Story 100

Inspire a new generation

Leonard Cheshire the man, the charity and the alliance are together an inspiring story of our time. It is a remarkable tale of human courage and kindness, respect for one’s fellow man, and the progressive power of community on a global scale.

Neil Heslop with a statue of Leonard

A movement of 200 organisations in 54 countries supporting millions of individuals to live, learn and work as independently as they choose, whatever their ability. Led by people with disabilities, at the heart of local life — opening doors to opportunity, choice and support in communities around the globe.

It is a great privilege and responsibility to be the charity’s CEO during the centenary anniversary of our founder’s birth. Like Leonard Cheshire, I believe that diversity creates a world of possibility. Through pioneering research and innovation we are building a fairer, more inclusive society. One that recognises the positive contributions we all make, and where we are all proud to play our part. Leading by example, we do everything humanly possible to empower people to live their lives as freely and fully as they choose.

Like so many of my generation active in the struggle to make the world a fairer place for people with disabilities, I was aware of Leonard Cheshire. Yet my understanding of his story of humanitarian idealism, and belief in the power of individuals to make a better world, only crystallised after taking up my role. At the age of 51, having been blind for more than 30 years, I discovered that in a very personal way, Leonard Cheshire played a part in enabling me to become the person I am. Let me explain.

When I was 15 my sight began to deteriorate. I was diagnosed with the degenerative condition retinitis pigmentosa. Ambitions of playing number 15 for England at Twickenham and a career in the Royal Marines were early casualties of this news, and an uncertain future lay before me. However, support from family — a father determined that education would enable me to avoid an initial career option of basket weaving, and a mother intent that equality and independence was my right and non-negotiable — has led to a life full of rich experiences and opportunity.

I became blind in the first year of university when I was 20. A difficult year or two culminated in graduation in law and a job with an international telecoms company. An MBA from a top business school and a 25 year career in the technology sector took me all over the world. Spells as CEO of Cincinnati Bell Wireless in the USA and Head of Strategy for O2 UK taught me much. Passionate about disability rights and helping young people make it into work, I advised the UK government on the Disability Discrimination Act, and founded the charity Blind in Business. In short, a full and rewarding life. But what has all this to do with Leonard Cheshire, the war hero and humanitarian who died in 1992?

In May 2016, following a headhunter approach about a new challenge, I spoke with the Chair of Leonard Cheshire Disability about her search for a new CEO. I was unsure whether it was right for me but I allowed my name to go forward for consideration. Two days before the final interview my 80-year-old mother came to visit for the weekend. The woman whose support and belief in me enabled me to live my life the way I have asked me, ‘What are you up to darling?’ I told her of the possibility of a new job heading up one of the world’s leading disability charities. To my utter astonishment she sat back on the sofa in my living room and said, ‘Oh Leonard, what a lovely man, I can see him now. And his wife Sue Ryder. What remarkable people.’

It turned out that as an impressionable 15-year-old in 1953 she spent a summer working for Leonard making the sandwiches for his fundraising teas. When her only son was diagnosed with progressive blindness some 25 years later, it was the philosophy of the great war hero and even greater fighter for disabled people that fortified my mother in her expectations of the life I should lead.

Unbeknown to me I was one of the countless hundreds of thousands of people with a disability whose choices in life were improved because of the courage, kindness and respect of this remarkable man. It is therefore a profound privilege to be entrusted with the leadership of his positive, proud and pioneering organisation. We will inspire a new generation’s commitment to help realise Leonard Cheshire’s vision of a better world.

We will inspire a new generation’s commitment to help realise Leonard Cheshire’s vision of a better world.