So, this is what positive action and affirmation feels like?
By Billianna Allen-Mandeville
I was unemployed for six months before starting my internship. I never thought that after graduating and studying for two degrees I would find it difficult gaining a job. This was not for want of trying. Each day I would go out and sit in coffee shops and dedicate my day to filling out and submitting application forms. I would click the ‘I am Disabled’ box on each sheet, waiting fervently for a response, for someone to ask if I required any reasonable adjustments, to be given an equal chance.
Originally, I kept an excel spreadsheet of all the roles and organisations I had applied to. The energy to keep adding to the list, to keep count of responses, of rejections waned, because the amount became countless. I was so determined that I would get a job within the first couple of months I left myself reliant on what was left of my student funding. Naturally, this depleted slowly from the cost of bills, rent, and life in general. Eventually my confidence and stubbornness waned and I had to move back in with my Mum. She herself is a disabled person and is unable to work, so her kindness and my dependence on it simply could not last forever-although she would hurriedly argue otherwise. Universal Credit was my hell and my saviour all at once. I already felt like a failure, I felt let down by the system and society. Being forced into becoming a benefits recipient felt like another kick in the teeth. However, it meant that I could support my mum and myself, buying food, and paying for travel to job interviews.
One such interview was with South Lanarkshire College through Inclusion Scotland’s WeCanWork Internship programme for disabled people. I initially applied for the post of Equalities Project Assistant in April. I had just left a Social Work placement at a Residential Children’s Care Home having become burnt out from the heavy toll of the work and I was angry at the lack of support and awareness available to disabled children in that particular context. At the time, I saw the Equality Project Assistant Internship opportunity, almost as a sign. You see, the main aim of the role was to research Disability Equality in the workplace, raise awareness of the voices of disabled staff within the college and to ask what more can be done to recruit and retain disabled people.
Then Covid-19 hit, prospects disappeared, and emails flooded my inbox beginning with the sentence “Due to the current situation related to the Covid-19 Pandemic, we are putting our recruitment processes on hold”. This period was a blur and I had thought that the internship role had been and gone to another applicant. As with others, I made sure to forget about it and tried to move on. Then on a seemingly unremarkable day in August, I received an email from Alex, Inclusion Scotland’s Employment Officer, inviting me to interview for the Equalities Project Assistant role at South Lanarkshire College. You would think that I would get back to him without hesitation but looking back at my emails; I took two whole days to respond. I think I just couldn’t believe that it was true; I didn’t want to jinx it by appearing too keen.
Thankfully, I accepted. I first met with Alex over a Zoom meeting where he explained the process, the interview and workplace adjustments I could ask for- through a ‘mock interview’ he not only prepared me for this and future job interviews, but also re-instilled in me a sense of my own self-worth. At the time, I could not afford the train fare to attend the actual interview in person, and there were also storms causing the Scottish public transport system to become haywire. Feeling supported, I felt I could express this to Alex who was able to arrange with South Lanarkshire College for the interview to be held online via video conferencing software. It felt like they were all making the effort for me, that they wanted me to get the job and to succeed. So, this is what positive action and affirmation feels like?
A month into the internship, I still pinch myself every day. Yes, the bus journey is long. Yes, the morning alarm clock is frustrating. Yes, there is a little bit of ‘Covid Anxiety’. Yes, I still mediate my way through ableist views and conversations. And yes, some days are exhausting. Yet, I will never take the ability and right to work as well as the privilege to have been given such an important opportunity for granted. Each morning, I get to set out my ‘to do’ list for each day, with the knowledge and purpose that I have the ability and freedom to make a difference to someone’s working life at the college. All it took was for an employer to take the steps to accept me for my experience and to see that experience, not as different or unable, but as valuable and normal. For me, having a routine again and the feeling of being a productive and useful human, has stopped my days being dull and dark for the past 6 months.