Content Copyright © Caroline Casey 2017. All Rights Reserved.
Can any of you remember what you wanted to be when you were 17 years old? Do you know what I wanted to be? I wanted to be a biker chick. I wanted to race cars; I wanted to be a cowgirl; and I wanted to be Mowgli from The Jungle Book, because they were all about being free—wind in your hair, just to be free. On my 17th birthday, my father, knowing how much I loved speed, gave me one driving lesson to give me the dream of driving—with absolutely no intention of ever letting me get on a motorbike.
And on my 17th birthday, I accompanied my little sister, in complete innocence, as I always had my whole life (my visually impaired sister), to see an eye specialist. Because big sisters are always supposed to support their little sisters, and I used to go along and get my eyes tested just for fun because my parents had asked me to.
And on my 17th birthday, after my “fake” eye exam, the eye specialist noticed that it was my birthday and said, “So what are you going to do to celebrate?” So I took out that driving lesson and said, “I’m going to learn how to drive.”
Suddenly, there was a silence, one of those awful silences when you know something is wrong. He turned to my mother and said, “You haven’t told her yet?” On my 17th birthday, as Janis Ian would best say, “I learned the truth at 17.” I am, and have been since birth, legally blind. And, you know, how on Earth did I get to 17 and not know that? Well, believe it or not, it was no accident.
I am the eldest of three. I was born in 1971, and very shortly after my birth, my parents found out that I had a condition called ocular albinism—a big name. But what does that mean? So let me tell you. Beyond my hands is a world of blur. Every man in this room is George Clooney. And every woman—you are so beautiful. When I want to look beautiful, I step two feet away from the mirror, and I don’t have to see these lines etched in my face from all the squinting I have done all my life from all the bright lights.
At three and a half, just before I was going to start school, my parents made an incredibly brave decision. No special needs schools. No labels. No limitations. My ability and my potential would not be constrained by the label of “disability.” So they decided to tell me that I could see like anyone else and sent me to a “normal” school. I would grow up and learn from experience how to adapt, how to find solutions, how to be tough, and how to survive when they were no longer there to protect me.
But, more significantly, they gave me the ability to believe totally—to believe that I could. So when I heard the eye specialist tell me that I would never drive, that I could never do things, that I had a disability, everybody imagined that I was devastated. And don’t get me wrong, because when I first heard it, apart from the fact that I thought he was insane, I got a lump in my chest. You know that “Whooo? Huh?” But very quickly I recovered. The first thing I could think about was my mom crying beside me. And I walked out of his office saying, “I will drive. I will drive. You are mad. I will drive. I know I can drive,” with the same dogged determination that my father had bred into me since I was a child. He had taught me to sail, though I could never see. I could never see the shore, and I couldn’t see the sail. He told me simply to “believe” and feel the wind in my face.
And that wind in my face made me believe that the doctor was crazy and that I would drive and that I could see. And, for the next 11 years, I swore that nobody would find out that I couldn’t see. Because I didn’t want to be a failure, and I didn’t want to be weak. So I rammed through life, as only a Casey can do.
I became an archaeologist—and I broke things. And then I managed a restaurant—and I slipped on things. And then I was a masseuse; I was a landscape gardener; and then I went to business school and earned a master’s degree in business. And I ended up getting a global consulting job with Accenture—and they didn’t even know I couldn’t see! It is extraordinary how far belief can take you.
In 1999, after two and a half years in that job, something happened. Without any warning, my eyes decided they had had enough. And temporarily, very unexpectedly, I lost a third of my remaining vision. I was in one of the most competitive environments in the world, where you work hard, play hard—you “gotta be the best.” Two years into that job, I really could see very little. And I found myself in front of an HR manager in 1999 saying something I never imagined I would say. I was 28 years old; I had built a persona around success and strength; but I had no choice but to admit out loud, “I’m sorry, I can’t see. And I need help.”
Asking for help can be incredibly difficult. And you all know what it is—you don’t need to have a disability to know that. You know how hard it is to admit weakness and failure, and it’s frightening, isn’t it?
All the belief that had fueled me for so long, the belief that allowed me to operate so well in a sighted world when I couldn’t see, disappeared. How I had survived so long is a miracle. It is really hard—it really is. I can tell you that airports are a disaster, shopping is a nightmare, crowds are terrifying, and conferences (where I can’t recognize people) are impossible and often embarrassing. I end up talking to strangers, bumping into doors—I end up in the gent’s toilet or having a conversation with a statue.
Do you know how exhausting it can be to try to be perfect—when you’re not? Or to be somebody that you are not?
And so, after admitting to HR that I couldn’t see, I was sent to an eye specialist. And I had no idea that this man was going to change my life. That eye specialist didn’t bother testing my eyes—it was therapy. He asked me several questions, such as, “Why, why are you fighting so hard not to be yourself?” and “Do you love what you do, Caroline?”
But of course I loved what I did, because that was success, right? When you go to a global consulting firm, they put a chip in your head, and you say, “I love Accenture, I love Accenture . . . I love my job, I love Accenture, I love my job, I love Accenture, I love my job, I love Accenture, I love my job, I love Accenture.” To leave would be failure. Did I dare to admit to myself that I wasn’t happy, that I didn’t know who I was? I couldn’t really speak to the doctor, I was so choked up.
And then he said to me, “What did you want to be when you were little?” Now listen, I wasn’t going to say I wanted to race cars and motorbikes. He thought I was mad enough anyway. And as I left his office, he called me back, and he said, “I think it’s time to stop fighting and do something different.”
As that door closed behind me, with that silence just outside the doctor’s office that many of us know, my chest ached and I had no idea where I was going. I had no idea, but I did know that the game was up. I went home because the pain in my chest ached so much. I decided to go out for a run—really not a very sensible thing to do. I went on a run that I know so well. I know this run like the back of my hand; I had always run it perfectly, and I had never fallen—never failed—maybe because I always believed I could see.
And there’s a rock on that beach that I’ve always missed; I’ve never fallen on it—never. But this day, I was heartbroken, angry, and crying, and I didn’t see that rock, and I fell hard, smash, bash on my rock. Broken, fallen over, on this rock in the middle of March, in 2000, in typical Irish weather, on a Wednesday! Gray, snot, tears everywhere—ridiculously self-pitying. I was floored, and I was broken. And I was angry. And I didn’t know what to do, and I sat there for quite some time and asked myself how I was going to get off this rock—because who was I going to be? What was I going to be? And I thought about my dad, and I thought that he would be so disappointed in me! I no longer could feel the wind in my face that he had taught me to feel.
I kept thinking over and over in my mind, What happened? Where did I go wrong? Why don’t I understand? And you know the extraordinary part of that is? I just simply had no answers—I had lost my belief. Look where my belief had brought me to. And now I had lost it, and now I really couldn’t see. I was crumpled. And then I remember thinking about that eye doctor’s questions: “What do you want be? Don’t you think you should do something different? What do you like? What will you be? What did you want to be when you were little? Do something different. What do you want to be? Do something different.”
And very slowly, slowly, slowly it happened—and it did happen this way. And then the minute it came, it blew up in my head and bashed in my heart: something different. The doctor said to do something different. Do something different. Well, how about Mowgli from the The Jungle Book? You don’t get more different than that!
In the moment—and I mean the moment—it hit me like a ray of unexpected sunshine. It was like woo hoo—something for me to believe in. Nobody can tell me no. Yes, you could tell me that I can’t be an archaeologist, but no one could tell me that I couldn’t be Mowgli, because nobody had ever done it before! So I’m going to go do it—and it doesn’t matter whether I’m a boy or a girl.
So I got off that rock, and, oh my gosh, did I run home. I sprinted home, and I didn’t fall and I didn’t crash. I ran up the stairs, and I grabbed my favorite book of all time, Travels on My Elephant by Mark Shand. I got this book out, and I said, “I know what I’m going to do. I know how to be Mowgli. I’m going to go across India on the back of an elephant. I’m going to be an elephant handler.”
I had no idea how I was going to be an elephant handler—from global management consultant to elephant handler? I had no idea how. I had no idea how you hire an elephant; I don’t speak Indian. I had never been to India—I hadn’t a clue. But I knew I would. Because when you make a decision at the right time in the right place, the universe makes it happen for you—but I had no idea how.
But this wasn’t simply a ridiculous elephant journey. Admittedly, I needed to live a “yes” instead of dealing with “nos,” and I needed to find confidence in myself. But the journey became so much more, because the more I thought about my struggle with my identity as a person with a disability and went beyond my self-pity and my eyesight, I began to think of the 1 billion people in the world affected by disability and how they were discriminated against, marginalized, and left out—and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to change it. Why was disability such a global problem? Why were people with disabilities treated so badly?
I just didn’t understand it. Because we’re just people. People with disabilities are people first. We are not medical conditions. We are human beings. And, yes, part of us doesn’t work so well, but we are just people like anyone else, and we have the right to have the life we want and to use our capacity and reach our potential without people deciding for us who and what we are.
Unlike other social issues, we don’t have a Bono or a Nelson Mandela to advocate for our inclusion. We don’t have business leaders. We don’t have that. And we need them. We need you. You know something—it needs to be talked about, because when you don’t talk about us, we remain invisible.
It is frightening how people with disabilities are seen or understood and represented. Just think about the James Bond movies. Every criminal has a disability! Think about Jaws—he’s a freak. The Dan Brown book—the criminal was albino. I am albino. Where is the “real” person, not the freak show or charity case to be pitied?
And, you know, the most amazing thing happened when I decided to accept that I couldn’t see so well, when I eventually surrendered, when I stopped the fight and saw myself again, saw and felt the person I was and didn’t let my eyes define me—I had a childhood dream come true.
When I accepted that my eyes were only part of me and not all of me, it was amazing, because nine months later, after that day on that rock, I had the only blind date of my life—with a 7½-foot elephant called Kanchi. And together we would trek 1,000 kilometers across India. I was on my own (well, with six Indian men speaking several languages and doing a lot of charades), but I did it on my own. And the most extraordinary, powerful thing I discovered was not that I didn’t achieve before the elephant journey—I did—but that I was believing in the wrong thing. I wasn’t believing in me, the real me, the full me. I was being somebody else.
Do you know how much all of us tend to be somebody we are not? And you know that when you really believe in yourself, and everything about you, it is extraordinary what happens. Those 1,000 kilometers raised enough money for 6,000 cataract eye operations—6,000 people got to see because of that.
But the most amazing part was that, when I came home, I packed in my job at Accenture. I left and became a social entrepreneur. I set up an organization with Mark Shand called Elephant Family, which deals with Asian elephant conservation. And I set up Kanchi, a social enterprise whose mission is to unleash the power and value of the 1 billion people globally with a disability, because the organization was always to be named after my elephant—because disability is the elephant in the room. And I want to make you see it in a positive way—no charity, no pity. I wanted to work only with business and media leadership to totally reframe disability in a way that was exciting. And possible. It was extraordinary. That’s what I wanted to do. And I never thought about “nos” anymore, and not seeing. It just seemed that it was possible.
And yet, even so, you know, when I was away traveling here to speak at MDRT, I was petrified. I speak, but this is an amazing audience. It is the biggest audience I have ever spoken in front of, and I kept thinking over the past 48 hours, What am I doing here? I am not famous. I am not a celebrity or a hot shot. I am just a woman with a story and a mission. It reminded me of what it was like when I traveled to speak at TED in 2010 when I just didn’t think I could do it. And I had to remind myself before I got on this stage this morning that being me is good enough. It is something you have to keep reminding yourself of. It doesn’t come easy.
And so here I am. This is me, all of me, wonky eyes and all—17 years after I came out of the “blindo closet”—a dangerous dreamer, someone who has danced in the last 17 years with deep loss, sadness, huge success, multiple awards, a broken marriage, falling in love again, and losing a business and building it up again. I have been frightened and scared; I failed wildly and achieved magically. I’m not special, but I am me, and I have learned with every up and down that every time I try to be someone else, I make a mistake. That when I hide parts of myself, I fall down again. We all hide bits of ourselves so desperate that people will judge us. We are all frightened to be vulnerable for fear of being seen as weak.
But what I have learned is that we have a choice how to respond to things, and that makes the greatest difference. I have learned that when I truly embraced my full self, I reached potential I could never have imagined—for one thing, I certainly wouldn’t be standing on this stage.
I have discovered that if you never give up, you will always find a way. Because if you don’t give up, most things are possible; if you are willing to be flexible and maybe do it differently, you can make it happen. And the proof? You know, I did get to drive that car. I drove around 97 kph around the Malaysia Grand Prix circuit, five laps, and never came off. And guess what? I raced against a blind man—and it was phenomenal.
I have learned that in adversity and struggle there is amazing opportunity. Last year, I stood on an MDRT stage, a much smaller stage, and in a moment of fear, coupled with defiance against a man who had told me the night before that my dreams were too big and that I should play it small and give up on my big plans, I told the audience that I would prove him wrong. And the audience that day was so amazing and supportive. They gave me the courage to go out and fight for what I wanted. And I am so proud to say that in six weeks, I will do what that man told me I never would. I will be fulfilling my second childhood dream and become a cowgirl and ride 1,000 kilometers through Central America to ignite a global campaign to put disability on the Global Business Agenda.
When I started this work 17 years ago, not one corporate businessperson would talk to me—not one. With this historic campaign, against all the odds, we will be working with seven of the world’s biggest brands with the ambition to reach 100 million people! This Irish, elephant-handling cowgirl refuses to give up, because I believe that it has to happen, and I have unequivocally learned that the only way we can make things happen is if we believe we can make things happen.
So before I go and put on my cowgirl hat, I want to end by saying a few things:
Thank you, MDRT, for believing in me. Thank you. This journey began with you. We should never forget the effect our behaviors and beliefs have on other people and how important it is to have the right people around us. Remember the power when somebody believes in you. I’m here because so many other people believed in me.
Your life is not defined by any one thing, one label, one story—you get to start over every day.
Make time to invest in your dreams and passion, but mostly invest in you. Always listen to your gut instinct and your heart, and invest in learning about yourself—your real self—because that is where the gold dust lies. The better we are at being ourselves, the best businessperson, partner, family member, and friend we are.
I have learned that cars and motorbikes and elephants are not freedom. Being absolutely true to yourself is freedom.
And I never needed to be perfect; I never needed eyes to see—never. I simply needed vision and belief. And if you truly believe, and I mean truly believe from the bottom of your heart, you can make things happen.
I want to be part of making a world where everyone belongs a reality. We need to make it happen. And I will not give up on it. Because every single one of us—woman, man, gay, straight, disabled, perfect, normal, whatever—must be the very best of ourselves. I no longer want anybody to be invisible. We all have to be included. And stop the labels—the limiting of labels—because we are not jam jars. We’re extraordinarily, different, wonderful people.
Dr. Caroline Casey, of Newtown, Massachusetts, is both an adventurer and business woman whose passion and ambition for leading a life without limits and labels is truly contagious. She has been recognized for her pioneering and innovative approach to changing attitudes and perceptions of disability focusing on business and media.