Kiesha Meikle finds out about Lambeth Councillor Marsha De Cordova’s determination to succeed in local politics – and to get things done blind and partially sighted people
How did growing up with a visual impairment influence your life choices?
I have a condition called nystagmus, which is an involuntary movement of the eye. It causes me to be severely short sighted and I am registered blind. In part because of this, my purpose in life is to make a positive difference, especially for those with a visual impairment. I knew that one way to advance the lives of blind and partially sighted people would be to work in the sight loss sector, but also that I would need to make way politically. That is why I am the Development Manger for South East London Vision (SELVIS) and since May 2014, an elected Councillor for the London Borough of Lambeth.
Working in politics isn’t for everyone – how have you
It wasn’t always easy. I remember going to my first meeting and finding that they had never worked with anyone with a visual impairment before. It was actually quite funny, asking for agenda papers in large print. Let’s just say it was a very new thing for them.
The secretary at the time – who is now a good friend of mine – was open to everything, and really supportive in making sure that papers were in the right format and that venues were accessible. I was also encouraged to put myself forward for positions, so I took on different roles within my local party at both constituency and branch levels.
Have you had to overcome any practical or attitudinal barriers at work?
Being in politics can sometimes make you feel like you are in the Dark Ages, especially when it comes to equality for disabled people. I feel that getting reasonable adjustments made took longer than it should – possibly because they were not aware of what I, or someone like me might need. There needs to be more guidance in place.
What have you had to do to get around this?
All I can do is keep pushing and keep fighting so that anyone coming behind me won’t have to face the same barriers I have. I see my role as not just influencing policy, but also breaking down barriers for people with disabilities. I hope that by the end of my four years I will have brought about some positive changes within Lambeth and particularly in my ward, in which I’m also a resident.
We all have people we look to to get through hard times – who’s yours?
I met with David Blunkett recently. He told me about his journey into politics, the steps and hoops he had to jump through to get all of his support in place in Parliament; my woes are nothing in comparison to what he had to endure. I am always referencing that – though he was elected a long time ago, so things should have moved on significantly since then!
What was it like growing up with a visual impairment?
I didn’t realise I had a visual impairment until quite late. Even when I did, I didn’t let it stop me from doing anything – I still learnt to ride a bike and got involved in various activities. I suppose one difference was that I was more accident-prone than other kids. Many times I would fall over or walk into things because I just couldn’t see them.
It became harder when I got to school and other people’s lack of knowledge about sight loss became a bit of a barrier. They seemed to think that I shouldn’t have been in mainstream education. The head teacher at my school in particular thought I should be taught in a special school. She set about getting me removed, but my mother fought to keep me in. We had to deal with the Department for Education, and I remember having to go through a series of psychological assessments and the like. When the reports came back, they said that with the right support I could stay in mainstream education.
I know now that if my mum had not fought to keep me in that school I would not be where I am today. The opportunities available to children in special schools back in the 80s were very different. Even today I am an advocate for disabled children being taught in mainstream education where appropriate – though having the right support is crucial.
What about the transition from school into adult education?
I think I transitioned well, but I was determined to make sure that the resources I needed to succeed were in place. I would seek out the access officer and see that the right steps were being taken to support me to do my best – I was very proactive. My universities were actually very good in this respect. If things were not in place I had no qualms about making a lot of noise about it…which I still do to this day, both at work and in politics!
Attitude is everything. No matter what legislation is in place, if people’s attitudes don’t match, then it is going to be very difficult for a disabled person to make the transition from education into employment.
Do you think things have improved in terms of access and employer attitudes towards disabled people in the workplace?
It is still hard. You can do really well at the interview, but the moment you ask for reasonable adjustments the job is miraculously no longer available. That happened to me a few times in the early part of my career. I have been offered jobs, gone to the induction and then heard employers claim that ‘their systems’ cannot be adapted to make their fonts larger, meaning I can no longer take on the position. To think that a person who is disabled cannot do a job properly is a nonsense. Employers with that attitude are ignorant.
You need to make sure that there is an equal and level playing field. The good thing nowadays is that there are schemes like Access to Work that provide funding for reasonable adjustments in the work place. In my case, I need assistive technology such as CCTV and a monocular. I also use an accessible mobile phone and software called ZoomText, which magnifies my screen for me.
Schemes like this need more investment though, especially in terms of raising awareness. If employers were more aware of them they would be more open when it comes to taking on people with disabilities. With 11 million disabled people in the country and 50% of them not in work, there is a real problem. Two thirds of people with sight loss are not in work or education. Businesses should be compelled to take people with disabilities on and to provide reasonable adjustments for those who become disabled to keep them in work. In my own case, Access to Work does not apply to elective representatives – something I think should change.
Do you have any advice for succeeding both at work and socially?
Peer support and networking is really important. Mentoring from someone who has gone through a similar journey is also great. I love technology and have used iPhones for years, because the accessibility features are fantastic.
In terms of my social life, one of my pet peeves is when I am out for dinner and there is no large print menu – but at least now I take a picture of the menu on my phone and enlarge it so that I can read it. One area I intend to work on in my local ward is develop an equalities framework, so that all restaurants, pubs and bars will commit to having large print menus. Watch this space!