Braille Monitor                                      October 2016

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Putting News First: Breaking Down Stereotypes as a Blind Journalist

by Gary O’Donoghue

Gary O’DonoghueFrom the Editor: Gary O’Donoghue is the Washington correspondent for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Being a successful blind journalist in the position he holds requires extensive travel, the ability to turn an event into a story, and the flexibility to see that blindness does not get in the way of being where the action is and turning out an article that catches the attention of readers and is worthy of the most prestigious broadcasting service in the world. Here is what Gary O'Donoghue said to the 2016 convention:

Well, it’s great to be here, and I’m very grateful for the invitation from the president to come and speak to you and to tell you a little bit about what I do in my work as a journalist. As the president was saying, this isn’t my first NFB convention; I was lucky enough to be here last year to witness that famous record-breaking umbrella mosaic—an amazing moment, of course. Now I have to tell you that I’ve been to one or two Donald Trump rallies this year, and they are no more frightening than 3,000 blind people waving umbrellas around, let me tell you.

What I want to do today, at the invitation of your president, is to give a bit of an insight into my work as a BBC correspondent and how I go about doing that as a visually-impaired person. First of all, perhaps the potted life story: I was born with poor eyesight, which led to me having one eye removed when I was a baby. I retained some useful vision in the other eye until I was eight years old. But after the retina kept detaching itself, admittedly once after going headfirst over the handlebars of a bicycle, there was nothing more to be done, and I’ve been totally blind ever since then. As was the norm in those days, I was immediately packed off to a couple of boarding schools for blind people, and, as luck would have it, it got me a much better education than I could have hoped for if I’d been sighted. From boarding school I headed off to Oxford University to do a degree in philosophy and modern languages. Shortly after that I joined the BBC as a reporter, and I’ve been there ever since, so I’m about as institutionalized a blind person as you can get [laughter].

Now when I started in this field there were only very basic forms of computers, mobile phones were only just getting going, and access to research materials and daily newspapers as a blind person meant getting hold of other colleagues and getting them to take time out of their schedules to assist. One could, of course, take all the bits of paper home for a girlfriend to read, but I’m pretty sure one left because asking her to read a wedge of newspaper cuttings in bed wasn’t the most alluring offer she could have from a guy—right? [laughter]

I worked at first producing reports from our Parliament for the BBC’s network of local radio stations. From there I got a job on a national daily news program called The Today Program, which is a bit like NPR’s Morning Edition here, which is a significant force in setting the political agenda in Britain each day. During those five years I did a range of stories, really. Traveled to Africa several times, here to the US a few times, the Far East during the handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese, and I spent a couple of nights on the Macedonian border while NATO bombed Serbia—thousands of Kosovan refugees flooded out of the country, many of them driven out by their Serb neighbors.

I did lots of lighter things as well. I had to cuddle a koala in Australia—now apparently they pee a lot, but fortunately this one did not pee. I had to drink lots of strong lager for a piece on alcohol content—all in the line of duty, of course. And I had to talk to people about the shape of tea bags on Oxford Street, would you believe. I must say, I did draw the line when I was asked to do a bungee jump off a bridge over the river Thames—I thought that was just a little step too far for me.

For a stint at the BBC World Service I became one of the BBC’s political correspondents, ending up as the chief political correspondent for our main news network, and that, my friends, is what brought me here to the United States. Since I arrived here, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing presidential candidates across the country as they eat their corndogs at country fairs, plate loads of beef at cookouts, and do their fifteen flipping burgers or serving behind diners the length and breadth of this country. I’ve been chilled to the bone in New Hampshire; I’ve been so close to Canada in Vermont I could almost touch it; Texas was pleasant in spring, but I have to tell you that I’m relieved not to be there today because apparently it’s going to be 102, which kind of makes Orlando seem fine, doesn’t it? And you only need to listen to Americans talking to realize how big this place is. Even just a couple of hours west of DC it almost sounds like you’re in a foreign country. Donald Trump did actually divert to a foreign country ten days ago when he made a speech at his golf course in Scotland. I have to say, sitting at the ninth tee at Turnberry, surrounded by Secret Service agents, was one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever attended a press conference. Not only does the presidential election campaign reach every person in the US, it also seems to go on forever—doesn’t it? I was with Hillary Clinton in Iowa when she launched her campaign in the spring of last year—shout out for Iowa there—and today we’re still four months away from the general election and six months away from election day. Compare that to the process going on in Britain in the moment: ten days ago the Prime Minister David Cameron announced he’d be standing down after his side lost the EU referendum vote. Today, as I’m speaking to you, conservative MPs (members of parliament) are voting on who their next leader should be. Of course it won’t be decided today; there’ll be more votes among MPs, and then conservative membership of the country will get their say, but Brits will have a new conservative leader and a new prime minister by the beginning of September. So I’m afraid our political chaos is at least a little bit shorter than your political chaos [laughter].

But, whether standing outside a diner in Iowa waiting for Hillary Clinton to show up, or in corridors of Westminster waiting for the results of a vote among conservative MPs to be announced, one thing is absolutely crucial to my job: information. As you all know, information and access to it is one of the central challenges to a blind person’s life, both personal and professional. Technology has done wonders in this field for us, whether it’s the accessible iPhone that allows me to read the New York Times each day and to keep up with the endless twittering and bloggings in the politisphere, or the Braille display that allows me to read out my radio and television scripts when I’m delivering a broadcast—I’m reading from a Braille display right now, and can I just say in this forum how much I rate the NFB’s NEWSLINE service? Scott White and his team who run it: I can’t thank you enough; it makes my job infinitely easier, and, for all of us who rely on the ability to read a daily newspaper quickly and efficiently, I simply don’t know what I’d do without it, so thank you very much [applause].

A word about Braille here: Braille, I know, isn’t for everyone. It’s especially hard for those to learn when they lose their sight later in life, and I’m all for encouraging people with useful vision to maximize their use of it—sight is, after all, the most powerful sense whether we like it or not. But Braille, to me, is an absolute necessity [applause]. I simply couldn’t do my job without it, and I’m convinced that Braille displays and notetakers have given it a new lease on life that we should spread to as many of our blind youngsters as possible [applause, cheers].

Another thing I believe we have to impart to the young people with visual impairments is some sense of what you might call resilience. It’s a very difficult subject, because by that I mean the kind of sophisticated toughness it takes to live an independent life as a blind person. It’s about the strategies to overcome barriers when they present themselves and live an independent life that takes on the world, doing those challenging, high-profile jobs that people who could see traditionally thought might not be for us. Now what I don’t mean is being thick-skinned. We don’t want our young people to become hardened or unable to empathize with others, but it’s crucial we give them the confidence to believe in themselves and to pick themselves up after the world has knocked them down, and most importantly the skills that will allow them to function in a world that—let’s face it—is not designed for blind people [applause]. They’ll also have to learn that even when they’ve built up years of experience they’ll come across people who treat them like novices when they move into a new job.

I got quite a lesson in resilience a few years ago. I had some difficulties in my work and had to make a decision about whether to confront a situation that had developed. I’m afraid for legal reasons I can’t go into great detail, but it was an incredibly hard decision to make, and it took an awful lot out of me, those around me, and my family in particular. But I’m glad I did, and some good did come from it, but more importantly, I could live with myself for going forward. We can’t fight every battle there is, but when the real ones come along, it’s our duty to stand up, not just for ourselves, but for those who come after us [applause].

But back to the practicalities of the job. There’s a pattern I’ve noticed over the past twenty years or so: technological leaps forward have unquestionably helped us as blind people to do a much wider range of things, but each time we seem to catch up, a new innovation threatens to reverse the advance. The old DOS computers--they had screen readers developed for them that worked just fine—then Windows came along of course, and we were back to the drawing board. We get that sorted, and a bit later the touchscreen comes into vision over the horizon, and it looks like there will be a problem yet again. My point here is that we must continue to focus on what’s next, and ensure that the digital divide doesn’t open up for blind people, because we know what that will mean for the already-poor chances of getting a job and leading an independent life. In the realm of journalism there are some big challenges ahead for young blind people wanting to get into that field. Most notably in my view is the ever-growing importance of multimedia journalism that requires the reporter not just to get the story but also to gather her own pictures and video. Couple that with the speed of which one has to work in the newsgathering field now. It’s going to require someone with high levels of technical skills and personal resilience to make it in this trade when they have a disability. One word of encouragement—I don’t want to sound like I’m discouraging people—journalism, at heart, remains the business of telling stories. So for blind people, who inevitably rely on verbal communications and verbal skills, it’s still a very, very good fit. Conducting an interview still only requires a conversation take place, and the means to record it or film it. Visually impaired people are all well-accustomed to having to go the extra mile to understand others, and that again is a hugely useful skill in the realm of journalism.

Now I’ve rambled on for long enough, so let me just say this to you: I feel hugely privileged with how life has panned out for me. Most of the time I see my blindness as an inconvenience, and that’s the extent of it [applause]. I’m not naïve as to believe that blind people don’t face huge barriers to overcome, some natural, some put in our way, but the truth is that there is no other option than to get out there and do it. Some days it will be hard: walking into lampposts—if I may borrow one of your American idioms—some days that just really sucks, doesn’t it? Some days we have to deal with a world that doesn’t really get it, and worse, stands in the way of one making the most of oneself. But we have to—I think—in the words of Winston Churchill, “keep buggering on,” and that’s all there is to it. Thank you very much.

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