The Story Behind Sightsavers

The Relatively Unknown History of one of the World's Most Effective Charities


A journey with humble beginnings can lead to the grandest of accomplishments. This is certainly true for the remarkable story behind The British Empire Society for the Blind, known today as Sightsavers. Sir John Wilson, motivated by a deep sense of purpose, and with the full support of his wife, Lady Jean Wilson, founded this charitable organization in 1950 on a shoestring budget after mortgaging their house. They both considered it a risk worth taking and millions of people have benefited from this extraordinary act of kindness and vision.

Sightsavers has grown to be one of the largest, most well respected non-profit organizations in the world. According to their latest annual report posted online, Sightsavers earned £300 million in charitable donations and grants in 2016 alone. The charity continues to break new fundraising records every year because donors so appreciate what they do. Non-profit auditors like GiveWell give Sightsavers their highest degree of confidence that every donation is well spent.

How does Sightsavers spend all those donations and grant money? For starters, they have administered more than a BILLION eyesight saving treatments, preventing and curing neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) like Trachoma and River Blindness in the most remote areas of the world where medical care is scarce at best. Sightsavers has also performed more than six million cataract operations free of charge, in most cases completely restoring eyesight, enabling people to start earning an income again and performing tasks we often take for granted, like cooking and taking care of the kids. Sightsavers is also one of the most ardent advocates for people with blindness and other disabilities, always pushing for equal opportunities and an improved understanding from society.

Sightsavers has long been recognized for their exceptional transparency in how they spend the donations and grants they receive. In fact, it is this transparency about the work they do in more than thirty countries that keeps the donations and grants rolling in. People can easily see how their money is being spent and that it is being put to good use. Bottom line, Sightsavers completely transforms the lives of millions of people, and entire communities, in the most underserved areas of the world. Donors know they get an amazing bang for their buck. Likewise, corporations and governmental entities know their investment(s) will be wisely spent.

With Sir John operating as Sightsavers’ motivator in chief, and Lady Wilson amplifying that effort even more, this writer does not need to take much literary license to confidently state that neither of them ever had a dull day in their life! To say Sir John was a globe trotter would be putting it mildly! It is estimated that he traveled an average of fifty thousand miles per year, usually with Lady Wilson right along with him! This was the ultimate “power couple.” They accomplished more in a year of running Sightsavers than most people accomplish in their entire lifetime. However, in every interview, they remain humble and gracious, much to the delight of their many admirers.

In the remainder of this article, we are going to take a look at the history of Sightsavers and some of the pivotal events that helped them achieve so much success in helping people around the world. We’ll also take a look at some of the most transformative events in Sir John’s life and how this inspired him to start Sightsavers and continue to give so much of his generous heart and keen mind to its missions, right until the end of his life in November 1999. Fortunately, Lady Wilson is still with us and continues to inspire and rally the troops at Sightsavers with her stories and words of wisdom.

In January 2017, Lady Wilson gave a talk to Sightsavers’ Social Inclusion Working Group which aims to make persons with disabilities feel more comfortable working at Sightsavers. She reminded the group that her husband always referred to his blindness as a “confounded nuisance, nothing more!” The man had grit and it seemed to have started early in life. At age twelve, instead of wallowing in self-misery after the school chemistry class accident took his vision in both eyes, Sir John set about to learn the skills needed when blind without complaint. In fact, he seems to have spent more time consoling his parents than in worrying about how his blindness might affect himself.

Sir John excelled in school and won a scholarship to Oxford University. Even though he favored philosophy and English, he elected for the practical choice of studying law. You may be thinking he chose the legal field because of job security and a nice salary. However, what actually made the legal field “practical” for him was there were more braille version law books than braille version philosophy books and literature books. He still had to pay a reader a shilling an hour to read the books he needed that were not in braille while he took notes on his braille machine. Did he lament much on this point when asked about it? No, quite the opposite! He made the best of the opportunity, and spoke very fondly of his Oxford University experience. He studied hard, made nice friends, was a member of the rowing team, became president of the poetry society, and even became an excellent dancer! No, there was never a dull day for Sir John!

The attitude that Sir John had during his school days was same type of attitude the world would see him take when setting up Sightsavers, getting funding for it, establishing partnerships, helping to change attitudes, and helping those he met along the way of course. In this way, Sir John became a shining inspiration to everyone with any type of disability. He seemed to be saying by his own personal example, “Don’t let your disability hold you back chap — you can do anything — live life to the fullest — if I can do it, you can do it!”

Sir John Wilson visiting India.

In a gripping May 8, 1994 BBC interview with Sue Lawley, Sir John reflected on many fascinating aspects of his purpose driven life. When he was around twenty years old, World War II broke out. Sir John attempted to enlist but they wouldn’t take him. Determined to serve his country, he took a break from his studies at Oxford University to go into London to explore what factory jobs blind men could do as sighted men vacated their jobs to go fight the war.

To put this endeavor into a historical timeline of Sir John’s life, this was about a decade before he would start Sightsavers. This was Sir John’s first full foray into making a positive change in the world for blind people and for sighted people’s attitude toward blind people. It foreshadowed one of the major missions the Sightsavers charity would take onto a global stage, and even into the United Nations. Sir John was quite determined, from early in his life, to show the world just how productive in society blind people could be! In fact, in the BBC interview, Sir John explained why blind people were particularly well suited for work in ammunition factories due to their heightened sense of touch:

“A blind person who is reading braille at normal speed is distinguishing twenty-five dot patterns a second. Now that is an industrial talent if you can find the right job! One job, for example, is a job called mica splitting. Mica, as I discovered, is the stuff you put inside the filaments of lamps, and the sighted people who were micro splitting, by hand in those days, were breaking about a third of it. So, we got blind people who were braille readers into it and we cut down the breakage rate radically in the first day.”

Fresh out of college, Sir John took a job at the National Institute for the Blind. While they may have meant well, Sir John did not agree fully with their attitude toward people who were blind. Instead of simply serving them, he felt they should be given more opportunity to develop skills to live a richer fuller life. This was an idea he would expound upon trough the Sightsavers organizations about eight years later.

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In 1946, after the war, Sir John was offered the opportunity to travel to multiple African countries and across the Middle East by the Colonial Office. At the time, these areas were considered territories of the the Commonwealth. It was during this time that Sir John met Lady Wilson and they ended up living in a mud hut in Uganda for several months in their early marriage, rolled up in mosquito netting at night with a bottle of scotch to survive the vampire flies! Now, there’s something to reminisce about on your silver wedding anniversary! No dull days with these two!

Sir John described these adventures that led to the formation of Sightsavers in vivid detail. What was most telling, and in fact chilling, was how all of the adults in the ENTIRE VILLAGE in which they stayed, and in other villages throughout the entire region, were blind! Every last adult was blind! In fact, these people did not understand until after their arrival that adults could see! They were completely taken by the fact that Lady Wilson, who was then an adult in her early twenties, could still see! They knew about experience of sight because they and their kids started out being able to see but by the time they were adults, they all went blind — the entire village. It was just a fact of life to them. They had learned to raise enough food to sustain themselves and their families by planting seeds along straight lines bamboo laid on the ground and fetch water via a hemp rope.

The name for the disease causing this plague of blindness was quite the tongue twister: Onchocerciasis! (I dare you to say that one three times fast!) It was so named because it was named after the scientific Latin name for the microorganism that caused the disease. Lady Wilson renamed it “River Blindness” because the flies that transmitted the microorganisms that cause Onchocerciasis blindness, through their blood bites, came from the river. This made educating donors and partners about the disease, and how Sightsavers would use their money to fight against it, much easier and this is just one of many contributions Lady Wilson made to Sightsavers’ mission.

When they returned after several months, Sir John was determined to do something about the plight of “avoidable” blindness in these underdeveloped regions of the world. He and Lady Wilson could plainly understand that the flies carrying the disease must be killed to reduce, and eventually eliminate, River Blindness. Sir John was also quite upset by the social stigma that blind people faced in these developing countries and he wanted to start education programs to ease this. He was determined to provide basic medical care to restore their sight, reduce their pain, and restore their sight when possible, or in the case of younger people, prevent blindness altogether. Sir John asked the National Institute for the Blind for funding and explained how much could be done for relatively little money. However, they were not ready to buy into this fully because they did not think the territories of the Commonwealth fell under their purview.

Never say no to a stubborn blind man on a mission, especially with an equally stubborn woman behind him! Sir John and Lady Wilson decided right then, right there, to start Sightsavers and find the funding they needed themselves. It seemed the only sensible thing to do at the time, although in retrospect, it seems absolutely extraordinary that they actually took the leap of mortgaging their own home! Further, no matter what obstacle presented itself throughout the years, Sir John found a way to convince the world of what it needed to move past their draconian views into a brighter future for all persons with disabilities.

By the 1960s, Sir John and others at Sightsavers were looking for a dramatic way to change the prevailing attitudes toward blind people in Africa. Children who went blind were often treated as outcasts and kept out of school. This locked them into a vicious cycle of dependence on others as well as a bondage of indignity. To counter these attitudes, Sir John decided to encourage young blind men from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to climb all the way to the top Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in Tanzania, 19,340 feet high! The group was successful and their accomplishment made the newspapers all over the world. While it did not change attitudes completely overnight, it certainly went a long way toward proving blind people could do anything they set their mind to. Enrollment of blind children in school went up after this event and it was easier to get blind people to believe in themselves.

The Kilimanjaro climb was so inspirational, five blind teenagers from Britain, and five blind teenagers from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, ages 14-16, climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro thirty years later in honor of the original climb in 1969! Not only did they prove once more that blind people can do anything, they raised £70,000 in the process, which was all donated to Sightsavers of course. The money was earmarked to cover 5000 free cataract operations to restore sight to people in Africa and Asia. Other similar fundraisers have been done in honor of the first 1969 climb by the blind men.

In the early 1980s, even though the internet had not been invented yet, the Sightsavers team used another miracle of modern technology for the time to produce another major landmark in Sightsavers’s history. They were able to use burgeoning computer technology to churn out braille versions of thousands of books. This gave blind people in Africa far more access to reading materials. No longer would blind people have to depend on other people to read to them and or be limited by the precious few braille books available.

Just how humble were the beginnings of Sightsavers? In the same BBC interview cited above, in his characteristic dry wit, Sir John jokes about it in this way:

“It started in a slum office on Victoria Street where the first chore we had to do, Jean and I, was scrub the floors. I remember that very well because they put the Colonial Office, which was enormously helpful to us, and they put on a tremendous publicity effort for us, so as we were scrubbing the floors, telephone calls came through. We got the telephone on a bit of wire on the floor, and someone came through and said can I please speak to your West Indian desk so Jean picked it up and said, yes this is the West Indian desk, and another chap came through and said, can I speak to your legacy department, so Jean handed it to me and I put on my deepest voice and said, this is the legacy department, and that’s how it started.”

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Back then, there probably were people who thought Sir John and Lady Wilson were crazy for doing what they did. However, now we know, with the benefit of hindsight through the documented history and many successes of Sightsavers, that these two special people were compassionate geniuses. This is the way it usually is with visionaries who change the world.

Sightsavers is one of those charitable organizations that has had colossal impact on the world at large and there seems to be no end in sight for the positive effect yet to come. Sir John Wilson may have passed from this world but his legacy lives on with reverberations around the globe. With the strife we are currently experiencing in the world today, it is good to know that this “fountain of goodness” has been highly contagious. Every life that Sightsavers touches affects how many more lives? Five, ten, a hundred, perhaps thousands? Regardless, this life transformation network has gone viral and the world is a better place because of Sir John and Lady Wilson!

Today, Sightsavers has administrative offices in eight countries and they work in more than thirty countries. They may not be the fanciest offices but they didn’t need to scrub the floor before they moved their desks in! They employ more than five hundred people and they have trained volunteers and many partners all over the world. In fact, people seem to be drawn to Sightsavers’ miracle missions like a moth to a flame.

The current rendition of Sir John’s Wikipedia page refers to him as both a “blind activist” and a “public health advocate.” While both are true, neither adequately portray the enormous goodwill, humanity, and life altering magical moments that Sir John and Lady Wilson spread around the world. If you would like to donate to Sightsavers today, please click on the bright orange “Donate” button in the upper right corner of their homepage ( This will automatically take you to the correct page for your location from which to donate. Peace and blessings to all.

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