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Interview with Penny Melville-Brown OBE: Baking Blind – an online and global adventure

Cooking is yet another daily task that many people take for granted. Having sight loss can make cooking incredibly difficult, but Penny Melville-Brown OBE – disability rights advocate and Director of Disability Dynamics – wanted to show the world otherwise.

Baking Blind is her YouTube channel and online project, featuring videos of Penny – who is blind – preparing all manner of dishes, from curries to quails’ eggs to Turkish delight.

Earlier this year, Penny entered the Holman Prize, a competition run by San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired organisation to fund big ideas and innovative projects pitched by people who are blind. Penny’s ambition was to take her online cookery project around the world, cooking across the globe and filming it as she went.

After progressing through the competition, Penny was recently announced as one of the three winners to receive funding. Her global dream is about to become a reality and audiences will be able to follow her travels and exotic recipes through the Baking Blind YouTube channel.

E-Access Bulletin chatted with Penny to find out how video, social media and other technology helped her in the Holman Prize and how she plans to use these platforms in the next stages of her grand trip.

E-Access Bulletin: Please tell us a bit about Baking Blind:
Penny Melville-Brown: “I’ve been working in the disability employment field for nearly 20 years and it is abundantly clear we aren’t going to succeed unless employers change their attitudes. We need to change their hearts and minds. I thought that cookery might be a great way, as I do lots of cooking, and food programmes get so much attention. I was cooking about 50 mini-Christmas cakes last December for gifts and my brother had time to spare to shoot the videos – and Baking Blind was born!”

- What was your goal if you did win the Holman Prize?
“My goal was to take Baking Blind around the world to cook with professional chefs and home cooks, sighted or not, to create a year’s worth of videos and show that blindness, and any other disability, doesn’t cramp our ambitions, capabilities or zest for life. I’ll be cooking in America, Costa Rica, China, Australia and Africa, and I have a full programme of activities when I get back to the UK.”

- What part did technology play for you in the competition?
“I entered by providing a 90-second video called ‘A Taste of the World’. I’ve also been using social media and email to gather all the support I need for my travels.”

- Video is obviously key in making and sharing Baking Blind. What challenges and benefits are there to working with video and YouTube?
“Obviously I can’t shoot the videos (although I am trying to develop some ability with a headcam) and nor can I edit, although I do make editorial decisions based on the recorded sounds/voices. Managing YouTube doesn’t work for me either. But nowadays, one has to use all forms of modern media and technology to have any reach and impact – so as a team, we are trying hard.”

- How did it feel to be one of the winners of the prize?
“Actually, it was very difficult, as I knew before the formal announcement and it was tricky to keep my excitement controlled. Now, several weeks later, I am beginning to realise how very international the project has become, with emails, messages, social media and much more from all over the world. What is absolutely clear is that being able to access all these different forms of communication is essential for this type of project.”

- Tell us about the project you’re now planning:
“I’ll spend a week in San Francisco with the LightHouse team and then a few days cooking there, before flying to Tamarindo in Costa Rica. I’m spending a week there in a jungle culinary adventure restaurant. After that, I’ll be in Virginia Beach, cooking with local people and meeting up with a colleague from the Women’s Royal Naval Service, with whom I’ve had no contact for nearly 40 years – the power of social media!

“Soon after that, I’m jetting off to Chongqing in China to cook with and help the Rotary Club there with a project supporting local visually impaired people. Then to Kiama and Melbourne in Australia with a bevy of different cooks, before Lilongwe in Malawi where I’ve linked with local groups with visual impairments. Back in the UK, I’m planning a range of activities to reinforce my naval links with the Holman Prize, plus baking with different local people.”

- What part will technology play in the project?
“I’m aiming to produce at least one video a week for 12 months, plus a blog and social media. There’s no doubt that this whole project would not have been possible without being able to contact a worldwide audience. Before I started, I only had one possible contact in Australia – all the others simply responded to my emails and videos.”

- What’s next for you after that trip?
“I’d love to continue as a flag-bearer for blind and disabled people over the world. With the right adjustments we can do most jobs, contribute to our communities and be as independent, fulfilled and ambitious as anyone else.”

Find more information and Penny’s cooking videos at the Baking Blind website:
http://eab.li/7i .

Find out more about Penny’s work on disability and employment at the Disability Dynamics website:
http://eab.li/7j .

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