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Accentuating the positive and focusing on unexpected advantages – my year as a disability role model

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.

Unexpected advantages

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.

Sharing and comments

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  1. Comment by Carole Sullivan posted on

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring story and your fascinating role at the FCO.

  2. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Ben for sharing with us your story. Hopefully you will inspire others and prove that nothing is impossible and challenges can be overcome.

  3. Comment by Ruel Cole posted on

    Hello Ben,
    I have read your blog, and my mind drifted away and I started to wonder should I do a comment and leave it in the hope you will read it. It is amazing what one can achieve if given the opportunity to do so, being a BAME member of staff also having a disability, I truly and fully understand the daily frustrations in which you encounter each working day over the years. On a positive note, you have come through and able to obtain promotion along the way and to be in a high-profile position meeting some very interesting people along the way. I would like to say well done, you are a true ambassador, Ben, can I ask you this question and I would like you to stop for a few seconds and think about it. Have you ever wonder what it would be like for a BAME member of staff who would like to have a career within the civil service and what they have to encounter each day which is more or less the same treatment as you, and would they be given the same opportunity to progress within the department and to have hold a privilege position like you

  4. Comment by Jonathan Walden posted on

    Firstly what a fascinating role you have. As someone who does have a learning difficulty, (I am on the more severe side of dyslexia), these days I am pretty much self sufficient. I have (after a battle) got the correct assistive software (shame that every department I move to, 3 now, I have had to start from scratch and get a new assistive software installed), though like to think I have the personal resilience to push back and like you have said above, get what I require (in terms of support or advice, even when it is not always forthcoming). The only difference most people will see from me, is that I do take a bit longer to get things written down. I was vice chair of a disability network in a department, and have led on diversity and inclusion networks, and agree when looked at correctly, the support you can get from networks is invaluable. Just joined my third government department in 10 years, and am looking am happy to see how the department (DfE) really takes responsibility for helping us being able to bring our true selves to work every day. So having a real passion for true inclusivity, great to see stories like yours above and the journey you have taken.