Michael's story

Posted: 
5 February 2016

Michael, a Trainee Solicitor at Ashurst, tells his story about his sight loss journey and working towards a more inclusive society.

I was a very average member of society when I lost my sight. I'd just come out of school and was in my first year of university when I started to notice some aberration in my left eye. It started to get very serious just before my first exam at medical school. It was taking me two hours to read one A4 page as I was struggling with my sight.

It was a very anxious time as I didn’t understand what was happening.  You feel healthy in yourself but your vision is just deteriorating.  Every day you wake up its decreased even further and it's very difficult to deal with.  I was diagnosed officially in 2010 and by that time I wasn't able to stay at medical school. I wasn't able to read or recognise anyone or navigate independently very well anymore.

After the diagnosis I was devastated and didn't know who to turn to, in the end I turned to some ex-teachers at school who helped me. My dad contacted RNIB and they gave us helpful advice on a number of things such as the registration process, financial support, education and purchasing accessible software. I also went on a technology workshop which was very useful.

It can be very hard for those newly diagnosed to find the right people to talk to, which I why I support RNIB's campaign calling for every eye department in the UK to have access to a sight loss adviser. Currently, just one in three eye departments in the UK have access to a sight loss adviser - specially trained members of staff who can provide practical and emotional support to patients who have just found out they’re losing their sight.

With RNIB’s advice, I put in an application for the disabled students allowance and went back to university which was a big step. I think I was the first visually impaired student at King's College London on their Strand campus. They were very supportive but there were times when I had to fight for change to be made and for all the materials to be accessible to me.

Whilst at King's I won the Principal's Award, I was the first undergraduate to ever win it at King's, which I think was my proudest moment.  It was absolutely amazing, in light of previous winners of the award. I was also successful in lobbying the facilities team at the Royal Courts of Justice to put in £150,000 worth of adaption to make it accessible.

The first person I wrote to after losing my sight was the only blind person I knew of, and that was David Blunkett. I wasn't expecting anything back but he invited me for two weeks of work experience at the Houses of Parliament. Having got that amazing work experience, it gave me great confidence that I could work. I made the decision to do Law after speaking to a few blind lawyers and I shadowed a great guy who is a visually impaired solicitor. Law is incredibly interactionist, it's client-facing, it's document-heavy, which is great for visually impaired people and you're there using your mind to do the work.

I don't think there's anyone more powerful in life than a role-model because it's exhausting having to pioneer and trail-blaze yourself through organisations. Once I know there's other lawyers or bankers or people who have risen through the ranks who can't see very well, of which there are many, it's much easier as you can see it being done and people making a success of it.

I chose to work at Ashurst because Lord Chris Holmes, who won the most gold medals in any Paralympic games, previously worked there before he went to deliver the London Games for LOCOG. I received offers from other firms in the city but what I loved when I came to Ashurst was that they already knew the accessible software and adaptations that I would require. I said 'I need JAWS and ZoomText' and they said, oh, we know all about that already.  They have the knowledge of how to integrate a blind person into their workforce successfully.

I think one clichéd line that I've always heard is great minds think alike. I think it's important to have people who are completely different within a workforce to really appeal to what is an incredibly broad range of clients that every firm in the city have. I think law firms in general should work towards making their recruitment policies more accessible and I think careers teams now have to truly try and attract the best disabled talent. It would make a big difference to have greater understanding as to why people with sight loss have different CVs and to have more face-to-face interviews.  It's not about making life any easier for someone - it's just giving them an equal opportunity to express themselves.

In terms of what's next - I want to qualify as a lawyer and then try and get some stability and work for a few years. My advice for other students facing a similar situation is 'take control'. You've got to go out there and you've got to take the bull by the horns. Have confidence that you're going into a higher education establishment or to an employer that has the support to take you on. Get as much advice as you can from organisations such as RNIB. There's absolutely no reason why you can’t go out there and live a very normal life.

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