A new film, Sensing Helen, exploring the lives of Dorset women with a visual impairment, comes to Dorset History Centre in Dorchester on Friday 11 May.

Inspired by life of Helen Keller

What was life like in Victorian times for disabled people? Was their treatment as harsh as we think? What opportunities were available? Inspired by the life of Helen Keller, this film by artist Tam Gilbert explores the lives of two visually impaired women in the late 1800s. It compares them with people’s experiences today.

Tam Gilbert and actor Michele O’Brien present Sensing Helen, which they made in partnership with the Dorset History Centre. Dorchester-based Alastair Nisbet filmed and edited the story. The Arts Development Company managed the overall project and The Heritage Lottery provided funding.

Producer Jenny Gordon says life in the late 1800s was incredibly difficult, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

‘We follow the lives of two blind girls – Sophia and Elizabeth.  One was born in the 1840s in Sturminster Newton and the other ten years later in Weymouth. We were shocked at the language used by those looking after them, and the way poor and disabled people were treated. But with luck and support, albeit very strict, one of our women was able to live, work and prosper. That was despite being blind since birth.’

The team worked with young people at Victoria Education Centre in Poole, a home education group, and Dorset Blind Association members. They shared their research, collected oral histories and discussed how to improve communication for disabled people.

Moving and illuminating stories

Hannah Baker, project manager at The Arts Development Company, said: ‘Hearing the real historical and contemporary stories of women with visual impairment has been moving and illuminating. There is still a journey ahead of us in our society to examine how we better understand the experiences of people with visual impairment. The arts are a powerful tool to explore, generate meaning and promote messages about inclusion and seeing things differently.’

Director Tam Gilbert was keen to make a documentary with an immersive viewing experience.

‘I wanted Sensing Helen to be fully accessible to disabled people. All too often, mainstream viewing does not cater for a visually impaired/deaf audience. Producers put access on afterwards and see it as secondary. I wanted to showcase best practice, and allow sighted and hearing viewers to realise that audio description and the 300 subtitles used, can enrich both the art, and their enjoyment.’

Event details

Dorset History Centre is showing the film at 4pm. Questions and answers with an opportunity to look at the research follow the screening. To book a FREE ticket please contact Jenny on 07751 52500 or email jenny@yummyjam.co.uk.

The building has disabled access. The event is subtitled and audio-described. Booking and interviews: Please contact Jenny Gordon on 07751525200 or email jenny@yummyjam.co.uk

Photo shows Sensing Helen artist presenters Tam Gilbert (right) and Michele O’Brien with producer Jenny Gordon (left). Photo: Alastair Nisbet, ScreenPLAY