointed out that the script had her character switching on a light and wanted to know whether a blind person would do that?

I’m glad Natalie reached out to RNIB for help and took time to talk to blind and partially-sighted people about life. I’m sure she got a great sense of the everyday frustrations and weariness of dealing with some of those outdated perceptions - the kind of knowledge that only someone who not only ‘gets it’ theoretically, but lives, it can truly have.

The vast majority of people don’t have the first clue about what living with sight loss actually means. We still live in a world where being blind is often something to be pitied, something that happens to other people.

On the whole it’s a good thing that the experience of sight loss is getting more attention. Natalie is creating a piece of art. She is bringing to life a character who might encourage people to think about the experience of sight loss: how we all see the world differently and what this might mean.

I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m looking forward to watching it. Here’s hoping it’s got a decent AD soundtrack, but that’s a blog for another day...

Eleanor Southwood was born in 1982 with a genetic condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis and she has never had any useful sight. She is Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and a local Councillor in Brent, north west London

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