How one civil servant saw beyond blindness – and scooped an award for helping others

Written by Adrian Treharne on 22 June 2016 in Opinion

Losing your sight should not stand in the way of your career and it’s time to end the negative connotations around being blind, according to the Home Office's Adrian Treharne

Then-HMRC chief exec Lin Homer presents the Champion of Disability Issues award to Adrian Treharne, Border Force People Directorate, at the Civil Service Diversity & Equality Awards 2013. Image: Crown copyright

I have gone blind a thousand times. If only for a few frantic moments on each occasion. In the past, I would wake up at night and put the light on to check I could still see.

While I have always known there was an issue with my eyes (I have Retinitis Pigmentosa – a hereditary condition), I never truly understood how much of an impact it would have on my life. It has basically shaped it.

I couldn’t fulfil my childhood dream to join the RAF. I wasn’t allowed to drive a car. Basically anything that required “normal” vision. Throw in the usual teenage hormones and for a while you had what amounted to a powder keg adorned with yellow and black warning tape. 

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They were challenging times, and by the time I was 21 I became homeless for a few weeks in Scarborough. Eventually though I found a room to rent and had my own bed.

I managed to find work – everything from being a porter and a chef to working in aviation video production and a stint as a physiotherapy assistant. I also took a few courses including accountancy and computer programming. 

A few years later, aged 25, I returned to my home town in Catterick, keen to contribute to society and forge a career. I joined the civil service, working for the Ministry of Defence as an administrative assistant. If someone offered to turn back time and put me in at a higher grade, I would politely decline. I’ve earned my stripes. 

It occurred to me one day that the RAF was actually within reach. While I couldn’t fly, I could help keep them flying. After a spell in finance and property management, I secured an executive officer IT programmer post in the supply/logistic centre at RAF Stanbridge. From there I transferred to Defence Procurement in London where I administered their South East IT network.

I went on to work in various departments in Whitehall. While at the Department of Work and Pensions I project managed a flagship bill on pensions and when I was at the Cabinet Office in 2006, I worked on the the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, a somewhat controversial bill aimed at reducing bureaucracy. 

 If someone offered to turn back time and put me in at a higher grade, I would politely decline. I’ve earned my stripes

It meant that changes to legislation could be made by ministers through committee as opposed to being debated on the floor of either House. But some people were sceptical of what they perceived as an erosion of scrutiny by parliament. Needless to say we had a lot of correspondence to deal with on that one!

My sight continued to deteriorate and, in 2013, I was partnered with a handsome black Labrador, Smudge, who is my guide dog.

As well as keeping me out of the accident and emergency department (where I have been a few dozen times), Smudge is a catalyst for meeting people from every walk of life. I reckon we must talk to half dozen new people every day, so we’re never bored. Either in work or out, we act as pseudo-ambassadors for both the civil service and guide dogs.

I have received Civil Service Awards for my work in developing the first disability “passport” to make implementing reasonable adjustments swifter for staff moving posts or departments, as well as conducting disability audits of UK Ports before the 2012 Paralympic Games.

Outside the office, I’m currently preparing to break the Guinness World Blind Water Speed Record, which currently stands at 95.3 miles per hour, to raise funds for charities including a Lifeboat Fund and Listening Books, of which which Stephen Fry is a patron.

I recently became a parish councillor and am trying to do something about a dilapidated village hall that needs to be brought up to scratch. I am also a trustee of Barrow and Districts Society for the Blind – we are over halfway to raising the £230,000 needed to build a dementia unit for the residential home run by the charity. All in all, I’m quite busy.

Some things do annoy me though. I recently saw a new initiative launched by Number 10, promoted by Civil Service Human Resources. Its aim? Tackling potential race discrimination in recruitment – all very laudable.

Its title? "Name blind". Stating something is missing or lacking through being “blind”! A few new rolls of warning tape may be required...

About the author

Adrian Treharne works in the Home Office's People and Transformation Directorate

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