Gary O’Donoghue: ‘My mother once thought of killing us both, life was so hard’

The only blind broadcast journalist in Britain, talks to Matthew Bell

On Gary O’Donoghue’s first day at the BBC, he was asked to bungee jump off Chelsea Bridge. That was 18 years ago, as a junior reporter on the Today programme.

Now a highly regarded political correspondent, O’Donoghue doubts if a modern-day producer would dare ask the same of a blind person: “Disabled people can be victims of our risk-averse culture. When I joined the BBC, I went to Macedonia during the Kosovo war. Although there was all sorts of training, I’m not sure it would be quite so easy now.”

The BBC – where he has spent his entire career, first at Today and then on the World Service – prides itself on its diversity and anti-discrimination policies. But O’Donoghue is the only blind broadcast journalist in the country. Already a familiar voice on radio, he is now presenting more for TV news as well as on the internet. Even for a sighted journalist, working across three platforms can be demanding, but O’Donoghue is unfazed: “The technology has come on a lot in the past 15 years. I used to have to beg researchers to read cuttings on to tape before going home to listen to them. I would always be half a day behind everyone else.”

Now he uses a piece of software on his laptop that interprets emails and text documents and reads them aloud in a synthetic voice. Inevitably there are still obstacles – as photographs of text, PDF files cannot be read, for example. But the internet has transformed O’Donoghue’s working practices. “When I started, press releases would come in on the fax machine, which is completely useless. I’m quite bullish about it now when bits of paper are handed out. Number 10 did it the other day and I just said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t read it.’ They thought about it for a couple of minutes and then emailed it over.”

O’Donoghue was born partially sighted but had lost the use of both eyes by the time he was eight. Although mild-mannered and resolutely upbeat, he has had to fight his corner. Last year he was awarded a five-figure payout after complaining he had been unfairly discriminated against when a producer gave one of his stories to another correspondent to present on the Ten O’Clock News. He declines to discuss that episode when we meet, but speaks passionately on the under-representation of disabled workers in the media. “There aren’t many and there should be more. There is 66 per cent unemployment among blind people of working age. It’s an absurd figure.” Should quotas be set? “No, there is no interest in over-promoting people who aren’t up to it – that would be the worst possible thing you can do. But when you come across them then for goodness sake use them.”

One barrier to getting more disabled people into the workplace is a lack of confidence, and O’Donoghue recognises that his education played a large part in shaping his “yes we can” spirit. He comes, he says, from “quite a working-class background”, but was sent to a specialist boarding school for blind children in Worcester, and was the first person in his family to go to university, reading philosophy and modern languages at Oxford.

“The school was amazing; we did all sorts of things. It would not countenance the idea that things weren’t possible. Football, ballroom dancing – we even went skiing.” (O’Donoghue played football for the England blind team –“a very violent game”.) He continues: “They also taught us to drive. They would take us to a disused airfield in dual-control cars. It’s something you couldn’t get away with these days – four blind kids and an instructor in a car charging round an airfield.”

O’Donoghue’s father was a semi-professional footballer before becoming a taxi-driver, and his mother taught ballroom dancing before marrying. “She had quite a hard time of it when I was young because in those days there was not a lot of support for parents with disabled or blind children. You were expected to reinvent the wheel yourself the whole time. A couple of years ago she told me that when things got really bad, she seriously thought of killing us both. I think it’s a really brave thing to say to your offspring. I think it was quite a dark time.”

Now aged 40, O’Donoghue divides his time between a small London flat and Yorkshire, where he lives with his partner, Sarah Lewthwaite, and their seven-year-old daughter, Lucy. During his career he has covered stories in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US, but he seems most at home in Westminster, where he has been stationed since 2004. When we meet, he is about to do a pre-record ahead of presenting the Radio 4 show The World This Weekend for the first time, which he hopes to do more of.

“The thing about disability is that in many ways it makes life difficult, but it can also be an asset as it makes you stand out a bit. There are people who are prepared to take a chance with me. This is the job I wanted for quite a long time, and now I’ve got it. It’s up to me to make the best of it.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Howard Marks has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he has announced
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
Rowan Atkinson at the wheel of his McLaren F1 GTR sports car
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Programme Sales Executive - Independent Distributor

£25000 - £28000 per annum + circa 28K + 20% bonus opportunity: Sauce Recruitme...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money mot...

Guru Careers: Investment Writer / Stock Picker

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A freelance Investment Writer / Stock Picker ...

Guru Careers: PPC Account Executive / Paid Search Executive

£20 - 24K + Benefits: Guru Careers: An enthusiastic PPC Account / Paid Search ...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us