Four years ago on 6th June 2016 was my very first day of paid work. I remember the day well, incredibly nervous but excited at the prospect of starting work for the very first time. However, what happened before I reached this point wasn’t quite what I had expected…
As I came towards the end of my sociology degree I went to a few lectures about employment after uni and every single one of them reinforced how competitive the job market is for graduates. Naturally that made me worry about what might be out there for me and I also had an ongoing worry in the back of my mind that even if jobs were out there, would by disability put people off from employing me? Looking back now I know that I didn’t need to worry about this at all, but at the time the worry was real and what I was about to experience only reinforced this.
Even though this thought was constantly in the back of my mind it didn’t stop me applying for jobs. I moved back home from uni the day before my brothers 18th birthday at the end of May and spent hours each day trawling through job sites and applying for whatever job I matched the description for. At the time I didn’t really know what I wanted to do career wise and knew the priority for now was to try and get some kind of job as a starting point.
As well as applying for jobs online I also visited some of the local job agencies in the town centre. One sunny afternoon (before I passed my driving test) I decided I would get the bus into town, stop of at one of the agencies to see what information and jobs they had available before I went to visit my Gran.
I walked into the building still nervous about things but feeling hopeful that they may be able to help. I walked up to the gentleman on the welcome desk and explained I had recently graduated from university and was looking for a job. He asked me to take a seat and told me someone would be over to chat to me shortly.
A few minutes later a lady appeared and asked how she could help. I repeated the same thing as I did to the gentleman on the door, but before I could finish she told me that she would be back in a minute. I assumed she had gone off to find some paperwork for me to fill in so I took a seat again.
As she walked back over I realised she didn’t have any paperwork in her hand and instead was holding a small piece of scrap paper with an 0800 number on it. She handed me the piece of paper and said “call this number, they should be able to help”. I looked at the piece of paper and the words next to the number and realised this was the number to call with any queries relating to claiming benefits for those who are unable to work.
For a moment I was incredibly confused. I had made the trip that day in the hope of finding a job and instead the information and advice I was given was to claim benefits. I can only assume this assumption was made as I had walked into the building using my walking frame.
“Thank you” I said, “but I’m not here to enquire about benefits, I’m here to find a job”. The lady looked at me a little bit puzzled and then asked if I was ‘fit to work’. Again, I can only assume she had made the assumption that I was ill and that was why I needed my frame. I was 21 and fresh out of uni, I was definitely not ill so I answered yes to her question, of course I was fit to work. Not accepting this, she then asked me this question again and when I replied again with the same answer she told me I would need a doctor to prove this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had even visited the doctors and definitely didn’t think I would ever need to visit to prove I was fit to work! Confused even more I acknowledged what was obvious that yes I do have a disability but that doesn’t mean I’m unwell and can’t work. I realised at this point I wasn’t going to get much further so thanked her anyway and slipped the scrap piece of paper into my pocket.
I left and went up to visit my Gran but my thoughts were a million miles away. Maybe my worries were true after all, maybe I wasn’t meant to be employed which is why the lady handed me the phone number to enquire about benefits? Later that evening I spoke to my parents about what had happened and also shared a post on my Facebook page about the experience. Everyone who commented and my Mum especially, was totally shocked and angry that this had happened but for me my worries had just got even worse.
Determined not to let these worries get the better of me I decided that using these agencies wasn’t for me. Not only had I had this bad experience, but many of the other agencies I visited were up long flights of stairs making these inaccessible for me and many other disabled people. Whilst I appreciate that such places don’t always have a say in the buildings they work from, looking back now I can’t help but think this indirectly reinforces the attitudes that do sadly still exist, that work isn’t for disabled people that I had already witnessed.
Taking things into my own hands I looked back to my work experience I took part in whilst still at secondary school, 6 years earlier. Compared to all my friends I definitely hit the jackpot with my work experience as I got to spend not one, but two weeks working in the fundraising team at a truly amazing disability charity close to my home called Enham Trust. (If you are reading this and aren’t aware of their brilliant work please check out the website http://www.enhamtrust.org.uk)! I absolutely loved these two weeks and was made to feel so welcome. I got involved in so many different aspects of fundraising from speaking to potential supporters on the phone to helping to organise and plan for an open morning to thank the charities supporters. I didn’t realise it at the time but I truly believe this was what sparked my interest and passion for fundraising which is now a huge part of my life. I carried on volunteering for Enham Trust throughout my summer holidays at school, college and uni so I wondered if now my education had come to an end could this become something more?
I searched the Enham Trust website for their vacancies and I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a part time role was being advertised for an administrator within the fundraising team. I applied straight away and was delighted a few days later when I got a phone call asking me to come for an interview. I went for the interview later that week and whilst I was pleased with how it went I still had a lot of worry and doubt in the back of my mind. The ladies who interviewed me told me they would get back to me within a couple of days so I was shocked when I received a phone call from them just a few hours after the interview. I couldn’t believe it, I was offered the job and was going to start in a few weeks time once all the normal checks had gone through! I was in shock but on cloud nine, someone wanted to employ me! Almost instantly all my worries about ever finding a job disappeared. I slept like a baby that night and spent the next few weeks getting a wardrobe of work clothes and brand new stationary organised!
When the 6th June finally arrived I was so nervous but so excited that I was officially employed. My first day went by in a flash as I was introduced to so many different people and started learning the basics of my job. I went home that night and told all my friends and family how much I had enjoyed my day and couldn’t wait to go back a few days later, as for the first few months I worked 3 days a week part time. As the weeks went by I learnt more and more about the job but also about fundraising which fuelled my passion even further. I also remember how exciting my first pay day was! I’d never really had my own money before, surviving through uni on my student loan and help from my family, so this was super exciting. I went out and brought two new pairs of trainers and some clothes I had my eye on for ages, priorities and all that!
A few months later a full time position became available which I was offered and I accepted straight away. Since then my role has changed and progressed in many different ways as I continue to gain more experience and knowledge with fundraising. I will forever be so incredibly grateful for all these experiences that have enabled me to build a career I truly love and is one I can see myself working in for many, many years to come.
Enham Trust are also Disability Confident Leaders, part of a government scheme designed to support employers to recruit and retain disabled employees and their talent into their organisation. Given my previous experience this is something I am incredibly passionate about and have been very fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to speak about this, and how Enham Trust have supported me as a disabled employee to not only retain my job but to also keep progressing within this. Over the past 3 years I have spoken to various rooms full of people (including members of parliament!) about how important this is. I remember the very first time I spoke at an event like this, I was so, so nervous and I struggled to control my shaking legs with nerves! I remember the advice our CEO gave me and is something I still do today when speaking in public, pick a point on the wall in front of you to focus on and look at this rather than at whoever is watching you. This advice really worked and the talk went well and is now a talk I have given a handful of times and is something I really look forward to. Whilst the nervous shaking leg still likes to make an appearance I feel like my confidence with this has grown and is completely different to the Chloe who nearly forgot to breathe during a uni presentation due to nerves!
However, most importantly for me today, 4 years on from my very first day at work, my job is now far more than just a job or a 9-5. The incredible support, encouragement and fantastic opportunities I continue to receive from my team and the wider organisation at Enham Trust have been the biggest boost to my confidence and self esteem. My disability has never, ever acted as a barrier to any of these amazing opportunities and the fact that I do use my frame is irrelevant. I’m just Chloe and to me that means the world. I feel incredibly valued and have a real purpose to get up everyday which has helped in ways I could never explain over the last few months following the loss of my best friend. I am so lucky to work on a daily basis with some of the loveliest people you could ever meet, who over these past four years have become some of the many friends I have made along the way, and have showed me so much kindness and love through some very dark days recently.
Whilst life at the moment has many challenges and bumps along the way, my first four years of being employed have been some of the happiest I have ever experienced and have opened up a whole new world. The experience in the job agency wasn’t what I had expected, and I am so glad I didn’t accept the advice given to me. However I’m sadly aware that my experience is not unique and disabled people do continue to experience prejudice in many areas of their lives, including employment. I feel extremely passionate about challenging and changing these negative attitudes and hope that I can continue to use platforms like this, and other forums I am involved in to make this change, so that one day all disabled people can believe what I do….that the sky isn’t the limit, it’s just the beginning and their possibilities are endless.
Thank you for reading and have a lovely weekend!
Love, Chloe x