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This is the advice from Alun Davis who has served as a trustee on multiple local organisations for more than three decades.
Alun, born a proud Welshman and now living in Bristol for the last 30 years, started losing his sight at 14 due to a genetic condition and went totally blind aged 18.
After being one of its first paid staff 27 years ago, Alun returned to the West of England Centre for Inclusive Living (WECIL) as a trustee in February 2019. This award winning, user led organisation is dedicated to supporting independent living to create a more inclusive society.
Alun is the only person with a visual impairment on WECIL’s board. He said: “I would like to see more Disabled people in public roles. Not just on boards of organisations that campaign around Disabled people’s issues but in mainstream activity. Disabled people being seen to be active and effective is a good thing and will help change public perception.
“The reason I am on the board is to be a competent effective trustee. As a trustee I genuinely understand what the organisation is there for and I enjoy being part of these structures. I know I have much to contribute through my experience and knowledge. I strive to be the best quality trustee that I possibly can be.”
In terms of his understanding of his role as a trustee Alun explains: “Transparent governance is key within any charity and voluntary organisation. Our role as trustee is to take a strategic view on where the organisation is going, ensure its policies are correct and it remains solvent. It is very important as a trustee you understand you are not there to get involved in day-to-day management issues. Many people become trustees because they are passionate about the cause the organisation is working on. I would ask anyone who is getting involved for those reasons to try and get a bit of detachment – otherwise you will get frustrated.
“My advice to any prospective trustee is to be clear on why you want to do it. Understand the organisation in advance. Look at its practises and policies, and maybe chat in advance with the chair. Don’t expect people outside the sight loss sector to understand VI issues. As long as you are competent, effective and can do the job, your visual impairment is irrelevant – providing your access needs are met.”
He believes he has influenced the accessible practises of the boards in which he has served. He said: “When I first became a trustee the challenges were greater in that it was harder to make papers and materials accessible. As digital technology has developed, it has made life easier. Boards members know to send any presentations in advance and do indicate who they are as they speak in meetings.”
He went on to mention some of his own strategies for being comfortable at meetings and therefore the most effective operator he can be: “Whenever I attend a management committee I arrive early so I can choose my seat and familiarise myself with the environment. I tend to sit near the door at the head of table so I can hear where people are speaking from and can leave the room without having to get around people.”
In addition to the trusteeships, Alun has always worked full time. In the 33 years Alun has worked, he has had only six months not in employment. He spent much of this time working in social services before joining Thomas Pocklington Trust as the Engagement Manager for the West of England Sight Loss Councils in November 2018.
He said: “When I started as a social worker, I had Braille keyboards to enable me to take notes. I became a user of the screen-reading software Jaws in 1998 and have used it ever since. This, combined with the move in all organisations to doing things electronically, has made me less dependent on support workers to read content to me.”
Like many Disabled people Alun has experienced some discrimination in getting jobs and in the workplace. He believes the economic climate following COVID-19 will probably exacerbate this but could also create opportunities. He explained: “Virtual platforms such as Zoom are definitely accessible to people with a visual impairment. Many companies are shifting to staff permanently home working and, providing the employer supplies the accessible equipment, this could make someone with a visual impairment a much more equal candidate.
Home working will also take away the stress and complication of commuting and having to use Access to Work, which can be very challenging. As someone who is totally blind, talking to people over Zoom is no different than being face-to-face – it is much more my environment.”
His final piece of advice to blind and partially sighted people considering becoming a trustee: “If you are going into an organisation which has no experience of VI issues or Disabled people, you may find them reticent and uncertain at first. Be good at what you are there to do. Your role is to be a trustee and not to necessarily raise VI issues. Become known for being an effective trustee, not as the person with a visual impairment on the board.”