Panel Member Blog: Experiences of Employability Support

During Challenge Poverty Week 2022, we are using our blog and social media to give a platform to members of the Commission’s Experts by Experience Panel who will be sharing their personal views and insights into poverty throughout the week.

The Commission’s principles commit us to amplifying the voices of experts by experience. Contributions from individuals reflect their personal perspectives and opinions are not necessarily the views of our Experts by Experience Panel or the Commission as a whole.

This blog was written for Day 2 of Challenge Poverty Week 2022 by one of the Commission’s Experts by Experience Panel members. The theme for the day is ‘Work and the Economy’. #TurnTheTide

Society values people who are in work and demonises those that are not. How can we judge a person’s worth by whether or not they are part of the workforce? Why is it easier to judge those on benefits rather than judge those in jobs of power who abuse their position frequently? How do we start to tackle the misconceptions people have?

I’ve been unemployed for 5 years. I was discriminated against and pushed out of my last job where they did everything they could to get rid of me. Why? Because my chronic health conditions and already declining cognitive functions meant that I made more mistakes than my colleagues and I wasn’t as fast either. That, coupled with my learning difficulties, I was an easy target. Never once did the organisation acknowledge that training of their staff in supporting disabled employees was inadequate, that I had experienced abusive behaviour or that the job could not be done in 20 hours. Needless to say the job was re-advertised as full time.

This event was a turning point in my life.

Over the years the job centre assigned me to many of their partners who are meant to assist people with disabilities and people with long term health conditions back into work. I put my faith into some of them but I learned very quickly that this was false hope.

An Employment Support Worker re-wrote my CV and then, to her great credit, admitted that she didn’t have any work that would be suitable for me. The Employment Support Workers in one organisation changed more quickly than Prime Ministers in this country! After the 4th support worker in a space of 5 months I quit that programme. More re-writing of my CV, a visit to an individual giving me advice on how to deal with my health problems, and more assumptions that I didn’t know how to look for work online. A computer questionnaire would tell me that, based on my personality, a gravedigger was the ideal job for me.

I learned very quickly that if you didn’t fit into the neat little box of what they thought disability and long term health conditions looked like, you were forgotten about.

Some organisations who are supposed to provide support are all about targets. There was no holistic approach. In one programme the adviser I was given had 90 clients. I often felt I wasn’t listened to and that answering yet more computer surveys was more important. I taught myself from online research and listening to employers’ feedback how to write great covering letters. Not once did any of the providers find me a suitable vacancy.

Branding all these programmes as inadequate would be very unkind of me. I think the individual that would benefit from these services is someone entering the job market for the first time, an individual that has worked in the same job for decades or people who have been made redundant. Some of the advice was very good, but the lack of an individual holistic approach didn’t help me.

So I put my faith into a disability employability scheme designed to encourage equality and diversity in the workplace. An employer wanting to join the scheme has to prove, for example, that they will make changes to their recruitment process by guaranteeing interviews for people who tick the disability box on the application form and who meet the minimum requirements of the job. Also employers have to assess if their premises are suitable for wheelchair users or if they offer support to their own employees who are dealing with a new long term health condition. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But in my own experience, the scheme is merely an administrative exercise that pretends to the outside world that they are all about equality and diversity.

I still get regular interviews. This is down to the strength of my applications, a good CV – but one I no longer recognise myself in – and years spent volunteering. I use this scheme to obtain interviews because I often meet the minimum criteria required for the role.

However, I find that employers view disability in a black and white way. A person might be a wheelchair user, they might be partially sighted or they could have an illness / long-term health condition that can be managed through medication, but rarely do employers view people with cognitive / brain issues as suitable for employment. Why is that? Because the vast majority of employers are looking for people who don’t require much training, who can pick up the job quickly. They don’t want to invest time and effort in training and supervision. Neither do they want to recruit people who might not be able to cope with ever changing demands or who might struggle with learning, retaining information and hours of prolonged concentration.

Employers fail to understand that they have a responsibility to create a working environment that offers social inclusion. One might argue that it is not in a business’s best interest to employ people who can’t perform at a level of 80 – 100% on any given day. Inflexibility also remains around job shares and part time work which might benefit many people who strive for a better work / health / life balance. I’m often complimented on how well I do in interviews but I’m never the right fit.

I strongly believe that if we want to become an inclusive society then we either must create meaningful and joyful jobs for those who are disabled and more importantly introduce an unconditional universal basic income so that those in society too ill or disabled can have a good standard of life free of fear and judgement.

In the last 5 years, as an EU national, I have encountered employers asking if I can speak and write English. I have encountered employers with no knowledge around Brexit working regulations.

The list of incompetence in regards to interviews is endless: employers conducting interviews on frozen Teams meetings; employers who eat during the interview; employers who by their own admission only offered me an interview because they wanted to hear about my volunteer roles; employers who make no effort to pronounce my name right; interview panels who don’t introduce themselves; people who smirk with contempt when asked to repeat a question; employers who refuse to give interview feedback; employers who say they won’t offer sick pay or holiday pay; and employers who don’t inform you about the outcome of the interview.

How can we as a society demand employers to be more inclusive and champion diversity if they can’t even get the basics right? Unemployment amongst disabled people and those living with long term health conditions is huge. Lack of forward thinking and a lack of social responsibility are the first things that come to mind. And yet it is we who are demonised by society instead of employers being held accountable.

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