Remembering Sheila Anderson, an important part of our history

We started this year with some sad news. Sheila Anderson, who was daughter to one of our founders and a dedicated member of our staff, passed away. Her colleague, Geoff, reflects on the brilliant and lasting impact Sheila had on Sense. 

Sheila was an exceptional woman. Working with her was a special experience – for me, joining her on the Facilities team, and for anyone that met her during the 35 years she was at Sense. 

She had a real interest in people, she really engaged with what you were saying and the work going on around her. Sheila made everyone feel like they were part of the Sense family. 

A newspaper photo of Sheila working with her RNID Telephone Exchange Operator in the 1980s.

A unique connection

Sheila was born deafblind and she was partially sighted. That was because her mother, Gertie Witt, caught rubella when she was pregnant. Gertie was one of the original parents who came together to form The Rubella Group in the 1950s, which was the early Sense. In that way, Sheila is part of the history of Sense

One of the distinctive things about Sheila was her communication style. She was taught Tadoma, which involves lipreading whilst touching the speaker’s throat to feel the sounds. It’s very rare.  

Sheila using Tadoma, or ‘tactile lipreading’, over a coffee.

She greatly preferred to do that when she was comfortable with someone. That made her relationships with people unique. If she put her hand on your throat to talk with you, that meant she trusted you – you were in! 

Although there were difficulties in her life, connected to her disabilities, she never let them get in the way. She faced all her battles head on. 

She gave me my love of Sense

Sheila receiving her Exceptional Services award, after an incredible 35 years working with Sense.

She first came to Sense after writing to the then CEO, Rodney Clarke, because she was interested in coming to work here. It must have been something she was passionate about doing because she gave up a steady job to make the move to Sense. 

She used to commute to the central London office from Harrow, which is quite a distance! If the trains ever went wrong, she’d miss the announcements and could become quite lost. But, as I say, it never put her off, rain or snow she’d be there. You could rely on Sheila. 

When Sheila retired, she’d just received the ‘Exceptional Services’ award to celebrate her long career. I believe Rodney, who gave a speech at her retirement, said that she’d made “a contribution to Sense that it is impossible to quantify”. 

It was an absolute privilege to work with Sheila. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she gave me my love of Sense. She made me think “this is the greatest charity in the world!” because she was here living it – an embodiment of everything we stand for. 

This year, the Sense London office will be honouring the legacy of Sheila Anderson with the opening of ‘Sheila’s Café’. We hope that this onsite kitchen area will be a welcoming and inclusive space for all our staff and visiting supporters. Being recognised in this way, in the heart of the office in which she worked, would have delighted her.