Neil Barnfather, who receives an MBE, said it was assumed that he would not work when he left school.
He said: “When I left school, the careers adviser said, ‘Yes, you’re one of the disabled children, the benefit claim form’s over there.’
“I’ve never believed in that, so if I can somehow encourage children to think there is a future for them that is not just mundane and boring but also exciting and thrilling, if they want it… and if I can show parents of disabled kids that actually you don’t need to wrap your kids in a whole lorry full of cotton wool and there is actually a world of opportunity out there and all you have to do is nurture your children and encourage them in the right way… then the world can be theirs.”
Barnfather said he was “extraordinarily shocked” when he heard about the MBE, so much so that he was convinced someone was playing a trick on him.
And although he was “deeply honoured”, he also admits to being disappointed – as a blind person – that the offer of an MBE did not arrive in an accessible format.
The letter had to be read to him, even though recipients are not supposed to share the news with anyone until the official announcement.
He also wasn’t able to respond to the letter himself, because he was supposed to reply by filling in a paper form.
He was given the MBE because of both his work in the telecommunications industry – last November he won the special merit award in the “serial entrepreneur” category at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, and this April he was a keynote speaker at a prestigious telecommunications industry event in Canada – and his charity work with visually-impaired people.
Alongside other charitable work, he has set up The One Eighth Foundation, a social enterprise that aims to work globally towards “genuine equality and social integration” for disabled people.
But he caused controversy last year when – in an interview with Disability News Service – he hit out at the disability community for failing to recognise his achievements in business, comparing it to “a bucket full of crabs” and dismissing the efforts of the disabled people’s movement.
He is proud that he has started 19 companies in areas from “aviation to vending, from circuit boards to consumer services”, and was an international business ambassador for the British Chambers of Commerce for eight years.
There is also his business consultancy, Neil Barnfather Consultancy, and the biggest of his current businesses, the web-hosting company eHosting, which employs 16 full-time members of staff, has about 140,000 business customers in 50 countries, and has won awards for its customer service.
He has tended to spot areas in the industry where he thinks something can be improved. TalkNav, which sells screen-reading software, was a prime example. He set it up after he had a “diabolical experience” while trying to buy the software as a consumer.
He said: “I have not ever gone into any businesses to make money, I have gone into them to prove a point.”
He said he hoped the MBE would add to his credibility in his political and philanthropic work.
He said: “I would like to hope that it will enable me to draw better attention to my work, to what I do and how I do it, and it will perhaps work as a passport, as a door opener, to get more involved in committees and panels.”
Last year, he compared the seriousness with which he is taken by the Conservative party – of which he is a member – with his treatment by the disability community as “a non-entity”.
Now he hopes his MBE could “validate” his work in the political arena.
He said: “I have met David Cameron now three or four times, and various other heavy-hitting cabinet members and secretaries of state, but I just feel [the MBE] will add a little bit of ‘who is Neil’ because I have always operated in an invisible guise.
“I have been busy doing, not busy gathering recognition.”
18 June 2014