Focus on ignoring handicap

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Henry Hepburn hears blind people tell how they have overcome the odds to make a success of their lives

"pretty grim" is how Kerrie Brown sums up the careers advice she got as a teenager. That should ring a bell for anyone pushed towards accountancy when they wanted to be an astronaut, but Miss Brown has extra reason to feel she was poorly served: her advice was tainted by misconceptions about the limitations of being blind.

Miss Brown, who has no sight but wanted to study psychology, was told: "I don't know - you could be working with children." She was advised that there could be "care and protection" issues, and that she was ill-equipped to contend with young offenders trying to escape detention.

Miss Brown's rejoinder is her CV: she lists a psychology degree from Dundee University, volunteering at a school for blind pupils, work with brain injuries, and 18 months at a women's crisis centre in Canada. Now 30, she provides emotional support and counselling at Visibility, a charity in Glasgow for blind people.

Originally from Prestwick, Miss Brown spoke at a recent conference in Glasgow, organised by the Royal National Institute of the Blind, where school pupils with visual impairments heard success stories about moving into the workplace. She delivered a succinct piece of advice to those harbouring lofty ambitions: "Don't rule it out because one person is quite negative."

She also talked about university. Having been well known and supported at a school where she was the only visually impaired pupil, she was suddenly among peers who were uncomfortable around blind people. She decided to make a "huge effort" and went round knocking on doors in her halls of residence.

"That was absolutely terrifying - how were they going to feel about me being blind?"

The key, she discovered, was to use ice-breakers such as the joke she cracked with one friend. "I said, 'Get out of my sight (you'll not have to go very far!)' That's when he felt less awkward." Her message is clear: "Be up front about your visual impairment. There's no need to make a huge deal about it, but let people know."

Another speaker was Allan Russell, 35, a producer and presenter on Insight Radio, formerly VIP Radio, Europe's first station for blind people. He has been registered blind since the age of five. He overcame a setback when employed by a communications multinational. The company refused to get a piece of technology that would have helped him in his job (before the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act), so he left.

With his sight deteriorating, he used his new free time to improve his mobility and get over misgivings about using a guide dog. "I used to think, 'If you end up with a guide dog, that's you finished. It's (just) to and from the shops.'"

He now plays a central role at Insight Radio, and puts his success down to shrugging off negative experiences. "It's a case of determination and being a bit bullish."

David Murdoch, 28, is also registered blind, but he studied molecular biology at university despite widespread opposition. "All the lecturers were very reluctant to begin with," he says. "I had to prove I wasn't a danger in labs."

He graduated with a 2:1, but later had to give up a PhD that involved peering through a microscope constantly. He got a postgraduate IT qualification instead, although he struggled to find work because, in his own words, he was "bullish, stubborn, and rather flippant".

He decided to set up his own business, Clarifeye, with two visually impaired friends, and now advises clients such as Proctor Gamble on how to comply with disability laws.

The benefits of being your own boss are clear to Mr Murdoch.

"The hours aren't great," he says, "I get hardly any sleep but, on the plus side, I'll probably be retired in 10 to 15 years."

* www.rnib.org.uk

* www.blindinbusiness.org.uk

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