Interview: Kevin Carey, chairman, Royal National Institute for the Blind

by
22 September 2009

The RNIB is a £125,000,000-a-year business. I’ve worked on a business plan with the senior management team and the board of trustees, so my real job is to make sure they stay focused on what we’ve agreed.

A lot of people have misappre­hensions about what the chairman of a big organisation like the RNIB might do. They think he’s like Presid­ent Obama, storming in to change this and that. My job is to fix break­downs. This isn’t peculiar to the RNIB or charities: it’s true of big com­plex organisations — even the Church of England.

Most things which go wrong in life come from people not commun­icating effectively, or not being totally truthful in what they say, because it’s hard to tell the truth.

I’ve worked for 15 years for Sight­savers International, a UK charity working in developing countries. This is where I learned my ophthal­mology, rehabilitation, budgeting, child development, and so on; and I’ve been on the governing body of the RNIB since 1988. I’ve been vice-chair for the past nine years. It’s nice to be on the bridge at last.

The RNIB is like a people-carrier: hefty, because it has to carry all sorts of stuff — a school for blind children with additional disabilities, talking books, campaign to change government policy. . . I’d like it to become like a fleet of motorbikes, all having the same logo and the same focus — but flexible, and doing lots of things faster. We tend to focus on processes and products, but I’d like a shift of focus from what we do to what individual people want.

Charities — and religion — worry about what’s good for people; but it’s not people’s fault that they’re blind or deaf or poor. We shouldn’t use financial and social leverage to reform them. We should give them what they want — that’s what we’d want for ourselves.

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I keep being shooed away in art galleries all over the world because I want to touch sculptures. Even when they are wood or bronze. I mean — they’re not Rodin; so give us a break! But that’s a personal, private thing. I commissioned this piece of sculpture [pictured] for my garden, from Geoffrey Aldred. It weighs three-quarters of a ton, and seems to have turned out to look like a lectern.

I was born with very little vision, and lost what I had in my mid-20s. Because I’m blind, I’m invariably poorer than my Oxbridge colleagues — there’s just less flexibility in life. And you can’t see ordinary stuff like pretty girls on the beach, or land­scapes.

Public kindness hopes that some­how you’ll hear better or like smelly flowers and so on, but it’s a terrible loss. Altogether, life is thinner — much less rich texture to it, because there’s so much you can’t see. You can’t see brutality and horror either — war pictures and disasters. For these reasons, we tend to be more theoretical, less flexible and giving.

And there’s not that serendipity of strol­ling around, buying some­thing. I’m either sitting in an office or I’m in a taxi going to the next meet­ing. Life’s more restricted, com­plex, ergonomic. It’s neither tragedy, nor heroic — just terribly tedious. Nothing com­pens­ates for it. It’s a terrible loss. I mean, we can’t see the Mona Lisa. . .

Blindness is culturally highly pecu­liar. People have peculiar problems handling blind­ness inside all cultures — Greek, Roman, Indian, Mayan. . . If the gods didn’t kill you, they’d blind you. Byzantine emperors would blind their successors. But you can’t change culture. Life’s too short.

Being blind isn’t my life. I want to spend my time living, not whingeing about culture. The best way to change things is seeing people work­ing and doing stuff — like David Blunkett. The jargon for that is “role-models”. People have seen him being a Cabinet minister, seen him being a bit naughty now and again. That’s actually better than telling them that the culture needs changing.

There’s an amazing amount the Church could do for blind and visually impaired people if it understood how computers work. You can generate Braille computer print-outs at the touch of a button, but people just don’t know. Printers can punch holes instead of printing — it’s not a problem.

If I could change one thing, it’s that the Church would switch back from religion to God, from moralising to mystery. The Church has hobbled itself terribly with this mistake. It’s there to strengthen and enrich a personal rela­tionship with God — we were created to do that — not to tell us what to do.

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I’m on General Synod. I’ve read so many papers about who ought to change what.

It’s a weird thing about the Church that, given we live in a visual age with so much technology, it uses the image so little in the way it teaches.

I’m a Reader. I will fly back from anywhere in the world, I will organise my schedule — which is complex — around my house group on Tuesday nights. It’s the most important thing I do, because it’s about growing to­gether, being funny, vulnerable, being radical, speaking in confidence, being mutually supportive. I just like watching people grow.

If you were writing a list of my characteristics, “family man” would not be in the top ten. I hope I’m both loving and supportive to my step-children, but I’m not a “gather-round-the-hearth” person. The most important decision I ever took — though you don’t actually decide to fall in love — was to marry Margaret. We’ve been married for more than 20 years. She’s currently a senior mem­­ber of the Parole Board and a magis­trate.

I thought I’d be a politician, and designed the whole first chapter of my life round that. I was President of the Cambridge Union, and editor of Varsity. Leaving the BBC when they made a lot of cuts in 1976 blew the ambition.

The one regret I have — and it’s up to God — I wish God had called me earlier to work in ministry. At the moment, I’m going through the discernment process to see whether I’ve been called to be or­dained. I just wish that it hadn’t happened in my 50s.

I’m not a snacker; so most Fairtrade things are off-limits for me; but I’m an inveterate drinker of Fairtrade coffee. I’ve got a pint mug of coffee in my hand — I drink it before and after lunch. It’s excessive.

My heart always lifts when it’s St Luke’s turn in the lectionary. I love his interest in the poor, in women.

I’ve travelled all my life — but I’m not very good at landscapes and wildlife stuff. In the last two years I’ve fallen in love with Japan. I’ve been there twice, and can’t get back soon enough. It’s a pity I can’t speak the language.

At one level, I’m happiest at the eucharist; at another, when I’m listening to good music and reading a good book.

I never do intercessory pray­er, except when I’m leading prayers as a Reader. Prayer is fundamentally about developing a personal relation­ship with God. I leave myself lots of time at the beginning and end of each day to do it. I compare it to an erotic relationship and how that works: you don’t spend much time asking for stuff; it’s more “How wonderful you are!”

I was a classical-music critic for some years, and say Bach is my wife, Mahler is my mistress. I had to agonise about which I would choose to be locked in a church with. But it has to be Bach, because he has so many textures of religious experi­ence.

Kevin Carey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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