Born in Sheffield, he grew up in poverty after his father was killed in an industrial accident. Educated at schools for the blind in Sheffield and Shrewsbury, his chances in life seemed limited. Nevertheless he won a place at the University of Sheffield, and became the youngest-ever councillor on Sheffield City Council at the age of 22. He became well-known as a left-wing figure while leader of that council in the 1980s, and was elected to the Labour Party's National Executive Committee.
At the 1987 general election he was elected MP for Sheffield Brightside. He became a party spokesman on local government, joined the shadow cabinet in 1992 as Shadow Health Secretary, and became Shadow Education Secretary in 1994. Combining reforming zeal with social conservatism, he became a favourite of new party leader Tony Blair.
After Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 general election he became the UK's first blind cabinet minister as Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Education Secretary was a vital role in a government whose Prime Minister had described his priorities as "education, education, education", and which had made reductions in school class sizes a key pledge. In the event it was higher education that proved to be the most controversial issue for Blunkett, as he moved towards the imposition of tution fees at public universities which had traditionally been free.
Immigration and asylum have been central issues for Blunkett at the Home Office. In December 2001 he controversially called for immigrants to develop a greater "sense of belonging" to Britain. In April 2002 he proposed new powers to crack down on illegal immigration and unfounded claims for political asylum.
Another controversial area for Blunkett has been civil liberties (which he famously described as "airy fairy"). In 2003 he announced an extension of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which critics have condemned as a "snoopers' charter". He has proposed the introduction of compulsory National Identity Cards (initially called "entitlement cards", though this euphemism has now been dropped). These measures have earned him the nickname Big Blunkett, a reference to the Orwellian concept of Big Brother.
Blunkett's guide dogs - Teddy, Offa, Lucy, and now Sadie - have become familiar characters at Westminster, inspiring occasional witty comments from Blunkett and his fellow MPs on both sides of the house, but in general his blindness does not arouse much comment.