See beyond the stereotype

In these troubled times of heightened tension caused by the terrorist atrocities in the skies above the Sinai desert, the streets of Paris and the luxury hotel in Mali some find it tempting to paint broad brushstrokes condemning whole communities on the account of a shared faith, warped out of all recognition by terrorists hell-bent on destruction. Similarly, people with an evident physical disability can have their feelings injured and their intelligence belittled through ignorance and sometimes by those seemingly set on helping them.  One individual who has had, arguably, the most profound impact on me is sadly no longer with us…

Humility towers. That is an odd collocation; that of something which is low, self effacing and humble with something that looms large obscuring our vision. Vision.

I had never worked with a blind person until I met Anthony John Gardner, or simply ‘Tony’ as he preferred to be called. We met through a charity, the wonderful Macclesfield Disability Information Bureau, back in 2010. At the time I was a frustrated young man coming to terms with the realisation that my Internet start-up, my virtual baby, was not going to cut it. I had started volunteering at the charity as an IT Tutor delivering sessions on Microsoft Word and Excel to groups of up to eight learners one morning a week.  Tony was trying to come to terms with something much, much more significant – the total lost of his sight in his early 40s because of an extremely rare degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Tony’s  hope, endeavour and humility in the face of the frustration caused by his blindness, refocused my vision providing me with a renewed sense of perspective.

Tony and I worked together using Job Access With Speech software (JAWS), which enables blind or partially sighted people to use computers by generating speech from text, at the charity’s premises and also at Macclesfield College. His determination to utilise the software to master skills in Microsoft Word and Excel, many of us fortunate enough to enjoy good sight might find routine, was remarkable especially since he had never had the opportunity to use computers when he could see. His tenacity and dedication inspired me.  His sense of achievement when accomplishing another milestone relating to Word or Excel was real and raw. I have never looked at Microsoft Office packages in the same way since.

Tony taught me about the importance of radio as a lifeline for the partially-sighted, blind and housebound. We shared a love of team sports. Manchester City was his team. He waxed lyrical about Radio Four’s Test Match Special and was a fan of Talk Sport and BBC Radio Five Live’s football commentaries, too. He loved the way the commentators painted a vivid scene of the action and filled the airwaves with anecdotes more often than not that were totally unrelated to cricket. A commentator on radio cannot be silent; there are no pictures so they have to describe the action as fully as possible. 

How we communicate with one another is crucially important.  In my experience engaging as an equal with any person, regardless of their physical or mental capability, race or religion should be a given.  In a world without light it is even more important to listen and extend that common, but all to often overlooked, courtesy of being an engaged, receptive verbal communicator.  Legislation ensures that employers must make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities.  My time with Tony and at the Disability Information Bureau reinforced my belief that it is essential to talk to everyone in the same, respectful way, regardless of their physical or mental impairment.

Tony wanted people to look beyond his walking cane and treat him like they had done when he was fully sighted. See the person not the stereotype.

Tony passed away on Friday, June 27th, 2014 at home in Macclesfield.  Sadly, I was still in Germany at the time.  If you’re reading this mate, hope you’ve not found it too soppy.  Sorry, I never got to say this to you face-to-face.

Thank you.



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