I’m often asked ‘so why are you involved?’ and often the question is said with some apprehension because it’s likely that what that person is really asking is ‘so what’s your disability?’. More often than not I start my reply with almost an apology as I don’t have a disability, I’m an ally.
Now, that leads me on (rather conveniently !) to the topic of this blog. In the past, I’ve written about the role of allies and how they can be a really powerful vehicle for culture change. What I have never done before is write about my experience of being an ally, what drives me to do what I do and the story behind how I became an ally.
So, what follows is that story. It’s taken me a while to write this, I’ve bounced ideas round my head and quite honestly put off actually writing anything down.
Anyways, here we go….
As we grow up we’re often asked about our hero’s or what we aspire to be. In our early years, we often look to roles within the community – like a firefighter, police officer or doctor- and we imagine ourselves being doing this in the future. As we get older we start to identify individuals that we hold in high regard and aspire to be like and these people’s lives begin to shape our own and we aspire to be like them in a different way – not to be like them but to demonstrate the qualities that we see in them. For example, many people hold celebrities in high regard because of what they’ve achieved in their lives or indeed what they represent. Others hold influential business people like Elon Musk or Richard Branson up as their role models or heroes. And some look to less famous, but no less influential in their own way, people as someone to aspire to be like.
For my own part, my role models and heroes have, of course, evolved over time. At school, my answer to the ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question was a policeman and then as I got older it became more vague as I became unsure of what I wanted to and could be and so it became ‘I’m not sure, something with computers’. But more recently, I’ve started to realise that my role model has been there all along, staring me in the face, guiding my passage through life and helping me to bounce back when I messed up.
Ask me now who my role model is and I’d tell you it’s my dad. This probably isn’t an unusual think for a young man and son to say but for me, my dad has shaped my life more noticeably in recent years than as teenager or child.
So, what do I say about my dad? Well, they say a picture paints a thousand words. If
that’s true then this photo should tell you a lot about my dad.
This is him being relaxed, happy and playful. What you can’t see from this photo is that he’s pointing to a children’s colouring activity at Windsor castle and asking me whether I’m ready to go in. And the reason I love this photo is because it shows the side of him that I think best represents him. A loving, fun loving family man who would literally move heaven and earth to make sure his boys are happy.
This, however, isn’t why I admire him and consider him to be my role model. That’s a bit more complicated and, whilst I’m going to describe a bit more about the reasons why I’m going be brief as the story isn’t done any justice in a relatively short blog.
When my brother was born, my parents made the tough decision that my dad was going to become a stay at home parent and look after the pair of us. Today, in 2016, that sounds very normal but in the early 90’s it was unusual. My mum continued to work and whilst my dad did start his own gardening business his main occupation was as a house husband. Throughout my childhood, he was there doing the things that other kids mums were doing- collecting us from school, making dinners and keeping the house in order. And apart from this difference, our childhood was as normal as anyone else’s.
That in itself doesn’t make my dad my role model but it does make me proud of him. Increasingly we talk about how to defy gender stereotypes – with campaigns include ‘like a girl’ which set out to show that our historic gender roles are changing. My dad was doing it before it was cool to do and because of this, I adore cooking and cook many of the meals he made us over the years.
My dad is my role model because of how he’s dealt with tremendously difficult situations in a way I know I couldn’t. When he was younger my dad was diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder and then Diabetes and throughout his life, he’s managed both of these conditions with support from medical professionals and our family but it’s not been without its challenges.
For most of my childhood, I didn’t really know that my dad had Bi-Polar although, it was plainly obvious that he had diabetes and my brother and I both knew what to do if he became unwell. It wasn’t until my GCSE years that my dad started to find discover more about his Bi-Polar and for some of my GCSE’s he was in hospital. Much of what happened around this time isn’t what you’d all my dad’s proudest moments but I reminded myself that this wasn’t my dad it just looked like him.
I learn more and more about my dad’s illness and it’s past when I meet him. From the treatments, he’s undergone (including Electric Shock Therapy) through to the things he’s done when on a high (driving very fast seems to feature a lot!) and low (several attempts on his own life and sectioning). And by telling me all of this over the years has definitely lead me to where I am now.
My life course was set long before I learned about my dad’s illness and whilst I still work in technology knowing what I know through my dad’s experiences has fundamentally changed the direction of my life. I now spend a huge amount of my time working to increase awareness of disability and mental health issues in the workplace and ended up being a core driver behind a big mental health campaign in my workplace that’s now extended across the UK and beyond.
Earlier this year I went to the launch of ‘This is me- In the City’ the campaign which we started at Barclays two years before. Afterwards, I sent my dad an email telling him how it felt to be there. Below is an extract.
Today I talked about you. Today I talked about the motivation of me being involved. Today I told people that the reason I’m involved and the reason I want to change things for the better was because of my dad and what he, me and our family have been through.
Today I realised that some of the biggest companies in the world wouldn’t have sat down to talk about positive action had it not been for you. I realised that without the motivation of you, without the hard times we went through over 10 years ago that I wouldn’t be sitting listening to one of the most senior people in my company talking about work I’ve done and telling the world how proud he and the board are with the work.
And he replied
I’d never have thought that one of the worst times in my life & in yours would’ve resulted in such a global realisation of how serious & common mental illness is. I am very proud of what you have achieved through adversity & of seeing you involved with such a worthwhile initiative.
So. Role models. Funny things that they are. They drive us to do things we might never have thought possible either to emulate them, impress them or to do their experiences justice.
I’d love to know who your role models are!