Monday, 16 June 2014

RNIB Campaigners'
Convention 2014

Over the weekend I attended the RNIB Campaigners' Convention 2014, hosted at Aston Business School, in Birmingham. The event attracted over a hundred visually impaired and blind campaigners, of various ages, from all over England and Scotland.

The convention ran from Saturday, 14th June to Sunday, 15th June and was designed to bring together passionate campaigners, build strong networks, share experiences and
gain new skills from the various workshops on offer over the duration of the 2 day weekend.

After arriving into Birmingham by train at 11:35am, I took a taxi with another campaigner from the North West and headed up to Aston Business School. I was guided into the building to register my attendance and confirm the workshops and surgeries that I would like to attend. I was very interested in the social media surgery and the 'Travellers Tales' campaigner experience session on the first day, as well as the 'Getting the Most from Your Local Media' and 'Winning or Losing: the Art and Science of the Killer Campaign Strategy' workshops on the second day.

The campaigners and I had a buffet lunch to start with, while we introduced ourselves to those sitting around our tables and began to network with one another; finding out about our previous campaign work and what we hoped to achieve in the future. I was approached by quite a few people who were interested in learning more about Envision: a young person's campaigning network, that I'm a steering group member of - specialising in communications and social media, working alongside the RNIB. I gladly introduced them to the network and provided a brief overview of the first campaign that we are in the process of setting up.

After lunch, we were welcomed to the event by Steve Winyard, Head of Membership and Campaigns at the RNIB, who thanked us all personally for coming along to the convention and discussed some of the things he hoped we'd get out of it; networking with other campaigners from across the country to build strong campaigning relationships, and a new knowledge of different aspects of campaigning techniques through the various workshops on offer. He also reported on campaigner's achievements over the past 5 years.

Michael Wilson, Campaigns Manager at the RNIB, gave an introduction of the Open Space concept - what it is, how we will be arranging and attending the discussions and the proposal of topics for exploration. An Open Space can be a very powerful tool for engaging large groups of people in discussions to explore particular issues or questions. Each table in the main conference hall would correspond to a particular issue or question, with RNIB staff based at each table to take notes of discussion and suggestions to then feed back later. Campaigners were free to move from one table to the next if they wished to partake in a different topic.

Campaigner Experience Sessions were next. These were issue-based workshops and networking sessions, led by Volunteer Campaign Co-odinators and supported by a Regional Campaigns Officers, to give the opportunity to hear directly from other campaigners about what worked well, what lessons were learnt and also to gain some tips for effective campaigning for future use. 

I chose to attend the 'Travellers Tales - Making Transport Accessible' session. Other workshops on the Saturday included 'Fighting for Safer Streets' with stories from Rose and Mohammed, 'Tackling Street Clutter' with experiences shared by Charlotte and Judith, 'Health - Campaigning for Improved Access to Hospitals' lead by Mike and Padma, and 'Support at the Time of Sight Loss' with stories shared by Terri, Elaine and Peter.

Travellers Tales:
Making Transport Accessible

From the delegate pack: "In this session, you will find out what motivated Bernie and Peter to start their own successful campaigning journeys for accessible travel. The lessons they learned along the way prove that campaigning is as much an art as a science, but there are tips and techniques that we can all use to improve our chances of success."

After being welcomed to this Campaigner Experience Session lead by Bernie and Peter, Peter took the floor and began discussion of his successful past campaign regarding accessible transport in his local area. He initially campaigned for announcements on board the train, as they were not making any announcements on stations, to let him know what current stops he was at or making his way towards. He contacted the metro company asking why they had switched off announcements after 6pm and discovered that the reason was due to noise nuisance - the local people living near to the station had complained many times in the past. In effect, this meant that VI people could not travel after 6pm.

In the particular incident that he had experienced, Peter boarded a train but had no prior announcement that it was out of service. He and another man had boarded and were off on their journey, but suddenly they had stopped - the driver had locked the train, the lights were switched off and they were in an overnight depot in complete darkness. As Peter had his mobile phone with him, the first thing he did was contact his local media and phone BBC Look North. This was the start of what brought about change; he was quick-thinking with wanting to contact the local media directly and overnight the media were setting up times to meet, arrange interviews and take photographs of Peter and the station.

By 8am the next morning, there was a full-page spread story on the incident. The media were essentially working for Peter at that point - ringing the hotlines to contact the managers and question them - helping him tremendously with his campaign work. It was discovered that the management of the company had gone home at 6pm, completely oblivious to what had happened.

Despite the media coverage of this incident, Peter found that they still kept switching off the system at 6pm - and he continuously went back to the media to report on this. With support from the RNIB and the Disabilities Commission, he took action and received compensation at court and the driver was disciplined. What started was the acceptance on behalf of the train company for VI people so that they could travel safely on a train network - particularly after 6pm. We now have comprehensive automated announcements on trains and platforms throughout the country, but the campaign continues in terms of monitoring and feeding back on progress and other related incidents.

Top tips from Peter - Never be afraid to contact the local media when you have a good story and an engaging campaigning issue, don't be afraid to speak out, and try to have the numbers of the local media outlets stored in your phone so that you call them directly for ease of access.

Bernie, a Volunteer Campaigner Co-ordinator, shared her many experiences with transport next and told of how campaigning for her issues greatly benefitted her day-to-day life. The first incident she shared was of how a taxi driver of a private car hire company refused her and her Guide Dog because of religious objections. She wanted to take her son, who is also blind, to an appointment at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, but the driver was adamant not to collect them because of her Guide Dog at the time, Orla, and left both mother and son stranded. He was the first mini-cab driver to be convicted under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

She recalled of another recent campaigning success during the Stop for Me, Speak to Me campaign - encouraging councillors from her local area to travel on a bus blindfolded to experience first-hand the issues that blind and visually impaired people face when using public transport. Bernie received a national award for her contribution of getting free bus-travel for people with sight loss in her area.

Top tips from Bernie: You need to gather evidence to support your campaign; find information to support and give the campaign weight and give it solidity and objectives. Involving local decision-makers, such as councillors, helps to gain publicity and also builds strong relationships and trust within your local community. 

Next on the agenda was an hour-long session with Steve Winyard (Head of Membership and Campaigns), Leslie-Ann Alexander (CEO of the RNIB), Fazilet Hadi (Group Director, Inclusive Society Group) and Ellie Southwood (RNIB's Board of Trustees, Vice Chair) regarding the next 5 years of challenges and opportunities in the campaigning landscape.

Steve Winyard gave an overview of the campaigns over the next strategy period, of 2014 to 2019, the biggest being the I Am Here campaign - ensuring that people are properly supported at the time of sight loss. A Q&A session followed with Leslie-Ann Alexander, Fazilet Hadi and Ellie Southwood. Questions given by the room focused on the recent merger of campaigns and membership within the RNIB and its benefits, whether Guide Dogs and the RNIB will work together in the future, cost-effectiveness, and whether issues can be tackled quicker than the proposed 5 years.

Following this sessions, there was an update from Tara Chattaway, Campaigns Officer for Social Care, regarding the Cut Out of Care campaign followed by a group campaigns stunt and photo opportunity to support the campaign, posted via Twitter, which can be seen below:

I was also provided with my own photo opportunity to help support the social campaign, which was also posted via Twitter and retweeted by the official RNIB and RNIB Campaigns accounts:

Open Space Session

It was then time for the Open Space session, consisting of constructive open discussion chosen by delegates regarding topics they were passionate about. These included; accessible transport and built environments, perceptions of blind and visually impaired people, employment, and the discussion of hate crime.

I attended the built environments discussion to start with which was lead by Hugh Huddy, Policy Manager at the RNIB. Discussion was based around crossings, beacons, lifts and stairs, walkways with tactile markings - or lack thereof! - and the accessibility of stations belonging to trams, tubes, trains and buses.

To start with there were a shared experiences from a campaigners. The first knew of a very dangerous crossing with no accessibility features in the area. Another campaigner shared the difficulties they face in a shared space area with uneven pavements and cobbled stones. A third campaigner spoke of an accident they had along a pavement in their local area and how they contacted their local council, to no avail. Hugh took notes and invited those campaigners to draw up ways they would like to see those local crossings and pavements rectified.

I moved onto a different table focused on the issue of perceptions of blind and visually impaired people next. Discussion included what we can do as VI people to help change the public's perceptions, representations in the media - particularly soap operas, who currently portray a VI person and a wheelchair user - and how they have benefitted or hindered misconceptions and stereotypes. There was also talk of utilising the December 3rd Disability Awareness week to do more for the sight-impaired, arranging days similar to the Guide Dogs Fun Days to raise awareness, setting up a sensory-impaired week - rather than having a disability week, presenting positivity and optimism to the public rather than the negativity surrounding our disability.

After the hour of Open Space discussions had concluded, we then had some free time to go up to our rooms and freshen up for dinner. I unpacked items from my case to organise my room for ease of access, went over the notes on my iPad from the sessions so far, caught up with friends and family on social media and proceeded to get ready for dinner.

Before the evening meal, there was a joint-speech by members of Envision - Adele from Dalington and Fran from Wigan - explaining the formation of the campaigning network and the first campaign that we are setting up presently, regarding accessible menus in the 4 main coffee chains in the UK. After my three-course vegetarian meal, I went straight to bed as I was so tired after a busy day of travelling and note-taking! The first day was fantastic and I was looking forward to an even more productive day in the morning!

After heading down to breakfast and checking out of our rooms, it was time for the first plenary of the day - the Accessible Streets campaign. This provided us with the opportunity to discover more about the campaign and to help develop the RNIB's street charter. The expert panel consisted of Hugh Huddy (Policy Manager), Samantha Fothergill (Senior Legal Officer) and Tracy Dearing (RCO of Yorkshire & Humber), chaired by Michael Wilson (Regional Campaigns Manager).

Accessible Streets Campaign

Hugh Huddy began discussion on the various issues that are faced with street clutter; built environments, beacons that are not installed properly, wheelie bins, lack of tactile markings, lack of pavements, and so on. Centralisation is out of fashion within the government and localisation is in, so this needs to be incorporated into the new business strategy. There needs to be a street charter setting a standard across the country which is clear and universal.

Samantha Fothergill explained how the law can be used to assist in campaigning this issue using two main pieces of legislation - the Equality Act and the Highways Act. Local authorities have a duty to keep the highway free from obstruction, which is a very significant principal as it is a criminal offence to obstruct the highway.

Regarding the Equality Act, there are two aspects to it; the first is the duty to the public, the second is the accessibility of the highway. It is their duty to have regard to the impact on equality. Absolutely everything they do, from planning decisions to prosecution decisions, must have consideration of the impact on equality. In regards to pavement parking and wheelie bins, it is an offence to obstruct the pavement and discriminative to block a disabled person who is not capable of moving the obstruction - whether a wheelie bin or a pile of bin bags.

Tracy Dearing, RCO of Yorkshire & Humber, has been involved with a lot of campaigning work over the past few years regarding street clutter and built environments. She took the floor to explain how this year is very important for gathering evidence for the campaign. We are coming up to finding out what local authorities have in place, what their policies and their positions are on built environments, what their view of shared space is and how other people are interpreting these ideas.

The RNIB are asking VI people to undertake a survey of how we negotiate our streets to pull together a good campaign. Surveys can be filled in by contacting your local Regional Campaigns Officer for the information. A good campaign relies heavily on evidence, as we have learned in our workshops and discussions in the convention so far.

From a campaigner's point-of-view, we need clarity around the issue as there are two major organisations involved with the issue - we need to hit all of the targets. The reality is that A-boards are growing in number all over the country, and we need to stop it in its tracks before it gets much worse.

We had a Q&A session with Hugh, Samantha and Tracy around the issue of street clutter and built environments, followed by table-top discussions of what process and policies need to be in the universal street charter. Items included a full stop to A-boards, tactile markings at all kerbs, audible crossings and cones - along with regular maintenance to ensure they are properly installed and in full working order, and a policy on wheelie bins to keep them from obstructing the pavement.

Towards the end of the session, I received a Tweet from Gary O'Donaghue, BBC4's Chief Political Correspondent, who I met at Parliament last year with Envision. I was kindly given the microphone to read out his tweet and he received such a warm response from fellow campaigners! Michael, chairing the session, also joked that he could be the celebrity face of the campaign!

After a quick break, it was time to start the first of two Campaigns Skills Sessions. This was the opportunity to attend workshops based around: developing a killer campaign strategy, lobbying your MP, working with your local council, getting the most from local media, influencing and networking, and the secrets of storytelling. The first campaign workshop that I would be attending was the 'Getting the Most from your Local Media' workshop lead by Lucy Dixon (RCO for the North East), who originally trained as a journalist and was previously the editorial manager of the Red Cross.

Workshop: Getting the Most from Your Local Media

From the delegate pack: "Getting publicity can transform your campaign, encouraging more people to support you and helping you influence key decision-makers. Find out top tips for getting journalists interested in your campaign, how to handle interviews and help to overcome any concerns you may have about working with the media."

After an introduction to the workshop by Lucy and a brief overview of the benefits that media can bring to a campaign - including increased interest from the public, increased support from organisations, the attention of key decision-makers and local councils - we looked at the ways of how a campaign should look to attract an audience.

To start with, it should have a strong human interest; a strong, personal story that can carry viewers, readers, and listeners. It matters how the issue effects you, other people will sympathise and feel like they want to reach out and establish a connection. To give it that extra weight, it needs to provide statistics and evidence. For example, how many other blind and visually impaired people are in your area that are affected by the issue you are campaigning? How many accidents have there been? The 
RNIB has a sight loss data tool that you can easily access on their website which is also very useful to use regarding statistics and evidence, as well as contacting your Regional Campaigns Officer for support.

Seek help from experts and professionals to back-up your campaign and add that extra weight; these could include a rehab officer, road safety officer, local police, and so on. Strong and powerful quotes from recognisable professionals can really enhance a story. Look at the format and channel that you want to use, and be mindful of ways to adapt to the different media form. Use a good visual story for your medium - for example, the 'Stop for Me, Speak to Me' campaign used television through filming bus-drivers blindfolded to experience what it's like to use public transport as a visually impaired or blind person. It created that strong visual story to engage an audience.

If it's the newspaper that is the format you are using, provide a powerful image to be used next to the column that readers can look at and connect to. Use good visual props, no more than 3 or 4 people, showing the area of concern - a busy road, a bus, a coffee shop, and so on.

Slowly build a relationship with local journalists in your area. Handy tips and tricks include prepararing for interviews with 3 key objectives; constantly refer to them and bring the conversation back to your key aims for consistence and a guideline. Write a press release, compose bullet points, phone before-hand for an outline, follow-up with communication though e-mails and phone calls. Write a letter to an editor of a magazine or newspaper to get your campaign story out there, use the well-read section of the newspaper, use radio phone-ins to target and reach an audience.

Finally, prepare for difficult questions. Ask a friend, colleague or Regional Campaigns Officer to plan difficult questions that may crop up that you can consider and plan ahead for. When undertaking any sort of media work, remember to relax, stay positive, keep returning to your 3 key points, and rehearse well. As with anything, it gets easier the more that you do it.

We concluded the workshop by doing some role play situations of being in an interview setting and utilising the skills that we had just touched upon - asking difficult questions and learning to return to your key messages and bring it back to your original points for consistence and to stay on track. We had the opportunity to be the interviewer and the interviewee, learn new skills and interview styles and identify our strengths and abilities from one other.

Workshop: The Art and Science
of the Killer Campaign Strategy

From the delegate pack: "Inaccessibility and unequal treatment is wrong and triggers powerful emotions; but successful campaigning is much more than knee-jerk reactions. Real change is brought about when there is a cunning strategy behind the passion. In this workshop, we'll discover each other's inner strategist by testing ourselves out in some real world situations which demand a strategic approach for long term success. Core skills for every effective campaigner!"

After lunch, it was time for the second workshop of the day. This was the most popular workshop on the Sunday, running first in the morning and again in the afternoon, lead by Hugh Huddy - Head of Policy at the RNIB. We began the workshop by open discussion about the inner strategist inside ourselves and how we tackle issues and obstacles on a daily basis without realising the strategy involved. Hugh gave the example of solving a problem with a neighbour and the different approaches that we can undertake - a direct approach, mediation or middle ground, and escalation.

Most of us try for the middle-ground approach first, trying to mediate between the two parties' issues. If you can locate the middle ground between two people or two parties then that is where the starting point lies. It is important to identify when you have found the starting point to something which can then lead to engagement - followed by observation, escalation and dialogue; eliciting dialogue, alternative methods and negotiation.

There is the emotional aspect and personal element to take into consideration when campaigning too. You have to be persistent and be in it for the long haul, it is not something that will be solved overnight. It is also important to take opportunities when they arise, challenge proactively and provide rational arguments to benefit your campaign as much as possible. Try to avoid the path of least resistance for an easy outcome.

Hugh talked about the recent 'Stop for Me, Speak to Me' campaign to conclude the workshop and draw all of the points together - how the starting point came about and how it incorporated all of the aforementioned techniques and skilled such as finding the middle ground, mediating, eliciting dialogue, negotiation and so on.

When all delegates had finished their final workshop we entered the main conference hall once more to round-up the convention, conclude on what techniques and skills we had learned over the weekend, had a final key-note from Fazilet Hadi (Group Director of Inclusive Society) and then said our goodbyes before making our way back home.

I want to say a huge thank you to the RNIB for the successful campaigning convention this year, especially to the RNIB staff and RCO's for donating their time during the weekend - and also to the VCC's, particularly the steering group, for tirelessly organising the event.

For those who attended, there is now an online survey that you can fill in to give feedback on the event itself, as well as the workshops you attended and the Open Space discussions, to make any improvements for future campaigning conferences in the coming years.

I had an absolutely fantastic time, met some really inspiring campaigners from across the country - who have given me reassurance and confidence in my own campaigning - and learned many new skills and techniques that I look forward to incorporating into my own personal campaign work as well as the future work that I do with Envision!