By Councillor John Cairney, South Lanarkshire Council
I was first elected as a councillor in 2007 just two years after being officially registered as blind. It was the third time I had run for office and losing my sight did lead me to rethink my campaign strategy around purely practical considerations.
Whether that change of tactics was significant in my success I could not say but I do know that similar practical considerations have, I feel, benefited me in my day to day work as a councillor for instance I tend to avoid email exchanges and always ask people to phone me to chat about issues.
I use text to speech devices but it is faster and easier to speak and while that is a situation that my disability forced on me I do think it is a better way of doing business, email messages can get lost in translation or misunderstood and misinterpreted but chatting to someone it is easier to really grasp the nub of their concern and explain what you can and cannot do to help.
As another example after losing my sight I found some traditional campaign techniques difficult I couldn’t go round the doors or read a long list of telephone numbers to canvass by phone so instead I put together a personal leaflet and paid for a local distribution company to hand deliver it.
I have been a councillor for nine years now, my fellow elected members from all parties and the council staff have been very willing to offer support and help but I can’t deny it has been a learning process for us all.
As soon as I took office I was asked what aids and adaptations would help me take on the duties and responsibilities of the role but I honestly could not say. I had never been a councillor before so couldn’t say what might work best.
Conversely I was South Lanarkshire’s first blind elected member so there was no precedent for what support would work generally and what would work specifically for me.
What was however available in abundance was a willingness to work with me, and me with others, and with a bit of research and trial and error we got there, while what suits me may not work for others I hope my experience can help those on a similar path in the future.
I would say to anyone with a disability don’t let it put you off taking a role in public life but be prepared to speak up about barriers you find in your way and to work with others to get by them. There isn’t a one size fits all solution ready and waiting but there is definitely a willingness and desire to find your solution.
Digital technology has made a big difference and with the support of a technically minded council officer I have an iPad and iPhone configured with the best fonts and background colours to make the most of the three percent vision I still retain.
The Siri speech function is invaluable albeit a little one way as it struggles with my broad Glasgow accent.
On the other hand I have made no bones about asking for help from the people around me if I need assistance.
I chair a committee and because I can’t see if a member has their hand raised to make a point or ask a question we have developed a system where someone will give me a tap on the hand to make sure I am aware.
We also have a system in place when the committee documents are published a member of the office team will read through them with me. This is really helpful as they are able to jump to specific sections and go backwards and forwards through the text at my request much more easily than I could with an eReader device – something I use a lot outwith the office as I love books.
Although I lost an eye in an industrial accident in my twenties I had no issues until I was in my mid-fifties when almost overnight I went from driving a car to being registered blind after suffering a detached retina which ultimately could not be repaired.
It was obviously quite a blow but I knew the best recovery was to not give in. I had been involved in political campaigning for forty years and after serving as a councillor for nine years I do believe being blind allows me to bring something extra to discussions with fellow elected members and the wider community in particular when we are dealing with matters involving disability I can bring a ‘been there and got the t-shirt’ attitude which can help cut to the chase.
On a final note I would be lying if I tried to pretend my forty years of political activism hadn’t been helpful but I do believe that even those who are new to the game, as you might say, can make an impact if they have a real passion to fight for what they believe in and a genuine belief that they have a contribution to make regardless of any disability or perhaps because of it.