An evening with Darren Harris: 'Don’t Dis-Ability'

Disability History Month 2023 runs from 16 November to 16 December, and one distinguished speaker welcomed to Christ Church as part of this year’s celebrations was Darren Harris – dual Paralympian, bestselling author, and England’s most decorated and most capped blind footballer. 

Darren Harris speaking in the McKenna Room in Christ Church

The event, organised by the Christ Church Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and convened by College Chaplain Clare Hayns, began with a drinks reception in the beautiful McKenna room, located in our Grade I-listed Tom Quad. Members of the Christ Church community and guests from Balliol College then had the privilege of hearing Harris' reflections on the nature of disability, cultural portrayals of disability and of blindness in particular, and how his attitude to his own disability changed over time. 

Harris first posed a question. 'Have you ever been given a gift you didn't want?' he asked. 'I was given a gift I didn't want by the universe – I lost my sight.' He proceeded to explain how, after a period of deep sadness, he came to conceive of his blindness as a gift – as a challenge he could overcome and, in doing so, find fulfilment and a deep-seated sense of purpose. 

Of course, to reframe his thinking in this way, Harris would first need to 'throw off negative stimuli' and engrained social attitudes. He spoke of bleak portrayals of blindness in the Bible and Greek mythology – even as a fate worse than death – and of his determined journey to free himself of stigma and unleash his potential. 'I can't get my sight back, but I can change my mind.' 

With good humour, Harris told stories (some unrepeatable!) of his remarkable journey through life. The audience was spellbound as they learned about Harris' childhood, his years as a blind student of Mathematics at the University of Sheffield, his career in the nascent IT sector, and his sudden decision to give up his secure job to pursue the dream of becoming an athlete. 

For the first time in recorded history an Oxbridge college was formally celebrating Disabled History Month.

James Cullis, History DPhil candidate at Christ Church

Nobody who heard Harris speak could fail to be impressed. His achievements speak for themselves: to his name, Harris has ten World and European medals in football, an array of European Championship medals in judo, and degrees in Mathematics and Psychology – not to mention his honorary degree awarded by the Open University for his 'outstanding contribution to public services'. It is only upon meeting Harris that one can understand how achievements such as these are possible: he is a man of unbeatable determination and positivity. More than one of Tuesday's attendees remarked on how Harris' presentation left them feeling uplifted. 

Speaking after his visit to Christ Church, Darren Harris said: 'It was an honour to speak at Christ Church. Had I known the incredible history of the college before I stepped on stage, I might have been too nervous to speak. But it was a real privilege to share my ideas with such an intellectual audience. I never applied to Oxford University and the experience left me wondering why I didn’t. Thank you – you made me feel very special and I hope to speak again to you soon.'

James Cullis, Christ Church DPhil candidate and author of our Disability History Month blog, said: 'The event on Tuesday night was very significant. For the first time in recorded history an Oxbridge college was formally celebrating Disabled History Month.'

To learn more about Darren Harris and his work, visit his website

Darren Harris speaking to the audience at Christ Church