By James McCarthy – blind in business.
We have just about recovered from our Education to Employment event so I wanted to write a little blog about what we got up to, and also touch upon why it is important that we can keep on offering similar events in the future.
Unlike many employability-focused workshops, we opted to set aside computer-based assessments, CV-writing workshops, and job applications, opting instead to unleash our cohort of chaos on the outside world. Blind in Business is not, and will not be, just about helping blind and visually impaired people into work. That bit’s easy. The task we face is often more profound; we want to encourage those we work with to reimagine their aspirations, build confidence, break new ground, and eventually stand up to a status quo that restricts and confines based on limitations, rather than celebrates potential and opportunity based on ability.
On the first day of the event, a group of visually impaired young people travelled from across the country to meet in Windsor for 10:00 am. This largely went to plan as, come 10:30, all but one had arrived. We got tired of waiting at the hotel so left – I figured that, if we could keep up this rate of attrition, we would make a decent saving on that evening’s dinner so was quite content. With a nervous energy taking hold and conversation slightly stunted, the group made its way to Heron Lake, the home of disabled water skiing in the UK.
An immediate question may spring to mind: what does water skiing have to do with getting a job? An entirely legitimate quandary. I would answer with another question: how would you try and prove to a young person that they can do a job that they have always thought their eyesight would make impossible? We feel that enabling someone to overcome ‘the impossible’ in one side of their life will hopefully encourage them to look past limits and restrictions that they may feel are holding them back in others.
We arrived at the lake in good time and were warmly greeted by Tricia, the lady who runs the centre. After several cups of tea, and a little coaxing and cajoling, wetsuits were donned and our unlikely group gathered. Midway through the safety talk, the final piece of our puzzle revealed himself. Jonny, who had travelled from Sheffield to Windsor alone and off-grid after his phone broke overnight, joined our troupe and we reached capacity. Not everyone managed to water ski standing up, but everyone got in the water and tried. There was a huge amount of courage on show, and, from where I was sat inside (embracing my cowardice in the warm and dry), there seemed to be a huge amount of fun had too.
While the taxis to the water skiing had been filled with the silence of nervous strangers sussing each other out, the return journey was a much more animated affair. Laughs were shared and tales were told, mostly revolving around who had swallowed the most of the lake during the water-based tumbling.
We returned to the hotel to discover that what had first looked like a quaint country manor was in fact a large centre for business and trade, with any number of conferences, seminars, workshops, and events taking place around every corner. I thought this was quite fitting considering this is where I hope our candidates will end up, should they wish to do so. A slight downside was the floorplan. I consider myself to be a Francophile, I feel my spiritual home is probably a vineyard in Provence or a farmhouse in Gascony, however facing a floorplan that so accurately mirrors the catacombs of Paris was, even for me, a real challenge.
Nevertheless, everyone found their rooms in time to wash off the last remnants of the lake and arrived to our private dining room looking smart and hungry. Dinner was served and it was delicious – the butter-soft lamb and the bittersweet crème brûlée would have been the standout highlights had we not had the fantastic Sam Murray to come. Sam is a former Paralympic athlete and has been working with Blind in Business as he is visually impaired himself. We asked Sam if he would join us for the evening and give an after-dinner talk about his journey as an athlete and the fortitude he has had to show. Not only did the audience seem suitably impressed by Sam’s story but I hope they felt, as I certainly did, inspired by the determination and single-minded resilience he has shown in continuing where others would have perhaps stopped.
After dinner, the sensible amongst the group retired to their rooms in preparation for a big day ahead, whilst the foolhardy made their way to the bar. The bar was a popular choice.
Tired faces slowly gathered around the breakfast table while eggs and bacon were scoffed with aplomb. Coffee-fuelled, we gathered around tables in our training room for the first exercise. Feeling cruel, I decided to wake up the group with some tongue-twisting improv challenges that managed to confuse on just about every level. As the competition started to heat up, groggy faces quickly faded and wits sharpened. I was quite soon out of my depth and, fearing I would be the next to be knocked out, I decided to call the game a tie. We were ready to start the day.
We kicked things off with a very interesting debate: it is harder to get a job if you are blind? The group was split into two and given 30 minutes to prepare opening statements, arguments and counter-arguments, as well as to research any stats and figures that could be used. As an observer, the debate was enlightening. Arguments and facts on disproportionately high unemployment numbers in the blind community, the fewer jobs available to blind people (e.g. bus driver or pilot are inherently not options), workplace discrimination, unequal recruitment and assessment processes all surfaced. On the other side there were also some excellent points raised about specific schemes designed to help disabled people into work, graduate training and support that others may not have access to, advances in technology making individuals more capable not less, positive discrimination and ‘two ticks’ employers. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s thoughts and to watch the dichotomy emerge between the positive steps taken on a micro level and the employment figures and trends on a macro one. The debate was concluded quite concisely by most agreeing that yes, it may be slightly more difficult to get a job if you can’t see very well, but sitting around complaining about how hard it is isn’t going to make that any better. A lot of focus was put on not giving up and accepting that unemployment is an inevitability if your eyes don’t work perfectly, but rather taking individual responsibility for where you can go and what you can do; and in the process why not try and take advantage of the things that have been put in place to help, after all that’s what they’re there for. It was fantastic to hear and is absolutely the attitude we are trying to enable with our work, so hopefully for many who were there it is a start of what’s to come.
Throughout the morning we did more work on how to make the most of CVs and applications, what skills and competencies need to be shown at what stage of the process, and – most importantly – how do we turn interviews into jobs. This included the dreaded handshake test with Michael, and a lesson in how to be interesting. Not always as easy as it sounds.
The morning passed in a flash and, before we knew it, we had employers turning up to conduct interviews. Lunch was a slightly nervier affair, whispers of “tell me about yourself” and “what’s your biggest weakness” haunted the quiets in conversation, and heads flicked from left to right as unknown faces joined the table.
Conducting job interviews is difficult and can be very tiring, so we are extremely fortunate that we found professionals from a range of industries that were willing to travel to a hotel in Windsor and give up their time for us. As much as possible we like to try and gather people with different backgrounds and expertise and this event was no exception. We had a lawyer from Allen & Overy, a consultant from Nicholson McBride, two corporate responsibility and communications professionals from Centrica, an experienced teacher and freelance charity professional, and, of course, the Blind in Business team.
Each graduate took part in four interviews, receiving immediate feedback that they could take to the next one. It is a fantastic experience being a fly on the wall and watching someone improve so drastically from one interview to the next. The value of feedback is priceless; I can’t overstate how useful it is in making sure the next time any of these young people get a job interview they’ve got a far higher chance of getting the job.
We also got to see the creative side of our candidates as each group had to design a smartphone app and create a 30 second TV advert to go with it. Needless to say, the majority of the acting was atrocious. Having said that, the ideas were actually very good. With the winning group chosen – an app designed to streamline your shopping experience by mapping out supermarkets, finding your most efficient route around, and updating you on which products are in/out of stock – we reached the end of Education to Employment 2017.
The event was a great success. Not only did we get some incredible feedback from the employers about our candidates’ professionalism, aptitude, attitude, and potential, but we also got to know the people we are working with better and watch their confidence and self-belief bloom right in front of our eyes.
As I said, our challenge is not just to help blind and visually impaired people jobs. Our challenge is to help blind and visually impaired people into the jobs that they aspire to, the jobs that they will be challenged and motivated by, and, fundamentally, it is to help them get into the jobs that they deserve. Yes, this is a part of our job that we do with employers through educating, networking, and publicising successes, but this work would be entirely fruitless if we didn’t have people looking to fill their roles. We rely on the aspirations of young people (like those on our two-day course) to be pushing the boundaries and taking it upon themselves to challenge status quo. Each one of the people we worked with on Education to Employment has the opportunity and the arsenal to be a trailblazer, and we hope that – if we can continue to push, stretch, and challenge in our own little way – one or two of them may take it upon themselves to become a first.