From expert to unemployable
22 March 2019
Working has always been central to my sense of self. From my teenage paper round (didn’t last long – me and early mornings are not friends) to my first ‘proper’ job, I’d always found a sense of purpose in my working life.
By the age of 34 I was in my dream job as a fundraiser for a disability charity. I’d always wanted to feel like I was, in some tiny way, making the world a better place and this truly fulfilled that goal.
It’s funny really, when I look back. I thought my professional experience gave me an understanding of the barriers disabled people face when trying to access the workplace.
I had a decent understanding of the rules and regulations, the statistics, the theories. The reality is that I ended up being totally wrong.
So what happened?
So what happened to change my view and show me how little I really knew?
Well, I fell over on my way to work. I wish I had a more dramatic story.
I ruptured ligaments in my ankle and developed a rare and chronic condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
The illness causes constant severe neuropathic pain and is very hard to treat. I’m on a cocktail of painkillers and have electrodes implanted in my spine.
They help, but I remain in constant pain and reliant on crutches or my wheelchair to get around.
‘As much as I understood their decision, I was crushed’
After taking time off to recover from the accident, I initially tried to return to my fundraising job. But it didn’t work.
My ability to function now fluctuates constantly. Until I wake up, I don’t know what the day will bring. My job needed me to be present every day, running around London to meetings but my body simply couldn’t do that anymore.
The meeting where I was terminated due to long-term incapacity was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
As much as I understood their decision, I was crushed. I’d only ever been promoted in jobs before – I’d never imagined being fired. Although I knew it was not my ‘fault’, I was still devastated. I felt like a failure.
Losing my work was utterly soul-destroying; I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hated this new jobless, chronically sick, disabled identity that had been thrust upon me, but I couldn’t see any way out. There was simply no job that could provide the flexibility I needed.
And that need for flexibility has remained my single greatest barrier to employment.
For years I couldn’t find anything that fit my illness. Then a friend asked if I’d be interested in blogging for people living with chronic pain. I’ve now been doing this for several years and I love it. I can manage my own time, writing when I feel up to it.
I find a huge sense of purpose in serving the chronic pain community and I write about a vast range of subjects. The work is fascinating and fulfilling but it also gives me some financial independence too.
From valued to unemployable
It saddens me beyond words that the narrow specification of an ‘ideal candidate’ immediately discounts so many disabled people. Sometimes we need greater flexibility, or physical adaptations, or just for employers to recognise and see beyond their preconceptions.
There is a wealth of talent out there simply left by the wayside. Within the split second of my accident I went from a valued and sought-after expert in my field to unemployable.
My experience and expertise shouldn’t become worthless just because my body works a bit differently now.
When we expand our idea of what makes a great employee we also expand the knowledge and experience we bring into the workplace. That can only make all of us better.
We're pressing the government to improve the workplace for disabled people. Read our report.