While he says he wouldn’t have chosen his macular degeneration diagnosis at the age of 28, Tony Ward (BComm 85), now head of fundraising at Irish charity Fighting Blindness, is convinced that his sight loss helped him to open the doors to a more varied and interesting life over the last 20 years that, among other things, has seen him representing his country on the athletics track.
About Tony Ward
Ward studied accountancy after completing his BComm in UCD in 1985. He qualified in 1989 and subsequently worked in Deloitte for a couple of years. Life and career were progressing as normal apart from a gradual worsening of his sight from around 1990.
“This was pre-computer days so we were all filling big manual spreadsheets and the most advanced piece of technology we had was a calculator,” he says. “I was having difficulty recognising people’s faces and I was having difficulty doing my work. And I’d have to be very careful out on the street as I just wouldn’t see things. That sent all sorts of alarm bells ringing.
“It was quite a difficult time because I was trying desperately to continue to work and it was taking me longer to do the basic things.”
He was eventually diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, in September 1994. “It’s genetically-based so obviously it’s come from my gene pool but had never manifested itself before then.
“I had to basically give up work in 1994 because I couldn’t read,” he explains. “I was an accountant and I couldn’t get the information. My head was working fine but the problem was getting the information in there. For about 18 months I was just betwixt and between and I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Very shortly after his diagnosis, Ward came into contact with Fighting Blindness, which was set up in 1983 as a support group by families affected by blindness. The organisation has since become a significant force in funding research for cures and treatments for genetically-inherited and age related forms of blindness.
“I went along to one of their meetings, more out of curiosity than anything else, and I came in contact with a whole bunch of people who pretty much had similar conditions. That was very helpful. When you’re suddenly thrown into a certain category, you find out that there are all sorts of people who maybe have similar conditions or similar challenges. That was really useful from a support point of view and keeping up with latest research.”
On the work front, friends and colleagues started referring him for assignments with organisations looking for consultancy around their administrative or financial systems. “I knew exactly how to fix things but somebody else had to do the doing. I could tell them what to do and how to put things back in order as long as I had a pair of eyes to read the critical pieces of information.
“Then, luckily and coincidentally technology started to develop and I got a machine I could use for reading. With adaptive software I was more independent. Emails had started to come into vogue. Suddenly I was in a position where I could communicate quite effectively: get information, assimilate it, process it and output it. I acted primarily as an independent accountant, not a practising accountant as such, but I was helping people with say their management accounts; I worked in a not-for-profit organisation a few days a week, helping with financial control; I had a friend who set up a business and bought a hotel and I helped him with his financial control and business operations.”
He worked on a consultancy basis for most of the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. In 2003, having previously worked with an organisation that had received EU funding for an employment initiative, he joined a company as a finance co-ordinator for an EU-funded programme in Ireland that diverted money to various projects. When that contract ended in 2008, he reverted to doing bits and pieces of consultancy contract work. He also returned to live in his native Monaghan after 25 years in Dublin.
In 2012, having been on the Fighting Blindness board for around 10 years, he applied for the full-time position of head of fundraising, a role he has now been in for just over a year. “I spent all the years of my life accounting for the figures in the past and now I’m trying to create them in the future,” he says. “It’s still figures; it’s just you’re trying to make them rather than count them.”
The funds raised are primarily used to finance research projects, all of which are carried out in universities and colleges in Ireland. Since 1983, the charity has put nearly €13m into over 40 research projects. “In terms of that kind of research, Ireland is the leading country in the world, pound for pound. A team in TrinityCollege was the first to identify the gene responsible for macular degeneration back in 1989. And in recent years there have been loads of iterative breakthroughs, so much so that stuff is starting to come out of laboratories and into pre-clinical trials and clinical trials. There’s more than one product on the market now for age-related macular degeneration. Patients are getting treatments now that are stabilising the deterioration in their sight. There’s a long, long way to go but stuff is coming along the pipeline in a whole range of areas and starting to filter through towards treatment stages.”
Room for sport
Outside work, sport has played a significant role in Ward’s life, both pre and post diagnosis. “I played Gaelic football, soccer and other sports in my teens and early 20s. In the late Eighties and early Nineties as my sight started to get worse, I withdrew from sport and I think this is a common reaction from people who are faced with sight loss, because you play it safe. You don’t do anything that puts you at risk of exposing yourself or making a fool of yourself. I pretty much gave up playing sport in my mid 20s. I missed it, but there were other things going on.
“In the late 1990s when I had come to terms with what life was possibly going to be like from now on I found out about an organisation called Irish Blind Sports. I went along to one of their training sessions and it turned out that even though I was unfit, I was more or less able to keep up with the others who were there. That gave me a bit of confidence. I went back again and then I took part in their national athletics event and came second in my race.
“I then started training and competing properly in 1999. I run with a guide alongside me and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve loads of people who at the drop of a hat would come and run with me in a race.”
Between 1999 and 2006 he competed in four European and two World Championships, representing Ireland at 800m and 1,500m. “In between I was trying to get the qualification standard for the Paralympics so I decided I’d try the marathon in 2004.” While he was well within the standard with a time of three hours and two minutes, he didn’t make it through the selection process to go to the Games.
Competitively, his highlight to date has been winning a bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships in 2001 in Portugal. “Don’t ask me how I did it. Maybe when you don’t know what to expect you do better. I think sometimes we’re bound by conventional expectations. I’m not even a cross country runner – I’m 6ft 2in and I’m 14st so I’m not an ideal stature. It was totally unexpected. I was heading off after the race when my guide came over and said I had to go over to the medal ceremony. I’ve many little medals but that one stands out.”
While he still trains five days a week, he’s a bit more relaxed about his schedule these days. “I’m 48 now and I have two young children so training is not what it used to be. Ten or 12 years ago it was the beginning, middle and end of almost every day. Now it could just be a 40-minute or an hour’s run on the treadmill in the morning or the evening.”
A life more interesting
“I wouldn’t have chosen to start losing my sight when I was 27 years of age, but looking back now, my life has been so interesting over the last 20 years,” says Ward. “I suppose a lot of it depends on the type of person you are. Maybe I was just lucky that even though I was genetically flawed in terms of my sight, maybe I was genetically strong in my demeanour or attitude.
“I’ve done so many different things. I’ve tried things that haven’t worked out and I’ve tried things that have worked out. I’ve got a huge kick out of my running and competing for Ireland and doing all that stuff. What happened to me made me take risks because I had no choice. There were times when I was unemployed, there were times I was under-employed and there were times when my career path was not moving in the same way as people I trained and qualified with. At the same time, it has turned up so many opportunities and put me in touch with so many different types of people. I’m so grateful for that.
“People get comfortable and it becomes very hard to do something different. I talk to people who are my age and younger and they say, ‘you’re great to do the marathon, I could never do the marathon, I could never do the training’. And I think, well of course you could. You just need to decide what your priorities are.
“I think people should follow their stars a little bit more. I always think it’s great to hear about people going to work in Australia for a year or Canada. That’s fantastic. Life is too short.
“Over the next few years I feel I have lots of avenues to pursue and lots of things to do. I have a great allegiance to Fighting Blindness and now that they’ve been kind enough to take a bit of flyer on the fact that an accountant can be a fundraiser. On a personal front, I’d like to have a little more balance in terms of family, work and sport. Sometimes I think my family pick up the can when I’m out running, so I might redress that a bit. On the sport front, I’ve done a couple of triathlons, but I’m a terrible swimmer so I’d like to learn to swim properly and to try to do a couple of triathlons, without feeling that I’m about to drown.
“And I would like to keep plugging away at my running. In October, I completed a cycle from Paris to Nice on a tandem [with Stephen Roche piloting for 15km of this]. But even though I enjoyed that immensely, cycling doesn’t float my boat as much as running does.”