The blind film director

Just decades ago, a visual impairment was a real handicap. Today, many things are possible – even managing a video production team with almost no sight.

Text: Ruth Jahn, photos: Filipa Peixeiro

It’s immediately noticeable that Marcel Roesch is a nice boss. Business-like and focused, but without preaching, he’s briefing one of his 15 members of staff in an open-plan office. He reaches out a hand somewhere in front of him in welcome. It sometimes takes two attempts to shake hands, because Marcel Roesch is almost blind, but he still manages to head up the internal video production team at Swisscom.

This is partly due to state-of-the-art technology, but also due to his attitude and talents. His bosses saw his potential for supporting and developing young people. “I really have to trust my film team, because I can’t judge whether the blue we use in a video perfectly matches our company’s colour. However, by working closely with my colleagues, I can see for myself whether feelings and values are conveyed the way we want them to be in a film.”

At work Marcel uses a wide range of apps and programmes, for example reading devices for the visually impaired, that read texts aloud. And his team also help. Sometimes his co-workers give him instructions, e.g. “Take a step to the right”, or tell him what’s happening: “The tram’s coming”. In his private life, his siblings, parents and friends play the part of his eyes, as he puts it.

“"I refuse to walk around with a white cane." ”
Marcel Roesch

However, he’s never let his visual impairment hold him back. Since suffering from cancer at the age of three, Marcel Roesch only sees outlines, "It’s like seeing your reflection in a totally fogged-up bathroom mirror”. However, this didn’t stop him from speeding through the city on his kickboard with headphones in his ears, to the horror of his mother, who – as he understands now – was rightly worried about him. However, he never wanted to be the stereotypical blind person: “I refuse to walk around with a white cane. I prefer to bump into people from time to time instead of allowing myself to be pigeon-holed by everyone around me.”

And as he finds it much more practical – like normally sighted people – to have one smartphone instead of a cumbersome extra device, he’s developed his own mobile phone keypad for the visually impaired to replace the annoying additional device. With the support of his employer, he has founded his own company Sensotype. The prototype, a slim attachment that can be slipped on to any smartphone, is already finished. Production is due to start soon.

Technical tricks in everyday life

Technical aids for the visually impaired make everyday life easier. Today, Marcel Roesch can use a number of apps and programs that were unknown a few years ago. “This allows me to live more independently,” says the trained communications specialist. At work and in everyday life, for example, he uses programs in which a voice reads everything to him aloud, from e-mails to the daily newspaper.

Telephones, especially smartphones, are practically irreplaceable for the visually impaired. He also regularly makes video calls where not only the sound is transmitted via mobile phone or computer, but also images. Unlike sighted people, however, Marcel Roesch doesn’t just record himself speaking, but films his surroundings. This way, for example, his younger brother can guide him through the city or help him find out which floor the dentist is on with the help of doorbell signs. In other examples, a helper can tell him whether the milk in the fridge has expired or whether the apartment is really clean before visitors arrive.

Roesch's courage and energy can also be felt at work.
At work, Marcel's co-workers give him instructions, at home his friends and family are his eyes.

Human help is irreplaceable

Marcel Roesch would like to see many more electronic aids on the market. For example, an app for the train station that sends acoustic signals telling him where the nearest kiosk, ticket counter or a specific restaurant is. And he’s thrilled with the idea of a self-driving car so that maybe he’ll have the opportunity for unlimited mobility in the future.

In his 4.5-room apartment and at work he knows his way around without any help. He knows where a chair could be in the way and where the stairs are. At home, small, tactile adhesive labels on the oven make sure he doesn’t turn on the wrong hot plate. “Otherwise you can’t tell that my apartment is home to a visually impaired person,” says Roesch. There are even pictures on the walls, because visitors should feel comfortable in his home, he explains. In unknown areas he’s primarily dependent on human help, on vacation for example, as recently on a trip to China. Marcel Roesch is convinced that help from other people is more important than any technical devices and will remain so in the future.