March 30, 2023 12 min read
Thank you so much for joining us, Miles! How would your friends and family describe you?
I am not sure how others would describe me actually, but I certainly see myself as being a very ordinary but privileged person, having come to the realisation that our quality of life, no matter what our current circumstances are, is not determined so much by our circumstances, which we often cannot control like my blindness!, but by our response to our circumstances. Over which we have total control.
As someone so truly said, if you cannot change your circumstances, change your attitude to them!
For 30 years, you believed that your blindness was a massive barrier, preventing you from undertaking any adventurous exploits. You’ve since achievedremarkable world records, travelled to incredible locations and conquered exceptional boundaries. What was it that then drastically changed your mindset?
Growing up in what is now Zimbabwe, I was told at age 21 I was going blind and subsequently had a victim mentality right up to the age of 50, believing that my blindness would have a negative impact on the rest of my life, something everybody around me also believed. I have never come across another person who thought that blindness was a good thing! The radical change in my outlook on life at the age of 50 was through the example of my brother Geoff, also totally blind through a genetic hereditary condition we both inherited.
He was then living in Durban, South Africa and built a 32-foot ocean going yacht in his back garden by feel, with the dream of sailing it solo from South Africa to Australia, totally blind and alone, relying on primitive speech-output to access his navigational instruments. He was already an accomplished sailor, having crewed on Cape to Rio yacht races, but this was a far cry from attempting to cross an ocean alone and blind. But he made it in 51 days, despite five sleepless days in a Force 10 gale that half wrecked his boat, with massive 35-foot waves and high winds driving him towards Antarctica.
This was my big “kick up the backside” so to speak, wondering how come my brother, as blind as I was, was able to set this amazing world record, whilst I was doing nothing with my life. He helped me to understand that, for any of us to be successful, we should not start by focusing on our current negative circumstances, but rather first focus on our dreams and what we want to achieve in our life. Then figure out how to make it possible, despite our situation.
You are the first blind person to fly from London to Sydney. What inspired you to undertake this challenge?
Our father was a WWII fighter pilot, along with his two brothers, and subsequently was the Director of Civil Aviation in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe. My brother and I grew up around aircraft, and my dream was to become a fighter pilot like my dad. My attempt to join the Royal Rhodesian Air Force to do my military training failed due to me failing my eyesight medical, and was told I would never be a pilot for this reason.
After my brother set his amazing world record becoming the first (and still only) blind person to cross an ocean solo, he reminded me to start with my dreams in life, and not my circumstances. Basically, this stopped me from thinking that blind people could not fly, instead wondering “how can a blind person fly without sight”- a very different way to approach the problem! I realised that, even though my eyes did not work, my ears worked fine, so the trick was to get someone to develop speech-output on all my flight instruments, and I could fly that way.
I became a fully qualified microlight pilot, and, despite some four years of setbacks, finally undertook our 55-day flight from London to Sydney, accompanied by a sighted pilot, as naturally I was not recognised as a pilot, despite having the technology to undertake most aspects of the flying and navigating, but still of course needing a sighted pilot with me.
One of your other many accomplishments was when you circumnavigated 38,000 kilometres around the world using 80 different forms of transport. What was the motivation behind this and what modes of transport were the most challenging and which were the most fun?
Robin Dunseath, an amazing and highly-successful Scottish PR executive, inspired by Jules Verne’s “Around the world in 80 days” story decided to do an “80 Ways” version of it, inviting three people with obvious “disabilities” to do it with him - myself, Irish Caroline Casey (also registered blind), and Mike McKenzie, a wheel-chair paraplegic.
Our key route took us from London through Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Nice, Monaco, Rome, Cairo, the Red Sea, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bombay, Delhi, Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Washington, Las Vegas, New York, then back to London on 3 December, the United Nations International Day of the Disabled.
Our forms of transport took us by land, sea, air, and even underground and under the ocean. From a wildly bucking Husky-drawn sleigh to racehorses, camels, unpredictable and fast ostriches in the Karoo, and stately elephant padding through the thronging streets of Delhi. From ancient steam-powered tugs, vehicles and trains to executive jets and racing cars around the Malaysian Grand Prix Circuit. Tuk tuk’s through the crowded, noisy streets of Bangkok, and long-tail boats roaring past ancient riverside temples, to a pack of Harley-Davidson motorbikes thundering and growling into Cape Town.
From Singapore sea kayaks crossing the Straits, to canoes across Hong Kong Harbour, dragon boat paddlers racing, teams singing, drums beating the rhythm and Penang fishing boats to funicular mountain trains, helicopters and dumper trucks. From siren-wailing fire engines, ambulances, police cars and mobile strategic emergency control vehicles to placid horse-drawn barges and San Francisco street trams, hot air balloons, sand yachts and motorised rickshaws. From mountain-rescue stretchers and souped up rally cars to underwater scuba self-propelled vehicles and fireman’s poles to light aircraft and hand-pedal wheelchairs. From Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds to stretch limos to Indian home-made diesel-pump vehicles brightly festooned with garlands of Marigolds weaving down the main road towards the Taj Mahal.
From bellowing 105mm Howitzer self-propelled field guns driven through the bone-chilling Indianapolis snow to all-terrain personnel carriers. We went on and on worldwide, without respite, raising some HK$500,000 for charities along the way, finally arriving back outside the Reform Club in London in a fantasy space vehicle 93 days later.
Which one of your accomplishments has been most significant to you?
A difficult question to answer, as my life has been hugely impacted in different ways by everything I have done.
Certainly doing aerobatics in a Hawker Hunter fighter jet and flying through the sound barrier in an English Electric Lightning (flying at a speed equivalent to crossing 5 football fields a second!), as well as my flight to Australia were wonderful flying achievements to me. And I am just sorry that my dad, with his own WWII flying achievements died before seeing his sons still achieving goals in their own lives, despite going blind, for which I think he totally wrongly felt somewhat responsible.
My participation in four ultra-marathons across the Qatar, Sahara and Gobi deserts and Death Valley certainly taught me that “only those willing to risk going too far will discover how far it is possible to go.” Making me realise that all of us can do far, far more than we think we can, and that “the greatest barriers or fences we will ever have to climb over in our lives are those we construct in our own minds”.
I loved the serenity of being high up in the Himalayas or running through Siberian forests in deep snow and, of course, the absolute, indescribable magic of briefly pausing in my journey attempting to man-haul a sledge to the South Pole. Listening to the pure, absolute silence across Antarctica when the wind very briefly stopped blowing, surrounded by countless thousands of square miles of pristine ice and snow, it felt like I could be standing on an ice planet in another part of the universe at that moment.
People ask me why a blind person would want to climb Mt. Blanc or Kilimanjaro if I could not see the view at the top, but of course there is huge, huge satisfaction to just doing it anyway, regardless of it being so much harder if I could not see where I was going. But to me much, much more satisfying than sitting on a couch in the lounge with a TV remote in my hand.
I have always loved speed, and found it really exhilarating doing drag racing, racing around the Malaysian Grand Prix Circuit, and driving a thundering 5.6 litre V8 Mustang (0-100KPH in 2.8 seconds) on the Cape Town Circuit.I have two phobias: fear of heights and also being very claustrophobic, but I have been helped by someone telling me that “FEAR” stood for False Evidence Appearing Real! This enabled me to fly my microlight to over 20,000 feet, abseil 350 feet down Table Mountain, and control my claustrophobia swimming into a shipwreck over 100 feet down in the Red Sea and also being tightly strapped into very cramped racing cars or fighter aircraft cockpits with an oxygen mask over my face.
Your adventures have taken you to some really amazing places. What do you enjoy most about going on adventures - is it the challenge element or the different sounds and senses?
I have realised that there is something far, far worse in life than failing, and that is failing to try. And in life it does not matter how many times we fall into a ditch, the trick is to just get up one more time than we fall down and we have succeeded. Looking back on my life, I think that I am more surprised than anyone else regarding what I have managed to do.
Every time I have stepped outside my circle, attempting something I had not done before, my circle grew along with my confidence, making me wonder what else it may be possible for a blind person to do. Remembering not to start with my blindness, but rather my dreams, then working back from there, asking the question; “so how could a blind person do that?” Certainly a far cry from my original outlook on life, often supported by society around me that blind people could not expect to do much.
I have also discovered how much in the area of sound and smell that sighted people often miss. I was standing near a small stream with my daughter near our home in Derbyshire, and asked her how many sounds she could hear from the water, and her quick response was around 3 different sounds. I asked her to close her eyes and listen for a minute, and this time she came up with 11 distinctly different sounds, a veritable aquatic orchestra in all its glory, yet missed by most sighted people as they walked by, enjoying the scenery with their eyes but not using their ears much!!
Have there been any moments when you were on the verge of giving up on a challenge? How do you motivate yourself to persevere?
This question makes me smile big time, as, on nearly all my extreme adventures it has only been a day or two before I am yelling at myself, wondering why I have been so stupid as to take it on!
My sighted guide on most of my adventures has been my great friend Jonathan Cook, with both of us believing it is silly to peak too early before undertaking, for example, a 150 mile race through the Sahara Desert. So step one is to sign up for it before we do any training at all, then decide the first 75 miles are going to be for catching up on our training (so we do not peak too early!), leaving only 75 miles to run and in our heads knowing we are only doing a 75 mile race, unlike the unfortunate runners around us stressed because they are doing twice the distance. It may be silly, but it always helps us and yes, we never train enough but have a lot of fun anyway!
When I wanted to be the first blind person to manhaul a sledge 760 miles from the Antarctic Coast to the South Pole, we were flown to the edge of Antarctica to start our journey. As the sound of the twin-turbo Otter ski plane dwindled into the distance, leaving me and my 3 companions in total silence, quietly wondering if we had what it took to make it to the Pole. Finally I lifted my face-mask and said to my sighted guide Jon Cook, “Hey, this is not so bad, as all we need to do is pull our sledges until the end of the day (no nightfall there), and if we make it today, I know we can make it to the pole, as all we need to do tomorrow is repeat it, one day at a time.
In all our ultra-marathons, mountaineering etc we have always broken it down into small, manageable parts and never let the bigger picture daunt us, and of course kept a sense of humour, laughing at ourselves doing such silly things together!
Yourlife philosophy is that “The only limits in your life are those you accept yourself.”How did you decide to share your experience as a motivational speaker?
I initially thought my talks and messages would only be relevant to other people with disabilities, but soon realised that all of us face challenges in life, and the life lessons I was learning applied to us all. I have now had the totally undeserved privilege of speaking at some 1600 corporate events in 74 countries around the world, often with sighted people coming to me afterwards with comments like “you have opened my eyes to what is possible in life.” So maybe even blind people can have vision, and sighted people need to learn how to see life differently.
Many of the global corporate events I have been privileged to speak at have been full of senior executives, burning up the very best years of their lives, overworked, tired and super-stressed, stealing time from themselves, their families and loved ones - and they were not even enjoying their lives along the way. Absolute madness for sure, don’t you think??!
I used to ask them if their families or work was most important to them, and of course family and loved ones were priority. Yet few said they were making correct long-term decisions along those lines!
“If the most important people in our lives are those who will come to our funeral, surely we should not be neglecting them now?”
We’ve been so inspired by your wonderful positive attitude towards life. What other life advice do you have for our readers?
I think the very first thing I need to tell everybody reading this is that I am a very, very ordinary person. Just someone who has been stumbling around in the dark, trying to make sense of this wonderful gift called life we have all been given and make the most of it, regardless of the cards we have been dealt along the way.
So, some life lessons you may find helpful my reader friend:
1. Remember that, although you cannot always control your circumstances, you can always control your response to them. It is never as bad as you think it is- just count your blessings, be thankful and realise you are far, far better off than so many others in the world, and feel the stress drop away!
2. Always start with your dreams, not your circumstances. Dream, decide, plan, and persevere has always worked for me.
3. Never be afraid of dreaming big my friend, and remember that there is something much worse than failing, and that’s failing to try!
4. Face your fear and do it anyway, remembering that fear is no more than False Evidence Appearing Real!
5. All of us have been given two lives, and we begin the second one the day we realise we only have one.
6. Have a lot of fun along the way - keep a sense of perspective and humour - it’s never as bad as you think it is!
7.Step outside your circle - the last time you stepped outside your circle was the last time you grew as a person!!
8.Decide what you want to do with the rest of your life and what principles you will be guided by.
So my dear Reader, never let anyone tell you if you can live your dreams or not, because “the only limits in your life are those you accept yourself!”
Thank you very much Miles Barber your time and inspiring us and our amazing readers. There are many lessons we can take from these experiences and apply to our own lives I’m sure.
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