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Have RNIB REALLY just ‘sacked’ a blind volunteer?

Until August 9, Peter Bennetts who’s visually impaired, chaired the RNIB’s North East Network Committee on a voluntary basis. But after a major dispute with senior members of RNIB staff, the charity’s newly-appointed fully sighted chief executive, Matt Stringer, told Peter that the relationship had irretrievably broken down. 

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any charity. Without them, it would be very difficult to provide services to service-users. At the very minimum, full-time members of a charity’s staff go through the motions of appreciating the work their volunteers do. While charities don’t pay their volunteers, they will find other ways of showing their gratitude to them, such as by throwing a party or holding a volunteer awards ceremony.

Having myself worked on a freelance basis for a number of charities, I’m pretty familiar with the relationship that exists between them and volunteers. So I was rather surprised when I heard that RNIB was in dispute with volunteer members of its North East Network, including its chair, Peter Bennetts.

When a relationship breaks down, there are usually two sides to the story. I will try to set out my understanding and impressions of what’s gone wrong here.

Firstly though, I have to declare that I know some of the protagonists involved in this saga. I have come to know Peter Bennetts over the past couple of months and know a couple of the RNIB senior managers I will mention, including Keith Valentine and David Clarke. 

Who is Peter Bennetts? After holding a number of senior roles in local government, Peter’s sight started to deteriorate so he took early retirement. Peter, who lives in the Marsden area of South Shields, took up voluntary work with RNIB in the North East. That work included chairing RNIB North East and joining the Board of Trustees. Two years ago, Peter, 64, became chair of the RNIB’s North East Network.

One thing upon which everyone appears to agree is that Peter was dedicated to RNIB and has an insatiable appetite for hard work. According to Peter, his group enjoyed a number of successes; the North East Network was the first to be established in the country and they successfully campaigned against a shared space proposal in Middlesbrough.

In light of Peter’s hard work and success, how did it all go horribly wrong?

By his own admission, Peter is forthright and outspoken: “I have no problem speaking out on behalf of others less confident than myself. I’ve been calling upon the RNIB for greater accountability within the organisation, greater autonomy for regional networks and to rebuild the disconnect that has developed over the past couple of years.” 

The breakdown between Peter and RNIB appears to have its origins in a meeting of RNIB Network chairs that took place in Belfast in September 2018. According to Peter, RNIB presented a lengthy consultation document on proposed changes to RNIB’s governance, a day before the meeting was due to take place. Peter claims There was a unanimous feeling that this was “very poor,  unacceptable and indicated a disconnect between the executive and the grassroots.”

Peter says that RNIB’s head of relationships, Sophie Castell, asked Campbell Chalmers, head of networks (North), to consult more widely. I understand that Campbell Chalmers carried out that wider consultation and presented his findings to Sophie Castell in November. 

Meanwhile, Peter alleges that the proposed changes to governance had already been presented to and approved by the RNIB board in September, rendering pointless Mr. Chalmers’s further consultation.

I understand from someone close to the visual impairment sector in the north East that Peter’s version of events in relation to the Belfast meeting is broadly accurate.

An RNIB spokeswoman takes issue with Peter Bennetts’s version of events. She says the paper related to involvement, not governance. The minutes show that in fact, the issue was governance and involvement. She also says that Campbell Chalmers was asked to gather feedback rather than undertake further consultation.

She went on to say that the process was “iterative”, so although it had been signed off by the Board, it could still be modified. 

I have read the minutes from the meeting and Item 5, the one in dispute here, was titled “Governance and involvement.”

In the scheme of things, this is a minor issue and to me, this feels like RNIB are dancing on the head of a semantic pin.

Peter Bennetts says he continued to raise issues of accountability and the “disconnect between the executive and the grassroots.” After the RNIB’s AGM in January, Peter was mandated by the North East Network to email RNIB’s interim chief executive, Elliot Line, with seven questions, related to the charity’s budget, accountability and autonomy for networks.

Meetings were scheduled for Spring of this year but didn’t take place after Campbell Chalmers complained over the tone of one of Peter’s emails to him.

I can’t verify this but Peter says the email contained the following:

“Another box ticked for you; another unsatisfactory response for me; I will continue to take these issues up at a higher level.”

We obviously don’t have the whole exchange between Peter Bennetts and Campbell Chalmers. Context is critical here. While Peter’s email is clearly a tad aggressive, you’d need to be fairly thin-skinned to be mortally offended by it.

Rather inevitably, there was quite a lot of toing and froing between Peter and RNIB over the next few weeks. The next significant event however was a rather curious meeting between Peter Bennetts and Keith Valentine, RNIB’s recently appointed director of development. Keith and Peter went out for a few drinks on the evening of Thursday, May 9.

Peter claims that they both drank a considerable quantity of alcohol and accepts that, after six glasses of wine, he, Peter, became briefly tearful. During that meeting, Peter alleges that official business was discussed including a safeguarding matter.

It is further alleged that Keith invoked that moment of upset to raise concerns over Peter’s mental health. It was those concerns that were subsequently cited by Sophie Castell when Peter was suspended, or asked to stand aside, from his role as network chair.

Peter describes that meeting with Keith Valentine as “absolutely appalling, it was entrapment.”

On May 31, Peter received that phone call from Sophie Castell. He claims he was clearly told he was suspended from his volunteer role. Peter claims that the word suspended was used on multiple occasions. In a subsequent email, Ms Castell didn’t use the “suspended” word.

Peter Bennetts alleges that Ms Castell suggested that Peter’s “mental health difficulties” might benefit from a period away from the day-to-day business of chairing the North East Network. Peter says his doctor gave his mental health a clean bill of health at an appointment a few days later.

Peter says that metaphorically, he also received a clean bill of health from David Clarke, RNIB’s director of services. David carried out an investigation into complaints in relation to Peter, including the safeguarding issue,  none of which was upheld.

What strikes me as quite odd here is that, having raised concerns over his mental health, RNIB don’t appear to have provided Peter with any support. 

As part of Peter’s suspension, or standing aside, he was instructed not to have any contact with fellow members of his committee. I’m not quite sure how RNIB proposed to enforce that. In any event, that instruction was ignored both by Peter and his colleagues.

In fact, nine of the twelve members of the North East Network committee downed tools in support of Peter. They even set up a strike committee.

From this point onwards, the outcome was inevitable. Peter says he’s “astounded and bitterly disappointed that RNIB had taken the decision to terminate his volunteering role.”

Peter continues: “I have given 90 hours per month of commitment to improving the lives of blind and partially sighted people and this is how a national charity treats me. I was prepared for the benefit of other blind and partially sighted people to draw a line in the sand following this sorry saga, but the newly appointed CEO, Mat Stringer … has concluded that the relationship is fractured to the point that my volunteering role has been terminated”.

On August 9, CEO Matt Stringer met with Peter Bennetts. In a subsequent letter of the same date, Mr. Stringer said: “I just wanted to confirm that it became clear to me during the meeting that, despite the two investigations and an appeal, there remain insurmountable issues between yourself and RNIB and your volunteering relationship with RNIB now needs to come to an end. As you will be aware, our volunteer problem solving procedure states that, “In serious cases or where problems remain unresolved after attempts have been made, you will be asked to leave your volunteer role.”

Matt Stringer then outlined how Peter’s dismissal will be presented to Networks staff and volunteers: “RNIB is sad to announce that our longstanding and valued volunteer, Peter Bennetts, will no longer be providing volunteering services to RNIB. We would like to formally thank Mr Bennetts for all his hard work over the years and acknowledge the impact he has had on the blind and partially sighted community in the North East.

“This is following a period where we placed Peter’s volunteering activities on hold. We would like to clarify that he did not ‘step down’ in this period and that his volunteering activities were placed on hold in order to conduct an investigation into complaints made by Peter against RNIB staff. We took this action in line with our policy and it was done as a neutral act to allow for an unimpeded investigation to be conducted. 

“An independent investigation was carried out and no formal actions against any RNIB staff were required as a result.“

I naturally approached the RNIB’s press office to give them the opportunity to respond to Peter Bennetts’s allegations. I spoke to a senior member of the RNIB’s External Communications Team for some 20 minutes. 

Having worked as a senior press officer myself, I recognised her approach, because I’ve used it when managing sensitive issues involving a service user or volunteer. I call it the ‘nudge nudge … wink wink approach -there are things I’d like to say but you know I can’t. 

The spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on the specific details of the allegations in relation to Keith Valentine but reminded me that I had only heard one side of the story.

She did send me a statement which was copied and pasted from Matt Stringer’s letter to Peter Bennetts. As I’ve included it above, I won’t reproduce those paragraphs here.

Ok, so what are my thoughts?

As Peter Bennetts freely concedes, he’s a man of strong views which he’s happy to express in a forthright manner. When you work with organisations such as RNIB or the civil service, there’s an unwritten behavioural code which you have to follow. Failure to adhere to it, will inevitably lead to conflict.

Even the best communicators can get the tone wrong, perhaps Peter has some cause for reflection here.

That said, in my experience, people and organisations do appear to be becoming increasingly thin-skinned these days. They want everything their own way. Are RNIB guilty of that?

When you work for or run a major organisation, you will inevitably attract criticism. My advice to media and external relations managers is to broaden your shoulders!

The obvious effect of what’s happened here is the possible muzzling of other RNIB networks. The spokeswoman described the networks as “independent” … in my experience, independent is one of the most misused and abused words in the public and voluntary sectors.

For me, the most disturbing aspect of this sorry saga is the judgments a couple of members of senior RNIB staff made on Peter Bennetts’s mental health. We’ve all had these conversations in the pub or restaurant, but is it acceptable for unqualified people to cast such aspersions in their official capacity?

I think not!

Updated blog – A question of legitimacy – can organisations like RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust continue to speak for blind and partially sighted people?

On April 25, RNIB announced that Matt Stringer had been appointed as the charity’s permanent chief executive. According to the press release, Mr Stringer took up his post on April 30.

And yesterday, (July 11), the much-troubled Thomas Pocklington Trust, announced that Charles Colquhoun had been appointed as the charity’s chief executive officer.

Before I proceed any further, I need to declare that until July 2018, for ten months, I worked as a communications consultant for Thomas Pocklington Trust. Not always a happy experience, I at least appreciated the work.

For blind and partially sighted people, Mr Stringer’s appointment is a significant development. There are some obvious questions; Who will lead the organisation that is charged with representing our needs and interests to government and other public and private sector organisations? What does he or she know about blind and partially sighted people? Is he or she visually impaired?

In the press releases issued by RNIB and Thomas Pocklington Trust, they manage to ignore a number of elephants in the room; for instance there is a conspicuous absence of personal detail in relation to Mr. Stringer and Mr. Colquhoun. In Mr. Stringer’s case, we read about his 30-year retail career but it doesn’t mention whether he has any lived experience of visual impairment … I am therefore going to take the liberty of assuming he’s fully sighted.

I’m going to take the same liberty in relation to Mr. Colquhoun. He joined the Trust in 2016 as director of resources. Mr. Colquhoun took over from Peter Corbett as interim chief executive officer in February of this year, when Peter was forced to step down. No mention is made in the press release of Mr. Colquhoun’s lived experience of visual impairment, so save for his three years as a director at Pocklington, it will be safe to assume he doesn’t have any.

Does this matter? Aren’t we just getting our ‘you know whats’ in a twist over nothing? Well actually, the question of legitimacy really does matter. Rightly or wrongly, when it comes to looking for an authoritative voice on visual impairment, government, local authorities, the private sector and other charities turn to RNIB.

But what messages do they receive from RNIB? Well the first and most obvious one is that we need sighted people to do things for us … we aren’t capable of managing and providing services for ourselves. In the About Us page on the RNIB’S website, we are referred to in the third person. In a recent article in Civil Society by Sarah Lambert, head of social change at RNIB, she explains why the charity wants to transform public attitudes and how it is going about it. Unfortunately, we’re again referred to in the third person.

This leads me on to the question of whether RNIB can legitimately describe itself as an ‘of’ charity. This may appear to be an obscure point but do bear with me.

RNIB’s full name is Royal National Institute of Blind People. This implies that the charity is a democratic membership-based organisation, run – in this case – by people who have a visual impairment. In 2002, Third Sector reported that RNIB was aiming to recruit 50,000 members who would be given a voice in how the charity is run through a consultative assembly.

The membership scheme was abolished some years ago and I’ve read a suggestion that it was replaced by RNIB Connect.

In RNIB’s defence, six of the charity’s eight trustees are visually impaired, including the chair, Eleanor Southwood. Anyone however who has worked or volunteered for a charity would know only too well that the key decisions are taken by the CEO and other senior managers. We have seen in other charities how trustees know very little of what is actually going on.

I would also ask whether we need two fully sighted trustees?

How is it then that visually impaired people are overlooked for the RNIB’s top job?

In October 2017, Sally Harvey was appointed RNIB’S permanent CEO. Of the eight people shortlisted for interview, three were visually impaired. The interviews for the post were a three-stage process; and by the final stage, all of the visually impaired candidates had been eliminated. RNIB chair Eleanor Southwood told the In Touch Programme on BBC Radio 4 that she was disappointed that she didn’t have a visually impaired person to choose from. For whatever reason, Ms Southwood wasn’t involved in the second phase of the recruitment process, which was  when the blind and partially sighted candidates were rejected.

Ms Southwood also told the In Touch Programme that, although the visually impaired candidates were strong, they lacked critical experience of financial and project management.

I have no inside knowledge as to how this latest recruitment was conducted, but I would be astonished if the two leading visually impaired candidates, Keith Valentine and David Clarke, hadn’t been strongly encouraged to apply and seriously considered.

But for me, here’s the inconsistency. RNIB has appointed a chief executive who has no experience or knowledge of visual impairment. Isn’t this as big an omission as one could possibly imagine, given the nature of the role?

If however there is a ray of hope in Mr Stringer’s appointment, it’s that he hasn’t been on the charity gravy-train. How many charity chief execs ricochet from one senior job to another? I can think of quite a few. The ones in my mind are careerists – they screw up one organisation only to mysteriously pop up in another senior role. No names, no pack-drill but we all hear the chatter.

Many charities in the visual impairment sector appear to be in a pitiful state; cutting services and closing resource centres leaving blind and partially sighted people to fend for themselves. Even without all of the apparently necessary experience, I’m left wondering whether visually impaired people could make as big a Horlicks of it as sighted people are doing on our behalf.

For the past twelve months, Thomas Pocklington Trust has been among those organisations in a pitiful state … riven by internal and external difficulties, resulting in the de facto dismissal of their chief executive and a large number of redundancies.

Whether Mr. Colquhoun can re-establish Pocklington’s reputation and credibility, only time will tell. From a personal perspective, I have always found Charles to be a decent and respectful guy. The Trust isn’t an ‘of’ charity so doesn’t make any claims to be user-led or democratic in the same way as RNIB does. Nonetheless, shouldn’t all organisations in the visual impairment sector aspire to be led by a blind or partially sighted CEO? Also worrying, is that there are no visually impaired senior managers on the Trust’s executive leadership team.

In answer to my question, I will always listen to RNIB because within its hallowed portals, lies some valuable experience. I have invariably found that junior and middle-ranking members of staff are knowledgeable, helpful and willing to learn. Sadly however, when it comes to speaking to the public or writing articles, their voice … our voice … isn’t heard.

As for Pocklington, they have occasionally published some interesting research which deserves some recognition. The misnamed Sight Loss Councils, which are led by visually impaired people,  have also enjoyed some success.

The challenge for the Trust will be to determine what it exists for; are they an enabling organisation which funds other smaller visual impairment charities or will they become a direct service-provider? In my time at Pocklington, the charity’s raison d’etre was never clear – in fact, I remember sitting in a meeting with two senior managers who had a blazing row over Pocklington’s purpose. Let’s hope they consult visually impaired people to determine policy and decide on how the organisation will develop.

Without meaningful consultation with blind and partially sighted people, Pocklington’s reputation and credibility will remain where it is right now … insert your own adjective!

A question of legitimacy – can RNIB continue to speak for blind and partially sighted people?

On April 25, RNIB announced that Matt Stringer had been appointed as the charity’s permanent chief executive. According to the press release, Mr Stringer took up his post on April 30.

For blind and partially sighted people, Mr Stringer’s appointment is a significant development. There are some obvious questions; Who will lead the organisation that is charged with representing our needs and interests to government and other public and private sector organisations? What does he or she know about blind and partially sighted people? Is he or she visually impaired?

In RNIB’s press release, they manage to ignore a number of elephants in the room; for instance there is a conspicuous absence of personal detail in relation to Mr Stringer. We read about his 30-year retail career but it doesn’t mention whether he has any lived experience of visual impairment … I am therefore going to take the liberty of assuming he’s fully sighted.

Does this matter? Aren’t we just getting our ‘you know whats’ in a twist over nothing? Well actually, the question of legitimacy really does matter. Rightly or wrongly, when it comes to looking for an authoritative voice on visual impairment, government, local authorities, the private sector and other charities turn to RNIB.

But what messages do they receive from RNIB? Well the first and most obvious one is that we need sighted people to do things for us … we aren’t capable of managing and providing services for ourselves. In the About Us page on the RNIB’S website, we are referred to in the third person. In this article in Civil Society by Sarah Lambert, head of social change at RNIB, she explains why the charity wants to transform public attitudes and how it is going about it. Unfortunately, we’re  again referred to in the third person.

This leads me on to the question of whether RNIB can legitimately describe itself as an ‘of’ charity. This may appear to be an obscure point but do bear with me.

RNIB’s full name is Royal National Institute of Blind People. This implies that the charity is a democratic membership-based organisation, run – in this case – by people who have a visual impairment. In 2002, Third Sector reported that RNIB was aiming to recruit 50,000 members who would be given a voice in how the charity is run through a consultative assembly.

The membership scheme was abolished some years ago and I’ve read a suggestion that it was replaced by RNIB Connect.

In RNIB’s defence, six of the charity’s eight trustees are visually impaired, including the chair, Eleanor Southwood. Anyone however who has worked or volunteered for a charity would know only too well that the key decisions are taken by the CEO and other senior managers. We have seen in other charities how trustees know very little of what is actually going on.

I would also ask whether we need two fully sighted trustees?

How is it then that visually impaired people are overlooked for the RNIB’s top job?

In October 2017, Sally Harvey was appointed RNIB’S permanent CEO. Of the eight people shortlisted for interview, three were visually impaired. The interviews for the post were a three-stage process; and by the final stage, all of the visually impaired candidates had been eliminated. RNIB chair Eleanor Southwood told the In Touch Programme on BBC Radio 4 that she was disappointed that she didn’t have a visually impaired person to choose from. For whatever reason, Ms Southwood wasn’t involved in the second phase of the recruitment process, which was  when the blind and partially sighted candidates were rejected.

Ms Southwood also told the In Touch Programme that, although the visually impaired candidates were strong, they lacked critical experience of financial and project management.

I have no inside knowledge as to how this latest recruitment was conducted, but I would be astonished if the two leading visually impaired candidates, Keith Valentine and David Clarke, hadn’t been strongly encouraged to apply and seriously considered.

But for me, here’s the inconsistency. RNIB has just appointed a chief executive who has no experience or knowledge of visual impairment. Isn’t this as big an omission as one could possibly imagine, given the nature of the role?

If however there is a ray of hope in Mr Stringer’s appointment, it’s that he hasn’t been on the charity gravy-train. How many charity chief execs ricochet from one senior job to another? I can think of quite a few. The ones in my mind are careerists – they screw up one organisation only to mysteriously pop up in another senior role. No names, no pack-drill but we all hear the chatter.

Many charities in the visual impairment sector appear to be in a pitiful state; cutting services and closing resource centres leaving blind and partially sighted people to fend for themselves. Even without all of the apparently necessary experience, I’m left wondering whether visually impaired people could make as big a Horlicks of it as sighted people are doing on our behalf.

In answer to my question, I will always listen to RNIB because within its hallowed portals, lies some valuable experience. I have invariably found that junior and middle-ranking members of staff are knowledgeable, helpful and willing to learn. Sadly however, when it comes to speaking to the public or writing articles, their voice … our voice … isn’t heard.

The much-troubled VI charity, Thomas Pocklington Trust, has just advertised for a chief executive to replace Peter Corbett, who left TPT rather abruptly in January of this year. It will be interesting to see whether their trustees opt for a fully-sighted charity-hopper or one of the excellent visually impaired candidates who have lived experience of being blind or partially sighted.

How special was special school?

Some weeks ago, I gave a guest lecture to second year Education and Disability Studies students at Liverpool Hope University, entitled My Experience of Special Education and the ‘real world’. I’m told students enjoy hearing about the lived experience of ‘real’ people. I hope they enjoyed my talk.

I’ll spare you the speaking notes but I didn’t pull any punches. I started the lecture by playing them a piece I recorded for the In Touch Programme on the 150th anniversary of my alma mater, New College Worcester … or as it was then, Worcester College for the Blind.

I then recounted how education officials from Manchester City Council strong-armed my mother in to sending their visually impaired son to a Sunshine Home in Leamington Spa. I talked about my time at the Royal School for the blind in Liverpool, known to many as Wavertree, and my secondary education at Worcester College for the Blind. I also discussed my experiences of higher education and employment.

Suffice to say, as a very young child being wrenched from my family, I felt anything but special. In fact, even then, as adults talked about and over me, my life felt like it was totally out of control. It didn’t feel right but I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate how I felt.

Despite my early experiences of special school being anything but pleasant, I’m not as angry or resentful as some blind school alumni of my acquaintance. 

On the In Touch Programme of February 26, the visually impaired columnist and former teacher, Mike Lambert, spoke of his experiences of losing his sight at the age of 16 and being sent to Worcester College for the Blind … which is the same school I had the dubious pleasure of attending. 

Mike wasn’t exactly effusive in his praise for the school.

The following three years at Worcester, set Mike wondering about the desirability of educating disabled and non-disabled children in separate institutions. Mike went on to say that he achieved academic success “at a very high price” in terms of his social and emotional well-being.

Mike recalls the “alarming levels of institutionalisation” at Worcester. When his parents came to visit, he hoped they wouldn’t notice the boys “aimlessly rocking from side to side and the shocking standards of hygiene”. 

After university, Mike trained as a teacher. He spent most of his career coordinating support for disabled youngsters studying at their local mainstream colleges. 

“I saw how, with the right level of resources, visually impaired students could succeed on vocational and academic courses across the curriculum, Mike says.

Based on his experience, Mike concludes: “And I know there’s no overwhelming practical reason why blind or visually impaired children need to attend special schools”.

I would concede that Mike makes some strong points in his column, particularly in relation to his feeling of social isolation and institutionalisation associated with special school. As a working-class kid from the arse end of Manchester, Worcester College for the Blind had a very strange ‘other world’ feeling about it for me. I remember children rocking and poking their eyes; but that was just the way things were. After a while, I stopped regarding it as being strange.

There were worse things at Worcester than the rocking. When I arrived there in 1976, it was like Lord of the Flies. Bullying was endemic. The staff were clueless about and incapable of stopping it.

My local community back home wouldn’t have had the first clue what my life was like at ‘blind school’. The problem was, I knew only too well what their lives were like!

My friends at home and family regarded me as lucky … I was apparently receiving a world class education. Little did they know! Given that every child at Worcester had an IQ of at least 115, we should have all got ten very good O levels and three excellent A levels. The fact that that didn’t happen, is an indictment of the school’s antiquated approach to education.

My experience … both having attended and worked in special school and having recorded stories for Radio 4 involving visually impaired children attending mainstream schools … is that so-called inclusion rarely works well.

So, what does inclusion of a visually impaired child in a mainstream school actually look like? Firstly, it’s the cheaper option for local authorities; thirty-odd grand to send a child to a special school or less than £10,000 to a mainstream alternative, for cash-strapped councils, it’s a financial no-brainer.

For me, this is a classic case of knowing the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

Some years ago, I did a pieced for In Touch on two visually impaired children at a mainstream school which had a special needs unit. The school had a positive and vibrant feel to it; relatively well-behaved children getting up to mischief as they waited for their teacher.

The visually impaired children would however have known very little about that. For, as the sighted children were throwing bits of paper etc at each other, the blind children were ‘man-marked’ and molly-coddled by a support worker. I spent some hours at the school and at no point, did I witness any interaction between the visually impaired children and their sighted counterparts. Does this look like inclusion to you? 

And I’ve heard countless similar accounts from visually impaired children who attended mainstream school. How can disabled children develop the independence and resilience they need for later life if they’re being smothered by support?

When the pro-inclusion advocates talk about the right level of resources, is this what they’re referring to?

As some people may know, I do some communications work for the Cheshire Cobras Visually Impaired Cricket Club. This winter, we’ve been running some sports taster days for visually impaired children. Many of the blind and partially sighted children who’ve enjoyed trying their hand at a range of different sports attend mainstream schools.

The young people’s parents have positively welcomed the chance for their children to run around and play sport with other blind and partially sighted children.

That opportunity to participate in football and other sports is generally unavailable to visually impaired children in mainstream schools. Does that sound like inclusion to you?

Some blind and partially sighted children have told me about being allowed to stay in the classroom rather than join their peers in a PE lesson. The lucky ones are allowed to do some physical exercise on their own.

As sighted children play cricket with a hard red ball, what would the right level of resources be to enable visually impaired children to take part? 

I also do some enrichment work for St Vincent’s School for the Blind in Liverpool, where I’ve met children who’ve transferred over from mainstream. Even those who have what I would consider to be a pretty good level of sight, struggled to access the curriculum in their mainstream schools. 

In contrast, once they’ve moved to St Vincent’s, they’ve thrived; providing material in a student’s preferred alternative format for example is second nature for the teachers.

One thing on which Mike Lambert and I would agree is a discomfort over segregated education. Even in this apparently enlightened age, I’m frequently flabbergasted by the level of ignorance in society in relation to visual impairment. Undoubtedly, this is largely attributable to segregation in education. I still meet morons who think that if you can see, even slightly, you don’t actually have any form of significant disability.

But perhaps part of the solution to that problem also lies at St Vincent’s. The principal, Dr John Patterson, is the pioneer of reverse inclusion, in which children from neighbouring schools come in to St Vincent’s and are taught, for at least part of the curriculum, alongside the visually impaired children.

This approach is underpinned by academic research, cited in a special edition of Research in Action published in august 2018. They define reverse inclusion as:

“…students without special needs working alongside children with special needs in scheduled activities, but within the safety net of familiar surroundings for the disabled pupils…

“Research in Israel shows that participants with disabilities who participated in a reverse-integrated wheelchair basketball program showed increases in perceived ability, quality of life, and social competence (Hutzler, Chacham-Guber, & Reiter, 2013). 

“In the UK, reverse inclusion within sports is demonstrating impact; ‘it has given me social skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, opportunities for travel and the vehicle to show my ability rather than my disability’”.

Reverse inclusion isn’t a panacea but it represents one way in which the stigma and segregation which are so synonymous with special education, could be tackled. I’ve spoken to sighted children who’ve come in to St Vincent’s under Dr Patterson’s reverse inclusion initiative. Although this isn’t scientific, my impression is that the school has made a positive impression on them.

One other major advantage the students at St Vincent’s have nowadays in comparison to my day at Worcester, is that many of them go home every evening. This has to be beneficial for their emotional and social wellbeing. Although they attend a special school, they remain in contact with their families and local communities.

Incidentally, Dr Patterson also says that there is new research demonstrating that it’s now cheaper to educate visually impaired children in special schools and that they achieve better outcomes. The tide has turned to some degree

Going back to Mike’s blog, there’s a danger that we judge yesterday’s bad practice by today’s hopefully higher standards. When Mike and I were at school, corporal punishment was still very much the norm. that doesn’t happen today. At Worcester, six or seven boys were in Dickensian dormitories with rickety wardrobes and a thread-bare mat by their beds; things are very different nowadays. 

I told the students at Hope University that I wasn’t terribly traumatised by my first day at Worcester because I was used to being packaged up and sent away from home. That’s just how it was then.

I understand some of Mike’s criticisms of special school but I take a more nuanced perspective. I’m sure there are some visually impaired children who’ve thrived in mainstream, I just haven’t met many of them.

Splat

It’s an overcast Sunday in July 1993 and I’m running down the steps towards platform 4 at Bolton Train Station. I was heading over to Preston and as always, I was cutting it fine. When I got to the platform, an incident occurred which finally persuaded me that I should carry my hitherto rather pristine white cane. I’ll come back to this later.

When I reflect on the defining points in my life, I think about my first day at primary and secondary schools; the day I graduated; the first time I went abroad and that decision to wield a white cane. In hindsight, deciding to carry a white cane was a no-brainer. In reality however, it was a momentous decision which challenged many of my preconceptions about myself.

Until I went to Worcester College for the Blind at the age of 12, I had never even considered carrying a white cane. In fact, I don’t think I had even handled one. At home in Manchester for instance, as far as my friends were concerned, they were aware that I was visually impaired but it wasn’t a significant issue. I wouldn’t have dreamt of going out around the neighbourhood with a cane.

At Worcester, we did mobility lessons on a Monday afternoon. These entailed being shown various routes around the city, culminating in learning the route to Birmingham.

Those of us who had some useful residual vision were given a symbol cane. If I remember correctly, we were supposed to keep it folded up while walking along the pavement. It would then be unfurled, a bit like some cheesy television magic trick, when we were at a road crossing.

To say we 12-year-olds were self-conscious about carrying the white cane would be an under-statement. We hated it.

Fortunately, once we had successfully navigated the Birmingham route, enforcement of the symbol cane rule was generally lax. In fact, apart from the odd occasion, school staff would turn a blind eye to our symbol cane refusal. I can even remember being told by a teacher that he had seen a totally blind student strolling along Whittington Road to the local garage without his long cane.

That student’s mobility was exceptional but nonetheless, it was a pretty reckless thing to have done.

As I progressed through secondary school, I completely abandoned any thought of carrying the symbol cane. Astonishingly, I had very few accidents or incidents. The locals appeared to know that we were from the ‘blind college’ and made the necessary adjustments. Bar staff in the local pubs almost certainly knew that most of us were under 18, and thankfully they too made the necessary adjustments.

These pre-white cane days continued unabated after I left Worcester. On moving back to Manchester, I became friends with a group of fully-sighted people and was determined to fit in. To their credit, my visual impairment was rarely an issue. Initially, they were slightly cautious, but once they realised I loved football, drinking and going on crazy days out, their concerns were dispelled.

I shan’t go into too much detail but suffice to say, I found myself in the middle of the occasional nightclub ruckus and pub brawl. Dark and very noisy, nightclubs were a nightmare. If it kicked off, getting out of the road was very difficult. While my friends felt a sense of responsibility for me, after ten bottles of disco piss, it was every man or woman for themselves.

I think it would be fair to say that I had better sight in those days. I could also sprint quite quickly which was rather helpful on one occasion outside Arsenal’s former Highbury Stadium. In early 1988, my Manchester mates and I attended a Man United vs Arsenal game. Standing outside the ground before the match, we were suddenly confronted by a marauding group of Arsenal fans.

We decided to make a run for it and after about 80 yards, I realised I was well ahead of the rest of them. I therefore decided to stop and looked back. Most of the boys were within a few yards of me apart from one, Mally, who was struggling to run. As he got nearer, I could see his problem … his green tracksuit bottoms had fallen down and were by his ankles. The sight of Mally standing in the middle of a London street in his under-crackers is seared indelibly in my memory.

The marauding Arsenal fans had long given up the chase which was a good job. I couldn’t move for laughing.

Highbury isn’t the only ground where I experienced the occasional madness. Outside Old Trafford, After Man United had lost 1-nil to Nottingham Forest, some scally threw a brick at me. Outside the same ground, as we were running for a bus after a night match, I ran straight in to a police officer. At this point, a symbol or white cane would have answered all the questions.

Thankfully, the officer was quite understanding but it could have ended differently. I was under the assumption or misapprehension that I “looked blind”. In Worcester, the locals didn’t need to be told.

In June 1993, while on holiday on the Greek island of Zakynthos, a fully sighted friend asked me why I didn’t carry a white cane. I went through all the usual stuff; self-conscious; wanting to fit in; not wanting to be prejudged and anyway, I look blind, don’t I!

At this point, she disabused me of that. She said: “If people look very closely, then it might be obvious but most people aren’t going to do that.”

As an aside, I had taken a white cane on a couple of previous holidays abroad. My thinking being that people from Albania or Hungary might not understand the words, I’m visually impaired.

While on that holiday in Zakynthos, my visual impairment and love of the drink conspired to cause one of the crazier incidents in my life. After carousing some carafe’s of vino with the same friend, I decided to go to the loo. But instead of heading to the gents, something possessed me to clamber up a stone water feature in the middle of the taverna. Just as I reached the top, I caught myself on and narrowly avoided indecently exposing myself to the other customers.

Rather tellingly, the incident was never mentioned again.

Back in Bolton, I was about to walk along platform 4 when splat – a small unsupervised child ran in to me. My downwards vision has never been great so I simply didn’t see him or her. There then followed a volley of expletive-laden abuse from the morons who should have been controlling the child.

I had a split-second to decide; stop and explain or keep on walking. Just as with the Albanians and Hungarians, I concluded that the visual impairment explanation might just fall on stony ground – just as the child had done.

Inevitably, for most sentient beings, an incident like that results in some reflection. First question, should I have at least tried to explain? Second question, if I had been carrying a white cane, would it have made a difference?

As I thought it through, the words of another fully sighted friend came back to me. He said we all have responsibilities, for our own and other people’s safety. His argument, which I was slowly coming round to, was that other people have the right to know that I can’t see as well as they might think I can.

I did have a rather immaculate white cane at home which hung mostly unused by my front door. The transition was pretty seamless. I just went out with the thing and swished it around and soon realised the beneficial effects. Instead of having to explain to shop assistants and other service-providers that I am visually impaired, they knew straightaway.

Incidentally, I opted for a long/white cane rather than a symbol cane, because I decided it would be more visible and help me to detect steps.

That process of explaining can be a real ball-ache. In one shop in the pre-white cane days, I told the shop assistant that I was partially sighted. After a couple of minutes, it became apparent that she thought I had said I was a cyclist.

But not only does the white cane answer all the questions … you know, why has that man just knocked over a display of milk or whatever, but I suspect it may have saved my life on at least one occasion. Crossing Melton Street outside Euston Station in London, I heard the screeching of breaks. God only knows how I wasn’t run over. As I looked to my right, a car was being chased by the police. Did he stop because he was about to crash in to a blind person? As soon as I was out of the way, the engines revved and the chase resumed.

For me, as I get older, I suspect the decision to carry the cane would have been forced on me. Failing faculties inevitably mean that I can see less nowadays. Owing to the fact that I’m often too bone idle to use it properly, it hasn’t entirely stopped collisions and accidents but I personally feel considerably safer now than I did 25 years ago.

Occasionally, I meet people who simply don’t appear to know what a white cane is but nowadays, they are in a vanishingly small minority. I have also been asked where I’ve parked. When they see the 137centimeter white cane, they’re usually mortified. For me though, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

As for whether other people should wield the white cane, it’s their decision. I do however know some visually impaired people who, in my view, should definitely carry a white cane or use some other form of mobility aid.

You’re not blind!

Before I go any further, I should warn you that this blog contains some industrial language so, if you’re offended by expletives, turn away now!

I should say from the outset that I’m a white cane user and I tend to bowl along with a degree of confidence

The other day, a friend from Northern Ireland posted an all-too-familiar story on Facebook. Walking along the road, she heard some pig-ignorant moron saying she isn’t really blind, that stick’s for show.

When I moved back to Liverpool from London, for the first time in my life, I was on the receiving end of similar ‘banter’. I won’t relate every story, but one or two do stick in my mind.

The most prominent incident occurred when I was walking back home along my road. I was awoken from my torpor by a couple who were in the middle of a blazing row. As my sister would have said, the language was choice. 

Anyway, as I drew level with them on the other side of the street, the woman turned towards me and bellowed: “He’s not fuckin’ blind either”, to which her partner responded, “so fuckin’ what.” So determined was the woman to lodge her allegation against me, , that she was prepared to interrupt her ‘exchange of views’ with her partner.

My response to these incidents has always been the same; betray absolutely no reaction … continue as if you haven’t heard a thing. On one occasion however, I very nearly broke my rule. 

On Christmas Eve 2016, I decided to go for the classy option where my evening meal was concerned. Returning home from the local Chinese chippy with my crispy duck, a girl – possibly no more than 9 or 10 years old – ran past me saying “you’re not blind.” I managed to refrain from asking her who she thought she was … but it was a close-run thing.

Jesus Christ I thought, I was used to brain-dead adults trying to take the piss but now it’s the chuffing kids too.

Some weeks later came the denouement. I was standing at a crossing on Smithdown Road in South Liverpool along with some schoolgirls. In hushed tones, one girl confided in another: “He really is blind.” 

I allowed myself three words of response: “But not deaf.”

Rest assured, these incidents are but a minuscule fraction of the daily diet of abuse some blind and partially sighted people experience in Liverpool and elsewhere.

In an occasionally idle moment, I have reflected on why these incidents take place and how we, as visually impaired people, should react. 

As a fairly confident person, perhaps I don’t fulfil the ‘victim’ stereotype, much loved by certain elements in society and the media.

For me, how to react in the face of this type of unwarranted provocation is the easy one. Don’t show any reaction whatsoever. Carry on as if nothing has happened. The imbeciles would love to see their victim kick off. When that doesn’t happen, they soon get bored.

I have heard stories of situations when a visually impaired person has reacted, and it has never ended well. I understand the temptation to say something, but my view is this, only do that if you’ve got something very witty or funny to say. 

Some years ago, I was walking along Bold Street in city centre Liverpool. It was dark and busy with people moving between pubs and bars. I suddenly heard some chav say to me, “How many fingers have I got up mate?” within a split second however, he had walked in to my white cane, the tip of which was conveniently at shin height. As he staggered in pain, I asked him how many white canes he’d walked in to recently. His friends were duly amused and I walked on listening to them mercilessly ripping the piss out of him.

The opportunity to respond was heaven-sent. I hope however, once he’d sobered up and got over the discomfort, he was able to reflect on what a prat he’d made of himself.

But why do these incidents take place? It can be partly accounted for by ignorance, stupidity, the fun of winding someone up but there are also some people who take the absolutist view on blindness. In other words, if you’re one of the 96% of visually impaired people who has some useful or residual vision, you aren’t actually blind.

This absolutist view sadly isn’t confined to the ignorant or stupid. There are some visually impaired people who share this perspective. On World Sight Day in October 2003, I was invited as a representative of a local visual impairment charity on to the Roger Phillips programme on BBC Radio Merseyside. In addition to talking about WSD, I used the opportunity to outline the services in Merseyside available to blind and partially sighted people. 

The conversation was going swimmingly until the producer decided to put a totally blind man of my acquaintance on air. I suspect the overwhelming majority of the listeners didn’t have a clue as to what he was going on about. I would guess Roger Phillips was equally baffled. 

To summarise, his point was that I shouldn’t be there representing a “blind charity.” He continued by saying that I was alright because I’ve got some sight. For a short period, he completely derailed the interview. I was hugely relieved when the producer got shut of him.

I returned to the office and when I next ran in to this individual, he was left in no doubt as to my views on his appalling behaviour.

In this man’s case, my impression was that he was angry about losing his sight, and he would direct his anger against anyone he felt was in a better position than him. 

As for fully sighted people who hold this absolutist view, the ignorance can be largely ascribed to lack of exposure. Most visually impaired people of my age, 54 for the record, experienced segregated education. As a consequence, the only times our neighbours or people in the wider community came in to contact with us, would be on days out or when we went home for the weekend/holidays. It’s therefore hardly surprising that fully sighted people should hold wildly inaccurate misconceptions. Why should these people understand the differences between being totally blind, having useful residual vision and partial sight? 

Now I could be wrong here, but the one benefit of integrated/less segregated education for me at least is that a growing number of fully sighted people appear to understand the nuances – that there are degrees of visual impairment.

One young woman who apparently understood those nuances threatened to report me to the “social … you should be fucking’ working,” she shouted over the back gate. She probably thought I was getting a fist full of dosh from our notoriously generous benefits system. As I wasn’t on ESA, JSA or any other income-related benefit, she wouldn’t have got very far.

But she wouldn’t be the only fully sighted person who has expressed that view to me. I have occasionally met fully sighted people who are under the misapprehension that for visually impaired people, life’s a government-funded party … well I have news for them, it isn’t!

 

Tripods and trip hazards – a day in the life of a visually impaired television extra

Some months ago, I signed up with an agency to be what’s commonly known as a television extra. Extras are politely known as background artists. As the name suggests, they lurk in the background to make pubs, coffee shops, streets etc look busy.

For a long time, I heard nothing but then last week, the text arrived: “Are you available tomorrow to do Hollyoaks?”

With a bit of hasty rearrangement, I was able to clear my diary. At 8:30 on a blustery Friday morning, I arrived at the Lime Pictures Studios, the television production company which makes the soap, and got an immediate introduction to what lay ahead. When I got out of the taxi, there was a tripod and cabling just waiting to fell an unsuspecting visually impaired person.

The first question I’m usually asked however is how do you become an extra? In my case, I read an article in the Liverpool Echo which included an interview with the manager of a local ‘extras’ agency. She was saying that they welcomed extras from different and diverse backgrounds. Ok I thought, I’ve heard this before, I’ll give the agency a call and see what they say.

The manager seemed to be quite genuine and positive so I filled in an application form and completed my Disclosure and Barring Service forms.

They also required photos. I therefore commissioned a photographer friend to take a few pictures of me in various guises throughout Liverpool city centre.

I was given to understand , or perhaps it was a misapprehension, that production companies like Lime Pictures would be very keen on using me, because they wanted to increase their diversity quota. Well, I was soon disabused of that. The work didn’t exactly come flooding in. In fact, for a long time, there wasn’t even a trickle.

I was so pissed off with the whole thing that I came close to withdrawing my registration with the agency.

Back to Lime Pictures … I found the reception and was nervously shown to the canteen where I was introduced to Becky and Alan, two more experienced extras. They were both lovely and gave me heaps of useful advice. I’m not generally a nervous type of person because I’m used to working in unusual environments, but I did feel slightly out of my comfort zone.

Working as an extra is anything but glamorous. It entails an awful lot of sitting around. My first appointment was with Wardrobe. I was instructed by the agency to bring a number of changes of clothing. The wardrobe lady liked my choices but my coat was too dark so I was given a rather musty replacement.

We returned to the canteen. Becky was going to be a police woman and Alan a waiter. We chatted for a further half-an-hour and then they were gone. A ‘runner’ appeared by the door and bellowed a few names. Becky and Alan were among them.

Bored, I read the newspapers on my SmartPhone. But then, my name was called and off I went.

The first thing I noticed was how anxious the production staff were. When you consider how few disabled or visually impaired people work in the media, their nervousness was understandable, I suppose.

My role was to walk along the decking of a boat, closely followed by the character Nick, who would sit at a table and talk to another character called Prince. I waited for my cue and, mustering up as much confidence as I could, white cane prominently in hand, I duly strode forward. The director and other production staff were pleased with my  ‘performance’ and appeared to be relieved that my ‘starring’ role’ hadn’t ended in catastrophe.

There wasn’t much space on the decking and I had to make sure I didn’t collide with tripods or trip over cabling. I too was relieved that I had made a good impression.

The filming of this scene took about an hour and before we knew it, it was lunchtime.

For us visually impaired people, having our photographs taken or being filmed can be the source of some trepidation. I always wonder whether I’ve got some gormless or simply inappropriate expression on my face. As I get older, I worry less and less about that but that self-conscious thought occasionally invades my psyche.

After lunch, we all trooped off to the ‘hospital’ part of the set to await our instructions. We sat in a waiting room area which was frankly grim. At least in the canteen, there was access to refreshments and a television screen. Here, there was nothing. If any of us extras was under the illusion we were important, then this waiting room was a stark reminder of our lowly status.

I waited for around 45 minutes and then the ‘runner’ called my name. I went to the Bean, which is the name for the on-set coffee shop. To avoid spoiling the storyline, I won’t go in to too much detail about the scene itself. My role was to stand at the counter and, on cue, to pick up a cup of coffee and to sit on a sofa. I then put the cup on the table. They then decided that, instead of sitting down, I should walk to the exit and leave the coffee shop.

This was a very quiet scene and it was quite hard to hear the dialogue. We resolved that the waiter would look out for a visual cue and tap me on the wrist when I had to start walking. At the crucial moment, I lost concentration but somehow no-one noticed.

The final scene involving me was again in the Bean. This time, I had to sit on the sofa and mime a conversation with a fellow extra. This was more challenging than I thought it might be. Things weren’t helped by the fact that my mobile phone started to vibrate just before filming. Amazingly, no-one heard it apart from me. It was supposed to be on silent – lesson learnt!

They seemed to be satisfied with our work and I was dispatched back to the grimness of the waiting room.

I was keen to take in as much as possible. For although I’ve done some telly work, it isn’t much and it isn’t my natural medium. I therefore snuck out from the confines of the waiting room and listened intently to the conversations between the director, producers and the actors . What struck me is the level of detail they go in to. Every frame in every scene has to be right … if not, they’ll do it again and again. I suspect most viewers wouldn’t even begin to appreciate just how much work goes in to the production of each scene.

I spoke to a few actors, producers and directors on the day, trying to pick up tips and to get a hint on how well, or otherwise, they thought I had ‘performed’. There’s no doubt that the prospect of managing a visually impaired extra had been the subject of discussion among the producers and had generated some concerns.

Their anxieties broadly fell in to the health and safety category, although there were other more general issues on their mind. Those can loosely be described as the ability to perform.

Having a small amount of useful vision was hugely beneficial. It meant that they didn’t have to assign anyone to “look after” me on the day. I could follow the other actors or extras to get on and off set. Mercifully, I  avoided colliding with expensive equipment and tripping over the ubiquitous cabling.

I can however confess to one collision which thankfully wasn’t witnessed by anyone important. As there were no obvious loos near the waiting room, I decided to go wandering. I thought I had better not be away for too long so I rushed back. While walking quite briskly along a dimly -lit corridor, my right shoulder crashed in to a tripod. The bloody thing wobbled but thank Christ it didn’t topple over. I suspect the noise would have been audible throughout the complex.

One can only imagine the stewards’ enquiry if it had gone over … even worse, if the damned thing had fallen on me. It would have vindicated all their concerns and no doubt, would have signalled the end of a beautiful relationship 12.

The truth is, people who work in the media just aren’t used to working with disabled and visually impaired people. Of course, we pitch up every now and again but we’re largely air-brushed out of the life telly programmes claim to depict.

My shift was due to finish at 6pm but at 5:40, because I had already been in three scenes, I was told I could go home. A couple of the other extras weren’t quite so lucky. They were becoming quite scratchy and impatient to leave.

I signed my worksheet and the ‘runner’ took me to the exit. En route, I met one of the actors who I’d been chatting to and working with earlier. He too was very positive and said he hoped he’d see me back there very soon. We shall see!

As I write, I’m waiting to hear whether I’m needed for an extra shift on Hollyoaks tomorrow. If not, I’ve got work I can be getting on with.