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Blog - Tam Gilbert

Sensing Helen: the story so far…

A black and white image of Helen Keller projected onto actor, Tam Gilbert’s skirt, as part of ‘Practice’ at Salisbury Arts Centre. Tam is standing with her face dimly lit, half is in shadow.

A black and white image of Helen Keller projected onto actor, Tam Gilbert’s skirt.

It began with a playreading two years ago. Friend and fellow Artist Michele O’Brien and I sat down to read William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. I was instantly struck with Helen Keller’s childhood story – how she developed a communication system with companion Anne Sullivan – enabling her to interact with her family and later to graduate, make speeches and work.

After watching video of Helen speaking publicly, I wanted to discover more about how visually impaired women were treated in Victorian Dorset. Recruiting our producer Jenny Gordon, we conducted initial research into Asylums at Dorset History Centre, with a view to making a show interweaving mine and Helen’s childhood stories with that of Ivy Sidwell, a young woman we came across who was visually impaired. Ivy had been sent to an asylum by her family because she almost set fire to her house.

Creating a short R&D piece at Salisbury Arts Centre as part of Practice, we focused on Helen’s frustration as she learned to use cutlery. I was overwhelmed with how disempowered I suddenly felt as I ‘sensed’ Helen around me.

The resigned feeling we get when someone forces us to move in a certain way is not an uncommon one for many disabled people, so it was equally fascinating to watch audience members receiving similar treatment! Although the performance was well-received, our journey to funding has not been a smooth one. With unsuccessful ACE and Unlimited bids under our belt, I decided to change tack – concentrate on collecting and sharing Research first, then rethink performance material….

A lot of meetings and anxious waiting later, here we are with a Heritage Lottery grant supported by a crowdfunder campaign, an exciting bunch of partners (including The Arts Development Company, DAO, Dorset History Centre, Priest’s House Museum, Dorset Blind Association, Victoria Education Centre, ScreenPLAY and LinkUpArts) and an enriched research project into the heritage of visually impaired people! We have three main objectives:

  • To gather and record the histories of women growing up in Victorian Dorset before the time when there was understanding around disability. How was their education different to mine and Helen’s and how did society treat them?
  • To collect 10 oral histories from visually impaired women from three local groups run by Dorset Blind Association and conduct research which focuses on people’s memories and experiences of growing up visually impaired.
  • To run Creative workshops with students at Victoria School (SEN) and a mainstream school to find out how young people today, who are facing disabling barriers are learning and discovering accessible ways to communicate.

Excitingly, we are going to receive training from Dorset History Centre on how to conduct oral interviews and use archives effectively. And, we will make a film as we go, which in turn will be archived at the History Centre as well as being shared at events across Dorset and Online, including on DAO!

I’ll keep you updated on my journey through a series of blogs and more information on Sensing Helen will be soon be available at

You can follow the project on twitter via #SensingHelen

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Jen Gordon
Jen Gordon
3 years ago

Ive been so privileged to be asked to produce this project. Research is well underway with the fascinating discovery of Elizabeth Groves admitted to the Herrison Hospital, blind since birth Elizabeth’s story is in stark contrast to outcomes for women with sight impairments today. Cant wait to find out more.

Joe Turnbull
3 years ago

Sounds really interesting, I look forward to the results!

Tony Horitz
3 years ago

This sounds a really worthwhile project which should illuminate the history of visually impaired and all disabled people living in Dorset, generally ignored and forgottenfrom mainstream history.

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