London is a wonderful place to live and work. I meant to stay for just two years when I first came here in 1972 from my Yorkshire home. Today, 47 years later, I’m a true Londoner — though still a Yorkshireman at heart.
I was partially sighted when I arrived in London. My sight continued to deteriorate, and by 30 I was blind. However, I have been able to enjoy an endlessly fascinating career and the many things that this great city has to offer.
I realise that I’m one of the lucky few, by which I mean blind and partially-sighted Londoners who have a job. Doubly lucky because it’s a job that I love. But of course, it’s not the same for everyone.
For most of the 200,000 blind and partially-sighted people who live here, a shift in the attitudes of both the public and employers would make the biggest difference to their lives.
When you’re blind, getting around takes planning, care, and the kindness of strangers. All kinds of unexpected things become hazards, like street furniture and shared public spaces. For example, electric cars are good for the environment, but they’re silent killers if you’re blind.
And while London’s multi-modal public transport system is wonderful and TfL staff are great, fellow passengers are sometimes less so.
This is why I am proud to be a supporter of the Vision Foundation, which works to make London accessible for everyone with sight loss and to reduce preventable blindness. They recently reported that 40,000 blind or partially-sighted Londoners of working age are unemployed in our capital. That’s equivalent to 500 London buses’ worth of wasted potential.
Over the past 10 years, employment rates for this group have dropped from 33 to 26 per cent — and just 10 per cent for those with no sight at all.
This is something that the Vision Foundation is committed to changing, and I’m proud to add my voice to their call to start seeing the potential of this workforce in waiting.
We’re living in a tight labour market right now. Recruitment is already a challenge for businesses, and it is likely to get even more so in these uncertain times. If ever there was a time to be focusing on what can be done to bring greater diversity to the workplace, that time is now.
Consider, for example, what happened with my first job, at British Rail, where new recruits — whether or not they wanted to be a train driver — went through a sight test. I failed, of course. They gave me a job, but said I’d never get a promotion.
Entry tests are different nowadays, but a disabled person still has to break down barriers before they can begin to prove their value.
Sometimes, what someone can’t do is more obvious to a prospective employer than their inherent attributes. But if you give someone with a visual impairment a chance and trust them, they’ll move heaven and earth to be successful — to prove that they can overcome their particular challenge.
There is also a very positive side to employing someone who has a disability. Positivity is infectious, and that’s good for business.
This is a heartfelt plea from me and the Vision Foundation, asking employers to consider how their businesses can benefit from the unused human capital in our capital.
And to all my fellow Londoners: let’s start seeing blind and partially-sighted people in a new light.
Alan Pickering is president of BESTrustees. For more details visit visionfoundation.org.uk.
Main image credit: Getty