We caught up with Gillian Cowell who interned with Jamie Hepburn MSP in 2014. She continued to work in politics for two years after her internship ended, and has recently returned to her passion- the history of Scottish brickmaking! Gillian found the experience useful in understanding how society and Parliament work together, how reasonable adjustments made working more accessible to her, and also in feeling a new sense of identity as a disabled person. Here, she tells us about her time with Parliament, and gives some wise advice for those wishing to follow in her footsteps
What were you doing before your internship?
I was working at home doing transcription work. It was poor pay and I was self-employed. In my spare time I volunteered at a museum doing guided tours and sorting through archives. I was interested in politics, and was following the debates around the independence referendum. It was quite difficult to participate though, and I was in A+E the night before the vote. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to vote, but luckily I got out in time! This was a real turning point for me and I decided that I wasn’t going to let myself be denied the chance to participate in politics in some way. Then I saw the advert for the internship and thought, why not go for it?
What did you learn on your internship?
I did a huge amount of case work and gained a lot of experience with the wide range of issues that people can face and support that they need. Sometimes this can be very emotional. I got to do some shadowing days in Parliament, e.g. with the Clerks who record the Official Report, committees, SPICE (the parliamentary research and information service) and the Inward and Outward Education team. It also felt like I was learning “how to live out in the world”, travelling long distances while managing my health condition and being away from home. Before the internship I worked at home or across the road, and life was quite narrow. The internship involved a long commute to work in Edinburgh at Parliament.
MSPs are so connected to their local area and they extensively engage with their community. The care that they have for the people they serve and their knowledge of the issues they face is incredible. It’s an extremely busy job. I previously worked as a community worker, and even then I didn’t understand how the work at that level translates to the parliament level, policy, etc. This is why so many people get frustrated with politics, because they don’t understand how it affects them. Local authorities are the least understood. Now I get it, and feel more like a citizen of the world. As a case worker, if we got 15 cases the same, then that issue might become a speech in Parliament or a survey and perhaps a policy proposal or a campaign at different levels.
What have you been doing since and what do you hope to do next?
Following the internship I was recruited four months later by the host MSP and the recently elected MP for the same area as a joint Parliamentary Assistant and then Researcher. I worked 3 and a half days a week for the next two years and finished last month. I have now left to take up a new role with Summerlee Industrial Museum in Coatbridge. This role is unpaid but is something I have really wanted to do for a long time. I will probably go back to doing a casework type role at some point as I love it, but its nice to take some time away to become an expert in my special interest – the decline of the Scottish brickwork industry and its products. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject. I see a connection between ruined buildings and an under-appreciated industry and the people who contributed to it – who were often harmed in the process – and my own experience of living with disability. I gave a talk to the Crohn’s Society about this connection recently, and how important politics becomes when you are disenfranchised. You appreciate more the importance of power when you don’t have any!
The internship gave me a lot of confidence. I started volunteering with people with Crohn’s to help them become more comfortable with discussing their impairment. I had never described myself as a disabled person before the internship, and now I am proud of that identity. I barely used to talk about Crohn’s even to friends, but I recently did a talk for nurses at a study day at the Royal College of Nursing in Edinburgh, another for Crohn’s patients at a family day in Glasgow. I would never have done this before. At the moment I am trying to set up a programme where Crohn’s patients can express their condition and its effects through art.
When you are stuck in hospital it sometimes feels like you aren’t really human, you are just a collection of body parts and don’t really have a voice or a purpose – the internship helped show me that didn’t have to be the case. That disabled people can function well and do complex work, even while being seriously ill, if provided with the appropriate support, flexibility and adjustments.
Impairment related adjustments
I needed to be able to access good toilet facilities, have flexibility to work from home a lot to manage fatigue and deal with variations in health and condition. I found that working from home was often ideal for being able to focus on the detail-oriented work and I probably produced a lot more work as a result than I would have in the office.
My work output was quite high, the flexibility from the employers meant my illness was able to take a back seat for a change – rather than ruling my life – while I focused on doing my job. I could also just pop along to the hospital when I needed to and it didn’t disrupt my work in any way. That said, in this sort of role it is important to be in the office as much as you can, so that you don’t feel alone and have a chance to talk through things with colleagues in person. The staff at the office were really good to me with my not being able to be there in the office all the time – e.g. they would scan survey responses in to send to me, send me copies of correspondence, that sort of thing. I was so grateful for the help they gave me above and beyond their own really busy jobs. The MSP and MP were also brilliant and it’s an experience I will forever be grateful for.
Advice for future interns?
- People in Parliament tend to be extremely kind because of the work that they do – so don’t be shy to ask them for help, and ask to shadow them and learn from them. MSPs are very approachable, it’s their life’s work after all – they are very kind and happy to help. Get round as many people as you can!
- Read the official reports, go to SPICE, don’t be afraid of the amount of information that you will be exposed to, read everything you can and you will be surprised at how much you learn and how quickly.
- Use the opportunity! You are very lucky! This role is a privilege. For how huge the Parliament and the work is, there are still so few people doing the work so it’s an incredible opportunity to get to do things that not many people get a chance to do. People are generally really interested in what you get to do. You get a power of knowledge that few people have which is a great selling point.
- Everything will be quite challenging at first, it will be difficult. Your life will change quite dramatically – but it’s really worth it. Rely on the support of your colleagues and Inclusion Scotland, it will be hugely important. Don’t isolate yourself.
- Always remember, nothing that is worth doing is easy!
- If I hadn’t seen the advert and applied for this I don’t know what I would be doing now. Life has changed dramatically for the better, my CV has expanded, as has my confidence. This was something I knew I should do, there was something magical about it.
Gillian did a speech at our Parliament event in 2015 where she talked about becoming politically involved. You can read Gillian’s speech here.