From losing his sight in a firework accident at the age of 10 to
becoming a leading pioneer of the sight loss movement, Mike
Brace's story is an inspiration. Here he chats to Ann Lee about his
remarkable professional life, from his lead role in the Olympic and
Paralympic bid for London 2012 to leading groundbreaking
research for people with sight loss
How did you become involved in Vision 2020
I was an assistant director for social services in a London borough
and was applying for director posts, getting runner-up on three
occasions. While another post was pending I saw an advert for a
chance to set up and develop an organisation that was bringing
together the eye health, eye care and sight loss sectors. Initially I
decided not to apply for it, and then I had a phone call saying the
post was being re-advertised and why didn’t I apply. I was
interviewed and got the job. However, when I started in 2001 I
managed to get a secondment from my then employers for a two-
year period, just in case the new venture didn’t take off!
That must have been very daunting!
Yes it was. As someone with a disability in a very good job, I was
taking quite a leap of faith. On the other hand, the objectives really
appealed to me. In my experience there had been a lack of
dialogue between the different health professions, and between
eye care professionals and the voluntary sector. Big chunks of the
not-for-profit sector were not working together in any form of
collaborative approach. It’s almost true to say that if one
organisation had a good idea, the others would vote against it out
of principle! It seemed right to try and pull those disparate groups
together – and, more importantly, to include organisations of blind
and partially sighted people and patient groups so that they had a
Logo – RNIB supporting blind and partially sighted people
Registered charity number 226227
You’re well known for your parallel career in
sports administration. How have you managed
to juggle the two?
It’s been a bit fraught at times. My time as a competitor largely
coincided with being a social worker and a first-tier manager, so
the two things were easier to juxtapose. But when I started to
manage both sport and social work, they competed for my time –
though in many ways they complemented each other as well. I
could often use some of the psychology from sports management,
such as the team ethos, to help in social work.
Time was the biggest issue. The sport involved travelling abroad –
initially with the Paralympic skiing team, and then with sports
development. When I became chairman of ParalympicsGB it
meant travelling to international meetings and going with the teams
to Sydney or Beijing or wherever. So it basically meant taking my
holiday leave for those events, rather than spending time sitting on
We’re just past the halfway mark with Vision
2020 UK. Can you sum up the main
achievements and your personal highlights?
When we started we were trying to get a major piece of research
taken forward – a project that became known as Network 1000. No
single organisation was able to fund it, but we managed to bring
half a dozen organisations together in a consortium to submit a
bid, and were awarded a grant to do the research. I think that
Network 1000 is the thing that’s probably going to last longest,
because it’s the biggest and most significant piece of research that
there’s been in the sector – 1,008 blind and partially sighted
people talking about their lives and experiences.
That was an early milestone in terms of the collaborative approach.
Similarly, eight years later we managed to get funding for the EPIC
(Engagement, Partnership, Information, Communication) project,
which was bid through Vision 2020 UK and is run by the UK Vision
Strategy team. EPIC is all about delivering the UK Vision Strategy
by building a consensus approach at local level and developing
‘vision plans’ for eye health and sight loss services. The project
has yielded some very useful outcomes, such as planning
guidance and templates for other areas to develop their own local
The UK Vision Strategy itself was a response to the need for an
agreed UK plan. One of the international achievements of VISION
2020 was that we managed to get sight loss recognised as a
priority in the World Health Assembly budgeting programme. To
that end, all countries were asked to have a vision plan in place,
and the UK Vision Strategy was developed as a result. RNIB led
the momentum to get the strategy going, and then, through
VISION 2020 UK, we managed to ensure that all our members
signed up, and that it was taken forward.
How successful do you think the strategy has
been so far, and what are the issues we now
We’ve made great progress in a number of areas, such as the
pressure to get new treatments for age-related macular
degeneration (AMD) adopted, NICE guidance on glaucoma and
initiatives around promoting the need for regular eye tests.
Probably one of the biggest steps forward is the agreement to
have a public health indicator for eyes, because it links us
into the whole public health arena, where eyes have largely
been excluded or not given the prominence they need.
However, I think the spending cuts are causing all kinds of
problems. We now have better ways of notifying local authorities
that someone has a sight loss, but then there’s no specialist
service to pick them up! We’ve had the development of eye clinic
liaison services, but in many places they’re scarcely supported.
The voluntary sector often supports these services, but their
funding is itself under threat.
There’s also the whole question of funding for treatment. Someone
comes up with a treatment for a particular condition, but what
happens if there’s no money in the budget for it? Another concern
is research, which is badly underfunded. In times of scarcity we are
even less likely to see money going into eye research.
Looking on the bright side, what advances have
made a difference to you and other blind and
partially sighted people?
In the 11 years that I’ve been involved we’ve had massive
advances in technology that will enable better inclusion –
everything from announcements on buses and trains to the advent
of iPhones and iPads with built-in speech. There’s also the ability
to get newspapers downloaded – I can read any of 55 different
publications on the day of publication. And I can now access
reading matter in all sorts of formats on my portable machines. Ten
years ago I didn’t even have a 'talks' menu on my mobile phone –
you just had to guess where the buttons were. Those were
incredible developments in a very short period of time, and
obviously that’s not going to slow down.
What is the highlight of your career with Vision
The last two VISION 2020 conferences, where we had 500
professionals together at the QEII Centre in London talking about
key issues, were very rewarding for me. They made me feel that
there was a major momentum now, with crossover working
between all the different agencies, from politicians and
representatives of local authorities to eye specialists and vision
impairment groups – a massive broad section.
How will you spend your retirement?
Retirement is always a funny word – I usually say 'I’m stopping
paid work'! I’m still a non-executive director of an IT company,
where I can pursue my interest in accessibility. In the area of
sports, I’m also a non-executive director of the UK anti-doping
agency. Apart from that, it’s time to update my autobiography,
which was published a long time ago – I now have another 30
odd years to add. And I do quite a bit of after-dinner speaking,
raising awareness and raising money for the various charities I
It does mean I’ll have more time for the gym and for my sporting
interests. In fact, I’m doing a 10-sport challenge at the moment as
a way of combining my interests. With two other chief executives –
David Scott-Ralphs from SeeAbility and Peter Corbett from the
Pocklington Trust – we’re doing 10 sports in 10 months to raise
£10,000 each, and we’ve called ourselves ‘The three Tenners’. I’ve
done six so far, and now I’ve just got judo, sailing, cycling and
rowing to do.
And will you get a chance to relax and enjoy the
Yes, I’ve deliberately finished in time to get my armchair ready! My
wife Maureen is a volunteer at the Olympics and Paralympics, so
I’m not sure whether she’s done that to get away from me watching
the telly for ever. But I have some tickets for the Olympics and
quite a few for the Paralympics, including the opening and closing
ceremonies, so I think I shall be in and out quite a bit as well.
Information about Network 1000 and the other projects mentioned
is available on the VISION 2020 website at vision2020uk.org.uk
For more about the EPIC project and the new Vision Planning
Guidance, see vision2020uk.org.uk/ukvisionstrategy
'Where There's a Will' by Mike Brace is available through Amazon
and other online booksellers, and as a Talking Book.
Mike Brace CBE lost his sight in a firework accident at the age of
just 10. Since then he has spearheaded the fight to stem avoidable
sight loss at the helm of Vision 2020 UK, the umbrella organisation
which facilitates greater co-operation between health and sight
loss organisations. He has also been heavily involved with the
London Olympic and Paraylmpic Games, including as a member of
the initial bid team. He retired from his role as chief exec of Vision
2020 UK in June.