Archive for December, 2011

Invisible women

December 29, 2011

Invisible women
“Gerard McDermott, Gary O’Donnahue, David Blunket, Ryan Kelly, and Peter White … Can you name any famous blind women in arts, politics or the media?” I tweet. To impatient to wait for an answer, I ask Mr Google. Out of the more than 100 visually impaired people whose names come up, (see links at the end of this article) only 15 are women. Of that, only 3 (singer and Operatunity Winner Denise Leigh, Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend, and folk diva Frankie Armstrong are from the UK. In response to my tweet, Cheryl Gabriel, the producer of BBC Radio 4’s in touch (also visually impaired and pretty influential, I’d say) ads, journalist Sue Arnold.
Is that all, I wonder. I’m sure there are more. Maybe my net search skills aren’t up to much. Maybe I’m far too impatient to painstakingly interrogate page after page of the net, trying to winkle out that illusive female talent. But maybe there is another issue here? As we break down disability barriers, does our sledgehammer have to hit harder to get visually impaired women through that glass ceiling?
Well does it matter, I ask myself? Why not glory in the success of our brothers in struggle. Irrespective of what I think of David Blunket’s politics, he has been a most handy role model to cite. I have even been known to say “If David Blunket can do it, then so can I!”, or more often, “if the Home Office can make that accessible for David Blunket, then you can make that accessible for me!” This latter use of David’s role has been extremely handy when arguing for access to information so I can make key decisions about major policing, transport or equality matters as a non-executive Member of various bodies.
As a candidate in the labour List for the next Greater London assembly elections, I’ve got a special interest in how David’s needs are or are not met. The fact that there has been a totally blind MP has definitely been encouragement for my political ambitions.
Gary O’donnahue, the Beeb’s Chief Political Correspondent has beaten back discrimination to achieve a mainstream high profile job in front of the camera and microphone. I can’t help but feel a certain glow of satisfaction hearing Ryan Kelly (Jazza in The Archers) and Gerard McDermott (regularly playing all kinds of roles in radio drama) knowing they are both visually impaired actors playing sighted roles.
Frankie Armstrong is a shining light. Well- respected for many years on the folk scene, wonderful singer Frankie has championed all kinds of causes including disability. She and Denise Leigh (opera singer) pretty much stand alone in the music business as high profile visually impaired women. On the popular music front, I can’t think of a single visually impaired woman with the kind of profile Stevie Wonder has, or Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano or a plethora of blind bluesmen. Well I know that disability in any form hardly makes a showing in the pop world at all, so I guess it is a huge mountain to climb. And anyway, what would the image makers do with an obviously visually impaired woman pop star? They shove ugly dark glasses on all the blind blokes. You can get away with it as a bloke if you look a bit lived in (as long as you’re not in a boy band of course).
For a while at the beginning of her career, the singer Gabrielle wore an eye-patch to conceal a droopy eyelid until she got it fixed. Any woman who isn’t symmetrical, thin and traditionally good-looking – disabled or otherwise – is going to have a pretty hard time in a business ruled by sexism and sizism.
We like our male newsreaders grey and distinguished. It brings a bit of gravitas, am told. A grey haired woman newsreader of a certain age is considered too old for the job and will usually be replaced by a younger, sleeker model. We also like them to be thin and symmetrical. Women have also broken down many barriers in the media, although there are still battles in relation to gender stereotyping, black representation and older women. Our TV screens and airwaves are far more populated by women’s voices and faces than ever before. But still not a single one of them is a visually impaired woman.
In other spheres of influence, such as politics where women have made such gains, I can’t think of a single visually impaired woman local councillor, let alone a visually impaired woman member of any of the nations or the UK parliament. A blind brother comrade refers to the barriers faced by visually impaired people in progressing in all spheres of life as the “Braille Ceiling”. Two-thirds of the blind population are female yet visually impaired women are underrepresented in many areas of public life when compared with visually impaired men. So does the Braille ceiling have a significant gender bias?
There are a number of leadership initiatives targeting disabled people. Will Disabled women come through equally in such projects or will sexism and gender bias be an additional barrier. Research shows that black and ethnic minority disabled people face barriers to and is also under represented in leadership positions. There is a disabled BME leadership programme designed to redress the balance. When I was a local government senior manager, I went on a Woman’s Leadership Programme. It made the most immense difference to my career. Is it time to have some targeted programmes to level the playing field for disabled women?
Web links:
Ten famous blind people who changed the world,

100 Famous blind and vision impaired people
Famous real and imaginary blind people