SEVEN years ago, Michael Williams started to lose his sight: doctors diagnosed a progressive disease of the retina. Forced to give up his job as a graphic artist and registered blind at the age of 31, he did little more than sit at home for several years.

'Visual impairment blows your confidence away. I fell into the trap of thinking, 'I can't do it, because I can't see'. But I knew I had a talent for something, and I desperately needed an outlet for my creativity.'

A year ago, Mr Williams heard of mask-making and performing workshops for the visually impaired, run by an Oxford-based theatre company called Trading Faces. He went along, and found his creative outlet.

With other blind people, he started to sculpt faces in clay, the features exaggerated into caricatures. These were used as moulds for the masks, made of a rubbery resin cloth called celastic. Mr Williams made a mask of the Greek hero Odysseus.

At first he had no intention of performing in his mask; but once he had made it, he felt reluctant to let anyone else wear it. Within days he had agreed to play the leading role in an improvised performance of Homer's Odyssey, at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford. It was eventually performed in front of an audience of both sighted and visually impaired people, and his mask was painted gold to make it more striking.

Being on stage in his mask, he recalls, 'was the first time that anyone had been interested in what I had to say since I began having problems with my eyes.'

The experience proved a turning point in Mr Williams's life: a year later, he is still with the company, working as administrator and mask-maker. 'The beauty of masks is that they make theatre accessible to people with no previous experience,' he says. And, since mask-making is essentially a tactile process, blind people can find it particularly rewarding.

Most activities for the visually impaired are tailored to the needs of the elderly, who constitute the vast majority of the blind. 'Creative' activities tend to be along traditional lines - pottery and basket-weaving. Yet making and using masks can be a liberating experience, according to Trading Faces, which started to run the workshops last year as a joint project with the Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company. Because those who have little sight rely on touch to create and explore the mask, the sense of character they develop can be deeper than that found in sighted people.

'Wearing a mask is an instinctive process, and because of that, I felt the visually impaired had a lot to bring to masks, and to teach us about masks,' says Thomasina Carlyle, who with her husband, Tony Davis, is joint artistic director of Trading Faces. 'It is an internal approach, a question of how the mask feels when you touch it, and if you are working from a feeling inside, drawing from your natural instincts, then I think that visually impaired people have more to tap into than sighted people.

'You become the mask when you put it on, you're not responsible for your actions. You can do what the mask tells you to do. For blind people, just getting used to feeling free and comfortable moving in a space is an achievement.'

She points out that their work with the blind and partially sighted is only part of a wide- ranging programme for community groups, prisons, and professional theatre. One of the lessons learnt in the workshops with blind people was the value of touch: all their groups are now encouraged to explore masks by touch, to study the shape as though they are moulding it.

Recently, the company devised a project to enable a group of visually impaired pupils from the John Aird school in west London, to appreciate painting. Using masks, and costumes copied from characters in paintings by Caravaggio, Gainsborough and Hockney, the children were able to explore the stories behind them. They convincingly brought the characters to life in a 'Living Gallery', before an invited audience.

'Masks are useful for any group,' says Ms Carlyle, 'but in this case, they also taught the children exactly what the paintings looked like.'

The visually impaired have traditionally been excluded from the performing arts, according to Marcus Weisson of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, but there is no reason why that should continue to be the case.

Despite the common belief that the blind see nothing at all, 95 per cent of registered blind people have some residual vision. Trading Faces say it is making theatre accessible to them - as both performers and audience. And it is hoping to expand the scale of its work.

'It really comes down to having a chance to prove that, although we have a disability, we shouldn't be written off,' says Michael Williams.

'It is wonderful to be taken seriously,' he adds. 'For once, the disability doesn't matter.'

Michael Williams, the administrator of Trading Places, can be contacted on 0235 816016.

(Photograph omitted)