'I was constantly worried my disability would cost me my livelihood'
Chris Tye managed a successful career in nursing and management, even working in a busy A&E department - all while partially sighted
Most nurses rely on their sight to communicate with patients and observe their wellbeing; they would find doing the job without their eyes unthinkable. But for Mr Chris Tye, head of the school of nursing at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, it has become a way of life.
A wearer of glasses since childhood, as a teenager Mr Tye was diagnosed with the degenerative disease, retinitis pigmentosa. At first it had little impact and he trained as a nurse, but gradually symptoms such as night blindness started.
‘I found it hard to go public.’
But his work in the accident and emergency department was unaffected - it is virtually the only part of a hospital to be brightly lit 24 hours a day - but he knew he could not continue with a clinical career indefinitely. “With a young family to support I was worried constantly that my disability could cost me my job and my livelihood,” said Mr Tye. So when a teaching job came up in the 1990s, he took it.
Over the next few years, Mr Tye’s sight steadily deteriorated, his tunnel vision becoming more pronounced, but he told very few people about his condition and refused to seek outside help.
“I didn’t talk about it in the early days, it was a hidden disability. I should have registered as partially sighted before I did, but I found it hard to go public.” He found it hard to come to terms with his disability and discuss it with other people - stubbornness, pride, a reluctance to move from healthcare professional to a person with a disability may all have played a part - but he is clear it was a struggle. “That interim period was very difficult and stressful but now it’s more black and white - I can’t hide it.” He finally registered as partially sighted in 2001, the year he finished his doctorate.
‘I’ve stopped saying ‘if only’ and learned to see things through other people’s eyes.’
He now has a guide dog, Walter, so he can use public transport and travel around at night alone. Although Walter mainly keeps a low profile in his office, he attends some meetings but he does have a tendency to yawn during a few. Mr Tye is too discreet to reveal which ones Walter finds particularly dull.
“He’s a great character, people find it a lot easier to discuss disability through the dog rather than through a white cane,” he says.
In spite of his disability, Mr Tye’s career has prospered. After joining Kingston and St George’s 15 years ago as a senior lecturer in A&E nursing, he worked his way up to head of nursing and associate dean for postgraduate programmes at the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences. At 56, Mr Tye has come to accept his blindness.
“It’s been a long journey and it’s not always been easy - my bruised shins are testament to that - but I’ve now got to a place where I accept where I am. I’ve stopped saying ‘if only’ and learned to see things through other people’s eyes.”
Mr Tye can see light; he knows when a light is on in a room but can see nothing more. Official recognition of his blindness has brought him practical help. His work computer is fitted with the latest US software that reads aloud email and other electronic documents, while his touch typing is read back to him by the computer so he can correct any mistakes.
His current role is mainly education management, with some teaching and research. It is vastly different from his early career: he began training as a nurse in 1975 at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, after working as a ward orderly in his teens to earn some extra pocket money. He did a four year programme in general adult and psychiatric nursing and found his vocation in A&E nursing.
“It’s completely and utterly unpredictable with a huge variety of challenges. I liked being able to use my psychiatric training as much as my general training. It felt like a very rounded experience and I loved it from day one,” he said.