Main content

Are Your Eyes Priceless?

An advertising campaign in Australia angering blind people, and why is the Scottish government changing its approach to assessing blind people for Personal Independence Payments?

Following the independence referendum in 2014, Scotland was granted new devolution powers including taking control of a selection of welfare benefits. One of the changes will be the way in which people whose vision is never going to improve, are assessed for Personal Independence Payment or PIP. Reporter Ian Hamilton finds out what these changes will mean for blind people living in Scotland.

The well-known international company Specsavers recently launched an advertising campaign in Australia and New Zealand in a bid to encourage more people to have their eyes tested. A short film and a television ad ask people "how much would you sell your eyes for?" People are filmed answering the question with difficulty and emotion, and most conclude they wouldn't sell their eyes.

Blind lawyer and Mum Fiona Woods feels this campaign devalues the lives of blind people, and sets out her objections and Specsavers states its position.

University students throughout the UK have survived their first hectic weeks. We hear from Kristiana Zunde who attends a university in Yorkshire, gives us a snapshot of what she is studying and how she is settling in.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Lee Kumutat

Available now

19 minutes

In Touch Transcript: 24-10-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Are your eyes priceless?

 

TX:  23.10.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:            LEE KUMUTAT

 

 

White

Good Evening.  Tonight: How Scotland intends to reform the way visually impaired people are assessed for benefits.  And why this campaign has got some blind Australians hopping mad.

 

Clip – Ad

How much would you sell your eyes for?

 

Both my eyes?

 

Both of your eyes.

 

A dollar value?

 

My eyes?

 

The participants react with shock to the question.

 

Would that involve me not having my eyes?

 

Correct.

 

White

And we’ll hear how the company Specsavers answers criticisms of that video a little later in the programme. 

 

But first, for the past five years blind people of working age throughout the UK have systematically been transferred from one benefit, Disability Living Allowance or DLA, to PIPs or Personal Independence Payments.  Both benefits are intended to compensate people for the additional living costs for their disability, but the government has always maintained that the new one, PIPs, with its face-to-face interviews with assessors, would achieve fairer results based on actual need.  Critics say this often isn’t the case because the assessors from private contractors frequently have little specialist knowledge about disability, including visual impairment.

 

Well now, Scotland, which has just taken control of administering 11 state benefits including DLA and PIPs, says it wants to change all this, not least the repeated assessments of claimants whose disability is unchanging and unlikely ever to improve.

 

Our reporter, Ian Hamilton, has been hearing from someone who’s in exactly this position.

 

McFarlane

I have no vision.  For various reasons I had to have my left eye removed in 2016 and my right eye removed in 2017.  So, I have no vision because I have no eyes.

 

Hamilton

That was Hazel McFarlane.  She says given the medical evidence and by a sheer medical miracle should she regain any of her vision so she was surprised when she was pulled in for a medical assessment given that evidence.

 

McFarlane

I hadn’t completed a form since completing the Disability Living Allowance form really, which I felt was quite negative. But actually, the PIP form I felt had a really negative slant to it.  And then when I went to the interview they went through fairly much all the questions that had been in the application form.  But they asked almost everything, they didn’t filter anything out.  They asked about personal care, which wasn’t an issue.  So, during the interview they said to me – we have to check your vision.  And I said to her – but I’ve actually told you all along that I have no useful vision.  And she said – oh but I have to do it anyway, so, she said, I’m going to hand you an eye chart.  So, she handed me an eye chart and said – What can you see?  And I said to her – Well I can feel that it’s a rectangular shape, I can feel that it’s laminated but I can’t actually tell you what it says on it because I have no useful vision.  And the assessor responded to me by saying – Can you turn it over and tell me what you can see on the other side.  Which now, when I sort of tell that story at dinner parties, we just laugh but actually at the time it was just really deeply upsetting because the questions of the interview are so negative and I’m a real can-do person, I don’t really focus on what I can’t do, I always look at what I can.  So, actually to go in and be talking for like a good hour to two hours about what you can’t do actually by the end of it you come out just questioning your own competence.  So, actually at the time to be asked what I could see on an eye chart just actually felt really humiliating.

 

Hamilton

No temptation to take your glass eye out and go – I still can’t see anything?

 

McFarlane

I was so tempted to pop out my prosthetic and say how much do you think I can see, because it’s made of acrylic.  They look great, people would not know that my eyes are prosthetics, they’re amazing.

 

Hamilton

The temptation to be facetious is always quite high.

 

McFarlane

Yeah.

 

Hamilton

Under new powers the Scottish government have taken control over 11 welfare benefits including Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independent Payments.  The Scottish government say they want to take a different approach from the current system so have invited 2,000 people with disabilities to help shape a new welfare system for Scotland.

 

Shirley-Anne Somerville is the Scottish government’s cabinet secretary for social security and older people.  She says constantly reassessing people who don’t need to be reassessed is expensive and unnecessary and she also agrees that dignity should be at the centre of any new system.

 

Somerville

I get really struck when I’m speaking to people when – who have been through particularly DLA or PIP assessments where they talk about fighting a system, where they talk about having to make sure that they’re not getting caught out by the forms or by a face-to-face assessment.  And we need to build a system that’s actually there to support people, where people feel supported to go through that process, rather than a system that’s trying to catch people out.  So, that has to be radically different to what we’re experiencing at the moment.

 

Hamilton

But it is going to take some time for this agency to come in and one of the criticisms that it could be 2021 before people in Scotland are officially moved over and by that point those who are moved over to PIP will have been done, so in a sense the dirty work will have been done for you.

 

Somerville

I feel that frustration from people very strongly and I really do understand it but my top priority has to be that safe and secure transition because we’re starting our agency off, it’s only one month old and we need to build that process up.  But I really do appreciate where people are coming from and that’s why we’ve asked the UK government to halt the migration over to PIP because it is a system that’s broken and it’s a system that people don’t have faith in.

 

Hamilton

The assessments in Scotland will be carried out by the new department of social security.  No private companies will be involved and face-to-face interviews will only be carried out if there is no strong medical evidence to support applications.

 

McFarlane

Why would I claim that I had no useful vision if in fact I did?  The medical evidence would have backed all of that up.  The only sort of saving grace for me with the PIP process was that when my sight – my sight went down totally in 2007, it had never actually occurred to me to contact DWP and make them aware of that.  So, when I was reassessed my level of award was increased.  So, in that respect that was quite positive but the actual process was really, really negative.

 

Hamilton

The Scottish government says they don’t have a figure yet on how much money will be saved when they introduce the new system in 2021.

 

White

That report by Ian Hamilton.

 

For other parts of the UK the Department for Work and Pensions has told us that they too are bringing in new guidance, which will mean that people who are awarded the highest level of support under PIP, where their needs are expected to stay the same or increase, will receive an ongoing award for PIP with a light tough review every 10 years.

 

Now the rise in numbers of school leavers moving on to university has inevitably meant more visually impaired students too.  Now if my memory serves me right, and it is a while ago, those first few weeks at uni can be pretty daunting as you try to cope with a mass of new information in universities, some of which, are the size of a small town. 

 

Kristiana Zunde has been at the University of Huddersfield for just a couple of weeks now, she’s studying music journalism, and as a prelude to keeping an eye on the new intake of visually impaired students this year here’s just a flavour of Kristiana’s early university days, as she recorded them for us.  She seems to have hit the party scene early.

 

Loud chatter

 

Zunde

So, I’m currently at a party, I was invited to by a friend.  That’s some of the social side of university I do – go to flat parties.  Some may be calmer things include going to Wetherspoons or there’s a place called Rhubarb which I go to when we have Music Society social nights.  But yeah, this is quite rowdy actually but you know I guess that’s what student flat parties are all about.

 

So, my name’s Kristiana, I’m a music journalism student at the University of Huddersfield.  I’m just going to talk about – a little bit about the course that I’m doing and how I’m finding it and how it’s working out for me.  The music journalism students are doing six different modules, some of them tie within each other, so I’ve got something called users and industries, we talk about different industries and the cultures and audiences and how all of those things are affected.  Another module that we do is technology.  Technology is mainly about social media and big companies.  And then the other three modules that I have are audio and video production.  So, at the moment we’re doing audio, so that’s based around interviews, podcasts, things like that.  Writing for media and storytelling is another module, which is one of my favourite modules, I mean I love writing, it’s part of the reason why I’m on this course in the first place.  That’s a fun one, we get like a writing exercise every week, so like last week we had to do a news report, the week before we did a biography as it would look like on our employer’s website.  So, it’s really fun, I just love writing, so that’s why I love that module.

 

White

Kristiana Zunde.  And we’re going to be looking in a bit more depth into university life in the near future, so do contact us either if you’re starting out yourself or perhaps you feel you have suggestions that might help, particularly things you wish you’d known when you started.

 

Now the eye tests that you take to get your next pair of glasses is a good way to spot early signs of eye disease.  Well that much is scientifically certain, so what could be more logical than for a company like Specsavers to point this out to potential customers?  But just how far do you go with that?

 

Well in Specsavers’ case quite a long way.  As part of a campaign recently launched in Australia and New Zealand they set up what look in the ad like a genuine medical research company Vesper-Sacs – get it, anagram of Specsavers – complete with premises, a brochure and a detailed back history and told would be research subjects that they were interested in the financial value people put on their eyes.  In this audio described short film this is how people reacted.

 

Short film clip

A young woman’s eyes well up with tears.

 

The thought of like never seeing my partner’s face again or my family.

 

I need my eyes, I’m only 21 so I haven’t seen much of the world yet.  I don’t know – I’m sorry.

 

You can’t really put a price on your sight.

 

White

The tension between using powerful and emotive images about the loss of sight set against its effect on people who believe they are living successfully with blindness is something we’ve explored with blindness charities on the programme before but do commercial companies have the same kind of responsibility?  Well judging by the angry and indignant reactions that followed the launch of the Your Eyes Are Priceless campaign a lot of blind Australians think that they do.  These included lawyer and parent Fiona Woods, who felt strongly enough about it to post her views on Specsavers Australia’s Facebook page.  We would have liked Specsavers to have debated the issue with her but they said no one was available to talk to us.  But they did send us more information about their reasons for the campaign and their reaction to the hostile comments from blind people.

 

So, we’ve brought you a synthesis of Fiona’s post, recorded for us by her, Specsavers’ statement and the audio described short film.  Make up your own minds.

 

Woods

I first saw your ad while eating breakfast with my children who had to describe it to me.  I felt angry, ashamed, disgusted and depressed.  Over the following days I have read your comments, conveying your astonishment that blind people find the ad offensive and your suggestions that we should embrace the message as being in the public good.  I have a law degree, I have more children than many, I’ve been a community counsellor, I’m a wife and a company director.  I get excited at my sons’ and daughters’ soccer matches and am delighted by their dance concerts.  I’ve travelled and lived around the world.  According to your ad everything I have done should have been impossible.  I’m totally blind.  Your ad tells me that although I think I’ve achieved a lot really the sighted world is just letting me play along.

 

Specsavers statement

Specsavers in Australia and New Zealand works in close collaboration with ophthalmology, glaucoma, diabetes and macular degeneration bodies with an absolute commitment to reducing preventable vision loss across the Australian and New Zealand communities.  Together we believe that no one should have to experience preventable vision loss or blindness.  Through this campaign Specsavers wants to drive awareness of the importance of routine eye tests to save sight.

 

Woods

My parents chose to have my eyes removed before I was two so that I would not die of cancer.  I always thought it was a good decision.  Your ad would suggest otherwise.  Growing as a blind child and as a blind adult I have been required, on a regular basis, to explain that my life is not dark or black or empty in classrooms, job interviews, at parties, on platforms and at the shops.  Each of us faces a chance on a daily basis of meeting a stranger who will question how we dress ourselves, how we spend our time or why we think we should be allowed to take care of children.  We are pitied and prayed for and grabbed at.  Our partners are told how lucky we are to have them.  Our children are congratulated on how well they take care of us.  Potential employers ask us how we will get to work, how will we do the job and how we will fit in. 

 

Relentlessly day after day we answer as well and as politely as we can and we work and we study and we train so that the right answers are given, so that we can claim our right to participate and belong.  We tell ourselves that our hours of community education and our contributions to society won’t go unnoticed.  And then we wake up one morning to see an ad which tells us that people would not accept any amount of money to live the lives we live.

 

Clip – ad

I can’t – I couldn’t – like I’ve got a family, I need to be able to see my kids dance, my boys play soccer.

 

Specsavers statement

This advertisement is in keeping with other campaigns Specsavers has delivered in the Australian and New Zealand markets in its attempt to raise awareness of eye health and encourage people to get their eyes tested regularly.  The Australian government estimates vision impairment will emerge as the most prevalent health condition among older people over the coming years as the population ages. 

 

Woods

I don’t say blind people don’t wish they weren’t blind, just as poor people wish they were rich or refugees wish their countries weren’t war zones.  You could have asked some people with advanced eye disease what their lives were like, they might have said that it’s hard to pick faces out in a crowd or to read the numbers of buses.  This at least would have acknowledged that they still have friends and they still can get around.  But the message might not have been so sensational and would not have given the same boost to your profits.  In community education campaigns it’s customary to ask people who have been affected, people suffering the disease or family members of accident victims.  You have not asked any blind people what our lives are like but have asked people to use their imaginations.  Where facts are absent imagination can quickly fill in the gaps by drawing on fear, ignorance and prejudice.  Imagination is unreliable as a basis for education.

 

Specsavers statement

We wanted to create something powerful and meaningful, to get people to stop and think about their eye health.  Our brand, known for its cheeky communications, created Vesper-Sacs, and asked what price Australians and New Zealanders would put on their sight.  The results were unanimous – our eyes are priceless.  Well other Specsavers’ advertisements use humour as a primary means of communication this advertisement does not use humour or make light of the very serious issue of vision loss, rather the tone is one of seriousness as the actors in the advertisement reflect on their own emotion and the seriousness of vision loss.

 

While we’re upset to hear that some people who have personal experience of blindness or vision loss have concerns or are unhappy with this campaign, such feelings by individuals does not mean that the advertisement vilifies the vision impaired or questions the validity and effectiveness of a life without vision, rather the advertisement solely seeks to raise community awareness in order to seek to encourage Australians and New Zealanders to take steps aimed at preventing the occurrence of preventable vision loss.

 

White

And there you heard Fiona Woods, Specsavers’ views read for us by a BBC staff member and the audio described campaign video courtesy of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind.   

 

And that’s it for today.  You can contact our actionline for 24 hours after the programme on 0800 044 044.  Or email intouch@bbc.co.uk.  And you can click on contact us on our website from where you can also download tonight’s and many previous editions of the programme. 

 

We warmly welcome our new producer Lee Kumutat who’s an Australian and if you think you’re going to get that many Australians on every week forget it.  Goodbye.

 

 

Broadcast

Download this programme

Download this programme

Listen anytime or anywhere. Subscribe to this programme or download individual episodes.

Podcast