Paul Smyth is Barclays’ Head of Digital Accessibility

Letter to my younger self: Paul Smyth

Writing to his childhood self as part of our letter series, Paul Smyth remembers losing most of his sight as a teenager, learning to view his visual impairment as a strength – and why people with disabilities should ignore “the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Dear Paul,

When you are eight years old, you’ll be told by eye doctors that you are going to go blind. That prediction will come true when you become a teenager and you lose most of your eyesight, along with your self-confidence.

Your life will change completely. You’ll feel embarrassed to use your white cane when you’re trying so hard to fit in with everyone else. A tight-knit family of teachers will support you to study at a mainstream school. There, you’ll have to work twice as hard as your sighted classmates. You’ll learn to use powerful magnifying glasses and binoculars to read what’s on the blackboard. As a result, you will often suffer from eye strain. But you’ll also, out of necessity, develop an excellent memory. 

You might not realise it at the time, but you are starting to learn to live with a disability rather than cope with one.

While you will face many barriers, you’ll come to realise that the biggest barriers exist in the minds of others – the biased beliefs they hold about what you can do and what you can become. The soft bigotry of low expectations is something you’ll realise holds back many people with disabilities. You’ll learn to ignore these limits and labels.

Each time people tell you that you can’t do something, it will motivate you more. You’ll get top marks at university and land a graduate job with Barclays. Over the next decade, you’ll work in Finance and Risk teams and gain a hyperactive guide dog. You’ll help set up Barclays’ first colleague network for people with disabilities as well as mental health and neurodiverse conditions. This work will give you passion and purpose, leading to an offer to lead the bank’s accessibility agenda. In time, you’ll help millions of customers with disabilities do their banking digitally – and thousands of colleagues with disabilities to get in and on at work.

Despite your work success, strangers often won’t know how to interact with you, either ignoring your vision impairment or over-compensating by talking loudly and slowly to you – or even worse, to your guide dog. 

“Over time, you’ll realise that your disability doesn’t define or devalue you. Rather, it is a strength that shapes your skills and powers your perspective."

Paul Smyth

Head of Digital Accessibility, Barclays

Over time, you’ll realise that your disability doesn’t define or devalue you. Rather, it is a strength that shapes your skills and powers your perspective. So lean in. As an accessibility leader, you will speak up for the rights of minority groups. You’ll face challenges and setbacks through your uncharted career. Always be curious, compassionate and courageous.

Your two kids will teach you that we are all interdependent. Before you become a father, you’ll worry about how you will cope as a blind parent. But your disability will give your children superpowers, such as audio describing the world to help find Mummy in a busy supermarket.

Professionally, you will feel lucky to work in an organisation that views your disability as something you’re adding, rather than something you’re missing. In return, you’ll help build an inclusive organisational culture that enables the best and brightest to flourish and thrive.