Chris Friend

From the brewing industry to international advocate for people who are blind or are visually impaired...

Chris FriendSometimes when life has thrown us what may seem an insurmountable challenge, it turns out that this life-change results in ten's of thousands of people, perhaps many more, being helped. Most DAISY Planet readers will have heard of, read about or perhaps even met Chris Friend. This is his story.

After finishing college in 1964, Chris entered the brewing industry, following in his father's footsteps. But it was not meant to be, there were other much more important things in the stars for this young man. Just six months into training for his new career he was in an industrial accident in Munich, Germany. Before his 20th birthday, Chris Friend was totally blind.

With rehabilitation complete, his life of travel, incredible travel, and helping others began, although the 'helping others' part was not Chris's first step into the working world. He was employed for two and a half years as an international correspondent for a French industrial and commercial magazine, travelling extensively throughout East Africa. Travel in that part of the world, at that point in time, would have been challenging for anyone, but somehow 'travel' and 'Chris' seemed to have an affinity for each other. It has become an integral part of his life.

Sightsavers logoWhile Chris was in East Africa he was introduced to the work of Sightsavers International. In 1968 they hired Chris in a fund development role focused on the South East of England and the Channel Islands. It is slightly more than 40 years since then, and Chris has never looked back; he has continued his work with Sightsavers International in the areas of fundraising and communications and plays an important role in his work with the World Blind Union. As Chair, WBU Strategic Objective Leader - Accessibility Chair WBU Global Right to Read Campaign, Chris is representing the WBU, the DAISY Consortium, IFLA, and the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI) with the proposed WIPO Treaty for equitable information access which was tabled by the WBU in November 2008. Chris has also worked closely with other key organizations such as Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) regarding the proposed Treaty which is on the agenda for the May WIPO SCRR meeting.

The following is excerpted from an interview with Chris for his 40th anniversary with Sightsavers International:

Q: What has kept you at Sightsavers for 40 years?
A: Leaving the office and going home for 14,600 nights knowing that what I had done during the day had really made a difference to someone. No other job came along and promised me anything better than that.

Q: What are you currently working on?
A: Mostly two main areas – as a Senior Training Consultant with IDP I am working with leaders of the National Membership Organisations of Blind People across Africa helping them to develop their training capacity; secondly representing Sightsavers on the World Blind Union. Since 2000 I have been involved through chairing two of its Working Groups to advance its support for the low vision community, and more recently I've become WBU's Observer to the UN's World Intellectual Property Organisation which globally controls copyright. This is an important area for the blind as creating accessible formats such as braille, large print and audio requires copyright clearance and WBU is seeking to persuade the international community that these accessible formats should be exempt from copyright restrictions.

Chris Friend, Stephen King and Tim Evans, Zagreb, Croatio Q: Has anything remained constant in the time that you have been at Sightsavers?
A: Yes, the simplicity of taking a needlessly blind person and making it possible for them to visit an eye clinic and return home with their sight restored.

Q: In all your travels, does one location/ project have a special place in your heart?
A: Wherever I travel, every project, every blind organisation, every class of blind children, every eye clinic I visit has a special place in my heart because it is there that I have been privileged to meet those who we are in business to help.

Q: What do you do when you are not at work?
A: I'm a great believer in a good work/life balance. The three most important pillars in my life are my love for my family, my Christian faith, and finally my love for my work.

Chris Friend's work has been acknowledged extensively as is shown by the numerous awards he has received. Highlights include:

  • 1972 - Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship (he was one of the first people who is blind person to receive this award)
  • 1999 - the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to Sightsavers International in the Queen's Birthday Honours List
  • 1979 and 1992 - International President's Award of Lions Clubs International
  • 2004 - the SANCB 75th Anniversary Award for exceptional service to blind people, and, the Business Traveller Magazine's 'Traveller of the Year 2004' award

Chris Friend at the 17th WIPO SCCR meetingChris' current memberships include the RNIB Assembly, appointment as the UK delegate to the European Blind Union’s Commission for Co-operation with the Blind and Partially Sighted in the Developing Countries, and Chair of WBU Global Right to Read Campaign. He served on the World Blind Union Executive Committee from 2000 to 2008.

Somehow, with all that he has done and is still doing, Chris manages to have a personal life. He has been married since 1973; Chris and his wife Judy have two children, Toby, born in 1977, and Georgina, born in 1982. They "now have a gorgeous daughter-in-law and an even more adorable granddaughter Hannah aged 3".

Editor's Note: Chris attended the WIPO SCCR meeting in Geneva, May 25 to 29. His report on the outcome will be published in the June issue of the DAISY Planet.