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Centenary celebrates a landmark change in the lives of people with sight loss

One hundred years ago today, 200 blind and partially sighted people from across Britain assembled in Trafalgar Square to demand more help from the state, rather than having to rely on charity and the poor relief system.

What became known as The Blind March prompted a landmark change in legislation. A new 1920 Blind Persons Act was passed in Parliament that required local authorities to 'promote the welfare of blind persons' and keep registers of those in their area, and which lowered their pension age from 70 to 50.

Seventy-four blind workers from Scotland and north-east England joined the march to London. The first disability movement of its kind in the UK, it went on to inspire the 1936 Jarrow Hunger March.

Glasgow City Councillor Robert Mooney has both a personal and professional interest in today's centenary. He is registered blind, himself, with some sight, "But it is deteriorating as I get older," he says.

Robert is also president of the National League of the Blind and Disabled section of the Community trade union, which itself grew out of an amalgamation of the League and other unions. It was the League which organised the Blind March.

"I thought the theme of the march - 'We want justice, not charity' - was very powerful," Robert (63) says. "Blind people travelled from all over the UK, including Scotland. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, made them wait in London for five days before meeting with them.

"Eventually the Bill was passed, and the Blind Persons Act became the first piece of legislation for the blind."

On April 25th, 1920 (a Sunday), the marchers converged on Trafalgar Square, with thousands of Londoners joining them, as the House of Commons debated the legislation. The marchers had walked three different routes across the country to highlight their demands along the way.

Things have improved significantly for people with sight loss since then, says Robert. But he stresses there is still more to do before they have the same opportunities as their sighted peers. And the current coronavirus situation has also thrown up inequalities.

"I attended a school for partially sighted children," he says. "The year I left, 1971, was the first year that kids from a special needs school were allowed to take exams, and once you left school there were very few employers who would consider employing a blind person. In my opinion, the worst inequality is still the lack of employment opportunities. Forty years ago, when I joined the National League of the Blind and Disabled, 80 per cent of blind people of working age were unemployed. Today that figure is still 75 per cent.

"Travelling and transport for blind people also still present real challenges. Some of our town centres are virtually no-go areas for blind people."

James Adams, director of the charity RNIB Scotland, also points to problems that persist. "Whilst we have moved on a lot in the past 100 years, people with sight loss are still facing societal inequalities, in education, employment, accessing opportunity and across a host of other areas.

"And during the coronavirus situation access to groceries and medicines, as well as accessible information, still remains a real challenge."

The RNIB Helpline is available to assist blind and partially sighted people on 0303 123 9999.