When I first graduated from uni, I took a job as a nanny for a local family. It was here that I met Sumaira Latif, a Muslim mother of three, who also happens to be blind. Sumaira (who goes by Sam) works for Proctor & Gamble as a special consultant for inclusive design, and is determined to produce products that keep disabled people in mind. She lives with a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa and I deliberately abstained from using the phrase ‘suffers from’ as this woman is fearless, and never lets her visual impairment stop her from living the life she dreams of.
Having already worked with the entire advertising agency to introduce accessible advertising for the blind (P&G adverts now have audio description available), recently she masterminded a brand new concept to revolutionise the accessibility of some hair products. New Herbal Essences bottles in America will feature indentations to make it possible for the visually impaired to tell the difference between shampoo and conditioner. For most of us, it’s something we wouldn’t even consider, but for the visually impaired, it’s a massive change that can help make their bathroom routine that bit easier.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Sam; she’s truly an inspiration, and I’m so grateful to be able to share her thoughts with the world.
“So how old were you when you lost your sight?”
“When I was 16 I lost the majority of my vision but I was kinda diagnosed very young. The nature of my eye condition, known as RP for short, is that it’s a genetic eye condition and it’s one of those things that gradually can deteriorate in children. I could never really read well, I was always very slow, but I didn’t realise it was my eyes. I thought it was to do with my brain, but it was really me going blind. At 16 years old, I was doing a test, and the words just went out of focus, and that was the day I lost my sight.”
At this point her children came in, and so we paused the interview. Sam loves to give the kids something interactive to do, so she challenged them to build a tower in the living room whilst she was busy with the interview, and told them she’d come in to judge it once we had finished.
“People assume that blindness is just seeing black, but that’s not what it is. I see light, and I see some colour, I just don’t see details. Sometimes I see lights in my eyes that aren’t really there, and there’s fuzziness, but it’s not blackness.”
“Did your sight loss cause any issues when it came to finding a husband?”
“I had a lot of cultural challenges where, y’know, I’m a first generation Scottish Pakistani, and I’d always expected that I would probably marry a British Asian or someone from Pakistan. When I was looking to get married I had several proposals from people, but eventually it would be an issue for the mother of the potential partner. She didn’t want me. She didn’t want her son to marry someone who was blind. It happened a few times, and so I remember just making dua, like proper from the heart. So I was looking for potential partners, and sometimes even though the guy was fine with my condition, his family weren’t fine, his Mum wasn’t fine, and I wasn’t fine if they weren’t fine. So I made dua. I asked Allah SWT that I don’t really want to look for anyone anymore, so if there is someone for me then just bring him to me. And if there’s not then just make me happy with that.”
“So you had a lot of faith in Allah SWT”
“Yeah, and then I met Joe. He wasn’t Muslim, he wasn’t Asian, and then he totally unexpectedly… I didn’t know that he was interested in Islam or anything like that. And then he phoned me out the blue and said “I’ve just converted to Islam.” And I was just quite, like, “aaah!” So yeah, I have faith in that respect. I’ve never felt a grievance with Allah SWT, because although blindness has been a challenge, it’s also given me a chance to experience kindness from people helping me, and I’ve got to meet so many people. It makes other people feel good when they help me, so I see that as my blessing, I get to make other people feel good. Everyone in this life gets a test from Allah SWT, and this is my test.”
“So you find that when you have faith in Allah SWT he does reward you for it?”
“Yeah, He’s always there, even with my career I had times when it was very very difficult, and I just remember making dua, to make me shine at work, make me not a burden. I want to be able to do really well. And my career is just taking such a… I was doing well before but now, it’s exceptional, I just can’t believe how… It’s so important to make dua. I think dua is so so powerful, at least for me, when you make it really from the heart, and you need help from Allah SWT, then He’s there and I just totally really believe in that. Nobody else can help you like Allah SWT does. And it’s great to have that connection and faith.”
“So have you found Proctor and Gamble to be supportive of your work?”
“Yeah, absolutely, I’ve been with them for 18 years! For the first 15 years I was working in the IT function, and some of the roles were global, so you had to implement an IT system globally, or within Europe or wherever, and across multiple business functions like Marketing and Sales. One of my projects was to transfer the whole ordering system online, and it just saved the company so much money. So that’s what I used to do in IT. But in addition to my day job, what I was also doing in the company was running a network called People With Disabilities for people whose lives were impacted by disability, and the idea behind it was that you could just support one another. It was really good, it was existing in the US, and I expanded it to Europe, and as part of the expansion I introduced something called The Disability Challenge, and that really involved people experiencing what it was like to have a disability.”
“I think I recall you telling me about this one! Is that where they had to be blindfolded and had to find certain things?”
“Yeah, they wore glasses that simulated sight loss, and there were gloves that simulated arthritis, and then I had some people in wheelchairs. So I said, “Now look at using P&G products, like Herbal Essences, or Pantene, or Head and Shoulders. Look at our Gilette blades, can you open the packs easily? How do you mop the floor when you’re in a wheelchair? All that kind of stuff. And it really opened people’s eyes. It started in the UK, but eventually I got the CEO and his team to take part in it! My executive sponsor invited me to his office and we just had a conversation about what I was doing, and what I’d like to do. I suggested that there’s so much more potential in what I could be doing in the disability space, and looking at how I could change the P&G business for the better as we weren’t actively targeting this consumer base. If you think about it, products that are accessible for everybody are more successful. The more people that can use it, including people with disabilities, the more potential it has, the more people that can buy it and use it. It makes business sense.”
“One of the things that most amazed me when I worked with you is the fact that you do not let your blindness get in the way of what you do at all, you cook, you do things around the house, you raised 3 beautiful children… How do you do it? You always have that I-Can-Do-Anything attitude.”
“I think I just want to live an ordinary life as much as possible, like everybody else, but you have to find extraordinary ways to do ordinary things. Even with doing housework, I’ve got systems in place. Getting ready in the morning I’ve got a system for that, I pay someone to come and put my outfits together so my hijab matches my clothes. It’s those kind of things, There’s always a way, nothing is impossible. Alhamdulillah, I’m just so grateful to God that I’m in a position where I’m able to stand on my own two feet and raise my kids, and do everything that a lot of other women are doing.”
“So what’s your next big project going to be then?”
“I don’t know yet! With the shampoo and conditioner, that has been a problem all my life. Having to ask someone “What’s this?” I mean, how many times did I have to ask you “Melika, what’s this?” And my mission is to reduce the number of questions, so I just have a vision to make all shampoo bottles have the stripes, and all conditioner bottles have the circles. To have an industry-wide change. And then on to the next product, whatever that might be. But yeah, alhamdulillah, I want to reduce the “what’s this” questions.”
The updated Herbal Essences bottles will go on sale in January 2019 in the US, and inchaallah we’ll see a lot more of Sam’s designs in the coming years.
Imams Online Writer Melika Jeddi is a psychology graduate and aspiring writer with a passion for creativity. She is looking to start a career as a freelance writer alongside her regular job. She has a YouTube channel and you can find her at https://www.youtube.com/user/MuslimahMelika.