Straight out of business school, Caroline Casey bagged a job with Accenture and spent the next few years working as a global consultant. ‘I was in one of the most competitive environments in the world, where you work hard, you play hard – and you’ve got to be the best,’ she says.
From the outside, she was thriving. But she was living a lie.
Casey’s bosses and colleagues had no idea that she was legally blind. She was born with a condition called ocular albinism, which she describes as ‘like having Vaseline in front of your eyes’. Afraid of how her disability might hold her back, she hid it.
‘It was reckless and foolish but I wanted to be accepted,’ explains Casey. ‘I was determined to be a success at work so I was constantly trying to over-prove and over-compensate. It damaged my health and made my eyesight even weaker.’
In October 1999, at the age of 28, she decided to come clean. ‘I’d built up this false persona and I didn’t like who I was. Pretending to be someone you’re not is exhausting. I just couldn’t do it anymore.’ So she walked into the HR director’s office and uttered the words: ‘I’m sorry but I can’t see.’
Casey herself had been unaware of her condition until her 17th birthday. Her parents had made the unusual decision not to tell her that she had a disability; they wanted her to have a childhood free from prejudices and labels, and so Casey grew up believing herself to be like everyone else. It was only when she wanted to apply for her driving licence that she learnt the shocking truth.
‘It just didn’t make sense to me so I rejected it outright,’ says Casey. ‘I assumed that people would treat me like I was weak or a failure so I swore that nobody would ever find out and just scooted on with my life.’
It took Casey 11 years to accept her condition and finally ask for help. Accenture sent her to see an eye specialist who advised her to take time off, let her eyes rest and to ‘stop fighting who you really are’.
She took a sabbatical, rode across India on an elephant and raised £0.5m – enough money to fund six hundred cataract operations with Sightsavers International. On her return, she set up Kanchi, a not-for profit disability organisation named after her elephant (‘because disability is like the elephant in the room’): ‘I believed that if we could get businesses seeing the value of disability, society would naturally follow.’
The World Health Organization estimates that you’re 50 percent less likely to have a job if you have a disability. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates you’re two times more likely to be living in poverty, and three times more likely to have no qualifications than a person without a disability.
‘We’re living in a global society that overwhelmingly undervalues and excludes the one billion people living with a disability, or 15 percent of our globe’s population. That’s one in seven of us,’ says Casey.
Today, she’s launching #valuable, a new global campaign to put disability on the business agenda. Backed by the likes of Facebook, Channel 4 and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, the campaign is calling on 500 businesses – or one a day until the end of 2018 – to commit to tackling disability in the workforce.
Casey calls it a ‘noisy call-to-action’. ‘This is about saying to business: "Come on, this isn’t acceptable anymore". We’ve made huge steps in gender equality, ethnicity, LGBT... It’s time to talk about disability.’
Here's Casey's TED talk, Looking Past Limits