Back to the future

Post date: 
Thursday, 11 October 2018
Historical black and white photo of an RNIB employment kiosk

Dan Fisher, Head of Strategy and Planning at RNIB, explains how the charity’s past has helped shaped its future.

Part of what I and my team needed to do, was to go back to where RNIB came from to develop our new strategy.

Because the principles of Dr Thomas Armitage, RNIB’s founder, are as relevant now as they were back then. A lot of what we are trying to do with the new strategy is essentially to reconnect to that. The sense of social injustice, the possibilities of technology, the passion and commitment for an under-represented group that our founder felt all of those years ago. 

Certainly our hope is that when the new strategy is published and is known, people will see that sense of continuity. We’re always evolving, but actually reconnecting with where we’ve come from.

The past

I’ll give you a little fact, just to keep us all amused. So the original name of what’s now RNIB was the British and Foreign Society for Improving the Embossed Literature of the Blind. I know, it was snappy right?

Dr Armitage formally set up the Society in 1868, which would eventually become RNIB. If you picture life at that time, it was the year that public hanging was finally abolished and Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Margins of society

Armitage was a doctor and a man of status and relative wealth. But he began to experience sight loss later in his life and his career. Being an educated man with an enquiring mind, he took it on himself to go and find other people experiencing sight loss, including meeting people in workhouses and asylums. These places were not where you would expect to find a wealthy doctor. Life for a lot of blind and partially sighted people at that time was on the margins of society.

Armitage spent around two years trailing across the country just meeting blind and partially sighted people. We talk in today’s jargon about customer sampling and understanding the voice of customers – Armitage was doing exactly the same back then.

What he was trying to do was understand what life was like and what he could do fundamentally to help improve the lives of people at that time. It helped him understand some of the barriers that existed for blind and partially sighted people then. The main one was access to society – people feeling marginalised and outside the mainstream. In employment, for example, a lot of the material in the archives here at RNIB show that the predominant professions that blind people were involved with included basket weaving, piano tuning or mattress stuffing.

Meeting Louis Braille

What Armitage hit on, was the fact that access to mainstream society and employment hinged on being able to communicate and specifically read. So his research and his interest in technology at the time led him to meet a man called Louis Braille.

In good Victorian pioneering spirit, what Armitage did was take a technology breakthrough, take a great idea and make it universally available to the mainstream. RNIB was founded to produce embossed literature, or braille, as it is now known, for blind and partially sighted people.

Very quickly, the other barriers to life for blind and partially sighted people became a fixed interest for RNIB. It started building institutions and establishments which employed blind people, housed blind people and looked after blind people.

The end of the First World War

In 1918, RNIB opened schools and colleges. It was a very symbolic year as it signalled the end of the First World War. A lot of its “customers” were returning servicemen who had been blinded in the trenches. RNIB was a key provider of rehabilitation services for people who had been blinded on the front.

The campaigning phase

The next phase coincided with the establishment of the welfare state in line with a lot of charities. RNIB became more of a social care provider. In parallel to all of that, it was also a strong campaigner. Some of the key successes included the Blind Persons Act in 1920 that made it a duty for local authorities to provide for the welfare of blind people.

Fast forward to more recent years and you can see that RNIB has been instrumental in the provision made for blind and partially sighted people in Personal Independent Payment assessments. So we’ve always been true to Thomas Armitage – a pioneer and campaigner for social justice. But at the same time, he was someone who appreciated the power of technology, innovation and breakthrough, to generate really significant social change.

This has really informed RNIB’s new strategy. As well as going back and saying “How did Armitage do it 150 years ago?” we’ve looked at recent big societal shifts in our understanding of things like mental health. And one thing we really know is that communities coming together, for example the Connect community, show that speaking with one voice can achieve seismic changes and attitudes.

The future

At the moment, we’re serving a minority of people experiencing sight loss in the UK, and our really simple aim is that we become universal. We want to be there for everybody every time, and to address the needs of the whole community. So what people will see is RNIB becoming much louder, prouder, more available to everyone from all sections of society in the community, and becoming the place that anyone can go to for advice, information and guidance on issues relating to sight loss.

Explore more of RNIB's history on our timeline.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of Connect Magazine.

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