Not all piano tuners are blind! But for many years it was one of very few career paths open to blind people. With the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, visual impairment should not limit job prospects in the way it used to. But barriers to work are often about sighted people’s attitudes rather than the skills of visually impaired people.
Ian recalls his career adviser’s sheer lack of imagination.
David M says society struggles to accept that blind people can work.
Maureen wants people to see the person not the visual impairment.
Margaret C is proud of her career change.
Maureen recounts a bizarre job interview.
External factors can influence attitudes. During World War 2, shortage of labour with men at the front meant that the government needed blind people to work in the factories.
Our annual report, October 1942, reported:
The Ministry of Labour and National Service has instructed all Employment Exchanges to consider favourably all applications for work made to them by Blind persons. Min of Labour and Aircraft Production convinced that there are many kinds of work blind persons can do, eg grading of rivets, fitting of nuts to bolts, inspection requiring touch only. By way of experiment 3 blind men in Aircraft Factory commenced at a wage of £4 per week, with the promise that if successful, more will follow.
However, the following extract from our 1943 annual report showed that the government’s rallying call had little impact on employers:
The difficulty of inducing employers to accept blind persons in their works was a real one, and a committee dealing with this question recommended that the Ministry of Labour should set apart one of its officials whose duty it would be, to go round employers for six months, as an experiment, trying to break down prejudice which still exists against employing blind with sighted in war factories.
Ian reminds us to learn from our history.
As Ian says, we now even have blind MSPs and MPs.
In 1859, when Visibility began, there was no welfare state and no anti-discrimination laws. Those who could not work and earn money for themselves and their families faced the poorhouse.
Work for young blind men and women tended to be in institutions such as the Royal Glasgow Asylum for the Blind, founded in 1804 and located in Castle Street. A report in 1884 stated: ‘The Asylum devotes itself to two modes of assisting the blind: 1st: Educating the young in various branches, including first-rate musical tuition; 2nd: Teaching various trades and providing employment in the workshops.’ Some people lived their whole working lives in the asylum; and died there too.
The Asylum provided people with board and lodgings. It relied on subscriptions, donations, bequests and selling articles such as brushes, baskets and bedding manufactured in the workshops.
…local authorities should give their orders for baskets, brushes, bedding, mats, knitted goods, and other work for the employment of trained blind men and women whose training they had paid for and for whom they had a statutory duty to make adequate provision.
Glasgow Evening Times, 1932
The photo above shows a 1901 sales leaflet promoting the basket department at the Blind Asylum. It details the many different types of baskets they could make including for laundry, fishing, wine, lace and fruit. A photo within the leaflet shows Robert Menzies, a basket making instructor, tutoring a boy and praises Robert’s 68 years as a worker at the Asylum Workshops. A second photo shows a wicker table available for 10 shillings and wicker chairs available for 7 shillings, 6 pennies.
The photo above shows a 1901 newspaper advertisement for the brushes being made at the Blind Asylum. The pen and ink drawing depicts numerous different types of brushes including for nails, teeth, hair, shaving and paint. It states that special quotations can be provided for large quantities and that they won a Gold award at the 1886 Glasgow Industrial Exhibition for their brushes.
As the two following photos illustrate, the first from 1915 and the second from the 1970s, the process of making baskets changed very little over the years. In both photos the basket makers are sitting on low stools and using manual tools to weave the wicker through the canes. It continued to be a skilled job done by hand.
The photo above, taken in the 1970s, shows Jimmy Tanner at work in the basket department.
In 1935 the Blind Asylum relocated to Saracen Street and was renamed Blindcraft. A further move to Springburn and another name change to Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries followed. It continues to be a major disability employer in Scotland and currently has 240 disabled staff.
Jimmy says Blindcraft was about more than just work.
Ann’s father worked in Blindcraft making baskets.
Annie remembers her 40 years at Blindcraft.
The philanthropists who founded Visibility saw it as their ‘duty to find employment of some kind for every blind person who could be stirred from an idle existence.’ This included providing grants to the ‘indigent adult blind with the special intention of enabling them to earn a livelihood’. In 1887 we know that an Alex Lomond received £4 to buy a barrow and a stock of fruit to sell on the street. And in 1919 we gave one person £3 to buy a sewing machine for patching boots.
In 1927 Visibility set up a home workers scheme. This scheme topped up the earnings of blind people who worked at home rather than in an institution. The Glasgow scheme was thought to be the largest of its kind. It had around 50 people who worked as piano tuners, music teachers, tea traders and in other small enterprises. By the time it ended in 1973 the number had fallen to around nine.
Ian says that home working is just as important today.
Female employment in the 1850s to 1870s appears to have been higher than any recorded again until after World War 2. But in a big industrial city such as Glasgow, jobs were segregated by gender, with men working in the shipyards and heavy industries. Men also had the supervisory roles and earned more. In 1918 a young woman was most likely to go into service; by 1950 jobs in shops and offices had taken the lead. Within living memory, ‘the marriage bar’ meant that for many jobs in banking, the civil service and teaching, women who married had to leave their jobs. This was only sorted out legally with the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.
But what about women with visual impairment?
Visibility, from its beginnings, supported women as well as men into work. It was concerned that blind people, including women, could be useful and support themselves and their families.
The Ladies Auxiliary, which we set up in 1865, aimed ‘to teach those who were willing to knit, and engage in any other such work by supplying them with the necessary materials and giving assistance in the disposal of the finished articles’.
As some of the women said: ‘But for this, we must have gone into the Poorhouse’.
In 1910, knitters were paid 5d for every ‘cut of wool’ knitted (about 2p). Sales of knitted garments were very good up until the outbreak of the war in 1939 and rationing in 1940.
C.M. could knit before she lost her sight, now eleven years ago, but had never attempted it since until I visited her. I got her to work a pair of stockings. The neighbours, seeing her working at them, gave her two pairs to foot. She asked me to begin them for her, saying she was sure she would get more work to do.
Extracts from Miss Clough’s journal, Ladies Auxiliary, 1865
The photo above shows the Ladies Auxiliary knitters on their summer outing circa 1948. There are 15 women in the photo with ages ranging from 20s up to 70+. Five women are seated in the front row with the rest standing behind. They appear to be in a walled garden on a sunny day.
We also sent young women to the Blind Asylum for training, paying for the costs of their bed and board. This must have been a mixed blessing for the young women involved.
Blind Asylum records from 1836 include:
Female Department: ‘Above 18 years the blind are day workers from 10 o’clock until evening worship is over. Sewing, knitting, netting, spinning, and winding of pirns for the weavers. Dinner and regular wages paid. Kept quite apart from the males. An elderly sighted woman takes charge and works along with them.’
Blind women have experienced the same barriers to work as sighted women, but more so. Blind women in the asylum and at home were heavily controlled.
The photo above, taken in 1908, shows blind women sitting at treadle-operated Singer sewing machines. There are 8 or 9 women in each of four rows set one behind the other. They are in a large room with windows providing natural light. They are sewing items for the bedding and upholstery department at the Blind Asylum.
Hazel describes the lives of women working in the Blind Asylum.
You can read Hazel’s research here [link to PDF]
Ann recalls her mother being forced to give up her job.
A long time before the iPhone! The following excerpt from the 1895 issue of the Blind Asylum annual report shows how technology helped visually impaired people in education and work:
The continued use of the phonograph and typewriter has proved a useful aid in the general work of the school, and it is confidently hoped that a profitable source of refined employment may be found for a number of the pupils after completing their ordinary.
The photo above, taken in 1896, shows a young woman listing to an audio recording on a phonograph and transcribing it into type.
Computers, smart phones, mobile applications, GPS… digital technology is transforming the lives of blind and partially sighted people. The downside is that the equipment can be expensive and not everyone can afford it.
Jamie B says IT is the new basket making.
Jamie C says there are jobs now that 50 years ago would not have been an option.
Kerrie and Kelly say that new technology is essential for them to do their jobs.
Ian describes the pros and cons of new technology.
The National League of the Blind formed in 1899, with the Glasgow branch opening in 1909. It was the only trade union specifically for blind people. By 1914, the union had some success in campaigning for better wages and working conditions. By 1918, 80% of adult workers in the Glasgow Blind Asylum were members.
In April 1920 league members from across the UK marched to London behind a banner that said ‘Justice not Charity’ to raise awareness of a private members bill going through parliament. They rallied in Trafalgar Square and then waited 5 days to see Prime Minister Lloyd George. The march was a huge propaganda success and the Blind Persons Act became law in September 1920.
The following three photos were taken on that march and have kindly been provided by Jimmy O’Rourke.
The photo above shows a group of marchers, 44 men and 2 women, posing for a photograph with their Justice not Charity banner visible behind them. The text on the photo says ‘B contingent blind marchers Leeds to London April 1920′.
The photo above shows marchers carrying a huge banner over 3 metres high and 2 meters wide with the words ‘State Aid for the Blind. Not charity but social justice’
The photo above shows the marchers gathered in Trafalgar Square, London. The banners from the trade union branches are leaning against Nelson’s Column as the huge crowd listens to a speaker.
In 1968 the League won the right to equal pay for equal hours worked by men and women in the Blind Asylum (predating the mainstream Equal Pay Act of 1975). It began campaigning for free travel for blind people in 1958. It took 41 years and the Scottish Parliament coming into being before this campaign was finally won in 1999.
The Blind Advocate was the league’s newspaper. In 1979 it printed a letter sent by the newly elected prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in response to its lobby for a ‘blindness allowance’ for workers. Any hopes of a new government bringing new thinking were swiftly crushed by her reply.
The image above is of the Editorial page in the July 1979 edition of the Blind Advocate, showing the response received from Margaret Thatcher.
Margaret Thatcher replied as follows:
Dear Mr Parker
Thank you for your letter of 12 May 1979.
We are very sympathetic to the problems faced by all disabled people and, as you know, we have placed on record our aim of providing a coherent system of cash benefits designed to help the disabled support themselves and lead as normal lives as possible. However, as I am sure you recognise, the cost of doing this will be heavy. Our first priority must therefore be to achieve real growth in the economy which will generate the resources to pay for these benefits.
I know that Reg Prentice will be keeping the needs of the blind very much in mind in all aspects of his work as the Minister with special responsibility for the disabled.
Jimmy remembers his trade union days.
Hazel on the disability rights movement.