Deborah Barham Smith interviews the Rt. Hon. David Blunkett MP on his life as a blind person with a high-profile job.
Running any business to ensure its viability is a sufficient challenge, but add a physical impairment, such as blindness into the equation and achieving real success could seem unattainable. Those with disabilities often mention feelings of isolation, frustration, stress and anxiety, all of which are invisible to sighted people.
Blind from birth, David Blunkett became a career politician after gaining a BA Honours degree in Political Theory and Institution at the University of Sheffield. As a 22-year-old, he became the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield City Council, and with characteristic tenacity also gained a PGCE teaching qualification. In a turbulent and sometimes controversial career, he rose to hold a variety of high-level Cabinet positions as Education Secretary, Home Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary within Tony Blair’s government. Here, the MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough provides an insight into his professional achievements and how those with disability cope in a challenging environment.
Q: Have you encountered any obstacles or barriers in your career because of impaired sight?
A: The biggest challenge has always been changing attitudes. The practical challenges of day-to-day life are obvious but the biggest of those has been getting through written material. Getting people to think as though they were me has been really important. I’ve always been very realistic about what was possible while having the ultimate in ambition, and balancing the two has been crucial. So changing attitudes within education in my early days, of employers and in relation to people around me, has been a challenge that you only overcome by demonstrating what you can do and how you can do it. I would never have asked someone to give me an opportunity if I thought I was going to fluff it, because not only would that be very bad for them, and catastrophic for me, it would also send terrible signals for the future.
Q: Exactly what help have your guide dogs given you?
A: Guide dogs provide you with independence as well as mobility and dignity in circumstances where you might literally (and metaphorically) fall flat on your face, and that combination then gives you confidence. They give you the back-up, if you like, of being able to do things effectively and efficiently and therefore reduce stress. There’s no doubt whatsoever that many blind people can manage with a white cane, and even these days by experimenting with the electronic equivalent of sonar, but the stress on them is undoubtedly substantial.
A guide dog also breaks the ice; people will be friendly and talk to the dog, even if they can’t stand my politics! When I was working at the absolute zenith of what is possible — when I was Home Secretary — the dog actually brought a lot of relief to the people working around me when things were very stressful; she would go and lick them or put her nose into their hands, helping them to feel as if things weren’t perhaps as critical as we thought they were. I was often working 14-hour days, so I tried to take the dog out as much as I could during the day to get a break, but so did the other staff. That made their lives a little bit easier too, so a dog has had knock-on effects for both me and those working with me.
Q: How have you maintained your motivation during any low times caused by your blindness?
A: Three things, really. In the political arena, just by reminding myself of why I came into politics, why I wanted to be a public representative — both at city council level and then in parliament — which was to make a difference to peoples’ lives. Whatever was happening to me, a great deal worse was happening to other people, many of whom I represent, in terms of the loss of their jobs or livelihoods, families breaking up, etc.
Second, through my family and friends. You can’t substitute having people around who are there for you — not necessarily always agreeing with you, but being totally supportive and helpful.
And third, I’ve been very lucky with my constituency. They will give you a hard time privately but they will also defend you, so people not of my political persuasion in Sheffield were quite happy to tell the national media to take a running jump.
Q: What are the achievements of which you are most proud?
A: Politically, it has to be dealing with the aftermath of 11 September 2011 as Home Secretary. That did not bring me joy and wasn’t at all what I came into Parliament and politics to deal with.
The most satisfying and rewarding was undoubtedly the four years I was Education and Employment Secretary — seeing the transformation of early years education and improvements in primary education, and getting employment below a million. Those brought the greatest joy as I was able to determine policies and fight for the resources to make things happen. Every time I went into a school, I got a renewal of my energy, my drive and my reason for being there. It was like putting a plug in an electric socket! That was really very worthwhile.
Q: In what way do you think your blindness has motivated you towards success?
A: I think it was “sink or swim”. It would have been possible just to accept what was on offer in terms of career choices at the time. I achieved the early qualifications as a teenager but also had a combination of tenacity, sometimes bordering on pigheadedness, and an inner drive that said “You can really do it if you put your mind to it”. I realised that things were possible, but it was down to me, with the support of others. I had to be committed, put the time in and give up other things, but I couldn’t have done it if people hadn’t at various times given me a helping hand, like a teacher who came down to evening classes at the local technical college to assist me when I was taking my first O levels. I was doing the qualifications in one year, one night a week, so it was quite a challenge. That individual made a big difference to me, so I hope he felt that he’d actually helped me on my way and was proud of that.
There was also a reading circle provided at university. The great advantage of that was the tutors telling me the specific books and chapters of very long reading lists; consequently, those students helping me also got the tip-off and studied thoroughly by reading to me, so we all got something out of it. It gave me a bit of an idea about teamwork, and when I was in the Cabinet I led successful ministerial teams and motivated them through good team leadership.
Q: What assistive technology helps you in your work?
A: I still use a lot of old-fashioned technology like cassettes, as you can manoeuvre them easily and quickly. I use a Braille transcription service within my offices in London and Sheffield, which works from my computer programme, so those operating it don’t have to understand Braille — they just have to know they’ve got the Braille the right way up. I also use a software system called Hal on my laptop computer for e-mailing and writing up material, which has a synthetic voice.
Actually, I should become much more proficient with computers — I suffer them rather than enjoy them. I get frustrated with technical problems and the time it takes to use them; it’s so much slower to use the keyboard and a cursor rather than a mouse. Also, websites are very badly set up and we’ve had real issues with this. Peter White, the BBC’s Disability Affairs Correspondent, uses the computer as I do because he can’t see and we’re always grumbling at the way in which websites are so poorly constructed. It’s very difficult for someone using the keyboard and the voice-over. I don’t know how we deal with that apart from persuading everyone, as we’ve had to do with the physical environment, that things are designed from the very start with those of us with poor sight in mind, especially since more and more of us are going to have poor sight as we live longer. The number of people in retirement who will lose sight, but will still want to be online, will grow in the next 50 years, and I think that we need to say as we do now to planners: “Plan for all of us, right from the beginning; it won’t cost you any more, just put in a bit more thought and time”.
Q: What else helps you manage your lack of sight?
A: As I mentioned previously, one of the biggest challenges is getting through written material. I have to get other people, such as civil servants, to think a bit,. Because of the way they are trained, they produce voluminous reports. I ask them to read them onto cassette and it’s amazing how quickly they start to understand how they need to condense the waffle and get down to the real options, the real information I need.
You do also have to put in the time. There’s no question that I put in time in the evenings and the weekends that other people didn’t have to do when I was working at the very cutting edge of government and policy. That was to the detriment of my social life and my pleasantry as a human being. I wasn’t able to socialise as much with my colleagues but I had to be on top of the job; I never wanted anyone to ever say that I didn’t have the facts at my fingertips because I hadn’t done the homework. I always found that if I had done my homework, I was usually one step ahead of people who were trying to read the material at the same time as we were dealing with it in Cabinet or in a committee. Sometimes, it was a bit obsessive and if I were to do it again, I would have a little more confidence in myself and realise that getting what might be described as a better work-life balance might have stood me in good stead. I actually have Sundays off now and go to football matches. It’s great relaxation and a normal thing to do; I go with my older sons and we just enjoy it.
Q: What advice would you give another blind person who is unsure about getting into business?
A: Never take “no” for an answer. Be aspirational and ambitious but always realistic. Recognise that giving and receiving help is a positive, not a negative, so always be willing to accept a non-patronising helping hand.
Last reviewed 4 June 2012