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Disability is everywhere: US presidents, bankers, sit coms

by Simon Minty

28th October 2010

In the latest despatch from Simon Minty, we discover that disability is just below the surface in many areas you wouldn't necessarily have looked.
In late September, it was reported that Jimmy Carter - former President of the United States of America - was taken ill whilst on a plane. It was a tummy upset apparently and, as he is eighty-five, perhaps minor illnesses are considered more risky at that age so worth mentioning. However, virtually every report I read suggested it wasn't serious. Even President Obama, who spoke with him on the phone, said he "sounded great".

It made me wonder why this was news. I got a little suspicious when I heard that he was on a plane because he was in the middle of a book tour, promoting the journals from his time in office. Were folks not turning up to the in-store signings, or something? It's easy to be cynical isn't it.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
The news bulletin reminded me of a discovery I made in the US some months back. Whilst watching The Daily Show, Jimmy's wife Rosalynn Carter appeared as a guest.

The former First Lady has been an advocate of mental health issues for nearly 40 years. Her work includes authoring two books, advising journalists on more accurate reporting of mental health issues, influencing equality legislation relating to mental health in the US and hosting a Symposium each year on the subject.

I was pleasantly surprised that she came over well, knowledgeable and held her own with comic presenter Jon Stewart who, admittedly, fawned a little. She admitted that, despite there being greater awareness now, the situation in the US relating to mental health hadn't improved much in her time as an advocate.

I'm overseas as I write this month's article, this time working in Hong Kong again. I've spoken in previous columns of my love for this place, one of the world's most exciting cities and renowned as a major centre of finance.

Way back in 1985 I was employed by Barclays Bank but, at the time, had a yearning to work for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation. It wasn't that I felt they were better, it was purely because their name seemed so much cooler. I admit it wasn't the most sound of career strategies.

In the 1980s they had a small UK presence but later they shortened their name to HSBC and took over the Midland Bank, creating a substantial branch network. HSBC survived the worst of the financial meltdown of 2008, partly, it has been suggested, because they've had a strong lineage of leadership.
Michael Geoghegan
In September that lineage was shaken when their British born chief executive Michael Geoghegan - considered by many as a shoe-in for promotion to the newly vacant Chairman's role - was pushed aside in aboard room battle.

What intrigued me was the hidden impact on how disability has affected him. I read a short biography which seemed to suggest he'd led a charmed life but then I came across this passage: "[Michael] admitted to friends that he was brought down to earth when his sister broke her neck in a riding accident a few years ago and by the challenges faced by his wife's disabled brother."
John Varley
The link between senior banking executives and disability is not widely known but it exists. There's change afoot at the top of Barclays Bank too; their chief executive, John Varley, announced his retirement as CEO. It's also reported he turned down the Chairman's position at HSBC.

Less well known about John Varley is his Presidency of the Employers' Forum on Disability for which he has been a crucial and effective supporter.

Like buses, these things come along in threes. As well as HSBC and Barclays, the Lloyds Banking Group CEO, Eric Daniels, has announced his retirement too.
He didn't get a lot of sympathy due to the UK tax payer having bailed the bank out after the messy purchase of HBOS. In addition his payoff was reported as possibly £14m plus a £190,000 a year pension.

During his reign, Lloyds' approach to disability has been innovative and they've shown leadership for many years, particularly with their staff. I just hope whoever replaces Eric doesn't dampen that approach.
Back to the Future's Delorean time machine
This is a very leadership based article with Presidents and CEO's so I will lighten the mood by admitting a guilty pleasure.

Tucked away on doomed cable television Channel 1, formerly Virgin 1, is a US comedy drama called Chuck, about a chap working in a budget electrical store who is also a secret agent. The Wire it is not, but it has its own charm and lots of 'in' gags.

One recent episode saw our hero being put in a CIA asylum. Frustratingly no one believed anything he said because he'd been incorrectly labelled as insane.

His fellow detainees in the asylum were represented fairly ok even if it slipped in to cliche ... but the show never claimed to be a documentary. The detainees tried to come to Chuck's rescue, mounting a heroic battle which never really got started as they all got knocked out with tranquiliser guns.

A subtle touch was having the actor Christopher Lloyd - the seemingly insane genius 'Doc' from the film Back to the Future - as the psychiatrist assessing him and quoting gems such as "It's a new science, only time will tell".

It's 25 years since Back to the Future was released and, coincidentally, 25 years since I started at Barclays. I've still not worked for HSBC but have now worked in Hong Kong. And I'm ok not to be working for HSBC, there's still time, especially if I can borrow Doc's DeLorean.

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