In a black space, a mime artist with a white painted face stares out at us. Black diamond make-up frames his eyes, a black teardrop hanging below his right eye, and his lips are painted bright red. He wears a red neckerchief knotted around his neck, a black and white horizontally striped top and black braces.
He opens his mouth wide. As he shouts in an American accent he lifts a white gloved hand to his mouth and turns to his left.
"Y" is for YELLING!
A red circle with a diagonal line like those used in road signs to prohibit action stamps down over the face of the clown.
The word ‘Why’ appears beneath the red circle
The picture cuts to a talking head image of a short haired man looking right at us. To the left of his head text reads:
‘Stefan Rochfort Talking Mimes Must Die Creator
[Stefan] I'm part of a small startup making assistive technology for people with profound physical disabilities. Including the thought-controlled software that you see a stylised version of in Talking Mimes Must Die.
As Stefan talks, the image cuts to a series of shots of people using computers.
Two men, one wearing a headband, peer at jagged electronic waveforms on a computer screen. A woman in a wheelchair wearing a headband scrunches her nose up with effort as she focuses on a screen while the short haired woman next to her smiles. A dark-haired figure in a headband watches a screen bearing a yellow owl logo that reads ‘preparing for calibration’
The view cuts back to Stefan talking.
[Stefan] I'm also a passionate advocate of VR. Having first-hand experience of exploiting its power to, ah... trick the love of my life into becoming my wife.
A woman wears a virtual reality (VR) headset. In VR she picks up a large red heart shaped spear and stabs it at the image of Stefan’s face on a computer screen. The screen fills with a galaxy of stars. A virtual Stefan kneels before her in the VR environment holding out an open box with an engagement ring inside.
Two large buttons appear onscreen. ‘No’ on the left in red and ‘yes’ on the right in green. Each time she reaches out her virtual hand to grasp the ‘no’ button, it disappears. The words ‘marry him’ appear on two screens behind his head.
[Stefan] Umm, by "no" do you mean "yes"?
The woman laughs
A huge pink rose explodes onscreen. Layers of the pink flower shape surrounded by flames float through the galaxy. The words ‘YOU WIN’ in giant blue block text fly in towards her.
Fireworks exploding and tinkling harp music
Cut back to Stefan's talking head
[Stefan] The original impetus for Talking Mimes Must Die as a project, was actually to build a pitching tool.
What we found when talking to investors and people in general about profound physical disability, particularly when you're way up the locked-in end of the spectrum, it's difficult for people to wrap their heads around it. So, you'd be halfway through your pitch and they're really only just starting to process the stuff you said at the beginning, and then by the time you get to the end of it you've often lost them.
So, you know, it's an extreme thing you can understand why. And over and above that comprehension issue, people just don't want to think about, at all. So, my thinking was, instead of trying to continue to just use slideshows and words to try and explain these extreme challenges and why we have to overcome them, we'd instead immerse them in those challenges. Make them feel something of what it's like to live with a profound physical disability. You know, just a peek at the indignities and the forest fires of frustration that we want to beat back with our technology.
A person in a wheelchair wears VR goggles.
[Stefan] So, virtual reality assisted empathy isn't brand new but when it comes to disability simulation it often falls short. In fact, with a couple of notable exceptions it's actually pretty insulting. More like a theme park ride, a horror show of disability. Or akin to a cheap trick, like putting a blindfold on someone and saying "This is what it's like to be a blind person".
Obviously, putting a blindfold on and bumping around the room for 5 minutes and then taking it off again, tells you very little about what it's like to be a person who's blind 24/7 and the myriad of challenges that come with that.
So the problem with those implementations is that they're focusing on the disability not on the person. You can't show what it's like to be a person with a disability if all you're showing is disability.
So, Talking Mimes instead focuses on the person. You know, like, a whole human being. And it does that through narrative. Us humans, we best understand each other and the world, through story. And the most potent stories are those based in truth.
So, this sets out to immerse you in a whole human, through a first-person story, based in true experiences of people with profound physical disabilities and their families, and caregivers and support organisations.
Two short clips, one of a long-haired woman smiling next to a young person in a yellow t-shirt who sits in a wheelchair. The second shows an older woman leaning in to a young person in a wheelchair and holding a plastic cup up to her mouth.
[Stefan] While researching for that story something happened for me. During the interviews and one of them in particular this family told me a story that really surprised me. Their teenage daughter, who's this fun, spirited smart, cool person. She has a pretty severe case of spastic cerebral palsy and is non-verbal as a result. The story they told was: one day her uncle came to visit. Something he's done many times before but as he was leaving this time she vocalised a kind of goodbye and made a wave. And that made him stop and he turned to her mother, who's also her fulltime caregiver and said "Does she understand us?" "Does she actually know what's going on?"
I thought: holy crap! If someone that close, you know this tiny familial degree of separation, could be so ignorant of her internal life. And then make all those other mistakes, like talking to the caregiver instead of to her. Or that appalling, and yet appallingly common assumption that profound physical disability equals profound cognitive disability.
The words ‘profound disability’ are written twice on a chalkboard – once on the left and once on the right.
The sound of chalk writing on a board
The word ‘Assumption’ is written at the top of the board. The first three letters are underlined highlighting ‘ass’ at the start of the word. The words ‘physical’ and ‘cognitive’ are written on each side, linked with an equals sign so the board reads:
‘Assumption - Profound physical disability equals profound cognitive disability.’
The word ‘assumption’ is wiped off and a line drawn through the equals sign so the text on the board now reads:
‘Profound physical disability does not equal profound cognitive disability’
Cut back to Stefan talking.
[Stefan] It shocked me. And it made me realise, you know, more than just a pitching tool - this has to be an educational tool. Something that people with these complex needs, and their families, and caregivers, and support organisations can use to educate people:
So, extended family, friends, caregivers in training, other health professionals, and ideally the broader public.
So that we can, you know, start to fill these gaping holes of understanding that we as a society have around disability.
Try to peel back some of those layers of alienation and hopefully teach us to be less accidentally condescending assholes and more on purpose good humans.
A yellow circle with a puckered hole in the middle appears on the left of a chalkboard. A red chalk cross is drawn next to it. On the right, a yellow smiley emoji. A blue halo pops onto the head of the smiley and a green tick appears next to it.
Back to Stefan
[Stefan] So, it's important that it's not just a horror show of disability both for that respectful sense of a whole human but also, for that broader educational purpose. On some level people actually have to enjoy the experience, you know, in some way. So that they want to recommend it to other people and recommend it in such a way that those other people want to experience it too. So that's why there's an emotional gradient to the story, you know, with moments of fun even, and ultimately a hopeful resolution.
So obviously you can never truly simulate what it's like to live with a profound physical disability. I want to be really clear: this piece pulls punches. There's none of the very real abuse that gets perpetrated against our most vulnerable fellow humans.
Even with that aside, try condensing an entire lifetime of condescension, dependency, like these inhumane levels of frustration and staring at the wall boredom. You know, compress an entire lifetime of that into 12 minutes. And then make it in some way fun. You know, you're never going to do it justice.
But I think what we can do, is tell a compelling story about a whole human, make you that human, and hopefully a little more humane in the process.
The clown mime in the red circle appears on the chalk board above the web link: