Student Steven Downes, who was born with a rare type of sight loss, wants to work in the media industry. It’s been his dream since he was a child.
But the 20-year-old knows he will have to work harder than most to achieve his ambition.
For the past few weeks the third-year sports journalism undergraduate has been writing for The Examiner’s sports department on a work placement from Huddersfield University. Even something as simple as using a computer monitor screen is difficult for him and, despite using a large typeface, Steven struggles to see what he is writing. But he has persevered; producing by-lined pieces for both the newspaper and our website.
The fact is that Steven is no stranger to meeting daily challenges; he’s battled with the limitations of poor vision all of his life and was even subject to bullying by other youngsters at high school because of his disability. But as an adult he’s now facing perhaps the greatest hurdle of all for someone with a disability – finding a rewarding career.
While Steven says that his sight loss has given him “a determination and a drive” he’s all too aware that employers may shy away from giving him a chance to prove himself, particularly as his condition requires regular monitoring and could change at any time.
As Steven himself acknowledges, life has been far from easy. He has a congenital condition called aniridia, which means that the iris (coloured part of the eye) is incomplete. It’s so rare that its affects as few as 1 in 100,000 people and is a mostly-inherited condition. Like many people with aniridia, he also has nystagmus (a condition that causes the eyes to flicker from side to side) and cataracts (which cloud the lens of the eye). His vision is so poor that he says people standing just a few feet away from him are simply ‘outlines’ and when out and about he has to be careful when navigating across roads and pavements.
Throughout his school days Steven was given enlarged computer screens, magnifiers and large print material. Huddersfield University has, he says, “been exceptionally good” at meeting his needs.
“I’ve been provided with an iPad for lectures and recording equipment and I have consultations with tutors about what I need,” he adds.
In his spare time Steven is a commentator on football matches for a hospital radio service used by visually impaired fans. He uses binoculars to follow the action. It’s just one of the ways that he’s worked hard to gain relevant experience for his CV.
Steven believes that his disability, which was inherited from his father Derek, an engineer, has made him tougher and more resilient. As he explains: “I was bullied at school but I came out of it a stronger person. Kids don’t really understand what it can be like for a disabled person and they don’t understand sight loss issues, like not being able to see the whiteboard from the front of the class. I got the old ‘four-eyes’ thing, but I don’t wear glasses now because they don’t really help. I had chairs pulled out from underneath me as I sat down, so I smashed my head against a cupboard. If I tripped up, people would snigger or laugh. But what really annoyed me was the whispering behind my back. I’d rather someone said something to my face.
“It’s not an easy life. I wouldn’t wish bad eyesight on anyone, but you have to be strong willed.”
His 18-year-old sister Emma also has aniridia and has chosen an animal management course at Kirklees College. Steven says both he and Emma have always worked hard. He added: “We did the best we could at school and college. People with disabilities tend to work harder to get where they want to go.”
What Steven wants most is for other people “to see me for myself, not as a disability.” He feels so strongly about the acceptance of disabled people that he led a visually impaired awareness-raising day at Kirklees College, where he studied media production before starting his degree. He is also a past RNIB volunteer at a sports club for visually impaired people at Huddersfield Sports Centre.
“There’s been a fantastic amount of work done to put disabled people into the community, but there’s a long way to go,” he says. “You need a sense of humour and not take yourself too seriously.”
When looking for a direction in life, Steven knew that many professions and jobs were out of reach. “I couldn’t think about being a chef or anything like that,” he says.
He’s been interested in media and sport from an early and his final year dissertation will be about disability sports, a niche theme of which he has first hand experience.
But after graduation in the summer he’ll be embarking on the quest for a media role and hoping that potential employers will look at him as a serious candidate who can add something to a workplace. As he says: “I have a good knowledge of sports and political issues and general news and I can add into that the fact that I can relate to disability stories.”