It was on this day ten years ago that I finally lost my remaining vision. Between February 2004 and December 2005 my eyesight rapidly deteriorated until finally the last of it went literally overnight. I clearly remember sitting up in bed and reading a large print book through the most powerful magnifier it was possible to get at the time. I could only see four words at a time so it was slow going, but I enjoyed reading and was determined to do as much of it as I could before the sight failed completely. Unfortunately the next morning I woke up and found that I couldn’t see anything but dull grey light. I’d already lost my right eye so all I had left was the small amount of vision remaining in my left. Needless to say it was quite a shock to wake up like that and it took me quite some time to get a grip on myself.
Now this blog isn’t a woe is me piece and I’m not going to start going into the details of my adjustment into life as a blind person, but there was nothing that could be done to restore my vision and I knew it. It took me some time to adjust from being a fully sighted, working, driving man in my late twenties to a completely blind, unemployed chap who was not able to drive any more. Anybody who has gone through the same or similar will be fully aware of how it affects your capacity to function on a daily basis and of course your state of mind. Luckily I’m pretty resilient and have a stubborn streak about a mile wide so I made pretty steady progress. I want to make it clear here that I absolutely am not saying that it was easy, it is without exception the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced and quite honestly I wouldn’t ever want to go through it again. It was of course incredibly difficult for my family too and I can say with utter certainty that if it hadn’t have been for the support that my family and friends gave me I wouldn’t be sat here writing this now.
So why am I writing this blog?
Well, as today has approached I’ve spent quite a lot of time reflecting over the past decade of my life, the highs and the lows, my achievements and what’s changed.
If someone had asked me just after my sight had failed if I thought I’d ever have the life I have now and be doing what I am doing now my answer would’ve been entirely negative. Just as most people would have done, there was no way I could imagine anything further ahead than the next twenty four hours.
So what happened to get me out of that situation?
The short answer is sheer bloodymindedness. The full answer is that although I was bloodyminded and refused to curl up in a ball and let it beat me, I had the support and help of my family and friends. More than that, I started getting involved in things and interacting with people.
I started volunteering once a month for my local visual impairment charity BucksVision and as a result got to interact with other people with sight loss as well as fully sighted people. I initially started volunteering at the local resource centre and started learning about assistive technology as well as getting to talk to other people that had either been through or were going through losing their own sight. Before long I found that I was really enjoying helping people as well as being able to learn about how sight loss affects different people. It allowed me to evolve my own coping strategies and use my own experiences to help others. Within a year I was volunteering once a week and ultimately became the person who people met to discuss and try out assistive technology. This went on for several years with my getting more and more involved until in 2011 I became a Trustee/Director of the charity and then in 2012 became the Chairman of the Board for a year. During this time I continued to have a lot of contact with other visually impaired people and did some mentoring and development work with some of them.
This all gave me the inspiration to retrain as a Coach and also to get some proper qualifications to deliver training on assistive technology. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with the qualifications once I’d got them, but I had the beginnings of an idea. Although I was quite anxious about it at the time I did spend all of my savings and get some help from a local charity to fund my training and I have to say that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. By the end of 2013 I had become a certified accredited Executive Coach, become a Dolphin accredited trainer, Dolphin Guide certified software specialist and completed my Apple certified support technician training specialising in VoiceOver. So the next decision I needed to make was, what to do now I’d retrained.
Initially I thought I might get a job as a coach in a local business or perhaps even with the RNIB or similar organisation as some sort of assistive technology trainer or something. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that I didn’t actually want to work for anybody else. My previous work background was in retail where I had been a manager and trainer, so I knew I had a good foundation of experience to start from when thinking about running my own business. In the end the decision was really made for me when it became abundantly clear that no local business was interested in employing a blind chap regardless of previous experience and/or qualifications. I’m sure that anybody with any kind of disability reading this will know precisely what I mean as well as how incredibly frustrating it is to be swept under the carpet. So that was what I was going to do, I was going to start my own business as a Coach and assistive technology trainer.
Now I have to say here that starting your own business is not for the faint hearted. Whilst it’s not impossible when you’re blind, it’s certainly not easy and you find yourself having to think about things that wouldn’t even come into consideration normally. After spending a couple of months getting everything set up I started trading as Alternate Visions Coaching and here we are nearly two full years further down the line. I love my job, it’s interesting, I meet some fantastic people, I work with both the sighted and visually impaired, I get to help people by sharing knowledge and experience and I get the satisfaction of seeing people develop. Working as an independent Coach is incredibly varied and working as the only male Coach in an organisation called The Bird Table is fantastic. My colleagues are not only talented Coaches but are also genuinely good people. The Bird Table is a coaching organisation that specialises in business development for women running SMEs or who work in Tech. My work day is never the same from one day to the next and I am constantly learning, which is something that I never want to stop doing.
So, you’re probably reading this thinking that this is all a bit of a pointless blog and that I’m just trying to promote my business. Well no, I’m writing this because if one other person who has been affected by sight loss reads this and can draw even the slightest inspiration from it then surely that’s a good thing. It’s very easy for people to sit and feel sorry for themselves or feel that they are not valued by society; I know because I’ve been there and gone through it myself. I’m also not writing this to boast. At the end of the day my life isn’t perfect, nothing ever is. I still have those down days and feel sorry for myself every now and then wishing I could still see, but the fact of the matter is that I can’t and never will again. What I can say is that if I can do it then there’s very little reason why others couldn’t too. I firmly believe that mindset and attitude contribute hugely to the way in which we all, disabled or not, move through our lives. Would I do things differently if I could live the last decade again? No, definitely not. There have been some horrendous times, some average times and some amazing life changing times and it’s because of this variety of experiences and life events that I am who I am today. The saying goes that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and do you know what, I think that’s spot on.
In the space of ten years I’ve gone from feeling that my life was over to trekking across the Sahara desert, winning bronze and silver medals at national level as a member of a shooting club, flying a microlight, driving a tank, becoming a Trustee/Director/Chairman of a charity for the visually impaired and running my own business and all of it since losing my sight.
I was dreading today, I didn’t know how I’d feel or even if I’d want to acknowledge the significance of the day. But I think it’s important for other people to see that having a disability is not the end of the world or the end of your life and who you are. My life could be a whole lot worse than it is, I’ve only got to listen to the news to know that, but on a more localised personal level I mean that I could easily have made it worse for myself. I’m very grateful for the chances I’ve been given to do these things, but equally I’m glad I took the risks I did and persisted when at times it felt like it would be easier to give up.
I don’t want this to turn into an Oscar acceptance speech, but I owe a lot of thanks to some people and I’m going to do it here. Thanks to the staff and volunteers at BucksVision, all of the medical professionals who got me through my sight loss, my colleagues at The Academy of Executive Coaching, my colleagues at The Bird Table, the team at Dolphin Computer access, John Panarese of Mac For the Blind, my assistant and friend Jan, my friends, my family and finally my partner Sarah. Without all of these people life would be very different and I appreciate everything you’ve done to help and support me more than you can possibly imagine.