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Daniel and Michael Smith

Twins Daniel and Michael Smith, who lost their sight when they were 18, talk to Peter White about starting work.

Due to a genetic eye condition, identical twins Daniel and Michael Smith both lost their sight when they were 18.
Now, seven years on and following their much published story, the brothers talk to Peter White about the impact their blindness has had on their lives in the intervening years.
They speak candidly about the stress they have experienced working in very visual jobs in the City of London. Michael is about the qualify as a lawyer and Dan is working as an investment banker.
They last appeared on In Touch three years ago and in this programme speak of the changes they have experienced since last meeting Peter.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Cheryl Gabriel.

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20 minutes

Last on

Tue 30 May 2017 20:40

Transcript of In Touch programme - 30.06.17


Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

 

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

 

IN TOUCH – Daniel and Michael Smith

 

TX:  30.05.2017  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:           PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:             CHERYL GABRIEL

 

 

White

Seven years ago Michael and Daniel Smith became one of those overnight celeb sensations so beloved of TV.  Identical twins one after the other they’d suddenly developed the symptoms of a genetic eye condition which reduced their eyesight within months to under 10%.  But their positive attitudes and the drama of their situation caught the public’s imagination.

 

Well TV sensations come and go, as we know, but In Touch doesn’t forget its own.  We last tracked their progress three years ago when they were preparing to take up new careers.  And now we’ve gone back just as Michael is about to qualify as a lawyer and Dan is already working as an investment banker.  Twin like, inevitably, they’re in offices just a few hundred yards apart in the City of London, which is where I met them recently.  Dan told me, first, how he’d made it into a career as competitive as that of banking.

 

Dan

You know the first thing that I faced was two statistics – 8% of people who leave university are with their university classed as disabled yet two years later only 2% of those people manage to find employment.  And nine out of 10 employers don’t feel like they could ever take on a blind person.  So immediately there are barriers to entry.  When I started looking for a job I had quite a lot of luck with just bumping into charities and they just advised me on how to – you know do I disclose my disability, do I not disclose my disability – there’s a hell of a lot of questions which you have to ask and I just turned up at the interview and just asked for some reasonable adjustment.  So some of my assessment centres were made more visually-impaired friendly, some interviews were extended and some exam papers were tailored in ways which I would still get a good old roasting but just in a nice and fair way.

 

White

But those statistics that you’ve just given me about the relationship between disabled people at university and the ones that get jobs, that’s across the board.  I bet that statistic is even more testing in the financial sector isn’t it?

 

Dan

That’s right.  I think there are actually more blind people in the legal sector, I think it’s more inherently accessible.  And I’ve got one person at my current employer who gave me that chance and there was one person at my last employer who took that chance.

 

White

So somebody took a punt on you, that’s what you’re saying really?

 

Dan

Someone took a punt and there’s a hell of a lot things that go through your mind when you’re going through the graduate milk round. 

 

Michael

I think what Daniel’s picked up on there is although we are sat here in 2017 and these graduate recruiters are much more open to disability that the percentage of people with disabilities in the City is particularly low, it’s particularly low and that’s because of the sort of institutions and the fact that a lot of institutions out there have not been educated to the challenges or the means in which to make a job much more accessible.  And so it sounds a bit controversial but there’s still a huge amount of luck, there’s still a huge amount of networking that will get you into the job as a disabled candidate because the barriers are so much higher.

 

Dan

I’ve got £10,000 of reasonable adjustments at my desk.  I’ve got a support worker who works with me full-time three or four days a week.

 

White

And in your case, Dan, who pays for that?

 

Dan

There’s a scheme run by the government called Access to Work and it’s a pile of money which helps make life and careers more accessible for disabled people.  And there is nil cost, sometimes, to the firm.

 

White

And just give me an idea of the logistical problems that you’ve got, what is it that you need that that money pays for?

 

Dan

Reading graphs, flicking through papers in a meeting quite quickly, having Microsoft Office – making that accessible, there’s a magnifier on my desk – and it really makes a difference to my life.  You know a lot of the time I have imposter syndrome and Michael – and a lot of people – have imposter syndrome in the City and you never think you’re good enough.

 

White

So what do you mean by imposter syndrome?

 

Dan

Well you know self-doubt, self-doubt and you feel able-bodied people are struggling with the pressure of the job and you’ve got – your thoughts lie elsewhere a lot of the time.  Don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my colleagues by shaking the wrong person’s hand and walking into the women’s toilets.

 

White

And I think, Dan, I mean that got to you at one point.

 

Dan

It did get to me and nothing’s come to a head from my sight loss journey as much as it did in I suppose graduate training, you’re in a 120 person room and you’re brought on a six week course where you have to get to a certain level and there’s exams you have to go through and it’s an inherently visual environment.  And I got wiped out in one of my exams and never have I felt sort of more useless than I did that day and I was wailing like a baby, you know, the floodgates opened and it was just a whole outpouring of emotion for me.  I developed sleep problems thereon in and for the six months after that I was receiving quite intensive cognitive behavioural therapy to try and get over those  sleep difficulties but I’d be knackered at a very long day in the office and I’d be still awake at 6.00 a.m.  And it was incredibly debilitating.

 

Michael

Could I just jump in on that?  I think, using hindsight, I think when we first lost our sight the first three years are a bit of a blur – to use a pun – they’re very, very rapid, there’s a huge amount of people talking to you and you’re very, very determined to try and get back on your feet because the people that we are we don’t want to let people down.  And what happened to us, you know you feel like you have to be strong for your parents a lot of the time.  So those first three, four, five, six years were very, very quick and we were so immersed within the situation we didn’t have much time to think.  But then all of a sudden that humdrum dies down and you are really thinking at that point about the fact that this is a very long career you have to go through, the career’s inherently visual and sometimes those peaks and troughs are particularly exasperated.  So Daniel did experience that huge outpouring and I probably experienced the same about eight weeks ago where it does all come out and you’re very, very insecure about who you are and it’s almost post-traumatic stress in a way.

 

Dan

Michael’s the most confident person I know and he actually said can you come back to the house where I’m staying and can you just stay in the same room as me overnight and can you just talk to me and be with me all weekend.  And me, as the less confident one, was quite taken aback by that but I think now we’re just striving to be – to be normal in a way, we want 1.8 kids, a Ford Mondeo and a shed in the garden – that is ultimately – we’re now on the conveyor belt and possibly the rat race to have as least worries as we can in our life and just succeed as normal human beings.

 

White

But you were talking about, a bit earlier, about having to prove yourself, the worry of this.  Now have there been any ramifications of that happening in either of your cases – the point where you kind of thought you’d come to the end of your tether because that’s the fear isn’t it, presumably, that it’ll be thought of as a sign of weakness and the weakness comes from your visual impairment?

 

Dan

I think there’s a lot of people at organisations in the City that do not get it and will never get it, that’s a lessening proportion hopefully.  So you’ll be explaining some work and they’ll be drawing a Venn diagram in front of you for the fifth time after you’ve told them that you can’t see very well and it’s sometimes difficult to understand what do you not understand about the fact that I cannot see.  And it has come to a head, I feel like I’m acting on a day-to-day basis that people are aware of my visual impairment and they’re looking at me, you can feel the stares sometimes of people looking at you and feeling what is this person’s capability because you can’t see very well.  And the only way you can prove them wrong is you’ve got to do your talking in your work.

 

Michael

But I chime in and I miss the negatives, I take so much positives from not being able to see very well.  I’ll give you the recent example of just walking into a room of directors, managing directors from all over the world and a lot of the juniors were obviously quite daunted by what they can see in front of them and having to go and chat to your seniors.  But I was completely unflustered because you just can’t see people’s disapproving expressions.  But yeah, no, you get a lot of confidence just in all walks of life, just communicating with people, being able to talk to people in a very conversational way.  I feel since losing my sight that’s one area of my life which I feel has improved.

 

White

But I’ll tell you what’s interesting about this is that we did talk to you three years ago and in a way despite what had happened to you, you were almost still kind of in a high in a sense because you were doing well but at that point you were still at university.  I suppose my question to you really is – is it worth it guys?

 

Dan

Very good question.  I think university is a bit of a golden cage, that’s what I refer it to as, and you’ve got Disability Students Allowance, general support, specific support – all supporting you, so all you need to do is revise and pass the exams.  I think there’s much more autonomy when you’re working.  But I think I want to prove something to Michael and I think Michael wants to prove something to me in life.  And in a weird way we – we’re fiercely determined to outdo each other, not in a bad way but to just keep driving on.

 

Michael

I think we see – we see our peers and they have the opportunity to go sometimes work at the best jobs in the best countries of the best organisations in the world, so why – well my mentality is despite losing my sight at 18 there is no reason why we shouldn’t be allowed that opportunity really.

 

White

There’s another element to this isn’t there which is the extent to which you support each other.

 

Dan

I think the bond between a set of twins is strong.  I think between us it’s – I think it’s vital for me to carry on.  So many times, in a selfish way, I thank a being above that Michael lost his sight first, I always felt – thank god he lost his sight – and not it wasn’t me.  And I’m always quite shocked by how strong the human mind is – as soon as I lost my sight you’ve sort of got a choice but you haven’t got a choice, you’ve got to sort your life out.  And if you don’t put what you’re entitled to and if you don’t start fighting for what you need then you’ll fall by the wayside.

 

Michael

And very, very quickly.  And in a very perverse way it was a great relief to me when Daniel lost his sight because, believe it or not, that’s – you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy but…

 

White

Do you realise how weird that sounds?

 

Michael

That does sound incredibly weird but to have a – someone who’s physiological identical to me with the same aspirations as me in the same situation as me, that’s a huge comfort sometimes.  And I think Daniel realised that as well but I could never articulate what losing my sight was to anyone and then Daniel lost his sight and he was like – I can understand what you’ve gone through here.  But I remember talking to Daniel on a tube platform at Finsbury Park and I said to him – we will go forward together and support each other.  And we do on a daily basis.  There’s 10 emails that go between us every single day asking about accessibility, asking about work, saying have you experienced this challenge, have you come into contact with an individual at work who’s treated you like this, how would you get around this.

 

White

Right but hang on, let me get my head round this.  Dan, you are saying you are relieved that Michael lost his sight before you did.  Michael, you are saying, you were actually relieved, although you said it clearly with a bit of discomfort, when Dan lost his sight.

 

Michael

Gallows humour Peter.  I think in the best world possible it was obviously a hugely difficult moment in our lives but when you’re going through that I don’t think an individual, out of two of us, would have been able to go forth in such rapid ways to rehabilitate without each other.

 

Dan

And also in a weird thing we went to the same school, we were always spending time with each other as twins until we were 18, Michael decides to do medicine, I decide to do engineering and we end up doing different things, we end up in different cities at university, we start diverging.  And then before we know it, two years later, we’ve lost our sight and we work within a 100 metres of each now.  It’s strange how the paranormal gets involved.

 

White

So really what you’re saying is if you’re going to be blind make sure you’ve got an identical twin?

 

Dan

I wouldn’t say that Peter, I don’t think that’s the moral of the story but I would be lying to say a huge amount of luck hasn’t played a part in getting back on my feet.  I’ve been lucky to have Michael but I’ve also been very lucky to have charities very, very close to me and great advice coming from my blind friends.

 

White

In my defence about possibly missing the point I do understand this maybe a bit better than you may think because I’ve got an elder blind brother and I have often said to people if you’re going to be blind try and make sure you have an elder blind brother.  Tricky thing to fix but if you can.  And it is this whole thing about peer support.  What often happens with blind children is that people keep saying to them – you can’t do that because you’re blind.  What my parents used to say to me with an elder brother is Colin can do that, why can’t you.  Now that is very – that is – well it could break you but if you get through it it could give you a lot of confidence.  Which sounds a bit what you two are saying in a way – peer – peer support.

 

Dan

Yeah Michael every day just faces the challenges, whether it be in sport or at work or in your social life and I just email him and it’s good he doesn’t bill for the advice but it’s exactly the same problem I’m going through.

 

White

What do people who know you, as individuals, maybe not as a pair of twins, what do they feel about this closeness of this relationship?

 

Michael

The great thing about our current girlfriends are the fact that they completely sometimes forget actually that we can’t see very well and it’s – we remind them on a daily basis by getting lost or doing something wrong.  But I think they’re very, very, very supportive.

 

White

Dan, you were very honest with us when we did that first interview, you talked about a lack of confidence with women, with dating, since the loss of your sight.  How’s it going mate is what I was going to ask?

 

Dan

Thanks Peter for putting me on the spot, I really appreciate that.  I was slightly frustrated when I listened back to the podcast last time, it sounded like I was making excuses and now that I am in a relationship you really do realise that people judge you on you.  I think on the first date we just went to a bar and I did disclose I couldn’t see very well because I don’t want to hide it, I want to be very upfront with it, and she said, very much like Michael’s girlfriend, great story but I don’t really feel sorry for you and it’s been like that ever since.

 

Michael

It’s very refreshing.

 

Dan

It’s very refreshing to hear but just proves to me that sight loss and disability does not come into the equation and it’s me that she goes out with and we are not defined by our visual impairment.

 

White

Because of your unusual story you’ve been very high profile and we haven’t helped, I suppose, what’s it been like being under the microscope in that way?  I mean you haven’t exactly helped yourself either because you’ve been quite willing to play the game haven’t you?

 

Dan

I suppose the media really does distract us and it’s quite beneficial in many ways.  It allows us to sometimes reflect and in many ways it’s a bit of counselling for ourselves.  I mean a lot of the time we can’t just take the lid off a boiling pan of emotions and talking about it very frankly and very candidly helps me, it certainly helps me.

 

White

But do you think you are now both reconciled to the fact that this is not just something that’s happened and creates a lot of interest, it’s for life?

 

Dan

I don’t think the rehabilitation for me will ever stop.  In grief you are saddled by shock and then there’s a very slow incline back to normality.  But in an inherently visual world my new normality is a visually-impaired world.  So I sometimes obviously reminisce about what I once had and I was sitting with my girlfriend in a park recently and she took a photo of everyone sitting around us and I zoomed into it on the phone, as much as I could, and I could not believe how much people could see and how much I could see only three years ago, I said there are trees at the other end of this park, only 100 metres away.  And I still find it sometimes amazing how my dad can drive the car and he can stop at a set of traffic lights and the traffic lights go green and we pull off again.  And it’s sometimes remarkably small, simple things that I don’t have anymore.

 

Michael

And I always forget that I can’t see and it feels it’s been a lifetime actually, it’s been eight years now and I think the permanence when it happened was the thing that was really upsetting.  I’m at the outset of a career, I’m at the outset of a new degree and what was a lifestyle and as you know visual impairment affects many parts of your life so that permanence really was a shock.  But I think I’ve come to terms that it’s a long process and I agree with Dan, you never really recover from that emotional shock but you can put in a box and you can store at the back of that filing cabinet in your mind and not get it out too much.

 

White

Michael and Daniel Smith.  And that’s it for today.  You can call our action line for more information on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk and you can download tonight’s and other editions of the programme from our website.  From me Peter White, producer Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodbye.

 

 

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