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Photos by Alastair Nisbet



Sensing Helen



About the project

Tam is Lead Artist on Sensing Helen - a Research project, which will lead to a new show later in 2018/19.

Joining Tam on the Sensing Helen journey are Dorset based Theatre Artist and Storyteller, Michele O'Brien and Creative Producer Jenny Gordon, along with Alastair Nisbet (ScreenPLAY) who is making the documentary film, which accompanies the project.

Funded by Heritage Lottery, Sensing Helen is a project about women and sensory communication through history. It is inspired by the story of Helen Keller, the first Deaf/Blind person to graduate in the U.S in 1904. Helen worked with her companion and friend Anne Sullivan to develop a communication system that enabled her to become a well respected writer and political activist.

Sensing Helen aims to explore three areas of visual impairment heritage:

  • To find and record the histories of women growing up in Victorian Dorset before the time when there was understanding around disability. How were they enabled, or disabled by Society?
  • To collect 10 oral histories from visually impaired women from three local groups run by Dorset Blind Association. These focus on people’s memories and experiences of growing up visually impaired or blind and finding new, accessible ways to communicate.
  •  To work with students at Victoria School (SEN) and a Home Education group to find out how young people today, who are facing disabling barriers are learning and discovering accessible ways to communicate. We will share the communication challenges from Victorian Dorset and compare against technology young people are using now.   


Tam and her team are using the archives at Dorset History Centre to follow the stories of Elizabeth Groves and Sophia Rideout, two young women who made the journey to Bristol School of Industry for the Blind in the 1800s and experienced two very different outcomes.



Tam says: 

"I am really excited to be working on this project. It has been fascinating to find out how visually impaired women were seen by society in the past. Whilst as I expected, many were mis-understood and cast aside, others were actually given opportunities to make their way in the world - something I didn't expect. Sharing Sophia's story with our young people has been extremely rewarding; their responses have been so heart-felt and varied."



Follow the project's journey in Tam's blogs on Disability Arts Online:

Accompanying Resources

Educational Resource Pack
Education Resource Pack (pdf)

Bristol School of Industry for the Blind
Photos (zip)
Rules, Kit List & Menu (zip)
Sophia's Application and Admissions Entry (pdf)

Census Data
Sophia Ridout's Census Documents 1851-1911 (zip)

Audio Files
Helen Keller facts by Victoria School (mp3)
Radio programme about Sensing Helen by Victoria School (mp3)



Sensing Helen is managed by the Arts Development Company in partnership with Persuasion Arts, Priest's House Museum, ScreenPLAY, Disability Arts Online, Dorset History Centre, Dorset Blind Association and LinkUpArts.