David Blunkett: My unbearable five months without a guide dog – and what it taught me about being ‘blind’

David Blunkett.
David Blunkett.
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BACK in March, the renowned security editor of the BBC, Frank Gardner, explained publicly his frustration and humiliation when was left stranded on a plane for a very lengthy period of time at Heathrow Airport.

He landed in the early hours of the morning, and normally he would have disembarked with other passengers, collecting his wheelchair at the door. Unfortunately, some bright spark had unloaded the wheelchair from the hold and taken it into the terminal.

Lord Blunkett and his late guide dog Cosby.

Lord Blunkett and his late guide dog Cosby.

As Frank himself said, what on
earth did an individual think was the point of an empty wheelchair being taken away from the plane when the owner was clearly still ensconced in his seat?!

Apart from the obvious reason why this struck me as an example of how we need to bring about radical change, there was a more profound connection between his experiences – and my recent lengthy wait for a new guide
dog.

Some readers will know that back in November my previous dog Cosby died after a very short illness, due to an unusual and aggressive liver cancer. The subsequent five months before receiving and undertaking final training with my new dog Barley in April was an experience I do not wish to repeat.

There are many blind people who manage perfectly well, with extraordinary mobility, using a long cane. I am not one of them. Not just because after 49 years using a guide dog, using a long cane is an unfamiliar and difficult challenge, but because the very different environment and landscapes which I have to traverse make a guide dog an ideal companion.

GUIDED LIGHTS: Lord Blunkett with two of his former guide dogs, Sadie and Cosby.  Following Cosby's death, he was reminded of the challenges facing people with disabilities while he awaited his new dog, Barley.

GUIDED LIGHTS: Lord Blunkett with two of his former guide dogs, Sadie and Cosby. Following Cosby's death, he was reminded of the challenges facing people with disabilities while he awaited his new dog, Barley.

So, unusually for me, I thought I would reflect on the feelings that were evoked when, to put it bluntly, I found myself feeling “blind”.

Yes, I know I am. It’s self-evident that I wouldn’t be having a guide dog if I could see. The point, however, is that in the whole of my adult life and with the aid of a guide dog, I’ve never felt “blind”. Too often, I have taken the mobility, the independence and the dignity offered by a guide dog for granted. No longer.

During those five months, there were amusing incidents. One day I was traversing one of the longer corridors in Westminster using my stick, when I inadvertently fell over an obstacle. It turned out to be a mobility scooter, and had someone had an iPhone to hand, I’m sure that the amusing picture would have gone viral.

Less amusing was the difficulty of traversing spaces with which I thought I was familiar. I rapidly discovered obstacles which, although only providing bruises, was nevertheless a real blow to my dignity.

Human nature is a lot better than we sometimes acknowledge. People are genuinely willing to help, not always knowing quite how to do so. I was, of course, deeply grateful. Unlike my late teens or early 20s, I was more than willing to accept a helping hand.

Paradoxically, however, it served to underline my dependence on others. Hence my comment above, that suddenly I really did feel “blind”.

Just as the absence of Frank Gardner’s wheelchair made him “disabled”, so the stress and concentration of not banging into other people or hitting obstacles, affected me in a number of ways.

Apart from the obvious fact that I had to slow down, could do less in
a day and sometimes actually decided not to attend events because of the particular challenge of reaching the venue, there were other spin-offs as well.

I could not walk along thinking of something else, or just enjoying the environment. For me, however, this was a trial of confidence over my instinct to let other people guide me. Alert, on edge and using all my nervous energy, I did get through those five months.

But with my new retriever German Shepherd by my side, I’m now back in action.

For the time being it is a learning curve. Getting the new dog to bond with me, respond to my needs and remember that he is supposed to be working when the harness is on requires time and commitment.

But we are getting there. Slowly but surely, he is understanding what I need from him, and I’m getting used to spotting the little tricks which, if he gets away with them, would mean he was in charge of me and not the other way around!

The wider lessons that I’ve learned of course are that we need to ensure that we renew efforts to remove barriers to all those with any form of disability or special need. In government, I was able to extend the powers of the Disability Discrimination Act, introduced the Disability Rights Commission which was then incorporated in the EHRC, and from the backbenches, to support the 2010 Equality Act.

But there is still so much to do. Not just in relation to removing barriers to mobility, the abuse of the Blue Badge parking scheme highlighted by The Yorkshire Post ealier this week, to travel or to live life to the full, but increased substantial efforts to ensure that obstacles to employment, and support for employability, remain on the political agenda.

For it is so often the attitudes and actions of others who turn a challenge into a disability; the need for assistance and support into the embarrassment of dependency.

At every level, as individuals or employers, as public authorities or as legislators, we still have a long way to go to ensure that all of us can live and work on equal terms.

* David Blunkett is the former MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. He held three Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government.