Visiting the British Antarctic Territory as Commissioner
As a disability role model (I am legally blind) and the champion for the visually impaired across the Civil Service, I wanted to take the opportunity of this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities to blog about what I’ve been up to in 2018. As Director for the Overseas Territories in FCO, as well as Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory and British Antarctic Territory, I am never short of things to keep me occupied.
Much of being a role model is, for me, about demonstrating what’s possible despite the daily challenges and frustrations of life as a disabled person. I was struck by a comment that a senior colleague – who I’d not seen in over a decade – made to me recently, asking me if my sight had improved, since I appeared to cope with the issues much better. I observed that I was still legally blind but reflected that a lot had changed in a decade in how I deal with it – and seek to make the most of my opportunities.
Planning for hurricane season
After the onslaught of last year’s Caribbean hurricanes (which I wrote about in my December 2017 blog), much of this year has been absorbed by recovery efforts and preparedness planning for the 2018 hurricane season. My team in London, and the Governors and their teams at post, worked flat out to support the Overseas Territories Governments in this. And, though there remains more to do, we are in an even stronger position to provide support than we were last year.
I’ve had the privilege to be involved on several fronts, including working with the British Virgin Islands Governor and Government to establish their Recovery and Development Agency; with the Anguilla Government on setting a Medium Term Economic and Fiscal Plan alongside the recovery support which the UK has provided; and signing off commercial contracts to get the private sector in as fast as possible in future.
I’ve also taken forward my stewardship of the two uninhabited territories for which I am Commissioner, including overseeing the negotiation of a new long-term telecoms contract in the British Indian Ocean Territory, and visiting the British Antarctic Territory to assess the scientific and environmental work there.
I’ve also had the great privilege to continue working closely with the Territory Governments and Governors (six of whom I line-manage) on a very wide range of important issues, as I noted in my previous blogs. We are committed to working in partnership with the Territories to support their sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency, good governance, disaster-preparedness and many other issues. While, as in any partnership, we don’t always agree, we always seek to work everything through in a constructive and collaborative way.
In all this, I seek to deal with my disability in terms of its unexpected advantages, as I noted in my earlier blogs, in the ways it helps my strategic thinking, resilience, confidence, empathy, and grip of my subject. I’ve also sought this year to make even greater use of technology, and do a great deal with my smartphone, iPad and laptop to work smarter.
I am undoubtedly lucky in many ways, including in my fantastic support network at work and at home. I’m conscious that this, and my general approach to life, has taken a long time to achieve, and indeed one disabled colleague said she didn’t feel like being as Tigger-ish as I might.
Life has certainly not always been like this, and the Visual Impairments network – which I strongly encourage all visually impaired colleagues to join – asked me to set out some of the challenges I’ve had to deal with in my time. Many will be all too familiar to others, but they include:
one of the doctors who originally diagnosed my blindness, when I was 18, telling me not to go to university (four years later I became the first blind person to get a First from Oxford)
one of the employers I approached after university refusing to interview me because of my disability (two years after the Disability Discrimination Act came into force)
an educational company refusing to give me learning materials on computer rather than in hard copy, until I threatened legal action (I then got the highest mark worldwide in the exams a year later)
a large industrial facility refusing to let me visit as part of my work due to my disability until I observed to them very politely what would happen if they didn’t let me come (I went)
Accentuating the positive
These were all tough at the time, but on each occasion I've persevered and developed my self-confidence and ability to get things done. Not everything is easily surmountable (such as trying to get assistive software to work every time computer systems go through yet another upgrade). But I do find that focusing on your unexpected advantages and the things you are most grateful for – accentuating the positive – can work well. Often when you are feeling down this can be hard, but the more you do it, the more you will be aware of it.
My advice for people of any grade is to think about all your sources of support, whether in your immediate or wider area of work, or friends, family, social services, and so on. Make sure that you never feel like you have to deal with everything on your own, and seek as many sources of advice as possible.
It’s really important that we help each other in these issues – a key reason behind why we’ve formed the various networks – and I hope the above may provide some inspiration.