ELASH MISTRY, AFRICA’S FIRST BLIND ACTUARY IS AN INSPIRATION

Growing up with a disability can either make or break you, depending on how you let it affect you. One of the blind pioneers in business is Africa’s first blind actuary, Elash Mistry, Old Mutual’s Team Leader, who recently completed the longest and most difficult degree offered by any university.

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The highly intelligent Mistry had no free rides on his way to the top, having to work twice as hard as his able-bodied colleagues while using the latest technology to help him maximise resources like the Internet in more recent times.

From the get-go, life was not easy for Mistry, having to attend boarding school in another city due to Apartheid, far away from the safety and comfort of his family.

“I hail from Pretoria but I spent the least amount of time in Pretoria and had to go away to a boarding school for the blind in Pietermaritzburg. The main reason for that was that there were schools for the blind in Pretoria but because of the Apartheid system, I was not allowed to attend the school. So, I had to attend the only school for the blind for Indians all the way in Pietermaritzburg. I went right up to Matric at the Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind and then to Wits University where I went on to get my degree in Economic Science, majoring in Actuarial Science and Statistics,” he says.

Tough times

As a small boy in a strange environment at school a long way from home, it was a very tough time for Mistry, often crying himself to sleep at times.

“It was tough, I cried every time I left home, even up to the age of 17, because I would go away from home and only come back on school holidays, so it was a long three months. While you were there, you would see people who lived closer go home on weekends and you would wish you could be one of them. On sports days and at awards functions, other people’s parents would come by and watch and because our parents were far away, they couldn’t. There were long weekends when we were five or six left in the big hostel with one house mother because everybody else had gone home. It was tough but it had its benefits in the sense that I learnt to appreciate what I have,” he explains.

As you can image, there were numerous challenges along the way adapting to main stream culture after school, but he found some wonderful mentors at the school for the blind who gave him hope for a better future. It was at university where he experienced a culture shock.

Culture shock

“I was lucky in the sense that at the school for the blind, everything was adapted, everything was in Braille, so our teachers knew Braille, but when I got to university, there was quite a culture shock. It was moving from one extreme to the another: in school, everything was adapted for the blind, at university, there was absolutely nothing. We had a unit called the disability unit that supported us academically and, given the field that I was in—Actuarial Science—where no blind person had ventured before in South Africa, there was nothing available in Braille or recorded on tape or anything like that, so any material I had to study had to first be transcribed, in some cases, from handwritten notes, onto computer so that I could read it.

“That was the one challenge. The other challenge was that because there’s no conventional Braille notation for this field, we had to develop our own notations so that I could communicate with sight—a lot of notation is based on standard programming code but in Actuarial Science, there’s a lot of mathematical and statistical notation that can become quite complicated. Now, the device I use is called a Braille display, which only shows text in a straight line and you can imagine something like a fraction that’s written over two lines can be quite a challenge, so complicated expressions could take up to six lines, for example, written in my notation,” Mistry explains.

The long haul

“I then started working. My first job was at Momentum and I then went to the Financial Services Board and Liberty Life and finally, I’m at Old Mutual. I am married, I have three children and I have been studying for a very long time to finally qualify as an actuary,” he says.

And the challenges did not end there. Entering the workplace, Mistry had to work twice as hard as the competition to, firstly, stay up-to-date and, secondly, to prove that a blind person could perform at the same level as his peers.

“In the work environment, there’s the constant need to prove my capability because Actuarial Science is a difficult field and a blind person doing Actuarial Science makes it even more difficult so, I’m constantly having to prove my worth. Computers have made a big difference, they have definitely improved accessibility because I can read text on a computer and that’s what I use to function as a blind person. In the work environment, with my studies, there’s still that constant barrier, though, between sighted people and blind people that one has to adapt to,” he says.

Technology to the rescue

The boom in technology development over the last 20 years has certainly made it easier for him to stay abreast of the latest market developments, which is essential to any actuary.

He explains some of the technology that he uses: “I use a standard laptop that anybody else would use, together with assistive equipment. The main piece of equipment is called a Braille display, which literally converts text from the screen into a tactile format so it’s a system of raised dots, which I then use, using my two fingers, to read and write. The writing part is a standard keyboard that I use and I know touch-typing, which I can then read what I’ve typed on the Braille display.

“In terms of diagrams, there is technology available for today’s visual diagram in a tactile format but it’s not that accessible, it costs quite a bit today, but that’s how I survived at school with subjects like maths, science and physiology. At university as well, most of the diagrams were converted into a tactile format using this technology.

“I can add the latest technology on my phone as well, for example, I use an icon—the screen reading technology’s built into the operating system, and most smartphones come with that kind of technology. It makes it quite useful because I can catch an Uber, for example, to get to where I want to be. Other technology I would say, is still lacking in terms of accessibility to material. For example, I am excluded from a lot of stuff that’s happening in the media, even though I can read up on it, but anything that’s advertising or published up-front that a sighted person can get just off the cuff, I need to literally go and look for it,” he explains.

Trailblazer

Being the first blind actuary in Africa and only the second in the world is a major achievement, and it gives hope to an entire generation of youngsters who could only dream of following in Mistry’s brave footsteps.

He continues, “I’d agree with that 100%. When I started out in the field of Actuarial Science, one of the intentions was to open up towards blind people. At the time, it was sort of taken for granted that a blind person either becomes a singer, a switchboard operator or a lawyer, and I said it’s time we change that. It’s taken a long time but the door is definitely open and I can give advice to anybody else who wants to enter into any field that’s mathematically based, or that has common challenges.”

He goes on to give advice to any disabled youngster wanting to follow in his footsteps.

“I would say first make sure you’re passionate about what you want to study because it’s one thing to work hard, but it takes a lot of grit, if I can use that word, to stick to it. If you’re passionate about something, you’re naturally going to succeed and you’d be more willing to put in the time and effort, but with any field, there are challenges and if you’re willing to overcome them, you’re going to get to where you want to be,” Mistry says.

Dealing with negativity

With anything, haters are going to hate, and Elash has had his fair share of share of naysayers over the years, trying to discourage him from achieving his potential, through their own ignorance. But he’s always managed to stay focused on the prize through some challenging times.

“When I started out with this career at university, I had a professor who said to me, ‘Actuarial Science is a very difficult field for sighted people, you are blind, you shouldn’t even consider trying it’, and I decided that the word ‘difficult’ is relative and I should first test it to see how difficult—what does he mean by difficult? So, when I passed my first year, he said, ‘Yes, you should continue, you’ve proved your point.’

“And having studied this for such a long time—it’s taken me 18 years to qualify—the human tendency is to want to throw in the towel. Last year, I reached a point where I realised that the impact of my studies was quite heavy on my family and things were getting a bit heavy, so I decided if I didn’t pass that exam, which was the second last of the 15 exams, I was going to quit. Fortunately, I passed the exam and I was left with one to finish, which I then finished this year,” he says.

Time is precious

“There are a lot of challenges when you’re studying and your little girl comes and knocks on your study door and says, ‘Dad, can you come and play with me?” You almost think, ‘What do I do now? Do I study or do I chase this girl away?’ Those are subtle sort of ways of asking if you should continue or not, but the determination was there and, often, when you’ve put in enough work already, that alone can spur you on,” he says.

Managing work commitments is a tough task. Many top businessmen and businesswomen find that the most difficult part of being successful is time spent away from the family.

He continues, “When I started out in my first year, somebody came along and said, ‘Don’t get married until you’re qualified.’ I took their advice initially but it was taking too long, so I said if I was going to wait to qualify before I get married I may never end up getting married and I definitely wanted to be married and have a family. So I took the decision to get married and have kids and, yes, it came with its challenges. As I said, I was about to quit at some point.”

Heightened senses?

Since Mistry cannot rely on his eyesight, his other senses are more finely tuned. But just how heightened are his other senses?

“Purely out of usage, many people think we have a very good sense of touch, which we do, but it’s not to say that it’s because we’re blind, it’s purely because we use it more. So anybody else has the same capability if they had to start using it as well. The same with hearing—80% of stimulus to the brain goes through the eye and if you don’t have that then, naturally, the other senses have to compensate. So, hearing and touch, smell, definitely, but there’s one sense I’ve had to develop a lot more and that’s common sense. Very often, you have to deduce from a situation just by observing so yes, a bit of common sense helps a lot with adapting as well,” he says.

Taking advantage

Unfortunately, with anything in life, some people will try to take advantage of the blind. It is disheartening that some people have no compassion, rather wanting to fulfil their own childish needs.

“Yes, people get a thrill out of testing blind people, which I’ve grown used to. When it’s a child, I can excuse that because I know the child is purely trying to learn, experiment and be adventurous and, from that, they gain a valuable lesson. But with adults, you would think they would have a bit more sensitivity. I’ve been lucky in the sense that I have a trusting nature and I haven’t really been badly let down so far,” he says.

Life lessons

Mistry is now also a successful Life Coach and is able to impart his many lessons to his clients. If he can do it (be highly successful), anybody can.

He explains, “If there are two words I can use, it’s to live consciously, be aware of the impact you have on everyone around you and your environment and be aware of what impact everyone else has on you. That is the route to all solutions people are looking for, so whether it’s getting rich or whether it’s succeeding academically or succeeding spiritually, if you live consciously, then all is taken care of,” he explains.

This begs the question: Are you seeing a rising consciousness in South Africa or have we still got a long way to go?

“It’s actually the opposite way around. We are actually being led by the nose in South Africa, I’ve got to be careful of what I say here but commercially, politically, a lot of people are mere followers and even if we do have people who realise what’s happening, no one is willing to take up the challenges to say, ‘Let’s oppose this that’s happening.’ It’s definitely not right,” he says.

Schooling system critique

Mistry goes on to highlight some of the challenges schools in South Africa face, putting grades ahead of learning on a more tangible, deeper level.

“The majority of schools in South Africa are geared towards getting six or eight As in Matric, there are very few schools that teach people a holistic way of life—developing as an individual and not just the academic side. That was one of my strengths, which helped me a lot to get to where I wanted to be—I drew my strength from within, which I find is lacking these days. Being at a boarding school and away from my parents during a time when there was no easy access, for example, cell phones et cetera, I had to rely on myself to be determined and to continue, and I find that is lacking so much these days,” Mistry says.

Helping hand

“Having said that, I have had a lot of support from a lot of people as well, and that’s where my luck and my wealth lies—I haven’t been left completely alone, I’ve had a lot of support from my family, my wife and a lady that I really wish to mention, Rykie Woite, who supported me academically. She did all the transcribing and the description of diagrams when I was at university—that was key to my success now.

Finally, spirituality is another big cornerstone of his life. It takes a great deal of understanding to come to terms with the cards you’ve been dealt in life and still love your higher power, so to speak.

“Every person is here to fulfil a bigger goal, apart from the ones that we can actually see. It is almost like undergoing what you need to in order to grow spiritually, so our physical life here on earth is actually a training ground in order for our souls to progress further. This is just my personal belief system, you know. So, with me being blind, that’s almost like a blessing in disguise because, on the one hand, I don’t see all the temptations that sighted people would normally see but, on the other hand, there are a lot of limitations and with limitations come tolerance and acceptance and all of those then help me to grow spiritually,” he says.

Transformation

Transformation in South Africa isn’t happening in the right places and at the right speed.

“The answers to our problems in South Africa lie in the field of spirituality. One can go and build many houses, one can take water to people but if there’s no change in the hearts of people then the problems will continue, everything else will just be temporary. We need people who are willing, and willingness comes from the heart—we need people who are willing to put their own luxuries aside and change the lives of others. The answer is definitely spiritual. If we can change, transformation needs to start from within—the rest will follow naturally,” he concludes. 

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