When he suddenly lost most of his sight in the space of a few months Mark Skelton feared his working life would end and he was only his in 30s. But thanks to his very supportive bosses and his own amazingly positive outlook, Mark is now heading up an innovative project helping hundreds of other people with visual impairment.
Mark, now 39, was the manager of a busy mobile phone shop when his sight started deteriorating a couple of years ago. He tried to hide it at first but it came to the point when he had to confess.
“The more sight I lost the harder it was. I’d only been married for a year, I’d just taken out a 25 year mortgage and you can imagine how worried I was when I went to see my HR Manager Idris Patel to ‘fess up’. I was well aware that 2 out of 3 people who are blind are unemployed.
“Idris went to the MD at Talk Direct Zak Patel and they were absolutely amazing from day one. They decided to use what had happened to me and turn it into a positive to help as many people as possible.
“Instead of sacking me they decided to create a completely new role for me and put me in charge of a project called iCARE which is all about offering people with visual impairment the training and help they need to use smart phones and tablets.
“The company runs 14 O2 phone shops all over the Yorkshire area and they each have a guru, an expert who helps people on the technical side. We’ve trained them all to help people who have sight problems. So anyone who goes in to the shops doesn’t have to give them their life story, the gurus know straight away how to help them.
“I can see both sides, pardon the pun, after working in the industry for 13 years and then losing my sight. I have spent a lot of time researching apps and software and I test all the new phones that come out so we can help people find exactly what they need,” said Mark. “You can spend a fortune on apps but if they are no good for you it’s just a waste of money.”
Mark went from being fully sighted to blind in one eye and with only 20 per cent vision in the other over the space of a few months as a result of diabetic retinopathy. He had four operations to save the sight he has.
“It felt a bit strange, as if I was in a bubble and I felt a bit sorry for myself for the first two weeks after they told me my sight had gone but after that I just thought I need to get on with it. It is frustrating that there are things I cannot do any more but I try not to think about the things I can’t do.
“Idris and Zak did so much for me in the early days, and they’ve got behind the iCARE project so much it is unbelievable. There are 140 employees in the 14 stores and they have all been trained to help people with visual impairment.
“I spend a lot of my time talking to groups of people with VI and the project is well received everywhere we go. My boss Linda Jones lets me spend all the time I need on being the iCARE Ambassador and nothing is too much trouble for her. We’ve already won an award for iCARE and now we’re getting a lot of interest from O2 nationally.”
“It was a shock losing my sight but it hasn’t beaten me yet. At first I couldn’t bring myself to register as blind but once I admitted it to myself it was a lot easier. And I didn’t want to use a white cane either I found it a bit embarassing to use it. But now I do and it is amazing how much it helps. So I know you don’t want to have to walk into a phone shop and tell people all about your health and sight problems.
“I am still working full time, I lead a very busy life and I am determined to help as many people as possible because the technology is there people just need to know about it and how to use it. People think they can’t use a phone anymore but we can set them up and they are sending text messages in no time”
Now he can’t drive Mark, who lives in Maltby, spends a lot of time on buses and trains. “I used to read a lot but my days of reading books are long gone. I tried a magnifier at first but that was no good so I use audible now. I have the books on my phone I get through 4 or 5 books a month listening with my headphones, it’s great for public transport.”
A massive Sheffield Wednesday fan one thing Mark did really miss was going to matches. Now he listens to the live radio broadcasts on the website. “I never thought I would but I’ve really got into it. Especially on a Tuesday night when it’s raining and I can listen to it in my nice warm conservatory with endless cups of tea.”
“I didn’t cook before so it’s given me an excuse not to. I try to keep things as normal as possible. The first three months it was a big thing for my family and friends but they tend to forget about it now. My wife Hollie will quite happily toddle off when we’re out and leave me to bump into things,” he jokes.
“This is one of those things that can happen to anyone and unfortunately it happened to me. But I had 36 or 37 years of perfect vision so I have a foot in both camps and with my work I just want to help as many people as I can."
Mark is now planning sessions at SRSB to tell people about how he can help them use smart phones and tablets. Details will be in the newsletter.