Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Count My Lucky Stars

I feel I have a lot to be grateful for. I also have a lot of very special people to be grateful to.

Yesterday, I got to catch up with many of these people, some of whom I hadn't seen in nearly twenty years.


I used to work for RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People), first at their offices on Great Portland Street in London, and later in their offices here in Peterborough, in Orton Southgate.

I was just 23 when I joined RNIB in 1994. I started my career as a librarian, and worked for three years in RNIB's hallowed Reference Library.

Me in the RNIB Reference Library in 1996
Me in the RNIB Reference Library in 1996

Over the next few years, my life changed dramatically. The worldwide web became publicly available. It was clear to me that disabled people - and blind people in particular - stood to gain so much from access to services and information via the internet, and I was determined to play a role in making sure this happened.

In 1995, I started my own website (more about that another time) in an effort to learn more about how websites worked (remember there were hardly any websites in 1995 and no social media, hardly any mobile phones either and no iTunes or YouTube or any kind of online shopping!). I began holding training sessions in the library at lunchtimes so that staff could find out what the web was (seems unthinkable now, doesn't it?!).

In 1997, I became RNIB's first website editor (possibly the first website editor in the entire voluntary sector and one of the first website editors in the whole of the UK, thanks to RNIB's progressive outlook).

Then, in 1999, I switched roles again to become a campaigns officer, focusing on digital access. In 2003, I transferred to the Peterborough Office where I became Digital Policy Development Manager until I left the organisation in 2006.

During my career with RNIB, particularly the latter part, I had the great honour of playing a role in campaigning to make new technology easier for disabled people to use. I was often the spokesperson and seen as the one leading this effort, but the truth is that I had an incredible team supporting me and a number of influential people guiding me.

RNIB was a wonderful place to work and I am so grateful for the time I spent there. It made me a more professional, sharper and more compassionate person, and equipped me with many of the skills that I rely on today, such as public speaking, media liaison and negotiation.

Julie with Ian Bruce
Catching up with former director general of RNIB Ian Bruce

I joined RNIB because I wanted to work for the then Director General Ian Bruce. Ian is a much loved and much respected figure in the voluntary sector. It's not just that has achieved so much for blind people and other disabled people through his efforts. He is also an incredibly caring and supportive people manager. Even when I was at the start of my career he made the effort to know who I was. He took genuine interest in his staff, always listening to and taking on board what they had to say and including even the most junior staff in decisions when he felt they had a point of view that should be heard.

On many occasions he championed and protected the work that I was doing (not everyone in the organisation was so positive about new technology!) and he took personal interest in ensuring that I was able to get on with my job whenever barriers appeared in my way.

Moreover, I would never have moved from London to Peterborough were it not for Ian, who ensured that I was able to continue my work here when budget cuts meant the London office could no longer support my role. That I dropped my life in London immediately and moved to a city that was completely new to me is some indication of how much I trusted Ian. Frankly, I'd do anything for him. I've worked for other directors before and since and there is no compare. When he retired from RNIB, I also left. I had no appetite to work for anyone else.

My former director of technology at RNIB Stephen King
Former director of technology at RNIB Stephen King

Another of my terrific managers at RNIB was Stephen King, who was the director of the division that I worked in. Stephen also both sheltered and encouraged, guided and inspired me. And just like Ian, he took personal interest in my career development and in making sure that I had what I needed to do my job effectively.

I have been very fortunate in my career. My work has been recognised a number of times. But it is important to understand that I relied very much on supportive teams and fantastic managers, including my line managers Steve Tyer and Richard Orme, who were there when my job was very uncomfortable (which it often was, being quite high profile and frequently under scrutiny) as well as providing encouragement, a sounding board and reassurance when I made mistakes (which I often did and it's important to acknowledge this).

With Julian Clary in 2005, when I received the New Media Age Effectiveness Award for Greatest Individual Contribution to New Media.
With Julian Clary in 2005, when I received the New Media Age Effectiveness Award for Greatest Individual Contribution to New Media. I received the award but the achievement was very much a team effort. 

Last night, Ian Bruce organised a reunion of some of the staff he used to work with at RNIB. Ian has continued to support me since I left RNIB. In particular, he helped to crowdfund my first book and as a result I won a worldwide publishing contract. Now here I am with the Green Party in Peterborough. This would never have happened were it not for Ian. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to thank Ian and Stephen for their support again last night.

We're often reminded to be grateful to our parents, but managers are rarely given the credit that they are due. Without these people, I wouldn't be here in Peterborough, on two parish councils and having stood as a Green Party candidate in the last city elections. In fact, I wouldn't have had many of the wonderful and life-changing moments in my life without their input and advice.

Thank you Ian and thank you Stephen and thank you all the managers who truly support and develop their young staff and help them to turn 'jobs' into 'careers' with wider benefits for all of our communities.

With my former RNIB colleague Gill Levy who was of incredible support to me during my time at RNIB.
With my former RNIB colleague Gill Levy who was of incredible support to me during my time at RNIB.

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