Public 'not ready' for blind PM

5th January 2001 at 00:00
David Blunkett says British still uncomfortable with disabled people in high-profile roles. Sarah Cassidy reports

THE British public is not yet ready for a blind prime minister because many people feel uncomfortable about disabled people doing high-profile jobs, Education Secretary David Blunkett believes.

In a Radio 4 interview to be broadcast next week Mr Blunkett also describes the climate of suspicion in the Cabinet since the minutes of meetings were leaked to the press. Mr Blunkett said he was now wary of using his Braille writing machine to record meetings in case he came under suspicion.

Mr Blunkett told Radio 4's In Touch programme: "I avoid doing that (taking Braille notes) in Cabinet mainly because I think we are all a bit wary of people who take notes.

"All you get, as we had in the early autumn, is a series of leaks of notes from Cabinet. Nobody wants to think that a fellow cabinet minister is making a note that might then be reproduced. So we're all a bit delicate about it."

Mr Blunkett said the public were "still slightly ambivalent" about "someone with a disability doing a job in the public eye at very high level".

He said: "It's really up to me to continue proving that someone can do it as others are doing in all other walks of life now."

He added that if he was asked to bet on the chances of there being a blind prime minister he would say it was odds against.

Mr Blunkett also revealed how he has coped with his blindness. One of the most important lessons he has had to learn, he said, was to know when to stop talking.

Mr Blunkett said: "Over the years I have learnt ... not to intrude too much. You obviously pick up other nuances of voice, of manner, of th atmosphere changing. Over time you learn about that.

"But the danger of not seeing other people's faces is that you don't know that a) they've switched off and b) the Prime Minister was about to go on to something else and is not pleased that you've decided to prolong it."

Asked whether he might get away with more than his colleagues because of his disability, Mr Blunkett said: "I think I might have done in the early days. I think people may have been what might be described in quotes as 'tolerant'.

"I don't think tolerance is a well-known feature of Cabinet discussions. If you've got it wrong, you've got it wrong, let's put it that way. Timing is all - if you say something that is right but in the wrong place you can blow your case."

Questioned about whether his success could be attributed to his ability or to his novelty, Mr Blunkett replied: "I'm egotistical enough to believe the former. Novelty is only novelty as long as it lasts and 30 years is rather long for novelty."

Mr Blunkett said he was now more tolerant of people's reactions to his disability.

He said that people were often unsure how to approach a blind person and would come up and talk to his guide dog, rather than him "I think partly out of slight misunderstanding or fear of how to approach someone who can't see.

"It's a little strange and if I was huffy about it I'd find it weird but I don't any more. I'm getting mellow or old or both."

Mr Blunkett said he tried to make a particular effort to look smart so that no one could suggest he fell short of the standards expected of a minister because he was blind.

The full interview can be heard on "In Touch" on Radio 4, Tuesday, January 9 at 8.40pm

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