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After leaving school, like any teenager I was looking forward to what I would do with the rest of my life. It was an exciting time, full of possibility, or so I thought. I’d left the school bullies behind who had either teased me, avoided me or on some occasions, assaulted me. They hadn’t liked the fact that I was different because I was disabled, but I assumed that such behaviour was playground antics and that disability discrimination didn’t happen in a grown-up world.
As I enjoyed writing, I went to college to study English language, literature and media, imagining that I could write for a newspaper or a magazine. Life, however, threw me a curve ball. I discovered that I was pregnant. I sat my exams with swaths of morning sickness, during a fiercely hot summer, then tied the knot with the baby’s father. By the following spring, I was a married teen mom of a daughter. My young husband was still going through university and we had no money to speak of, so I went out and found myself a job to support the three of us. It was with Scope, a charity for people with my disability – cerebral palsy. I was a telephonist in their fundraising office. While my husband went to school during
the day, I stayed home with the baby.
My Then Husband with Our
In the evening I did my shift in the office while he looked after her.
The job at Scope turned out to be the only time in my life that an employer hired me.
After my husband graduated from university, I was made redundant. The charity couldn’t afford to keep their office open so everyone who worked there was out of a job. Back then, there was no help with childcare costs and no on site creches at work, so we decided my husband would work and I’d stay home. I went to mum and baby groups, I went to coffee mornings, I sang songs in the tot’s library session. I made home-baked cakes and laundered cloth nappies because they were cheaper. I cleaned the house and cooked from recipe books, but there was something missing. I confess, being a housewife wasn’t easy. Despite being a 24/7 job, I felt that I was too isolated and not contributing to society in a way that society valued.
I decided to go back to college, study childcare and get a job in a day care centre. I could keep my daughter with me, I loved children and I would get paid for looking after them, as well as having the comradeship of colleagues. I arranged an interview with the college and went along, full of hope. That was my first brutal introduction to disability discrimination in education and the workplace.
Barred from College
The interviewer looked visibly shocked by the appearance of my cerebral palsy and was very dismissive.
“I don’t think the childcare course is going to be suitable for you because the course isn’t just book work, there is a two-day placement at a nursery to learn the practical skills of caring for a child.”
My toddler was sitting on my knee.
“But I’m already a mother”, I protested, “I’ve been looking after her since she was born.”
He waved aside my protest.
“There may be some tasks you can’t do, and the parents may not be willing for a person with disabilities to care for their child.”
He refused to enrol me on the course.
I was so shocked and humiliated that someone could look at me and think I didn’t make the grade because of the way I walk, that I just left the building, dejected. This was in 1997, two years after the UK introduced The Disability Discrimination Act. They broke the law by refusing me access to education, but as I was only 20, I just went away with my tail between my legs. I shelved the idea of working in a day care centre and went back to applying for jobs. I applied for call centre work, having previously been a telephonist, but could see the interviewer’s face fall as soon as I walked in. I was refused every call centre job I applied for, despite them being jobs that needed few qualifications. I applied for supermarket checkout jobs meant for school leavers and didn’t even get invited for an interview.
Our Daughter, aged 19 Months
The DDA was supposed to prevent people being refused work on the basis of disability unless they could not do the work, but employers don’t have to give a reason not to offer an interview or explain why they turned you down. If they hire just one person with a medical condition, they can be seen as ‘positive about disabled people’. Hiring anymore means adhering to the requirement to make any accommodations necessary – a costly experience. Some employers are also worried about having inflated insurance costs so an application from a disabled worker gets thrown in the trash. That’s why in the UK only 46% of disabled people are in work. In the U.S, it’s even worse. Only just over 18% of Americans with disabilities are employed. Due to the challenges even getting to the interview stage with a disability, a higher number of disabled people than average work from home.
After years of applying for jobs and only being offered voluntary positions in thrift shops, I attempted to work from home by becoming an Avon make-up representative. This only lasted a few months as I never got more than two orders despite walking for hours around the neighbourhood. I tried distributing children’s books but the only people who bought them were my own family. I tried lingerie parties with the same result. It was soul destroying, especially when my husband worked full time and was the only one making a financial contribution.
Working from Home as a Disabled Parent
I decided I’d go back to my original idea and write for a living. By then, huge fees had been introduced to get into university, so I couldn’t obtain a degree in writing. I would have to try and gain work purely by talent or word of mouth. I wrote a book about breastfeeding – a subject I was now a champion at – printed it in the local print shop and began selling them at fairs. I soon had a small but regular group of customers including some retail businesses. The book led on to an offer of a columnist job with a parenting magazine (voluntary, again, of course). Even though it didn’t pay, I snapped it up because it was experience. I used the position to then apply for write-from-home jobs, having to navigate through the sea of fake scams out there. Eventually I was asked to write one web article a week, for a payment of £50 sterling each month. It was pocket money, but it was a start. I then got a job with a women’s health website and for the first time was offered a real wage for my writing.
The great thing about working from home when you’re disabled is you don’t have to meet your interviewer in person. They can’t see your disability, so it becomes an even playing field. Apart from Scope, the only interviews I was successful in were the ones done via MSN messenger or Skype. With only a head view, I looked the same as anyone else.
CAB Tell Me to Go On Disability Benefits
After several years of self-employed copywriting from home, I was let go by the agency when they told me my services were no longer required – a pitfall of freelance gigs. I obtained work from a second agency until a few more years down the line, when they became so quiet they had nothing to offer me. A third one paid in USD, which when converted to pounds, was not enough to live off. By this stage, as with most teen marriages, my husband had left and the government had reduced my disability benefits as they did with many disabled people in the UK. I was checked by HMRC (inland revenue) repeatedly because my earnings were under the minimum wage and unless you can show you are making a profit, you don’t receive any help. Luckily all I needed was my skill and a computer, so I was making a profit, albeit a little one. It felt a little persecutory, like they were blaming me for being poor.
I went along to citizen’s advice to see if there was any help they could give me to get a better job. The advisor’s attitude shocked me, when she said:
“As you’re earning less than the minimum wage, it’s probably not worth you putting the hours in. You could just go on disability, that might increase your income.”
“But I want to work!”, I implored.
The newspapers had been full for years about how disabled people were benefit scroungers who just sat around taking disability cheques and didn’t do anything for society. Consequently, hate crimes had increased against us. I did not want to play into this misconception by using my disability as a reason not to work. Take help if you’re sick, but if you’re not then there’s no reason not to work.
I asked her if there were any courses, back-to-work schemes or resume help that could be offered to me. She said
“No, as you do work, even though it’s low pay, you are not entitled to any of that. The work placements and courses are for people on welfare, with no income.”
If I had stopped doing freelance gigs and applied for more disability benefit I could have been accepted for a work placement or more training but as I wanted to do the right thing and provide for myself and my child, I couldn’t.
At 41 years old, my oldest baby is now 22 and I’m still surviving hand-to-mouth as a freelance copywriter. My love for writing endured and I enjoy what I do. I just wish that interviewers had looked passed the disability and focused on my skills and willingness to learn. There are advantages to working from home but because of prejudice it was the only choice I was left with.
Society should know that many people with disabilities are capable of working and don’t want to go home, out of sight, be quiet and take their disability allowance.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!