Mentoring Spotlight: Paul, Dan and Michael
Soon after leaving City of London School (CLS), twins Michael and Daniel Smith (Class of 2009) lost their sight, due to a genetic condition. Paul Ryb (Class of 1989), another Old Citizen who had lost his sight after leaving the school, mentored them as they came to terms with sight loss. The twins, like Paul, now have longstanding and successful careers in the City. Here, the three discuss their friendship and CLS’s role in their rehabilitation.
Paul: We all lost our sight at critical points in our lives, but have drawn strength off each other to go on to live and succeed with sight loss. We all agree that CLS equipped us to cope better in the face of those huge personal challenges.
I was always severely short sighted, always wearing very thick glasses or contact lenses from a young age. I got by. I sat at the front of the class. But one day when I was 37, I woke up and my vision was a bit cloudy. I drove to work and I couldn’t see the screens… The optician sent me to Moorfields Eye Hospital and I was diagnosed with macular degeneration. I had to stop driving and get special software to assist me in my day-to-day activities.
From that point, I was relying heavily on familiarity and technology and all those things that grow with you to help you live a seamless life as visually impaired.
Michael and Daniel, can you tell us about your own sight loss?
Michael: I had just started University when I started having quite marked complications with my sight. I hadn’t even worn glasses before. I just started losing sight in my left eye to a severe degree – and then my right eye too.
We had been at CLS for Sixth Form. Going there was one of those pivotal moments in life. The culture there was just electric. It changed my life. When I lost my sight, I remember running back down to the school and telling a couple of teachers. Word got round and one of them rang up the Houses of Parliament and organised two weeks for me shadowing [MP and former Home Secretary] David Blunkett, perhaps the most iconic blind person in modern history.
After spending two weeks with him, I felt much more positive. I went back to School as a teaching assistant and helped Year 6-8 with their Science lessons. That was a big help to me, getting use to the initial stages of sight loss.
Two of my old teachers especially took me under their wing. One, Alison Stewart, was a biology teacher and running coach. Part of my rehabilitation emotionally was to do exercise – she used to guide me up the Embankment and along the South Bank twice a week for two years. We used to talk and run and it helped me come to terms with what was happening to me.
Nigel Baglin, who was a Biology teacher and Careers advisor, helped me put in my application to get back in full-time education. His wife is a nurse and she would talk to me about the more mental side of things. It was incredible. I just don’t think I could ever repay the debt I owe the School.
You lost your sight soon after Michael, didn’t you, Daniel?
Daniel: I started noticing problems with my sight about 18 months later. The consultant said the same thing was happening to me. He was very honest: he said 90 per cent of people with a debilitating sight condition wouldn’t complete Higher Education; 75 per cent wouldn’t have meaningful full-time employment. We both had seven per cent of our vision left. I cancelled that year at University and tried to get my life back on track.
I find it amazing we only spent two years at CLS. I have seven years of memories from those two years. The teaching isn’t necessarily any better than at our first school, but there’s a special something.
Michael: There were just so many inspiring things going on. For instance, CLS sparked our interest in marathon running and endurance cycling, both things we had no previous connection with…
Daniel: It’s that charity cycle ride to Paris, it’s doing the Three Peaks Challenge, it’s playing in the orchestras; the awe-inspiring environment; it’s the other pupils who drive you on in Maths…
Paul, how do you remember your own time at CLS?
Paul: I had a great experience. I played football and rugby. The journey into school every day created a level of independence that a 13-year-old boy wouldn’t usually have. It was intimidating and confidence-building in equal measure. Going to school in the middle of London inspired me to want to go into the City for my career. I had those ambitions from young age.
The teachers were wonderful and the sheer grandeur of the place inspired me. Socially, it was fabulous for me – most of my best friends I know from school.
How did the three of you meet?
Paul: A charity called Blind in Business had set me the right path to rebuilding my confidence and carrying on my career. After that, wanting to give something back, I became a mentor for them. I went to evenings they staged for parents and children – and at one of those I met Michael’s mother. We had the CLS connection and she went and told Michael and Dan and we all met up.
Michael: Life’s too short to make all the mistakes yourself. To see Paul working as a visually impaired professional in the City showed me it was possible. Paul and people like him were role models for us.
Daniel: I remember my mum asking if I wanted to meet the world’s No 1 tennis player. And I said, ‘What? Roger Federer?” And she said the No 1 visually impaired tennis player. So, disappointingly we had to meet Paul!
How did you become a tennis champion, Paul?
Paul: I used to play five-a-side football, race cars and I pretty much had to give it all up. But I found, thanks to another charity, the Macular Society, that there were sports you could take part in. Visually impaired football is quite rough - you could get a broken nose - but I loved tennis.
Now, I’ve played in loads of national and international tournaments. Another charity, Metro Blind Sport, have played a key part in that for me. I won the world championships in 2018 in Ireland. It’s an amazing experience to be part of something like that. Sight loss has given me that, this journey and these friends. You have to look at the positives.
Daniel, can you tell us about the support you received when you lost your sight?
Daniel: I became very close to the teachers who had helped Michael, as well. We did a big ride to Amsterdam, nearly 600km, to raise money for Blind in Business, on two tandems. The School allowed us to use the Great Hall for a fundraising event, which raised 30k. You feel like CLS is a family. You’re a Citizen and you’re always a Citizen.
Michael: A lawyer in the City, the mother of another boy we didn’t know very well, bought us a tandem and a package of accessible software which, at the time, cost £4500. The way everyone rallied round was humbling.
You all seem very can-do but, looking back, have you surprised yourself with how successfully you have coped with sight loss?
Paul: I was in a dark place. I was 37, I had bills to pay, a career, kids… my father had long since passed away. I was on my own. But the fighting spirits kicks in and you think: how am I going to turn this around? There was no clear path to follow. That’s got better now, but back then you had to go and find this kind of help if you wanted to.
The majority of people become disabled – they are not born with it. So going into schools and telling my story might equip people for something that might happen to them or someone they know later in life. So I do a lot of speaking.
We need to tell parents of disabled children that they can achieve if they are given the chance. They need to get on in the mainstream rather than pigeonholing people with disabilities by sending them to special schools. Technology has been a great enabler. Microsoft, Google and Amazon have embedded all this software for free.
Daniel, can you talk us through some of the tech that makes everyday life work for you?
Daniel: I have two bits of software on my computer: one is a high-powered magnification application, the other one is a text-to-speech tool. That’s it. Information is flying at us so quickly these days, and reading quickly and absorbing information is such a strength with my pieces of software. In my last job, I had a support worker for two days a week as well – there was still a heavy reliance on paper there – but the world is certainly moving towards everything becoming more and more accessible.
Michael: We can read 70 or 80 news stories using text-to-speech software on our way to work on our iPhones. David Blunkett, on the other hand, had a braille machine from the 1960s that looked like a small car in the corner of his office. You fed in written information and ten minutes later some braille appeared out the other side. His secretary would read the papers for him onto a cassette.
Paul, you alluded to there having been no starting point for you – what is the starting point for someone who finds themselves in that position now?
Paul: You need to seek advice. Find someone has done your journey before. I called one charity helpline and they were really perpetuating the negative side of disability: raising money to support people who can’t do anything. I was looking for someone to help me to DO something and live my normal life. Blind in Business was more about likeminded peer support.
I now am a regular guest lecturer at City University, where I deliver the “Living and Succeeding with Sightloss” lecture to third year optometry students. They will be in the front line of diagnosis – and it’s important that those people, the first you meet when you’re diagnosed, set you up positively for what you will be able to achieve with a visual impairment.
Is the financial sector especially good for partially sighted people because of the nature of the work?
Daniel: Technology does give you a helping hand in banking and financial services… But, as a board member at Blind in Business now, I see a huge paradigm shift in the variety of work that blind people do now. Working in a brewery, being an actor, masseur, football coach, working in advertising, for airlines… many more industries are now more accessible through changing technology and/or attitudes.
Michael: Disability does work better within desk-based, information-based jobs. But the dream is that visually impaired people work in industries that they like rather than sectors that are especially friendly to their needs.
Daniel: We all have bad days. Every month, every week, is a fight, in some respects. We are not trying to paint a picture of positivity, we are painting a picture of realism.
But I do see many strengths in the way I work now. For instance, walking in to a room full of new people doesn’t faze me. I’m just in my little visually impaired bubble. That’s why diversity is so important. We all come at problems from different angles. We’re diverse in thought because we can’t see as well.
Michael: That neuro-diversity point is very important. Organisations are very switched onto disability now and they are striving for that neuro-diversity now.
But none of us has been recruited because we have a different kind of ability. We still have to sit there for long hours making these organisations a lot of money. But when you are in these organisations, you can be the person Paul was to us – you can mentor people coming through.
Do you think CLS helped cultivate this very positive, can-do attitude you all seem to have?
Paul: CLS arms you for problem-solving; you are competing against your peers from a very early age. There’s a competitive spirit all the way through, but in a positive, supportive way that acknowledges everyone has different interests and abilities.
Michael: Yes. I never remember CLS putting pressure on you to do well academically. But everyone wanted to get on. It was a really humble mix of people, from all over London, different cultures and ethnicity, all united by wanting to get on. There is a culture that breeds confidence and broadens horizons; it equips you for the challenges life is going to throw at you.
I look at the people we went through the Sixth Form with: one is now a film actor, there are others in technology, healthcare, the City, a good number of doctors. Everyone has achieved but they have taken their own path – not been driven down a particular route by a school with a set agenda.
CLS imbued a sense of responsibility and independence in its pupils. Taking responsibility for yourself and having confidence in yourself are probably the most important qualities I see in people who have been to CLS.
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CLS arms you for problem-solving; you are competing against your peers from a very early age. There’s a competitive spirit all the way through, but in a positive, supportive way that acknowledges everyone has different interests and abilities.
Paul (Class of 1989)