I met a guy on Saturday who had lost his sight completely 6 months ago as a result of a rare genetic condition. He was sitting next to a chap who was born blind. He, in turn, sat next to a girl who was blind and also in a wheelchair. She sat next to a 19 year old girl who had lost most of her sight over a period of years from the age of 13. What a mix!?
They were all attending a leadership workshop at Future Exchange – the first event of its kind hosted by the RLSB. I was there to provide a parent’s-eye-view on visual impairment. I thought I was there for their benefit. Turns out that they gave me a bunch of advice on bringing up a kid?! They also shared lots of personal experiences about what it’s like growing up with a visual impairment.
On the theme of leadership and the next generation of young visually impaired people, almost all of the sentiment in the workshops was very positive. The the RLSB youth forum reps, Joy and Asher, were very well organised and their natural and considered delivery put everyone at ease. They were real pros! (and I should know – I’ve been in more workshops than Pinocchio).
For me, the really big message from the whole day was the issue of Jobs. The event was full of bright young people, really keen to get on, passionate about breaking away from the stereotypes that surround them and encouraged by being given a ‘voice’ at the event.
Whilst very positive, by the end of the day you could hear the frustration, both stated and implicit, expressed about their collective situation. One girl summed it up in a sentence:
“I’m totally normal. I’m a normal person. I just can’t see.”
Of course, she’s not normal. She’s exceptional. Ironically, she’s exceptional in ways that most employers would love to bottle-up and serve on a daily basis to their workforce.
Maybe I was a bit giddy on the whole thing. It was a novelty to be surround by such a cool bunch of people. But, part of me thought that all the answers to the future were right there in the room at the Future Exchange. Easy!
However, it’s important not to get carried away. The reality for VI people is that the majority won’t find employment on more than a temporary or volunteer basis today. Only 38% of blind and visually impaired people of working age in the UK are employed.
It’s interesting then that a lot of the emphasis in the panel Q&A at the end of the event was on starting up businesses and entrepreneurial spirit. Tim Campbell, a high profile Apprentice winner and dedicated entrepreneur with a third sector passion, gave some great advice for ‘getting at it’ if you want to start up your own business. Ben Quilter, a VI paralympian and Judo gold medalist made a real connection between the challenges of VI and reaching the top of his sport. The panel served as a vitamin shot for anyone needing that extra shove into action.
I’m sure there were also things to untangle for people in the audience once the buzz had died down – those not motivated to run a business, or compete in a sporting arena, those who just want the ‘normal’ stuff. Cash. Independence. All that. Great that a charity called Blind in Business was at hand to provide advice on the practical aspects of getting a job.
All in all, the event tabled lots of ideas, concerns and experiences. With any luck, the manifesto it goes towards creating will pave the way for the exceptional and the exceptionally normal to ‘get on in life’.
The most striking thing for me at the event was the diversity of people in attendance. Not so much the social diversity (class, ethnicity etc.) but the diversity of conditions that sit under the banner of being VI or Blind. No two people in the room saw the world in the same way. Each had a different story. Combined, they shared an aspiration for the future.
Wow! That’s just like…everyone else, then? (-: