Britain has laws and a range of policies which promote the employment of disabled people. The lack of progress to get disabled people into paid work has resulted in huge dissatisfaction for some. Evidence of disability and employment problems is often expressed as hard data, but what of the personal experiences of trying to find employment? This article is based on interviews with ‘Nick’, a young man with cerebral palsy who wanted to recount his preparation for work, including work experience, through school, the Connexions service and the local Employment Office. He explained how he felt his voluntary work and work experiences were not fully planned and ultimately unsatisfactory. Nick found paid employment, but soon discovered that there were too many problems for him to continue. He reflected on his experiences, including his own initial confidence, his despair at the ending of his paid employment and the realities of what employment means for him.
Employment rights for disabled people are promoted and enshrined in law (HM Government. 2010), and helping people with impairments to get into work is part of the present government’s purported strategy for inclusion in the workplace. However, although The Equality Act is designed to give guidance to employers regarding their responsibilities to disabled people, it might be very difficult for all parties concerned to understand the realities of each person’s impairments and how it might affect them in the workplace. Official agencies claim that much preparation is given to people to help and prepare them for employment (Sheehy, Kumrai, and Woodhead 2011) and ‘special’ schools are encouraged to give careers advice to disabled students, especially when they transfer into post-16 classes. Outside services such as Connexions, despite cuts in budgets, provide advice and support to students (Lewin and Colley 2011) and their families for after-school provision such as college or employment.
Nick is in his twenties, personable, good humoured and articulate. He also has cerebral palsy. Nick uses a power chair for mobility and has reasonable dexterity in his hands. He lives with his parents, and his mother is the only carer for his personal support needs. Nick was interested in sharing his employment experiences with others and he agreed to be interviewed. The following is Nick’s story of his employment path, starting with his preparation for work while he was in post-16 education. Part of his careers advice was to take on a voluntary work placement and Nick wanted to try working in a hospital. The hospital building was accessible for his wheelchair, and he was initially happy about helping sick people, but ultimately he was dissatisfied with the lack of planning for a volunteer (see Georgiou, Espahbodi, and De Souza 2012).
While I was at school I started doing part-time work experience at a local hospital, and continued for a while after school while I looked for paid employment. In all I worked for two and a half years doing different things. One job I had was to take messages, patients’ notes, prescriptions, etc. between departments and wards. I would be paged by someone and go to the ward for instructions. Some of the staff were very patronising, one said, ‘Are you the little chap in the wheelchair?’ The hospital put my messaging service up on the computer screens but staff saw me in the corridor and said ‘Oh we forgot to use you.’ In the end I felt I was given token jobs rather than being given something meaningful.
Nick also worked on a voluntary basis for one day a week with a charitable organisation whose campaigning work focused on disabilities such as cerebral palsy:
You would think it would be the perfect place for me. They never seemed to have anything purposeful for me to do. I made suggestions to them such as doing admin, planning and putting together activities, training volunteers on how to work with people with CP such as using hoists and other equipment, but my ideas were never implemented.
When Nick left school he visited his local employment office and was helped by one of the employment officers:
After school, I had help for work opportunities from an employment officer with the local council who was a brilliant guy, very experienced, who made things happen. He helped me with skills such as job interviews and filling in applications and finding work for disabled people. He said I had to make employers see me as a person not someone in a wheelchair. I had to make my disability an asset. He recorded a video of me talking about myself and all the things that I had done, to promote myself to future employers. The results were soul-destroying. Many firms wrote back to say they had no vacancies. I couldn’t understand it.
Employers are not allowed to discriminate against disabled people through the application and interview process, and are expected to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the workplace, such as accessibility or providing specialist equipment (HM Government 2010). With the employment officer’s help, Nick applied for a number of jobs in organisations which advertise that they welcome applications from disabled people:
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I attended 4 or 5 interviews but to be honest I think I was there so that they could say that a disabled person had been interviewed. I was the token disabled person. My first interview with a large organisation was brutal. The job advert did not say that a physical test would be required and it was too difficult for me. I had to sort a pile of slips into alphabetical order, and I wasn’t able to do it. It was physically and mentally too hard for me especially as I had to do it within a certain time. There was nothing on the job advert to say that a physical test would be given at the interview.
Eventually, Nick got an interview with a large organisation which involved a telephone interview as part of the process and succeeded in getting a position where he had to make telephone calls to other branches of the organisations to find resources for vulnerable and sick people. It required him to work two days a week on 12-hour shifts. Although The Equality Act (HM Government 2010) requires that employers have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, all parties need to be aware what this means (Cole and Bragman 1985), including the disabled person who may not know their own rights or the extent of those rights. Nick was so excited to get a job that he may not have fully understood what the job entailed:
I was so chuffed when I got a job! I was 18 and disabled but I had got a job! I was so chuffed I didn’t think about the hours I would have to work or the conditions I would be working in.
The organisation called in an ergonomics adviser to ensure that Nick’s office was suitable for his wheelchair, and a filing cabinet was removed and arrangements were made to put in an electronic door for access. Nick was given training from the start, but he soon began to realise that his expectations of getting a job and the reality of actually working were two different things:
I started on a probationary period where I was given training but had to leave after the first week as I was very worried about the responsibilities of the job. I had a supervisor with me until four o’clock but after that I would be on my own. There was nobody to help me with personal care, and I found it very tiring.
Nick’s personal qualities and skills made him qualified to take on the position but he felt his physical stamina was detrimental to his continuing work. Employers, when recruiting staff, are not allowed to make more than limited enquiries about people’s health or their disability during the recruitment process (HM Government 2010). In Nick’s case, the organisation carried out the letter of the law, and was keen to employ him, but expectations on both sides were overly confident (Cole and Bragman 1985). Since then, Nick decided that his health might affect his ability to find paid employment:
The problem is that my health stops me from doing a full-time job. Some days I am fine but other days I have physical discomfort. After the problems with the volunteering work and the telephoning job, I had some very dark moments. I felt very ashamed about what I had achieved – or not achieved. I felt I wasn’t living up to my potential. I couldn’t go back to visit my school as I had visions of being ridiculed. I could see the head coming up to me and asking what I was doing and I wouldn’t know what to say. I had images of my gravestone, it would say ‘Nick – left school and amounted to nothing’. That cloud has now been lifted since starting my voluntary job – telephoning people who need help.
Nick continued to look for other employment opportunities, and furthered his education such as completing an online computer course. He had some doubts about whether the preparations for work, such as careers advice he had at school, were sufficient, especially as he was pressed to go to college while he wanted to work:
I still have issues about my education in Post 16 as a teacher and the Connexions service advised me to go to college. Because of my resistance to their ideas, I feel I got little support and I wasn’t prepared sufficiently for when I left school. I also think that there was too much encouragement that you could do anything that you went for, but it wasn’t realistic. It was too positive. I had to learn about my limitations when I left school and went for jobs.
Nick’s experiences show some of the difficulties facing disabled young people despite being highly motivated to work. His previous experiences of voluntary work and the feeling of not being properly utilised are probably felt by many young people (Georgiou, Espahbodi, and De Souza 2012). The large organisation which employed Nick to take on telephone work had fulfilled their responsibilities as employers from an accessibility point of view (HM Government 2010) but the position was not successful because of unseen difficulties, and possibly a failure to review Nick’s employment and care needs. Few employers or applicants can really predict outcomes at the interview stage (Cole and Bragman 1985). The Equality Act (HM Government 2010) was designed to promote equal opportunities for disabled people so that adjustments could be made. In Nick’s case, changing the lengths of his shifts, and ensuring he had a supervisor or other employee nearby in case of difficulties, might have made all the difference to his continuing with his employment.
Ultimately, Nick decided that he wanted to be in control of his employment situation by concentrating on voluntary work where he could choose his times of work to suit his health needs, but he would prefer to have paid employment if he was able to find a position that would address his needs and aspirations.