By focusing on the blind and visually impaired, Gina Badenoch is transforming expectations about what people with disabilities can achieve personally and professionally. Gina’s organization uses photography and sensory experiences to change both blind and sighted people’s thinking with respect to human potential; regardless of physical or mental differences.
The New Idea
Through Sight of Emotion, Gina is breaking down the psychological barriers that prevent blind and visually impaired people from achieving full integration into Mexican society. Her approach is changing the expectations of both blind and sighted people regarding what each is capable of accomplishing. As a photographer, Gina is especially interested in using the arts as tools for social change, although Sight of Emotion has grown to encompass a broader range of initiatives. Through comprehensive workshops, events, and professional support services, Gina and her team convince the blind that they can lead independent, fulfilling lives, while introducing sighted people to the many abilities and talents of the blind. Beyond simply finding jobs for the blind or building sighted people’s empathy towards them, Gina’s work prompts each group to rethink their assumptions and expectations of people with disabilities. Gina aims to not only integrate the blind into Mexican society but to change both blind and sighted people’s ability to believe in the blinds’ potential for success. Gina has held successful photographic workshops and exhibitions featuring blind photographers’ work in London and plans to replicate the Sight of Emotion model nationally and internationally through networks of associations for the blind. Her strategy to dismantle psychological barriers may be applied to many other disability groups.
Half a million blind or visually impaired people in Mexico face the same discrimination that people like them confront all over the world. Given the high value placed on sight in society, blind people are at an immediate disadvantage not only because they cannot see, but also because sighted people assume they can only make limited societal contributions. While sight is critical to humans’ everyday lives, its importance seems overvalued at the expense of the other four senses. Modern cultural values reinforce this over-emphasis on sight; the concepts of fashion, beauty, youth, and even health are largely visual experiences the blind cannot participate and that they are supposedly not able to contribute. Considering how important most people believe sight is, it is hardly surprising that the sighted fail to realize how much the blind can teach them about the utility and relevance of sensory experiences beyond sight.
The prevailing attitude in Mexican society is that blind people must rely on the assistance of sighted people for everything from transportation to economic survival. A clear power relationship exists between those who can see and those who cannot, and this relationship creates low societal expectations about what the blind can do. These low expectations create a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. Most blind Mexicans are not active in the workforce or are restricted to jobs like selling trinkets in the subway system, staffing call centers, or as massage therapists. Potential employers wrongly conclude the blind are incapable of other work, and internalizing this, the blind often underestimate their personal potential. The employment agency, Manpower, reports that of all disabled groups in Mexico, it is most difficult to find jobs for the blind.
Most existing institutions dedicated to helping the blind perpetuate this cycle. In Mexico, there are various organizations that offer accelerated primary or secondary education courses (many blind Mexicans never complete formal education), basic cooking and survival lessons, massage therapy, handicrafts classes, courses in Braille and the use of canes and guide dogs, but fall short of encouraging the blind to explore their potential. Many institutions treat them as invalids rather than capable individuals. Since these problems are tied to attitudes and expectations, the phenomenon exists in industrialized and developing countries. Though the blind and visually impaired may have access to more resources in advanced economies, ultimately, they face the same barriers as those in countries like Mexico.
A Mexican CO, Sight of Emotion began in collaboration between Gina and a small group of sighted, visually impaired, and blind photographers. To date, most of Sight of Emotion operations have been financed through donations, although Gina is moving it towards financial sustainability by launching more income-generating events, activities, and services that will subsidize the organization’s programs.
Ultimately, Gina’s mission is the full societal integration of blind and visually impaired people. By raising awareness in a bidirectional manner; she works as closely with both the sighted and blind communities. Sight of Emotion initiatives seek to reverse the traditional roles of the sighted and the blind; sighted people are put in a positioned that makes them dependant on the blind for guidance. This new relationship empowers the blind and boosts their self-esteem, but it also teaches the sighted that they have much to learn from the blind. Gina designs Sight of Emotion programs so that the blind are not in controlled environments but are integrated into social environments with sighted people; building their confidence while precipitating dialogue and exchange between them. Her strategy with the blind involves a series of interventions that build upon each other—steadily boosting their self-esteem as they prove their abilities to sighted people.
The centerpiece of Sight of Emotion strategy is photography workshops Gina pioneered three years ago. Because the workshops are designed to build blind participants’ psychological strength, self-esteem, independence, and sense of security, they are the foundation on which later Sight of Emotion programs build. There is a strong symbolic power to combining the concepts of blindness and photography. Although photography seems a highly improbable pursuit for a blind person, Gina teaches her participants to communicate verbally with their subjects—often sighted persons—as they set up a photographic frame. For the blind photographer and the sighted subject, this interaction challenges preconceptions, particularly for the sighted person being asked for permission to be photographed by someone who cannot see. During the twenty to twenty-five hours of each workshop, which is kept intimate with a maximum of twenty participants, Gina and her staff accompany the blind through a process of self-doubt, denial, and ultimately, liberating confidence as they discover that they are indeed capable of something they believed impossible. Participants are not in a tightly controlled studio environment, Gina and her staff accompanies them into the city, thus physically integrating them into public spaces, such as parks, and encourages them to take charge of their interactions with sighted people.
The workshop participants’ work is publicly displayed in exhibitions that have drawn great interest from sighted people; intrigued by the idea of blind photography and moved by its implications for what the blind can achieve. Sight of Emotion has organized four exhibitions in Mexico and one in England. The shows have drawn an average of 50,000 to 60,000 attendees each, with the largest show in the Papalote Children’s Museum in Mexico City drawing 465,000 people. These exhibitions provide a space for sighted visitors and blind photographers to interact, while also generating revenue for Sight of Emotion programs through ticket and photography sales.
Gina puts equal emphasis on interventions with sighted people to change their attitudes about the blind. Blind participants who have completed the photography workshop are eligible to become facilitators for corporate workshops also managed by Sight of Emotion. The corporate sessions, in which blind facilitators play a key role, are designed to assist potential employers to understand the many contributions that blind employees can make in the workplace. Sight of Emotion also organizes dinners in the dark in which sixty to seventy-five sighted guests are served by blind waiters and waitresses who are specially trained and receive full employment benefits, including medical insurance, for twenty-four hours before and after each dinner. While such dinners have been held in other countries, including Germany and the United States, Sight of Emotion events are unique in that the blind servers develop a relationship with their diners over the course of the evening and at the end, the staff turns on the lights. Gina firmly believes that this additional measure is critical to the experience’s impact; unacquainted dinner companions able to chat comfortably in the dark—while unaffected by their usual visual biases—realize their prejudice toward appearance when the lights go on and they first see their fellow diners.
In addition to workshops and events, Sight of Emotion offers integrated support services for the blind and their families, including professional psychological counseling and job placement. The counseling is particularly important to Gina’s strategy, given her focus on the psychological aspects of disabilities and societal acceptance. The blind that approach Sight of Emotion for help in finding employment have previously participated in the organization’s programs, and are extraordinarily well prepared. Sight of Emotion has partnered with the Manpower Foundation in Mexico to place applicants with different companies. Manpower welcomes job candidates from Sight of Emotion because they make the effort to sensitize potential employers as well as candidates.
In the near future, Gina will create alliances with local COs in other Mexican states and other countries to replicate her model, beginning with one state outside Mexico City, one country in the Americas, and one country in Europe. She believes partnering with local COs is critical due to the knowledge of the local context they will bring to the expanding. Gina has taken advantage of her contacts in England to hold photographic workshops and exhibitions for the blind in London and will introduce further elements of the Sight of Emotion model to the United Kingdom. While Gina expands Sight of Emotion, the model may be applied to other disability groups; as the same psychological barriers that impact the blind also prevent other physically handicapped or mentally handicapped groups from full societal integration.
Gina’s father is English and her mother is Mexican. She was born and raised in Mexico City and she studied in both Mexico and England. Both her parents were very involved in social causes; her father created the British-Mexican Friendship Foundation after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. Gina has always been driven to understand the root causes of people’s actions. As a child, she begged her parents to take her to visit a prison so she could ask the inmates why they were there.
When Gina was seventeen, her best friend was killed in a car accident. This event was a turning point in her life, forcing her to realize the importance of living each day to the fullest. After high school, she traveled to Nepal with a British organization to teach English and practice photography for four months. Nepal was another watershed moment, convincing her that what she loved best was teaching and learning from others, particularly through her passions of photography and art.
Returning from Nepal, Gina enrolled at the Ibero-American University in Mexico but only stayed a month before pursuing professional photography. She took a job as a photographer for a travel magazine and completed a diploma course in photography. A few years later, though she did not have a Bachelor’s degree, she boldly applied to a Master’s program in Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, which accepted her based on her portfolio. During this time, Gina attended Dialogue in the Dark in Mexico City, an exhibition created by German Ashoka Fellow Andreas Heinecke, in which sighted people are led through spaces in complete darkness. Inspired by the imaginative aspects of the Dialogue in the Dark experience, she became increasingly interested in how to change society’s assumptions about the blind—as well as the blinds’ assumptions about themselves. Gina began the work that eventually led to founding Sight of Emotion—combining her creativity and desire to work with the disabled. She and Andreas continue to share their experiences even as Sight of Emotion has developed its own model.
Gina’s philosophy is that disabilities are as closely tied to psychological and attitudinal limitations as to physical ones. She firmly believes that rather than live in protected bubbles, disabled people can lead productive lives as integrated members of society and can fulfill the same expectations. Through her work with Sight of Emotion, Gina is changing both sighted and blind or visually impaired people’s attitudes to match her own.