By Dan Jellinek.
This has been a busy year for Diane Mulligan.
At the start of 2010 Mulligan was awarded an OBE for services to disabled people and equal opportunities. Last week, she was back at Buckingham Palace for a reception held by the Queen for the Diplomatic Corps. In-between, she has been spearheading a campaign to improve the rights of disabled people in developing countries, in her role as Global Disability Advisor for international charity Sightsavers.
One of the UK’s leading campaigners for disabled people’s rights worldwide, and a candidate for the 2012 election to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (another of this year’s accolades), Mulligan has faced many struggles on her path to high achievement.
Leaving school with few qualifications due to undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD, she has worked in the NGO sector all her working life, starting with environmental issues and then championing human rights, women’s rights and disability rights.
The internet and other technologies play a major role in her life and work now, but growing up she lacked the technological support on offer to today’s schoolchildren like her own 10-year-old son, Zephaniah.
“My son has ADHD and dyslexia, and he is using software that helps him, especially with homonyms – he can write ‘no’ and know whether it should be spelled ‘know’ or ‘no’ – and pictorial software,” she says. “He still can’t hold a pen and write, aged 10, but he went straight to using digital technology and is now able to produce work of a standard that is really high for his age. It’s so good for his self-esteem.
“I left school with hardly any qualifications, but if I had had a laptop and software I would have been able to do the same.”
These learning challenges are not the only problems Mulligan has had to overcome: after many years of working abroad, she was involved in a serious road accident in Indonesia which led to one of her legs being amputated. Returning to the UK, to Seaford on the Sussex coast, she received good medical care but a lack of proper psychological support spurred her to set up the Sussex Amputee Support Group offering advice, emotional support and information for people experiencing limb loss.
The group has its own website ( www.sussexamputeesupport.co.uk ), a tool which has proven essential to its work building a support community, Mulligan says.
“Getting that up on the internet was really key,” she says. “Some people said the information was not accessible to a lot of people – most amputees are over 80 – but I disagree: my dad is over 80 and he is using online conferencing. But it is also all available in large print and other formats.”
Technology has also helped her with her sporting passion, rifle shooting: she was on course to compete in the 2012 Paralympics until work and family commitments rendered the training schedule impossible.
“It’s all done on computers with laser beams from the end of the gun onto a screen – they track your movement until you fire so you can see how accurate you are, whether you are swaying all over the place. But I’ve had to drop out from the fast-track now. It takes up at least two evenings a week, and every other weekend.
Computers and the internet have also proven enormously valuable with her main current work role. She joined Sightsavers in 2007, and is leading the organisation’s strategy for raising awareness of the link between disability and poverty in developing countries, where 80% of disabled people live, almost all below the poverty line. In 2000 most world leaders signed up to achieving eight ‘anti-poverty’ Millennium Development Goals by 2015, but disabled people and disability rights are noticeably absent from these goals, and much of Mulligan’s work with Sightsavers is to campaign for their inclusion and recognition.
With front-line teams in more than 30 countries, the charity has created a global online network and uses a web-based conferencing facility called Elluminate ( www.elluminate.com ).
“It has considerably cut down international travel, and colleagues with low vision access the same information I can,” Mulligan says.
“I do three-day training sessions for all my staff and in August we piloted doing a session online. We had 50 people in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, and guest speakers, over three days in Sightsavers offices. Everyone could access the PowerPoint, raise their online hand. They could find out what people could do in different countries and share best practice.
“Now I run one every month, 60 minutes on social inclusion, as a round-up and opportunity for any of our 300 employees worldwide to ask any questions they have and contribute examples. It’s almost like a radio show, I can answer questions, and I have other people contributing. Once I’d done it once, I thought that’s the way forward to me – I don’t have to travel, it saves me jetlag and means I don’t have to stay away from my family.”
Mulligan records the webinars and puts them onto a podcasting site called Podbean ( www.podbean.com ), each bookmarked so people can browse between items without having to listen to the whole hour. Currently they are only available to Sightsavers staff, but “there are no trade secrets”, so Mulligan is looking at ways of making them more widely available. The service uses low bandwidth, so it is accessible even in places like rural India, she says.
Another technology that is revolutionising her work is ‘phlogging’, a service from a company called ipadio that is “like blogging, but using a mobile phone” ( bit.ly/8Q4YF ). Users can call in from anywhere in the world and record a voice message from their mobile, using local rate numbers, to broadcast the voice clip onto their website, blog or social network.
Tools like this and ones that can help speak web content out loud can be useful for communication not only with blind people but for targeting remote communities who are either illiterate or for whom the written word is not the medium of choice, Mulligan says.
“We also try and encourage people to create video diaries, to give our supporters an insight into what we do and how we do it. And we convert our reports to MP3.”
Some of these technologies are hard for people in poorer countries to access, but there is usually a way, she says. “Even if you go to some of the poorest parts of the world you find people with mobile phones. In India, social networking is massive, and the blind people I know there are using it as much as their sighted colleagues. And in countries like Indonesia, you see internet cafes on the corner of every street.”
Sightsavers have also worked with accessible technology specialists Dolphin to create the Sightsaver Dolphin pen ( bit.ly/gWM16t ), a low cost memory stick carrying magnification and screen-reader software aimed at students in developing countries.
“So there are many new technologies out there, it’s just about harnessing them. The only stumbling block I’ve got is getting someone to get headphones and a mike, and log on. It’s that barrier of the unknown, people think it’s going to be hard. The barriers disabled people face in the developing world are almost the same as disabled people face here – liberation takes place in that space between our two ears, before anywhere else.”