Could you tell us about your sight loss and how it affected you early in your life?

When I was 4 years old, the doctors told my parents that I would become blind in my mid to late teens. As I was growing up, I was beginning to lose my sight at primary school and I started to feel different to everyone else. My desk was moved to the front of the class, I would miss the hurdles in sports and I wouldn’t be able to catch the rugby balls. It just felt different.

In years 6 and 7, this feeling of being different was confirmed and exaggerated when I was sent to a blind school and that had an effect on the way I felt. I then moved to a mainstream school and there were many times I felt excluded. For example, when we went on a school trip to Butlins we got off the bus and all the kids ran off excitedly, as you can imagine, to explore this magical kingdom. The teachers went off and I was left not being able to see exactly where the kids had gone, so I spent the whole day by myself.

Did it change people’s perceptions of you? If so, how did you challenge these at the time?

I always wanted to do finance and maths at university but when I became blind I was advised by everyone that it’s not a subject that blind people should do. Instead I should choose something like history, or subjects with words rather than numbers. I challenged this perception by following my aspirations and not letting anything hold me back. I studied maths and finance and even studied abroad, taking my newly acquired blindness to Canada to do my third year. I learnt that if you step outside your comfort zone your world becomes bigger.

Following graduation, I received so many rejections from employers - one company even admitted they didn’t think a blind person could become an accountant. Going forward I decided to explain things rather than complain about them and asked employers if I could do a short presentation about my blindness. This showed how a blind person like me could do the job, giving examples of successful role models. From this point, things started to change in a very positive way.

SeeAbility loves working with people who share our values. Tell us about the last time you were:

Creative… The last time I was creative, I worked with my team to create a showreel of my motivational talks, working out how I could get my message across in an interesting and engaging way that would be helpful to other people.

Passionate… The last time I was passionate was when I was talking to one of our product managers - this is the team that put the holidays together for Traveleyes. I was helping to convey to them my love of Cuba and I think it’s such an amazing destination because of its story, its people, its music, the cigars, the food, 1950’s cars, perfect sandy white beaches, salsa dancing…sorry I just can’t stop!

Brave… In the recent making of a television documentary I was running free and wild through open Yorkshire countryside and crashed into a chest-high fence, bounced back into the air and somersaulted onto the ground. The brave part is I had to do the running shot again for another take.

Did the right thing… Recently we had a trip going to Bulgaria on a hiking holiday. The tour manager was new, so I stayed at Heathrow airport the night before the trip. I met with the tour manager and chatted through some of the processes and helped him feel at ease. We then both got up at 4.00am, went to the airport to meet the group travelling to Bulgaria and I helped the new tour manager with briefings and checking in. They then all flew off on their holiday and I got a bus back to Leeds!

What is the most powerful way you continue to challenge people’s prejudices and preconceptions about living with sight loss?

At the moment one of the ways I challenge people’s preconception is through my work on television. I am often seen presenting programmes such as How To Get Fit Fast or Thrifty Ways To Travel which have got nothing to do with the fact I am blind and at times, I can even look sighted. However, when I am on the move and I whip out my cane I can imagine people being surprised like when people see me do Tough Mudder and realise I’m blind.

When I became blind I had 2 problems: the first is obvious - I was blind. The second was that I thought I wouldn’t be able to travel. I have just come back from filming a TV documentary showing how blindness has helped me see the world more than I ever would have if I had been sighted. There are people who think that because you're blind you can’t see the world, so through Traveleyes and what I am doing on TV, I hope to quell those preconceptions.

What further work needs to be done to help people with disabilities live life to the fullest?

People need to engage with people with disabilities, they need to not walk on eggshells, and they need to be genuine and have genuine dialogue. For example, companies need to be educated and remove their preconceptions about disabilities. I also think people with disabilities need to be more proactive, especially in the area of employment. However, many disabled people may argue why should they be more proactive than able-bodied people. My response would be, I agree, they shouldn’t have to be more proactive. However, you either sit on the side-lines and wait for the world to become fair or you roll up your sleeves and do want needs to be done in order to succeed. Once you are in a position to influence change, you do it!

In your opinion how can brands and the media be involved in the discussion?

One of the most powerful ways that you can make a change is through the media and brands. For example, Channel 4 ran a fantastic campaign depicting Paralympians as superhumans. This completely changed the way disability is perceived. Media and brands need to be representative of all their customer base, not just the able-bodied, and that would have a massive positive effect on society as a whole.

In 2019, SeeAbility will celebrate its 220th anniversary making it one of the UK’s oldest charities. We’re marking the year with a series of special events including a ‘Charity Challenge’ with Traveleyes. What can you tell us about this and what have you learnt leading many of these trips in amazing locations around the world?

We are really excited about putting this Charity Challenge on to the Atlas Mountains for SeeAbility! The trip is going to contain a group that will comprise of half sighted travellers and half visually impaired travellers. Sighted travellers don’t need any experience of blindness - we offer training to ensure everyone enjoys the trip. This is also one of my favourite places because, in the Atlas Mountains, life is so rural and basic. As you’re walking along, you meet people cooking on stoves outside their homes, people making clay pottery, locals going to the market on donkeys – it’s such a peaceful place where time has stood still. We are going to be trekking for 3 days through the mountains and the sighted travellers will be guiding and describing for the visually impaired travellers. Having led many of these tours myself it is such an amazing experience to witness people working together and to see sighted and blind travellers who have never met before sharing the adventure!