On 16 March, I had the honour of opening a cross-Whitehall conference at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for departmental disability champions. This was staged with the Business Disability Forum, with whom we’ll be developing a disability role-modelling strategy.
I wanted to take the opportunity to blog about my thoughts on role-modelling, set out my experiences and some advice, and hopefully inspire those coming after me.
What is role-modelling?
Saying, “everyone look at how great I am” doesn't come naturally to most of us (civil servants, at least). But when I was asked to be a disability role model for the FCO, I was enthusiastic. I had played a similar role in MOD (which I’m on loan from at present), and for me the role fills a gap I experienced for many years in the Civil Service.
When I joined, I could see numerous challenges in operating with a disability, but just couldn’t see how it was possible, and had no one to emulate. I recently heard of a junior colleague with sight issues in another department who said she’d never heard of a visually impaired person in the Senior Civil Service. So, I want to set that right.
I am legally blind – I have peripheral vision, so can just about get around but have no central vision. There are clearly things I can’t do very well. I can’t read hard copy, unless it’s hugely magnified (my computer has a voice synthesiser that reads everything out), recognise people or drive.
When I lost my sight aged 18, due to a hereditary genetic condition, I went through the classic grieving process: shock, anger, denial, despair, and so on – but also (after a very long time) acceptance. As that noted philosopher and familiar TV face Ross Kemp once said, “sometimes you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt”.
Now, if anyone asks if there’s one good thing about being visually impaired, I tend to say no – there are five.
- As a senior visually impaired leader, I metaphorically and literally can’t focus on the detail, and am forced to look at the broader picture.
- When you’ve gone through disablement and come out the other side, you tend to be much more resilient as a result. To borrow from the Disney film Frozen (well, my kids did play the soundtrack non-stop at one point), “it’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small”. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it go – and that goes as well for taking a more relaxed approach when people make what are usually minor mistakes.
I’ve found that my visual impairment has made me more assertive but also more confident. I recently had the good fortune to travel with work via Cape Town on a ship for five days to St Helena in the South Atlantic. I have to admit to feeling somewhat apprehensive about the potential logistical challenges, but I achieved it all by slowing down, relaxing, and being very clear (in a diplomatic way) with people about what sort of help I needed.
- My experiences mean that I am – hopefully – more empathetic, and I found this useful when I used to work as a counsellor at Childline a decade ago.
- I can’t use notes easily, so have to know my subject better when doing public speaking, or at least have a structure and key messages in my mind and talk around them. All of which, I think, helps me connect more directly with the audience.
To my mind, role-modelling is not about perfection or infallibility. I do make mistakes from time to time, but the key is to apologise, fix the problem if at all possible, learn from it, and move on.
I’m on the Senior Leaders Scheme (designed to develop deputy directors to director level) and aspire to make the step up for my next post. One of the many benefits for me of this sort of opportunity is to embed a passion for constant learning, and I encourage that in everyone, disabled or not.
Don’t worry, be happy
Finally, frustration is a daily experience for the disabled. But I’m a big advocate of counting your blessings, if possible. When I visited St Helena I was fortunate enough to be taken to see its stunningly beautiful scenery.
And when I went to Ascension Island, an initially unwelcome delay to my plane home meant I was able to witness the annual nesting season for the sea turtles on the beaches at sunrise. And I helped to rescue one sea turtle that would otherwise have died on the rocks.
I would encourage all of you who read this to develop your self-awareness, optimise your strengths (some of which may be unexpected), learn and accentuate the positive.