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


Inclusive design 101

Let’s face it, the word “inclusion” can be quite fluffy and misunderstood by many but everyone knows what the word “exclusion” means – left out or left behind. One of the best ways to understand inclusion therefore is to pay attention to who’s being left out or left behind from using the product or service you’re building. Read on for a simple explanation of what Inclusive Design is and how it helps us to cater for the needs of over-looked and under-served minority groups whether this be disability, gender, ethnicity, age or sexuality.


  • Universal design is a term coined from building architecture, involving building a product or environment that can be accessed and used by the widest range of people possible without the need for any special adaptions. Think building ramps or lifts. This is about “One size fits all”.
  • Accessible design was born out of disability rights and focuses on the extra attributes that when incorporated make a digital or physical experience open to everyone, including disabled people. It’s a profession and practice that increases the likelihood that people with disabilities can participate too. Think “One checklist for most”.
  • Inclusive design was born out of person centred design. It’s a methodology that enables and draws on a full range of human diversity. In particular, the inclusion of and learning from people with a wide range of perspectives. It’s not just about the product made but rather the contributions and involvement of excluded groups.  Think “One size fits one”.

Inclusive design in action

Let’s imagine that we are building a new product – a building lift. We’re deciding where to place the lift button. Usually businesses and product designers do a thought experiment and think about what their typical customers need. We can make some educated guesses that people are so short, so tall, etc. and place the lift button at a height that in theory works for all. So thinking about the diversity of people in the population whether this be disability, age, culture, etc. we’ve built a product that works for most but not everyone. The “lasso of inclusion” here shows that our product as things stand work for most people but some are excluded. We can and should do better.

The population of people are spread out with most clumped together in the centre representing the average. Our inclusion superhero has thrown a lasso of inclusion over these people but there are a few other people excluded around the edges representing minority groups.

So we’ve considered customer needs but fallen into the trap of thinking about average customers. We can improve on this by now consulting with real-world people who have previously been excluded around the edges, asking them what more we’d need to do to tweak our product so that it could work for them too as well as everyone else. For instance, in our example, a super tall person needs a second lift button placed higher, a wheelchair user may need some hi-tech proximity sensor that automatically presses button for them, a blind person may need audio alerts to find button in the first place, etc. This is the essence of Inclusive Design – a One Size fits one approach of paying attention to excluded groups which often leads to making your product better for everyone. The lasso of inclusion here widens as we adjust our product or service to work for more and more people. We end up with more customers, and more customer satisfaction – hurray!

Our inclusion superhero has  thrown the lasso of inclusion over not just the average customers bunched together in the centre but starting to extend the lasso to include a handful of the previously excluded people around the edges.

Third and finally, if our staff building products and services in our organisations are diverse (-whether this be backgrounds, age, disability, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), they won’t make assumptions or be bogged down by biases, meaning that they’re better at throwing the lasso of inclusion over more potential customers to start with. This leads to better products, bigger profits and making a real difference to the communities we serve. We need all of our workforce to be inclusion super-hero’s and to be consciously conscious of expanding their lasso of inclusion to include everyone through their actions and decisions.

The impact of inclusive design

So what’s changed by purposefully considering accessibility and Inclusion?

  • Previously excluded minority groups can also enjoy and use our products. Think disabled, older and vulnerable customers or staff.
  • It changes us. When you pay attention to excluded groups you see it everywhere in society and design choices. From the bathroom tap sensor that doesn’t turn on for you and your skin colour (-a poor design and real-world example!), the toilet flush sensor that’s difficult to find for the blind person or the spinning corporate office doors that are difficult if you’re left-handed. Don’t worry if you’ve never thought of these because most people probably haven’t either!
  • So by practicing inclusive design, we change things for the better for historically excluded groups, we change ourselves and we change society’s attitudes – who see excluded groups and the values and contributions they make for the first time. Lots of changes here but this is Diversity & Inclusion in a nutshell.

We change from what we have seen and when we are seen.

Diverse workforces and inclusive workplaces are good for business –helping to develop engaged, productive colleagues who reflect the rich diversity of the customers we serve and communities we operate within. Now go be an inclusion superhero!

To find out more about inclusive design, I’d highly recommend reading Mismatch: how inclusion shapes design by Kat Holmes


Business benefits of accessibility

 For those who don’t know me, I lead the digital accessibility efforts at Barclays – ensuring we incorporate inclusive design and accessibility into our digital services and culture. Over the past few years of helping lead the bank’s accessibility agenda, I’ve seen a shift in how some organisations like Barclays are reframing accessibility – from something that “legally you have to do” to instead something that “commercially and morally we want to do”.

This mind-set shift creates a culture of inclusion – enabling us to build better products and not just compliant ones. Organisations used to perceive the accessibility agenda as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) do-gooder activity but as times passed and thinking has matured, some organisations who embrace accessibility would perhaps call it Corporate Social Innovation. i.e. why wouldn’t you want to drive innovation, improve engagement with customers and with society at large?

The benefits of accessibility have been known to organisations and businesses for some time now- improved customer experience and reach, more engaged and productive colleagues, bolstering brand and mitigating risks. Read the business case for digital accessibility W3C guide I contributed on for further  details.

However we live in a world where I believe many organisations aren’t actively tackling the topic and instead stay complacent in giving it lip-service and covering their minimum legal obligations. Leading organisations need to help educate and encourage others on what accessibility means, why it matters and how it’s both good for business and good for society.

Let’s be clear. Legislation increasingly demands accessible technologies, consumers increasingly expect accessibility in their personal devices and the world around them and many businesses are waking up to the multitude of benefits it brings. In short, accessibility is of benefit to more people and of interest to more organisations than ever before.

We need to find new ways to build inclusive cultures and workplaces by educating heads, inspiring hearts and enabling hands on the topic.

At Barclays, we wanted to hear from real-world disabled customers and colleagues telling in their own words and way the real positive human impact that accessibility has on their independence and their world.

Barclays accessible reality – the human impact of accessibility

As a disabled person and accessibility leader, we can agree that we live in a time of great change and challenge. What I do know is that the accessible world of tomorrow will require collaboration, legislation, imagination, determination and participation from everyone.

We need to teach digital teams to both care about accessibility as well as how to code for accessibility.

All views in this article are my own