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Disability identity – what I wish I could tell my younger self

I’m a disability champion and accessibility leader who’s been thinking lots recently about disability pride and disability identity. Whilst I often talk at external events about the power and possibilities of accessible technology to enable and empower the one billion people globally living with a disability, I wanted to talk about the human aspect. I believe (like many of you) that disability is a strength and society is stronger when it’s accessible to all of us but I didn’t always think like this. Let me tell you about my journey of disability, of disability identity and what I believe it takes to be a confident disabled colleague or what it means to be a disability champion or leader.

Paul Smyth, in a suit and holding a white cane

Coping with a disability

The short version of my life story is that I lost most of my eye sight as a teenager and then went on to acquire other disabilities such as diabetes and spinal conditions in my adult working life. For me, disability is neither a good thing or bad thing – it’s just a thing. I remember as a kid sitting in hospital and being told that I’d lose most, if not all of my vision. The thing that scared me wasn’t the prospect of going blind but rather the prospect of not fitting in with my classmates.  Perhaps even back then I innately understood the barriers that existed for disabled people – both in the world around us as well as the attitudinal barriers that existed in the minds of others. Barriers about what I could or couldn’t do, or what I could or couldn’t become. Barriers about capability and possibility.

At school as my sight worsened, I had to work doubly hard with glass magnifiers and powerful binoculars to read textbooks and blackboards. At Uni, I had a clunky photocopying machine that scanned in textbooks one page at a time before doing OCR so that my PC could read it aloud (-about 80% correctly anyway). The tech was cutting edge at the time but painfully slow and I had to advocate for myself – lobbying to get funding and organising others to read textbooks to me in order to get access to info. I didn’t realise at the time but advocating for my vision impairment at Uni helped me be more open and confident about my disability, no doubt helping me to land a job at Barclays afterwards.  From here, I became a blind accountant and risk hedger, noticing the lack of representation and support for disabled co-workers and therefore playing a lead role to set up Barclays staff network on disability and mental health. 

Living with a disability

I sometimes wonder what I’d tell my younger self in terms of what it takes to be a confident disabled colleague, of the problems and poetry of living as a non-visual person in a visual world.  It would go like this:

I see answers others don’t

I dig deeper when others won’t

Proud of difference, no big fuss

You are blind but I see a plus

Be creative, be resilient

uniquely gifted, proudly brilliant

I’m sure you can read lots of disability books about inspiration porn and people defying the odds but I don’t really do fluff and this is my attempt to distil all the advice down into a short poem. About what it means to not just cope with a disability but to live with one.

For me this story, this identity – tells of someone who’s leaned in and embraced their disability as an important part of themselves. I came to understand that my vision impairment helped shape my skills and my mindset – having to be an organised, pro-active, adaptable problem solver with a gritty determination. I’ve learned that there is real power in identity – when we create and own the right sort of identity for ourselves. Many disabled people have a gritty mindset, forged out of necessity. Grit is the intersection of resilience and persistence.

Back to my story. I’d built a career in finance and set up our disability staff network but a problem  loomed. The increasingly complicated Finance and Risk software I used became increasingly inaccessible for me. I guess the people building the Finance software hadn’t built it for visually impaired people like me, derailing my career plans.

 I found myself in a dark place – fed up of the constant barriers and workarounds and ready to resign.   I had a chance meeting with the head of IT of the bank where I explained my predicament and intention to quit.  He looked at me and said “ok, but what about the next person in your seat?”. He told me that if I wanted things to change, I had to change.   From where he was sitting, I’d be the ideal candidate to lead the bank’s accessibility efforts to improve things for disabled staff and customers alike. Over the coming days I’d think long and hard if I wanted to be Pidgeon-holed as the blind guy doing the disability related role and whether this would be the only role I could do from now on. The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that it would be the role only I could do as someone who felt and faced these challenges.

Fast forward and I’ve been leading Barclays accessibility efforts for the past decade, building teams, accessible services and inclusive cultures that have positively impacted millions of disabled customers lives as well as thousands of colleagues and businesses.

Thriving with a disability

When I reflect on being a disability champion or accessibility leader, I realise that it wasn’t about coping with or living with a disability but rather a third level of thriving with a disability.

It requires a special sort of person who can give a voice to the voiceless and hope to those feeling hopeless. They call bullsh#t on those who tell them that things are ‘good enough’ or ‘can’t be changed. Acting as role models or beacons, they give permission to others around them to dare to dream, helping them find their stronger selves. Trust me when I say that this identity is challenging. I’m lifted up and shrunk back down on a daily basis from the feedback and experiences of others.

Disability champions and allies learn about and embrace different people’s perspectives, empowering others to succeed and contribute.  They stand up and speak out, levelling the playing field for all. Ultimately, disability champions and allies enable others to feel respected, involved, valued and connected.

So what does it take to be a disability leader, pushing for a world without limits or labels?

Be the change it’s your choice

Hope for others to gain a voice

You fit in but I stand out

You stay quiet but I must shout 

A billion dreams I do hold 

To build a better web and world

By Paul Smyth

Accessibility leader and disability champion

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