- 15 December 2013
New CBeebies show Melody, designed with disabled children in mind, has a little girl with a visual impairment as the main character.
Melody was developed with help from the RNIB Pears Centre in Coventry, which supports children with sight problems and additional needs. Its head teacher Andy Moran is delighted that there's a partially sighted child on television because, contrary to popular belief, he says, most of his students are "not in complete darkness".
Television and film tend to feature characters with an easy-to-understand impairment - completely paralysed, totally deaf or totally blind, for instance. But "blind" people can often see something like a blur, says Moran. "Many blind people and the majority of partially sighted people can recognise a friend at arm's length."
Melody introduces pre-school children to classical music through the main character's imagined stories, and specially created animations that are more enjoyable for visually impaired viewers.
Each new episode teaches children one new tune. A recent one was billed like this: "Melody learns about keeping promises. As Melody listens to Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, she imagines a princess in a castle who breaks her promise to a frog."
While helping to create the programme, the Pears Centre conducted research into animation and soundtracks that are easier for blind and partially sighted people to follow.
Melody's creator Luke Howard tells the CBeebies Grownups blog that the research has taught them new techniques. He says producers found themselves "working with high contrast colours, having centrally focused action, bigger, definite (sometimes exaggerated) movements and holding on certain shots longer [than usual]".
Though adapting images was key to the project, they used sound effects and voiceovers to tell the story as much as possible too. RNIB music adviser Sally Zimmermann, who consulted on the programme, says that sounds can help to orientate children who can't see well. "Dad's voice might sound different in the hall than in the kitchen," she adds. "It can be an important way of recognising family and friends."
Every episode is also audio-described - an additional vocal narrative track fills gaps in the dialogue with helpful information for those who can't see what's happening on screen.
Melody is played by 10-year old partially sighted actress Angharad Rhodes, who was cast after being spotted at UCAN, a specialist theatre company in Cardiff for children with vision problems. We see her in real life at the beginning of each programme and she transforms into a cartoon character as she puts her headphones on to listen to music.
Another of the show's producers, Will Brenton, explains that Melody's sight difficulties are never mentioned. "We often see her using her white cane, or placing her hand on top of her mum's whilst they cut something," he says. "It is never about what Melody can't do or needs help with, but always about what she can do and the methods she uses to do as much as most children."
Reaction from the partially sighted community has been "very exciting" according to Brenton. "They can really connect with an aspirational, capable character overcoming the same or similar obstacles."
On the CBeebies Grownups blog, one parent writes: "I find it difficult to find TV programmes for my visually impaired son that are easily accessible. I love the idea of having a young girl starring that is visually impaired, these sort of programmes are great in helping children that have additional needs feel less isolated."