Two visually-impaired advisers in north London are helping others like themselves hurdle the barrier to finding jobs, reports Simon Midgley
WHEN Tom Pey was told he was going blind eight years ago his first question was: "Will I still be able to watch television?"
"I went into denial," he said. "I just did not want to accept that this was happening to me. Then I became angry, frustrated and started feeling useless."
Useless until a friend said: "Hey, you are only blind, you can still do lots of things" - a sentiment that gradually led Tom to accept that soon he would have just four senses.
Three years later, having lost most of his sight, he also lost his job as an investment banker. Despite board-level experience and accountancy qualifications, he was rejected for more than 500 jobs. It was then that a support team in a north London further education college came to the rescue. A disability adviser suggested Tom see Andy Taylor, who helps run the guidance project for the blind at Kingsway College.
Three-quarters of all visually-impaired people in Britain are unemployed, and only 16 per cent of the totally blind have jobs, yet the project has helped half of its 144 students over the past four years find employment.
It has assisted partially-sighted and blind people improve their IT skills and guarantees them support in completing a one-year course. It also helps with compiling CVs, mock interviews, role-playing and applying for jobs.
Set up in 1995 with a grant from the European Social Fund, the project is run by Mr Taylor, 31, a former disability adviser who is blind, and Tom O'Sullivan, 36, a partially-sighted consultant, who makes sure students get the visual aids they need.
Other colleges are showing more interest in the scheme as they begin developing their own inclusive learning programmes. It offers a model for adapting colleges to suit not only the partially-sighted but the 130,000 special needs students identified by Professor John Tomlinson in his report on learning difficulties and disabilities in 1996.
Andy said: "In the early days we just provided specialist IT skills. But that was not giving people all the skills they needed to find employment."
He assesses students' motivations, establishes links with employers and finds placements. "Much of this is about encouraging visually-impaired people to use education because it's the greatest escape from disability you are ever going to get. The more highly qualified you are, the more chance you have of landing a job.
"Sight loss is less important than how the person perceives himself when it comes to securing work. It's all down to confidence, motivation, belief and, of course, ability."
Mark Hembra, aged 39, lost his job as a section manager with a business machine company in Hertfordshire after his eyesight seriously deteriorated. He is now blind in one eye and can read large print with the other.
Kingsway put together a package of training - IT skills, English, Braille, employment skills to help him find a job. He now works part-time for the Royal National Institute for the Blind as an outreach worker.
"Kingsway works with you every week, has contacts all over the place and regular job vacancy bulletins. It helps that Andy and Tom are visually impaired, so they have a first-hand knowledge of the problems," says Mark.
"Without their guidance many visually-impaired people would not be in work. I would probably be back in Hertfordshire going nowhere, still on benefits."
Commenting on his own experience at the college, Tom Pey said: "Andy and I identified that perhaps my attitude towards my disability was not conducive to getting a job. "I was also inspired by the fact that Andy was totally blind and was obviously very competent at what he did. He got me a number of interviews from sheer dogged selling on the telephone that I was never able to get for myself."
Just four weeks after they met, Tom got his first interview. Within days he was offered two jobs. He accepted a post as general manager of a factory making ring binders, staffed by visually-impaired people and run by the charity Action For Blind People. Tom turned the factory around by transforming the attitudes of its employees from that of impaired people working in a sheltered environment to that of a highly-motivated group hungry to boost productivity.
He has just accepted a new post, with a salary of more than pound;50,000, as director of operations in the south and east for Guide Dogs For the Blind.
"You only meet a very small number of people who fundamentally affect your life," he said. "Andy is certainly one of those. He inspires confidence in people and is a superb salesman. Andy is a miracle worker."