Why the RNIB Wants You to ‘See the Person, Not the Sight Loss’
First published on LBB
Collaborating with The&Partnership, the Royal National Institute of Blind People challenges misconceptions by showing the audience what life with sight loss is really like, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani.
The general perception of sight loss is, to put it bluntly, totally outdated. Sight loss isn’t limited to blindness and doesn’t just affect a certain demographic of people, it’s an issue that impacts many more than one might think – and in several different ways. This was part of the reason why the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) were keen to shatter these misconceptions in ‘See the Person, Not the Sight Loss’, a campaign film that tells the story of Ava, a young girl dealing with the challenges of losing her sight.
Working alongside the team at The&Partnership, the RNIB created a campaign that features cinema screens and TV channels to engage with the general public. With authentic storytelling at the heart of the project, the entire team was committed to creating an accurate representation of sight loss. The&Partnership’s creatives, Adam Jackson and Ted Price explain the starting point: “Having worked with the RNIB for several years now, we know blind and partially sighted people face misconceptions every day. This lack of understanding from the public can hold visually impaired people back. Our aim was to dispel these myths with a film that shows the truth of what it’s like to live with sight loss.”
Ed Davenhill, The&Partnership’s strategist on the project agrees with the creatives, explaining how outdated images of visually impaired people contribute to generalisations, such as people assuming “someone with sight loss fits a certain mould, e.g. over 65, cane, sunglasses and guide dog,” and how damaging this is. “A big part of this project was to deliberately push back against all those misperceptions, to tell a much more modern, more accurate story of sight loss, and start making up for generations of inaccurate and, at times harmful, portrayals in popular media and culture,” Ed adds. Part of this involved showing how visually impaired individuals complete their education, are employed and have their own independence.
To ensure the campaign remained both relevant and accurate, the insight and research behind ‘See the Person, Not the Sight Loss’ came from the RNIB itself, as its director of insight & customer voice, David Aldwinckle explains: “The one thing that nearly every person with sight loss tells us is that they wish public perceptions and understanding of sight loss was better.” He goes on to say that a lack of understanding means that sight-impaired individuals are seen as only being capable of doing certain things, taking their value out of societal roles of being workers, citizens and/or consumers. “If people can recognise their misconceptions, then we can help them reshape their understanding and behaviour,” says David. “We created a highly emotive short film about a teenage girl facing a sight loss diagnosis, and its consequences. It shows the emotional impact and the effect the diagnosis has on her close relationships, including those with her family and friends.”
LBB’s Nisna Mahtani speaks to Adam, Ted, Ed and David, as well as the campaign’s director, Jesse Lewis-Reece, the lead actor, Eli London, and the RNIB’s director of brand, Martin Wingfield, to learn about what it took to create a truly representative campaign.
LBB> What was the starting point of this campaign? How did you create the character of the protagonist, Ava, and what was the casting process like?
Adam & Ted> We wanted to show that being diagnosed with sight loss doesn’t mean someone’s life is over – they still have passions, desires, skills, and abilities to live full lives.
Most people think that everyone who’s visually impaired is old, which just isn’t the case. So, we knew our film should be about someone young. But, we also wanted to show the process of losing your sight – not blind at birth or from early childhood – so it had to be a young person who was used to going through the world fully sighted. We felt a teenager would be ideal – they have to deal with so much life change anyway, so just imagine losing your sight at that time too.
It was also at this time that we noticed how many blind and partially sighted gamers there are. This also helped to inform our character, as we could really picture this life they could live. It was then a case of working back from that life goal and figuring out the journey this person would have to go on – which we knew from research, was an incredibly tough one.
Finding an actor to portray this story was a huge challenge, but thankfully we didn’t have to worry too long, as when we watched Eli (London)’s casting tape, we were just blown away by how much they connected with our story.
Jesse> For us, it was all about authenticity. We wanted to make sure we cast an actor from the sight loss community – someone that could not only take on the emotional arc of the character, but relate to it in a personal way too. This way, we had a window into a truth on the subject matter, one which helped inform our creative decisions.
LBB> And Eli, what was it like to play an authentic character on screen? How did you channel your personal experience with sight loss into the piece?
Eli> It’s every actor’s dream to be able to wholly and truthfully represent themselves and their demographic onscreen – an opportunity I am so thankful to have had so early on in my career. I found it came naturally to me, a lot of the lived experience, the emotion. It was certainly cathartic.
LBB> Why is it so important to authentically represent this demographic? And what were some of the aspects you were keen to include in the spot to enhance it?
Eli> The sight-loss community is one of the most misrepresented on screen, often being depicted as entirely helpless, or even as villains. Being able to show a true-to-life, a human story following a young person, a gamer, and a student – someone that audiences don’t often get to see go through a sight loss journey – is something that is really important to me.
David> It is of critical importance to RNIB that we portray an authentic representation of the experience of people with sight loss. This means being honest about the distressing and difficult times, but also showing the positivity that comes with acceptance and adaptation, the fact that we all still have those same human desires and ambitions for a fulfilling and well-rounded life, and that we all have plenty to offer the world around us when we get opportunities like everybody else.
For example, resistance to using a white cane (as shown in the film) is common amongst people with sight loss, as it often feels like a change to your identity, and more generally, people are often stubbornly resistant to help from others. It can be a challenge for everyone around you too, as friends and family try to adapt to the new reality. Their response and the way they are with you – their behaviour – can reinforce social stereotypes, or can be a critical part of you continuing to live a good and active life.
We worked closely with blind and partially sighted people throughout the whole process of developing this campaign. We ran research groups to help us decide how to communicate this issue to the public. Following the development of the scripts, we worked with a group of blind and partially sighted people, The Customer Involvement Advisory Group, to ensure the hero video and supporting content reflected the true experiences of blind and partially sighted people.
Throughout the development of the campaign, key members of the RNIB team who have sight loss shaped the messaging and framework.
LBB> Let’s speak specifically about the voiceover and soundscape of the piece. Can you talk us through the process of adapting this to make it truly accessible for a visually impaired audience?
Adam & Ted> From a writing point of view, this was the trickiest part to get right. We had to give much thought to how the voiceover, music and sound design worked together to communicate the story to a blind and partially sighted audience, rather than simply using these as a tool to back up the visuals. However, what started off as a challenge quite quickly turned into an asset. The voiceover gave us the opportunity to add another layer of storytelling, as well as made the film accessible to a visually impaired audience.
LBB> The visuals in the campaign emulate the struggles of sight loss and give the audience a better understanding of what this is like. Can you talk us through some of the filmmaking techniques you used, and how they supported this approach?
Jesse> As mentioned, we were very strict in all our creative decisions being informed by the subject matter (for authenticity). Once we had established that Ava would be suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, I conducted research into the condition form, speaking to RNIB Eye Care Liaison Officers (ECLOs) employees who work with and care for the blind and visually impaired on a day-to-day basis, and who could inform me of what that condition was like to live with, as well as speaking to members of the sight loss community themselves.
Once we had established what the visual impairment would look like when represented on screen – through diagrams and references – myself and my cinematographer dived into research on how to photographically alter standard cinema lenses to create the barrelled and distorted feel that mirrors what is happening to the human eye. After some extensive tests, we arrived at a specific set of custom-made diopters.
LBB> What was the most challenging aspect of creating this campaign?
Adam & Ted> We chose to write the fictional story of a single person, but at the same time, our story also had to represent some of the stories of two million people in the UK living with sight loss. That’s really hard. But, in telling a story unique to Ava, we hope we captured some of the universal truths of what sight loss can really be like.
Executionally, the real challenge was balancing the need for audio to tell the story with sufficient clarity to the audience, without it turning into a ‘say and see’ exposition that would get in the way of the empathy we were seeking to elicit from a sighted audience. It was a real tightrope.
Jesse> I think the most challenging aspect of the film was to make sure we were truthful to the sightless community. This story has a huge arc of tragedy and resilience, and it was important for us to convey all of it without falling into a one-note story. A huge part of the film was showing the strength of people from the sightless community, in equal proportion to the hard changes in life they must accommodate post-diagnosis.
Martin> The detail behind the physical effect and emotional impact of sight loss.
We worked very closely with a team of experts from the RNIB for medical and insight perspectives, as well as consulting with people with sight loss and the general public. We had three rounds of research at the concept, production and final edit stages to ensure the detail was totally correct. So naturally, the time it took from brief to final edit was long – with an immense amount of stakeholder management – but we’re incredibly proud of the result.
Eli> For me, it honestly was just waiting to see the final product! I’d been so heavily involved in a number of aspects, and although I appreciated how much had to go into it, patience was less of a strong point for me!
LBB> And what has been the most rewarding part of it?
Adam & Ted> It’s an incredible feeling to make work that genuinely helps people, and it’s not something we often get to experience first-hand. Just before the campaign launched, we were invited to a private screening with RNIB and members of the blind and partially sighted community. It was honestly a really moving experience hearing how many people could relate to the film, and what they hoped it would do to raise awareness among the public.
Jesse> For me personally, the most rewarding part of the whole experience was meeting and building a close working relationship with Eli. A lot of Eli’s personal story and struggle is in the film, and it was such a special experience working with someone so closely on representing that on screen, not to mention how amazing it was to get that representation on screen in an authentic way– moving away from stereotypes set by other films in mainstream media.
Eli> For me, it’s the knowledge that this film will touch so many. From the nurse who’s part of Ava’s story – finding herself in the background of a few frames – to a friend or family member who is looking to support someone they know or the young person who is going through it themself, it’s truly a privilege to be part of their life.
Martin> Personally, it’s been seeing the reaction from the public and people with sight loss on our social media. The comments have been wonderful, and told us that we were totally correct in our strategy and message.
Examples of positive feedback we’ve received:
“I just wanted to let you know I had contact with a customer today who got in touch directly as a result of seeing one of our ‘See the Person’ adverts at her local cinema. Although she has had sight loss for some time, she hadn’t thought to phone us until she saw the advert. As a result of her call, she is now getting support around her employment situation, and reported she already felt better knowing that help was available’.”
“It’s a really powerful and positive message, and great both for the RNIB and the sector. Well done to you and the team.”
“A massive thank you for the new campaign. Reading all the amazing comments it’s getting is just wonderful. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s getting the exact message across. Thank YOU for everything you do, you help when no one else can ❤”
LBB> In terms of logistics, how long did it take to ideate, create and launch the campaign?
Adam & Ted> I think the brief landed on our desk 18 months ago, but it feels like 18 years. Joking aside, creatives don’t get much working time these days, so it was brilliant to finally have some. I remember taking over a room in the office and pinning script ideas all over the wall as slowly, we began to piece a story together. About five months into the brief, we started looking for directors. Five months later we shot it. Then, I think we spent around eight months editing, and here we are.
Martin> It took almost 18 months from the first brief to the ad airing. This included:
– Concept development
– Media planning
LBB> What can we expect to see going forward? Are there any more campaigns in the works?
Adam & Ted> Ava is a gamer, so there is a second stage of this campaign to help drive change in the gaming industry. With the RNIB, we are launching a new ‘Design for Every Gamer’ initiative later this year, with the goal of making gaming more accessible to everyone.
Martin> Yes, we have lots of great plans and ideas to help the public see the person, not the sight loss. This includes a quiz, long format films, re-airing the ad, as well as separate campaigns about how inaccessible the world is.
LBB> Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Ed> It was a privilege to work on the campaign, to meet some amazing people, and to hear about the difference ‘See the Person, Not the Sight Loss’ has already started making.
David> We want everyone to think about their own perceptions of sight loss and what they can do differently to contribute to our mission. We know that positive and authentic representations of sight loss are rare in the media. We also know that having these contributes greatly to normalising differences and breaking down inherent inaccurate assumptions. We would love more media organisations to take the same interest that our partners in this film have shown, so that collectively we can move further, faster.
Martin> This is a long-term mission for the RNIB. We know we’re not going to change public perceptions and behaviours around sight loss in a few years – this is just the start.
It was an amazing team effort from so many people at the RNIB, as well as our agency partners, The&Partnership, You Are Here, and Wavemaker. We worked incredibly well as a team in every way.