Summary: Biography of NCBI CEO Des Kenny
Desmond Kenny was born on the 17th of November 1947 in Dublin’s Rotunda maternity hospital first child (of eventually 10 children) to his parents Peter and Teresa. A childhood, playtime accident when he was seven-years-old, resulted in damage to the retina of his left eye. Several operations to save the sight of this eye ended in failure and this failure was further compounded by the onset of sympathetic ophthalmia in his right eye, leading to total blindness when he was nine-years-old.
He could not continue to attend his local national school in Newbridge County Kildare but instead had to go as a boarder to St. Joseph’s school for blind boys in Dublin.
“Nine years experience of attending a special school leaves me today sceptical of systems of segregation. I can never be convinced that to take a child away from his family and his local environment in the guise of favoured treatment does other than to lead to the impoverishment of those emotional experiences of family and their importance to growing up as a happy child. I was a most lonely child in that place,” Des Kenny says.
Kenny went straight from school to work, although he found time in his later years to successfully obtain two masters degrees in health care management and business administration. His first job at the Irish Association for the Blind was as a Braille stereo typist. “This description of a form of being a printer of Braille gave me something of an elevated status in the company of switch-board operators and craft workers of the sheltered workshops for the blind in the Dublin of the late 1960’s,” he muses wryly.
Courses at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education in politics, social sciences, humanities and public speaking saw Kenny advance in his education. He was elected auditor of the Institute’s then widely acclaimed debating society. He says that he “ started by being terrified of speaking in public and used to be physically sick before important debates. I wasn’t any more than just average as a debater but the experience was the making of me.”
From the Irish Association for the Blind, Des Kenny moved to the National League of the Blind as its general secretary in 1974. The League was then on the crest of a wave as a welfare body and trade union for people who are blind. From there, after six years, he moved to the Union of Voluntary Organisations for the Handicapped (UVOH). Here he spent a further six years as it’s CEO, before joining the NCBI in 1986 as CEO.
Kenny runs NCBI today by continuously posing the question to himself and his staff: “is what NCBI does still important in improving the lives of people – do we make a difference for people experiencing blindness and sight loss?”
“That’s the only reason we exist,” he says. “If we don’t make a marked difference for people, we should close up shop.”
Des Kenny remarks that he has to accept that he is a testimony to what can flow in enriching an individual when opportunity is given to one to grow and to live with one’s disability.
Opportunity is nowadays the managed skill of conveying hope from NCBI staff to a blind or vision impaired person to give them a belief in themselves and that they can lead an active, independent fulfilled life. Skills training and access to technology also form part of the service cocktail that is NCBI today,” he said.
“NCBI is nothing without our staff. It is through them that our vision for people who are blind and vision impaired to have the same opportunities, rights and choices as others to fully participate in society is promoted. I consider myself to be fortunate in having the opportunity to lead people with much commitment and a bundle of talent,” Kenny concludes.
Kenny lives in North county Dublin with wife Terry. He has six children ranging in age from 31 years to 20 years. His interest beyond his work is in literature and poetry. He won the Dublin City Council and Arts Council Christy Brown award for poetry in 1981. “It is my one slight regret,” he says, “that, in advancing my career and NCBI, writing poetry had to be left behind.”