|14 Feb 2018
|Births, Deaths and Marriages
|FSA (Former Students Association)
At a meeting of the European arm of the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind in Hurdal, Norway, in 1984, something quite extraordinary happened: it was agreed that the organisation should dissolve itself. The International Federation of the Blind said it would do the same, and unanimity was reached to set up one European body, the EBU, the European Blind Union, to be the sole (and therefore more powerful) representative of blind people in Europe.
Sir Duncan Watson, who has died aged 88, was then chair of the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of Blind People), and one of a handful of people who had led us to this watershed moment. He was the only one who had the strength to argue that we should do the same at the world level. But later that year, Duncan’s dream came true and the World Blind Union was formed, bringing together organisations from around the globe to represent blind and partially sighted people in 190 countries.
Duncan, a blind solicitor and senior civil servant, probably did more than anyone else to emancipate blind people, helping them participate fully in the life of Britain, and removing the barriers and constraints they face, both publicly and privately. He was one of the foremost leaders of blind people on the international stage during the 1980s and 90s.
Born in Sunderland, son of Sibyl (nee Amos) and Duncan Watson, Duncan came from a mining family in Boldon Colliery. His uncle, Sam Watson, was a leading trade unionist and one-time chair of the Labour party. Blind from an early age, Duncan went to a primary school for blind children in Newcastle. His abilities were soon recognised and he was sent to Worcester College for the Blind, a boarding school for boys of grammar-school ability.
He went to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, to read law, subsequently becoming a solicitor. After some years in private practice, he joined the civil service, where the regard in which he was held helped to establish a foothold for those blind people who came after him. He progressed through the ranks, rising to principal assistant Treasury Solicitor for his last eight years of service, from 1978 until 1986. He was appointed CBE in 1986.But his greatest contribution lay in the part he played in opening up the charities serving blind people, particularly the RNIB, to the influence and involvement of blind people themselves. He was one of the early leaders of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and its president from 1965 until 1968. At the same time he managed to win the confidence of the leaders of the then rather staid and established RNIB. It was then dominated by sighted people and many members of the NFB thought it out of touch with their real needs. For example, no one was allowed to keep a guide dog in any RNIB residential establishment. But Duncan was a man who could build bridges.
He became vice-chairman of the RNIB in 1968 and chairman in 1975, a position he held for 15 years until 1990. At this time, the NFB was pressing hard for blind people to have a greater role within the RNIB. In 1971, the NFB passed a resolution calling for organisations serving blind people to have at least half of their board made up of blind people. While the NFB campaigned from the outside, Duncan’s role inside the RNIB as vice-chair was critical in bringing about the massive increase in the number of representatives of organisations of blind people on the RNIB council. This change took place in 1975 and gave blind people unprecedented influence in its governance.
Duncan played a major part in shifting the RNIB’s balance from simply providing services towards acting as an advocate on behalf of blind people with the government and all those others – local authorities, utility companies and commercial concerns – who also provide services that blind people need but often find difficult to access.
During his term as president of the World Blind Union (1988-92), he worked hard to establish links with international organisations representing other people with disabilities; and in 1992, he was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations at the conclusion of the UN Decade of Disabled Persons. The following year he was knighted.
Duncan was a large personality, highly sociable, gregarious and full of bonhomie, with a wide range of interests. He had a love of classical music, particularly opera.
His first wife, Mercia Casey, whom he married in 1954, died in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Anthea Nicholson-Cole, whom he married in 2007 and who brought him great happiness in his final years.
• Duncan Amos Watson, solicitor, civil servant and disability activist, born 10 May 1926; died 21 April 2015