Sunday, October 22

Guardian Article about David Blunkett

Blunkett was a minister in Tony Blair's government, and talks about
the difficulties of being a blind politician in a sighted world. Now here's a perspective we don't often get, that of the blind politician. After reading this article, I couldn't help feeling impressed by how this blind man used different techniques to deal with day to day things.

Sometimes in politics, there are none so blind as those who can see
In this final diary extract, David Blunkett talks about the issues
arising from blindness - such as well-meaning, but patronising,
Friday October 13, 2006

It was some months [after my birth] before it was recognised that
there might be something wrong with my eyes. Once it was clear that I
could see only a tiny bit (normally referred to as "light and dark"),
efforts to trace the cause were under way. It was only my mother's
tenacity that prevented [doctors] from what now would probably be
described as a medical fetish - namely to remove the eyes of the
child in order to avoid further damage. There was no tumour, and it
was a one-in-several-million chance which led to the failure of my
optic nerve to develop.
I have rarely done interviews about the way I work and the challenge
of overcoming blindness. But it seems appropriate to offer a better
understanding of what it has been like to deal with avalanches of
paper, to have all print material read on to tape and to be on top of
the material in a way that would never allow people to be able to
say: "If only he could see, he would have understood that better."
When I first entered parliament I struggled to get additional
equipment (for brailling) and additional staffing hours for reading,
and will never forget a remark made to me by one colleague who became
a very senior cabinet minister when we came to power in 1997: "It's
all right for you with the extra resources you get. No wonder you can
churn out the press releases." My reply was fairly succinct: "I'll
swap with you any time."
When I first entered the House of Commons in 1987 I came across many
who were patronising, even if they meant well. Of course I was very
sensitive about people being indulgent to me, and my pigheadedness,
my inherent independence and sometimes my unintentional rudeness soon
put paid to any do-gooding. I didn't want to be promoted out of
sympathy, though it was never easy to pull off the feat of being seen
to be effortlessly on top of things. Sometimes I have thought of
nothing else but how I was going to get through the masses of tapes
that arrived in the box each weekend or the nightly tapes that had to
be done either that evening or at least first thing in the morning.
In these early years of government the sheer volume of work left no
time for "gallivanting around in London", as my mother would have
called it. I was at that time very much what the press saw (and
wanted me always to be): the dedicated, workaholic, almost obsessive,
dour northerner.
Feeding and grooming a guide dog, and of course making sure that it
is exercised and has a chance to do what the Guide Dogs for the Blind
Association call its "spend", are all-important. So each morning my
dog and I would set off walking. We would have a decent walk and the
car would collect us. We would then run the dog properly (often but
not always in New Palace Yard at the House of Commons) before going
into the office.
Each morning I would, however, have had a phone call from the press
office. They were lovely young - forgive me if I call them that -
people who volunteered to do a rota for what increasingly over the
years became an extremely grumpy man. The more difficult the coverage
we received, the grumpier and more bad-tempered I became.
Every minute of every travelling hour had to be spent working. It was
the only way. I kept a braille machine of my own on my desk so that I
could make notes. Contrary to common assumption, I didn't always rely
on my memory, although I did try to develop it, much in the way that
one develops a muscle, to ensure that with particular aspects of the
job it was possible to achieve better recall than would normally be
the case.
The same is true of my hearing and my ability to be able to sense
what is going on around me. I am still learning, and I still
sometimes get it wrong. When I am chairing a meeting I often ask
people to indicate to me when they want to speak with a quiet word or
cough, or make some other sound to show that they would like to come
in on the discussion.
And I also have to be careful not to blunder in. This is a particular
issue for blind people. Speaking at the wrong moment, intervening
just when someone else has their hand up and is about to be called,
or failing to recognise a visual indication (which often can be
discernible body language) that this is not the moment to speak out,
is something that has been difficult, to say the least.
Honesty is a mixed blessing. Saying what you think, you cannot see
the thunder in the faces around you. It does lead to honest, plain
speaking, but it also undoubtedly sometimes makes you a pain in the
Using tape machines which allowed me to speed up the sound has
helped, but even with recordings half as fast again as the normal
reading speed, it is still substantially slower than anyone who is a
reasonable speed-reader of print. Speaking in the House was never a
problem, though it was certainly challenging when I first came into
parliament, when I thought I knew it all. I had already been on the
public stage and had substantial media exposure, but the House of
Commons was different from anything else I had ever experienced. In
the space of a few sentences the atmosphere can change from positive,
uplifting support to resentful animosity.
In many ways, not being able to see required me to be much more alert
and alive to what was going on around me, as well as knowing when
people wanted to intervene and being ready to sit down and allow them
to raise a question or make a point. It is possible to work out where
someone is most likely to be sitting. It is possible to know from
their voice who they are. Question time, which for departmental
questions is once a month and lasts for an hour, I always found easy.
After all, the secretary of state has the last word.
But I found delivering written - what are known as "oral" -
statements very difficult. They are oral in the sense that they are
delivered to the House, but they are written and have to be read
verbatim. And here is the rub: I am not a good reader. Very few
people appreciate just what a nightmare it is in such circumstances
to use braille, where there are no capital letters as there are in
print, no highlighting, no underlining and, given that braille is so
bulky, masses of paper. Even a short statement requires a large
number of sheets. Delivering a statement to the Commons was my worst
If I had my time again, I would do two things. First, I would look
after my fingers a great deal better, because the skin was burnt from
cooking and toughened by manual chores, resulting in clumsiness. I
would also have made sure that they were cared for, using whatever
ointments or creams were necessary (even if that did make me a big
girl's blouse). Second, I would have practised braille over and over
again. I do regret that now, because it was certainly an achilles
heel noticeable not simply in my awkward and sometimes stumbling
delivery of the statement (in contrast to answering questions, where
I was easy, confident and articulate) but in my whole body language -
the tension, the hunched shoulders, the unrelaxed facial muscles,
which came from what inside was frankly downright fear.
January 2000

Frank [Dobson] patronised me about not being able to see. If there is
anything that absolutely gets my goat, it is other people pretending
to be nice while being deeply offensive. Give me someone who is
clearly just deeply offensive any day and I can deal with them, but
save me from paternalism. Frank will never know - or perhaps he will
- just how offensive his introduction of me as "my blind friend" was.
He went on: "What a remarkable achievement it is for someone who
can't see to have made the progress that my friend has made" -
perhaps the kind of remark that some well-meaning but ill-informed
distant acquaintance may make, but not a fellow cabinet minister of
two and a half years' standing. I could at that moment have walked
out of the room and finished Frank's campaign there and then, but I
managed to get a grip of myself, and, as so often, I let it go.

July 2000

One of the problems of not being able to see is drinking orange juice
when there is a wasp in it. This happened to me. I had it in my mouth
and was about to chew it when something told me to spit it out. I did
so, but it stung me and my mouth, face, arms and hands all started to
swell. It was one of those frightening experiences when you think:
"There's no one around, what do I do?" Living on my own is sometimes
quite frightening.

February 2001

Once, when I was leader of Sheffield city council, the Queen and the
Duke of Edinburgh came to Sheffield for an official visit and I was
hosting lunch. It was one of those very pleasant occasions when it
was possible to sit next to Her Majesty and have a genuine
conversation, but (and I know she will forgive me for recalling it)
it was strange when twice she asked me if I would like my meat
cutting up - strange not because it was not a kind and thoughtful
question, but because of the comment she made when I politely
declined: "You know, I often do it for the corgis." Well, well, well.

April 2001

I hate buffets for obvious reasons.

Perhaps my hatred of buffets merits a little more explanation. In
order to get the true picture, close your eyes and imagine you are in
a very noisy room, with everyone standing about with glasses in their
hands, normally at an angle just right for tipping over if you happen
to bang an elbow. People are milling about and someone (you've no
idea who) approaches you and begins to talk - and talk ... You are
desperately trying to avoid being rude because, God knows, you might
need help in the future ... So you try just to pop in, show your
face, hope that someone really interesting will "take pity on you",
and eat what you can. It has to be said here that this is usually a
plate of food collected for you by someone else and which
understandably reflects their taste in food but not necessarily yours.

David Blunkett praises civil servants for reading out documents and
transferring others to braille. But he expresses frustration with the
civil service as a whole

October 2001

[Leak of email sent by Jo Moore, special adviser to Stephen Byers, to
Department of Transport press office on September 11 saying it would
be a "very good day" to "bury" bad news]

The world has gone crackers, and the cause célèbre of the week has
been the débâcle over Jo Moore, which is going on and on. Steve was
intending to sack Jo Moore, but by early afternoon it had all changed
and apparently it was because, quite rightly, Tony had perceived that
this was a try-on by the civil service. It was felt that they were
the ones who had received the email and leaked it, and no matter how
appalling the email, the declaration of war by the civil service and
their ability to leak emails and thereby bring down special advisers
had to be countered. Unfortunately life is not as simple as that.
Tony's interpretation of the situation is right, but Steve's initial
decision to sack Jo Moore for the content of the email was also right
because this story has run and run and run.

In dictating this I had no idea just how catastrophic it was going to
be for Steve Byers. I think those advising really did mean well, and
it was a difficult situation to call. There is no doubt that Jo Moore
paid the price, but what price.

January 2002

I'm having a real problem with correspondence concerning Keith
Bennett, who was killed by Ian Brady [convicted, with Myra Hindley,
for the Moors Murders in the 1960s]. His brother Alan had written and
it had taken two months for the letter to come through to me. I
replied to him personally, and now find that Mrs Johnson, Keith
Bennett's mum, had written on November 15 and her letter has just
floated round until Christmas, with no one taking responsibility for
it. I've written a robust letter to John Gieve about this as I feel
it was just grossly incompetent and insensitive. How they could
possibly have missed that this was a significant and sensitive letter
I can't imagine, bearing in mind that the letter began: "Dear Mr
Blunkett, My son Keith was murdered by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. My
life ended then ..."

February 2002

Steve Byers is in the mire because he's got rid of Jo Moore [who had
wanted to stand down in October] and Martin Sixsmith [director of
communications] and Sixsmith is saying that he never agreed to go.
Everyone eulogises about our free, independent, apolitical civil
service. They are apolitical all right - an island within an island,
a government within a government. They have clearly declared war on
special advisers and on some ministers, and they are determined to
pull Steve Byers down.

We talked about special advisers at cabinet. Steve said his bit and
John Reid said one or two sensible things about the dangers, but the
discussion wasn't going anywhere so I just launched in. I know
Richard Wilson will not forgive me for this but it's too bad -
because apparently he went grey and looked daggers at me.

I said: "Well, I think if we're going to have legislation that
protects the civil service from the government, could we build into
it protection for the government from the civil service?

"We have a situation in my department where virtually anything of any
importance is leaked. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate is
a complete shambles. The only reason we got a police reform white
paper and the reform of immigration, nationality and asylum was
because the two respective advisers worked extremely closely with me
on them ... The civil service are very lucky that we can't sack them,
that no one can sack them" - with the implication that they damn well
would be sacked if I had my way, and they would be. At the end of all
this diatribe Tony said: "Well, I think Richard Wilson's got the
message. You really love the civil service, David. You've got a lot
of time for them and you believe they're doing a first-class job" -
and everybody just doubled up.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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