Braille Monitor                                                             February 2007

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Lord Low of Dalston's Maiden Speech

by Lord Colin Low

Lord Low is pictured here wearing a crimson robe rather like an academic gown. It is trimmed in ermine and is the official dress of members of the House of Lords. From the Editor: During the 1977-78 academic year the Pierce family lived in London, England. I joined the London Branch of the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom and faithfully attended its meetings, even venturing off to Eastborn for the NFB’s annual conference. I met a number of impressive people during that year, but one of the most formidable was a young professor at Leeds University, whose career I have watched with interest through the years since. His name was Colin Low, and in 2000 he was elected to chair the Royal National Institute of the Blind. Last July he was made a Life Peer, which was a signal honor for Lord Low personally and for the RNIB as a whole. On November 21, 2006, Lord Low rose in the House of Lords to make his maiden speech. At President Maurer’s request, Lord Low’s staff sent us a copy of that speech, which we are pleased to publish. Here it is:

My Lords, when the other day I climbed up to the back of the Chamber, the Noble Baroness Lady Howe commented that I was very brave to climb up all those steps. "Not half as brave as I'll need to be to open my mouth," I replied. But my apprehension is tempered by my recollection of the warm and friendly welcome I have received from all your Lordships from the moment I entered the House--indeed from before I entered the House--and I hope I may be able to count on your continued understanding for at least a few minutes longer. And before I go any further, I should like to place on record my appreciation for all the help and support I have received, both from your Lordships and from the staff of the House, which persuades me that there are few problems of access which will not be overcome. In particular, I thank the Noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, and the Noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who supported me at my introduction into the House on 11 July and are both here today; the Noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, convenor of the cross-bench peers; and all those Noble Lords who have been kind enough to take the time and trouble to guide me through your Lordships' proceedings. In parentheses I might say that, if I had just one message I could give sighted people about the blind, it would be that blind people can manage stairs.

My Lords, though hailing originally from Scotland, where I spent the early part of my life, I have been exiled in England for the last forty years, the last sixteen of them in Dalston, whence I have taken my title. Dalston is in Hackney, which was recently voted the worst place to live in England, but never so bad that the London Borough of Hackney is incapable of making it worse, with the enthusiastic encouragement of the Mayor of London, the Greater London Authority, the London Development Agency, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. I think I might be thought to be verging on the controversial were I to proceed much further down this track, but I have detected some interest amongst your Lordships in issues of planning and housing in London, and so I hope we may have an opportunity of discussing them further before too long.

My appointment has rightly been described as a "singular honor," and of this I am deeply conscious. But what has given me greatest pleasure is the way so many people have seen it as recognition not just for me, but of blind and disabled people generally. One person went so far as to say that it was "a great honor for every blind person in the world." However that may be, I hope I may add a little to the diversity of your Lordships' House.

In actual fact, so far as concerns me, the honor is not quite singular. There has been some speculation to the effect that I am the first blind person to sit in your Lordships' House, but this is not the case. The late Lord Kenswood, an early president of the National Federation of the Blind, and the late Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, the distinguished chairman of St. Dunstan's for many years and founder of Talking Books, who both had wide-ranging public careers, both sat in this place within living memory--and with the aid of the History of Parliament Trust I have been able to trace four more blind peers going back to medieval times, and no one is able to say whether there might not be more. There have of course been other notable blind people who have occupied prominent positions in public life. We know this in our own day from the remarkable example of David Blunkett, whom I salute, but I like also to think of Henry Fawcett, perhaps because he was MP for Hackney for the last ten years of his life, who, as postmaster-general, introduced the parcel post in the 1880s.

The blind have a long tradition of independence and activism in pursuit of better conditions. The National League of the Blind, a trade union representing blind people in sheltered employment, were ahead of their time in organizing a march from the north of England to London in 1920, which was instrumental in securing the Blind Persons Act of that year. Things have obviously improved for blind people since then in a number of ways, but the fact that some people are apparently undaunted by blindness should not be allowed to disguise the fact that many are severely set back by it and remain in a condition of considerable deprivation, isolation, and social exclusion. Indeed it sometimes seems as though the conspicuous success of some highly visible blind people in overcoming their disability can lead to the deleterious impact of blindness on a person's life being down-played in public consciousness and official thinking. But this takes no account of the costs entailed or the toll taken in overcoming the difficulties, or the insuperable obstacles they present for the much larger number of less visible people who are not so successful in overcoming them.

There is a paradox here: 86 percent of people questioned in a recent survey said that sight was the sense they most feared losing. Yet much research confirms that, in public consciousness, disability is largely conceived of in terms of physical disability, especially that which affects mobility. This probably has to do with the fact that, though feared in the abstract, sight loss is so grossly underestimated as a likely contingency as not properly to count as a disability at all. In the same survey more than half of those questioned estimated their chances of becoming blind as less than one in a thousand, whereas for the population as a whole they are more like one in sixty--one in twelve for those over sixty, and one in six for those over seventy-five. It would be surprising then if something of this did not translate into official policy and practice.

There are two general points to be made here. First, though I have been a campaigner for inclusion and the mainstream provision of services all my life, we have to recognize that one size does not necessarily fit all. The loudest advocates of mainstream provision are usually the vocal and articulate elite who can cope best with it. We need a continuum of provision, including some specialist provision, especially in education and employment opportunities, attuned to the diverse needs of those who find disability more debilitating.

Second, your Lordships may wonder why I have spoken so much about blindness and not about disability. The blind do have some important interests in common with other disabled people--to be included in society, not to be discriminated against, and to be involved in shaping their own destiny--but they also have important needs which are peculiar to the condition of blindness--notably the need for information in a nonvisual form and for an environment largely designed for those who can see to be mediated for those who cannot. This is no small requirement considering how critical the sense of sight is to man's interaction with the natural world and the world he has constructed. Couching everything in terms of disability has led to the central importance of sight being obscured in recent decades so that there is now a pressing need for blindness to be raised higher up the political and social agenda.

My Lords, blindness is one of the severest disabilities. Yet under the Fair Access to Care Services framework of eligibility for social services, the needs to which it gives rise are rated only moderate to low. This effectively means that you get no service. Though research has shown that visually impaired people have greater difficulty with independent mobility than disabled people generally, they still only qualify for the lower rate of the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance. Failure to bear the needs of the blind in mind reaches farcical proportions when we learn that they are now planning to lower the pavements and remove the barriers at traffic hot spots so that motorists and pedestrians will be more aware of one another and be able to demonstrate this awareness by means of eye contact.

Technology is a great force for inclusion, and we can now access much information which was formerly a closed book. But if the needs of the blind are not kept in mind when designing new devices, it can be just as great a force for exclusion. Try operating an iPod, a touchscreen, or a digital radio with your eyes closed. Most worrying of all, unless someone comes up with an electronic program guide which is accessible PDQ, digital switch-over is going to mean digital switch-off so far as visually impaired people are concerned.

My Lords, 90 percent of employers say that it would be difficult or impossible to employ someone with a visual impairment. As a result, scarcely more than a third of working age are in work. The proposals to move people off welfare and into work referred to in the Gracious Speech are thus very welcome. Blind people do not want to be written off on welfare if there is a realistic prospect of their being found work. But the Pathways to Work pilots have not delivered for the visually impaired. The fact, which emerged in committee in another place, that the £360 million allocated for roll-out represents a real-terms cut of 40 percent does not inspire confidence. But we want roll-out to work and will be looking to the Government to deliver on its promises.

When I began my law studies over forty years ago, someone said that, where judges had to find a solution for every difficulty, academics would find a difficulty for every solution. My Lords, it will be my aim in this House to attempt to find solutions rather than difficulties.

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