I was always going to go to university, I didn’t really have another plan. I love to learn, and my grades were good, I knew I’d flourish in that kind of environment. The trouble with university, at least to my mind, is the way it’s sold to us. It was always drummed into me that it would open all these doors and fantastic opportunities, and I believed that; though of course for some it must do. I met some amazing people and it made me a more independent adult as it was my first time away from home, and I’m incredibly grateful for the memories and experiences, but I find myself wondering at times if it was worthwhile. I studied English Literature, and now have both a Bachelors and Masters degree. I dream of becoming a writer in some shape or form, though haven’t really settled on exactly what that should be yet! I suppose when you do a Humanities degree your options can potentially be vast, but in my experience the difficulty really starts after graduation and it can be incredibly hard to get your foot in the doors you really want to open!
When I was born, I was three months premature and weighed two pounds, eventually diagnosed with a condition called Cerebral Palsy. Simply put, this means that parts of my brain, specifically those that control movement, posture and balance, are damaged. The condition isn’t degenerative, so won’t worsen over time, and how it manifests itself can vary from one person to the next. For me personally: I have problems with my fine motor skills, co-ordination and stupidly sensitive reflexes, so I startle very easily, especially at loud or sudden noises, and it’s even worse when I’m trying not to jump! I need help with most things able bodied people probably take for granted: washing & dressing myself, food and drink prep, and a host of other things. It also means I’m unable to walk, so am confined to my wheelchair most of the time, leaving me with all kinds of aches and pains.
Navigating a city like Bristol when you’re confined to a wheelchair is notoriously tricky, and something I often don’t like to do without support. It’s full of high kerbs and uneven or cobbled pavements. Moreso, many of the buildings are old and sometimes listed, meaning they are difficult or impossible to access as changes cannot be made, and this can be a nightmare for jobhunting. The wording of the 2005 amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) also complicates things, which says: ‘physical features that create a barrier to access should be removed or altered, or a reasonable means of avoiding said barrier must be found.’ The problem with that is: what counts as reasonable? I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had to turn down interviews after discovering a lack of access, or my disability wasn’t noticed after declaring it on both my CV and cover letter. One particular encounter comes to mind: I’d applied for an apprenticeship, and they had phone to invite me for interview the following day. I of course accepted, but not even 10 minutes later, the same employer called me back sheepishly admitted they had now read my CV properly, and they didn’t have access. This became a regular routine so often that I often didn’t want to bother going through filling in applications, they sapped me of energy, both physically and mentally.
Even on those occasions you can make it into the building, I’ve found that when you have a disability, a deeper problem arises: you’re consistently up against other people’s preconceptions of you and what you’re capable of. If I was lucky enough to get an interview, I’d hear time and again that I was a likeable candidate with strong qualities, but others have more experience. I’ve reached out to agencies like Pluss and Remploy, who specialise in helping disabled people like myself into work. I didn’t find they couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, as more of the focus seemed to be on building one’s CV and cover letter, and through an interview with another company Pluss had arranged, was left feeling incredibly demotivated and patronised. After I’d left the room, my coach from Pluss had stayed to talk with about reasonable adjustments, and so forth, in case they did want to proceed, and the employer in question had said essentially that I had many of the skills they were looking for, but they didn’t think I’d be able to cope with a full time job. More recently, I had an interview where I was not shortlisted due to lacking a qualification that other candidates did have. Of course the job should go to the right fit, but the nagging, darker part of me couldn’t help but feel I’m sometimes there just to tick a box…
In between all these rejections, I was doing the best I could to build my CV: volunteering for St Monica Trust, and writing for various publications to hone my skills and keep the creative juices flowing.
Writing became a cathartic process, and still is: it’s my way of dealing with any low ebbs or negativity I had, particularly in the face of all these rejections: it’s something I love doing and the one thing I feel I’m good at and could potentially turn into a career. It’s sometimes hard to stay positive and upbeat and it absolutely smashes your self-esteem , but I’m slowly getting better at managing these dark feelings.
In October 2017, I got my lucky break: my first paid job as a Receptionist Administrator. I was overjoyed that an employer was finally taking a chance on me and loved the team. Sadly though, it didn’t work out: adaptations to enable me to do the job properly kept getting pushed back: the desk height, and equipment set up mainly. This led to concerns about my performance, which exacerbated the negative feelings that had already been building slowly in my own head about wether such a time sensitive, admin heavy role was right for me with the limitations I have. I’ve no wish to blame anybody at the business: their intentions were good, it just so happened that the role wasn’t right for me, and I left after six months.
Since then, I’ve learned that I need to focus on pursuing the jobs that are better suited to my skillset, and part of that is building my portfolio. I’ve been a volunteer reviewer for BroadwayWorldUK since 2016, a role I adore as theatre is my biggest passion besides writing: I’ve reviewed nine productions so far, mainly in Bristol but also Bath and Cardiff. I have my own blog, and two years’ experience as a community reporter for The Knowledge, a community newsletter for residents of Knowle West based at Knowle West Media Centre from 2016 to 2018, as well as a role as Press Agent on “From Her Point of View”, another project based there in 2017. I’m thrilled to be taking my next steps to my dream role by volunteering with Bristol Women’s Voice: I know I’ll learn a lot and it’ll be great to start feeling empowered again!
Article by BWV Reporter Kerrie Nicholson