Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Rage against the Raffia

A story that shockingly made it on to the main Scottish regional news today was the demise of Blindcraft Aberdeen. The factory has fallen as a consequence of the credit crunch, and because for a number of years now, the public have opted to buy cheep beds from the likes of ‘the bed shed, rather than exorbitantly priced similar products from the aforementioned factory. Blind craft and other Remploy generated factories literally scraped through by the seat of their pants in my view, banking on the generosity of others, the sympathy born out of blind people making bed springs, and the licence they believed this gave them to screw money out of unsuspecting guilty subjects who were only too happy to part with unethical amounts of money for average products, pumped up in price simply by virtue of the fact that they were made by blind people!
Of course, the fact that this leaves around 30 so far out of work is most certainly a tragedy, and while other blind craft factories hold on for dear life they too shudder as reality dictates they will face a similar fate some time soon!
You might find my sarcastic look at this rather unfeeling: how would I feel if the shoe were on the other foot! (or the proverbial screw driver in hand!), well, pretty terrible! I’ve been there, to a certain degree I’m still there; I’ve been running the low budget treadmill for the past 2 years and its not pleasant by any means! The only thing I take comfort from is, not only am I no different to any other part time worker, I’m also doing a legitimate job, worthy of a salary, which is in no way impairment generated! If I wanted charity, I’d be sitting on the corner of Argyle Street, cap in hand! No, what I’m not doing here is decrying those amongst us blind folks who wish to make bed springs: whatever floats your boat and all that! But if that is really your thing, why in the world can’t you do it along-side your non-disabled counterparts? It horrified me to read that Aberdeen City Council have pumped no less than 7 million pounds in to this operation since 2007 alone! Wouldn’t they have been wiser to invest in making sure that visually impaired people have sustainable employment opportunities in mainstream organisations? Now that the factory is closing, their arm is being forced, and because of the media hype the current staff have generated, they’ll be forced to find jobs for the employees, either in or out of the council! But isn’t it too little too late?
I left school around 12 years ago, and first engaged with a careers guidance officer back in 1997, (just after I’d recovered from the reality that I wouldn’t ever become an aircraft pilot!) (relax, I’m kidding!).

I might as well have taken that thought with me though: my wanting to work in social work (you heard right! That’s where I wanted to be at that time!), was enough to silence the rather dull 40 something white middle class man in front of me! “certainly” he said, He’d heard of one blind social worker: she’d even made it to head of her section! But that was very much an exceptional case! After completing a successful work placement in Strategic services (which I created for myself), and securing a place on the social sciences programme at Stirling University, he shook my hand and offered a weak good luck! Doubtless praying he’d never see me again! …, he didn’t of course, by 18 I was married, after that, I was working at the BBC, then Pakistan, and the rest you know! And all that too without a degree! I’m not recounting all this to try and sound arrogant! Quite the opposite! What I’m saying is that with the right determination, passion and drive, you can make it in a sighted world if you really have to! And, if you do need a bit of help getting there, then what you want from the job centre and other career focused Initiatives are strategies that boost your confidence, increase your general skills and work readiness in order that you progress in to a fully integrated environment! One of the reasons why I campaign so vehemently against so-called “special Schools”, is because they simply give society the green light to segregate and separate disabled people from the Equality they rightfully deserve! And, While no research has yet been carried out in to this, I can almost guarantee you that the majority of those visually impaired individuals who are out of work are those victims of the “special system!”.
To be fair, the majority of related “special” workplaces, were ousted when work houses and Blind Works became a thing of the past, but Blindcraft remains as a thorn in the side of any genuine blind employee in the big bad real world who is simply existing while, at the same time, paving the way to equality for those who choose to opt out!
I know that not every one chooses blindcraft: my 40 something careers adviser doubtlessly indoctrinated many in to believing it was their only option! And if he couldn’t get around the young person, he joined forces with the school/college to work on the parents: so strong was his persuasion, that you’ll find many parents (my own included!), forcefully pushing for such institutions to be safeguarded. They are driven by a rock solid belief that basket weaving and piano tuning can be good for blind people, that not every one can cope in a mainstream work environment and so should be given a more cushioned work setting! Moreover, they brand people like myself trying to put an end to such prejudicial treatment as “political correct nutters gone mad!” do-gooders who are actually working against those who we claim we are assisting!

While I acknowledge openly that there are many in society today who are unable to work, and should be given financial/social protection and empowerment, I also believe that the decision about who is/isn’t able to work should be left with the individual. We have written people off in society because blindcraft is simply much easier! Integration, be it school, college or the workplace forces us to challenge our own stereotypes, and requires us to revise our work practises and invest in people through accessibility, belief changes and a whole lot of equality!
When I first got to know people like Zuhair, I was utterly aghast by just how well the states do disability! Quite simply, it doesn’t exist! Moreover, the government has whole departments who actually do create access to work (rather than the equivalent on paper version we have here in the UK!).
Doubtless Aberdeen city council have reams of Equality policies relating to employment which enable them to take blindcraft with one hand, and exclude blind people from their internal vacancies with another, simply by nature of the way they operate! Tonight, I am happy to see blindcraft go, and related projects like it, but I pray that its demise acts as a catalyst for local authorities, private manufacturers and others to employ people capable of carrying out the work (disabled or not!), under duress or other wise, rather than this closure simply leading to yet another statistical increase on the numbers claiming the dreaded “incapacity benefit!”.

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