25 March 2018

Access to work: what it means to us

Jane_and_James_main

The UK is unique in providing a central Government fund to support deaf and disabled people who are in work. The Department of Work and Pensions administers Access to Work in the form of grants to pay for additional support which people need to do their job. The average amount spent per person is said to be only £75 and is often free of financial cost or a one-off purchase of special equipment or furniture. Some workers need regular support from specialists, which involves a regular budget and a much higher cost. The cost depends on need. This is an amount which enables the deaf or disabled person to use their skills fully to do their job.

Result CIC’s James and Jane both make use of Access to Work. Jane has worked since she was 16 (part-time music teacher) and became deaf aged 24. She is now 52. James was born deaf, is now 24 and a graduate embarking on his career which includes paid work and work experience and training in the arts.

They recently discussed their experiences with Access to Work.

Jane: I was thinking about when I was your age, James, as this was when I started to become deaf. I was already working when that happened. It was 1990 and I was out in the west of Poland running a language school I had set up from scratch with an inappropriate boyfriend! It was terrible to gradually start to realise I was hearing less, but I was so busy at the time, working 7 days a week usually, I tried to dismiss it. I imagine your perspective will be quite different, is it? What do you find are the main challenges at work?

James: I do have a different experience as I’ve been deaf since birth. I was able to develop and depend on certain strategies to progress through mainstream education with a hearing loss, though once I left that structured environment after university and entered into the working world I didn’t have any idea what to do next. I gathered my first pieces of work experience through volunteering, mostly in public-facing positions, and then eventually found paid work in a variety of roles, including assisting with venue management, raising awareness of sustainability issues, working in arts administration, supporting the delivery of various events and providing customer service in a cinema. The main challenges at work in these different roles, as a C.I. user, have always been around communication, the ability to understand what’s being said and responding in kind, to answer enquiries and carry out my duties effectively, missing out on general work gossip and becoming quite isolated in a hearing-dominated environment, which can have an impact on my morale and enthusiasm for the job.

I’m optimistic about my future working life however; I’ve been learning BSL (British Sign Language) and also discovered the existence of lipspeakers whilst volunteering at DaDaFest last year (where I met you!.) The lipspeaker was invaluable in ensuring that I understood and was able to access what was being performed on stage, and they may enable me to surmount these challenges in my future working life.

When did you first start using lipspeakers at work?

Jane: I was teaching in London at a Further Education college – in a full-time job. I did this with no support – just planning well, lipreading, reading body language and atmosphere in the classroom and making creative use of interactive techniques and visuals. It was very tiring, but rewarding. I booked onto a conference of TEFL teachers and my Mum happened to mention that one of her first students when she had worked at a Community Education centre had become a lipspeaker. She introduced us and we arranged for her to come and support me at the conference. I remember it vividly. Suddenly everything was available to me. It was like a huge new colourful world opening up. I was ecstatic at the prospect of being able to understand things again. The poor lipspeaker was tired out by the end of the day, I am sure, as I was over-keen to access as many workshops as possible. But it was a revelation. And importantly, it made me realise that with the right support, I could actually use my skills fully and go further, not have my prospects determined entirely by what I could manage to hear by straining and over-concentrating. Things really changed for me at that point. Has there been any important moment for you James when you felt you would be able to progress?

James: There have been many important moments over the last year where I’ve learnt that my disability has no right to hold me back in my career. I volunteered as a Young Leader with DaDaFest where, as part of a group of young disabled people, I was able to learn about disability arts and given the opportunity to programme and produce our own festival. This led on to training as a producer with the Royal Exchange Young Company which I’m immensely enjoying.

I started learning BSL and have made my first few tentative steps into the Deaf community, which has been essential in terms of becoming more comfortable with my deafness by learning about a new culture and identity.

I met you, Jane, a woman who I admire immensely and who is an exemplary role model for deaf people, and entered onto a work experience placement with Result. Just observing how she conducts herself at work as a deaf person has been invaluable in broadening my own horizons of what is possible in the future.

Jane: You mentioned the other day at a meeting that you have applied for Access to Work for equipment to support you in your current job. I am interested: how is that going?

James: This is the first time I’ve applied for Access to Work because my current job working in customer service in a large cinema complex in Manchester presents quite a few difficulties, the main one being able to understand customers in a busy building with a lot of background noise.

I applied for Access to Work when I started working there in December and a workplace assessment was carried out within a couple of weeks, which was essentially a discussion of my roles in the workplace and my experiences working there so far. AtW got in touch with my employer towards the end of January with the recommended adjustments that they agreed I needed to carry out my role, including a Phonak Roger Pen, which is a wireless microphone that helps people with hearing loss to understand speech more clearly during loud background noise and over distances.

Coincidentally this was also the first time my manager had ever had to deal with Access to Work and I could sense he was a little panicked at having to fork out the company’s own money (even though they would eventually be fully reimbursed by AtW) because they were unfamiliar with all the loops and hurdles involved and how the whole process works.

Due to a miscommunication between my managers and the finance department at the cinema the equipment hasn’t been supplied yet which is quite frustrating as I’d like to be able to carry out the duties required of me to the best of my ability. In the meantime I’ve been restricted to just one of the three roles available which means I don’t have to answer and resolve customers’ demands as much. In a way I’m grateful that this adjustment has been made, which allows me to earn without constantly straining my hearing as much and experiencing anxiety when dealing with customers, though I’m also keen to explore how the Roger Pen could possibly improve my prospects in the workplace and for the future.

How about your dealings with Access to Work?

Jane: The first thing to say is that I hugely value Access to Work. Without it, I would never have achieved the progress I have in my career. I could never gained the experience of working at the Foreign Office in middle to senior management, or learned the huge amount I did. We are, to my knowledge, the only country in the world with such a system and we should be proud of it. In terms of the personal experience of applying for and using a budget to pay for support workers, this has been mixed. I think there is unfortunately a lack of understanding about deafness among the DWP caseworkers. And the fact you are assigned these randomly, rather than to someone who has got to know you and your situation is frustrating. When you get a good caseworker it helps you feel like a human being with the same rights as others. When you don’t… well that’s another story. There can be a feeling that you have to go right back to ‘Deaf Awareness 101’ each time! Sometimes I have a sense that AtW staff view us as trying to somehow ‘scrounge’ funding for support – which is bizarre! We don’t set support worker fees and we did not ask to be – or become – deaf. But I do see signs that awareness is improving – which is encouraging.

As an entrepreneur, my work patterns are dependent mainly on the needs of clients. If clients want to meet, I need a lipspeaker to support the meeting. And if they want training or face-to-face coaching, I need the same. So there can be peaks and troughs through the year and I have had to make the case repeatedly and firmly for in-year budget flexibility, in other words not being expected to spend exactly x amount each month because it is not me who decides which periods are busiest!

Over the past few months I have I taken part in some lobbying. This was after AtW started applying a rather ill thought- out cap on grants which meant a handful of mainly senior deaf people got their support cut in an arbitrary way. I had a detailed letter I wrote to AtW published as part of the Work and Pensions Committee Enquiry into the cap and its impact. It was great to learn today (20 March 2018) that this cap has been significantly raised. I have been thinking about the way that AtW needs to be flexible enough to support young workers through career changes and development. Tell me about what you would hope for in the future from Access to Work.

James: Many of the issues which have adversely affected me occur during the recruitment process before securing work, after which you can then apply for Access to Work. Many of the jobs available for young people just starting out in their careers are public-facing roles within customer service which are obviously not ideal for deaf jobseekers. I’m also likely to be rejected for the small technicality of my inability to use a telephone which closes off a lot of entry-level jobs, for example within administration or box offices. This requirement has often discouraged me from applying for those positions.

Employers for entry-level minimum-wage roles tend to just look to get someone in quickly and easily to do a job, so it’s difficult to find potential employers who are even willing and open to hiring a deaf person, and then dealing with the bureaucratic confusion of AtW on top of that which can influence their attitudes and decision-making process when hiring staff who may be regarded as easily disposable in roles with a high rate of turnover.

I have had to deal with vastly varying perceptions of deafness and so I tend not to disclose my deafness until the interview stage in an effort to try to bypass their preconceptions. I often rewrite my CV to remove any references or clues to disability or my deafness in an effort to appear as a hearing person, even though a lot of my work experience so far has had a disability focus. Many employers also only respond to applications or conduct interviews by phone, even though I’ve expressly highlighted in my application to contact only by email, so more potential opportunities are lost that way.

To answer your question then, my hope in the future would be for AtW to work to raise awareness among employers in general on how the government fund works and to dispel any doubts they may have in regards to providing appropriate support for young disabled people to work in those entry-level roles and enable them to start to develop and grow in their career. What are your thoughts on supporting young workers just starting out in work? Jane: I think that it is a tough time to be a young person starting in the world of work. Resources are scarce, housing prices are high and the ‘gig’ economy means job security is almost a thing of the past. If you add deafness and relatively low awareness of it that makes for quite a challenge! But I have a deep belief in human adaptability and resilience and after working with several young deaf and disabled people feel strongly that the skills and personal strengths they develop mean they have a high level of self-awareness and understanding of themselves which will serve them and their future colleagues well. I am optimistic!

James: I am glad! Thank you for the chat.

Jane: Thank you too!

 
 
 
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