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April 2020

Chapter 5 – Fighting Spirit

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by Lauren Hislop 

Click a chapter link (right) to follow this story from the beginning.

'You Failed.' Those two words reverberated through my head as I made my way home. After receiving such devastating news, I went to my friend’s house and rang mum. To this day I cannot fathom how she understood me, in between my uncontrollable sobs and slurred voice, I expressed my sorrow for letting her down. She assured me I hadn’t. But I was a failure! My mind flooded with memories of mum’s devotion, supporting me in my pursuit of a social work career and in an instant it was blown. 
      My heart and soul had gone into this attempt at achieving my dreams and now all my endeavours proved to be futile; all that toil for nothing. 
      My greatest desire was to have a successful career, believing social work to be the only path towards that goal and, in that moment, I felt all my prospects of achieving employment vanish. 
      That weekend, while sipping cheap wine on my mum’s verandah with a friend, I experienced a gamut of emotionsIn between sobs, there were moments of hysterical laughter so that our cheeks almost burst. We were reminiscing all the joyous times spent together and these light-hearted moments made the weekend bearable. 

A fortnight after receiving the news, I had a meeting with my course co-ordinator and lecturer to discuss my failure. It was an unnecessary evil. I was a contestant being ejected from the Big Brother house and they were commentators discussing my eviction.   
      During the meetingI maintained composure as if seated in a classroom. My coordinator asked what happened during placement. A jug of water and glasses sat between us on the table, a distraction from the awkwardness of the moment as I explained my extreme fatigue. I sat calmly as they officially announced my failure and that I wouldn’t be able to progress to third year. 
      I nodded my head, taking a drink from the glass of water in front of me as they asked what I would do nowI smiled, announcing that I would have a break and, clearly relieved, mcoordinator told me 'that was the easiest meeting of this nature I’ve ever attended. Most students are extremely distraught.' However, mcool, calm exterior melted away on the train ride home and I felt myself begin to unravel.  
      Seeking refuge in my bedroom, I commenced howling; a monsoon of tears fell down my face. Weeping into my pillow became a daily ritual. I felt as though my world was ending and melancholy took hold.  
      Growing up, there were peers and teachers who believed my aspirations to be too high. I was resolved to prove them wrong - people with disability could succeed in the career of their choice and yet I had confirmed all my critics’ beliefs; surely my failure would be attributed to my disability. 
      My soul was crushed beyond redemptionSelf-loathing and reprimand captured my thoughts as I was consumed with guiltsurrounded by a murky nothingness. I experienced immense emotional anguish, finding reprieve only when asleep. 

An unsteady gait had resulted in many falls during my life yet, this was the hardest fall of all. was descending into a pit of despair, rapidly surrounded by opaque fog and unable to view the world clearly. I felt my life was over.  
      My mental health had remained relatively intact up until nowHowever, depression ensnared me like a tsunami. I began to behave in extremely irrational waysalienating myself from friends and, as result, I spiralled deeper into despondency. 
      My family, whilst supportive couldn’t understand my state. I had always been positive, and now my nature was one of utter despair. 
      Sitting on my bed staring out my window, I could see time progressing as my world stood still. Photos on the wall of me, blissfully carefree with a crocked smile amongst my friends, were in dire contrast to the bleak and hopeless future I faced now.  
      But my fighting spirit hovered in the background and I slowly became determined to return to the degree, to give work placement another try. 

Isecond semester, I commenced a new placement at Gosford Centrelink, five minutes from my mother’s house. I finally felt the stars re-aligning when I instantly warmed to my supervisor. Nadine had chestnut hair and emerald green eyes; she also went to the same high school a couple of years ahead of me. With achievable tasks and a nurturing environmentsuccess appeared to be on the horizon. 
      After a week or two I was asked to give a talk about disability in the workplace, to professionals currently supervising a social work student. I was thrilled to be involved, believing my previous work placement experience has resulted in the social work department wanting to make work placements more accessible. 
      I arrived with my friend Shirley, a disability advocate who was one of the presentersWe were to meet my friend Justin, who was presenting as a third year social work student. However, we were ushered into a private room and I felt déjà vu, thinking it had to be about my performance in the current placement. What they conveyed to me was horrific - Justin had suicided and to this day I can’t recall what words we uttered. Justin was in my close group of friends, his death tore the group apart. 

The loss of Justin pushed me over the edge, I abandoned the degree and spent hours in my room sobbing uncontrollably.       
      I went to a couple of recommended counsellors which didn’t work for me. Seeing in the New Year I was near breaking point, in sheer desperation pulled a number for a psychiatrist from the phone book and asked my mother to call his office. 
      Meeting this psychiatrist helped lift the veil of darkness impeding my outlook and the introduction of cognitive behavioural therapy allowed me to accept I had an illness. If I wanted to get better I had to become an active participant in my recovery so, during the year I caught up with old friends, travelling independently to Tasmania for the first time and my experiences there will always be cherished. 
      The dark abyss was fading, light had started to seep through the curtains. I learned to live again and realised my entire worth wasn’t dictated by achievements; my character began to re-emerge 
      I learnt that relinquished goals could be replacewith new ones. I arrived at the conclusion that social work was neither the course for me nor the only path towards a meaningful vocation. I enrolled in Social Science majoring in Community Welfare, this degree offered opportunities for me to foster my interest in policy development. 
      After taking a detour, I was finally back on coursereawakened with optimism for my future. I knew that if I was to fall again, I would rise from the ashes.  
      I was ready for my second act.

 

Chapter 6 – New Horizon

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by Lauren Hislop 

Click a chapter link (right) to follow this story from the beginning.

A new dawn upon my horizon offers the promise of a crisp autumn day and the staleness of summer dissipates. 
      “This is a new beginning” I pondered, as I drove my electric wheelchair around Ourimbah campus. I was feeling excited and hopeful, two emotions that had become unfamiliar to me. Studying here felt like home, this was the place I had started my uni life and was as comfortable as a pair of old jeans that fitted bloody well! 
      Dragging my laptop bag behind me upon entering my first lecture, I felt a sense of solace. The students were varied in ages and with hardly a remnant of awkwardness, it all seemed quite easy to me.  
      With significant credits from previous studies, I wasn’t required to take many subjects, leaving me the option to complete my degree in two years instead of three. However, after chatting with the course coordinator I opted for 3 years of study, taking pressure off with only two subjects each semester and allowing my confidence to return. 
      Majoring in community welfare, was to my surprise the right choice for me, its focus on how policy directly impacts on individual lives resonated and a burst of optimism pulsated through my veins. My confidence soared at the end of semester, when with uncoordinated fingers I logged into my student portal, to find distinctions awaiting my attention. 
      I had indeed recovered from my fall in social work! 
      Many serendipitous encounters occurred during this time, including developing a connection with Basil, a taxi driver with an accessible cab who after one trip, offered to be my regular driver. Many stories have unsung heroes and Basil was one of mine. A retired surveyor, he often recounted tales of his career and with a spirit of gentle generosity and humility, he was an inspiration. On one occasion after bringing me to campus, I reached in my bag for my purse only to find it wasn’t there, I was distraught. After my profuse apologies, Basil smiled, grabbed his wallet and insisted I take five dollars in case I needed something, I was touched. 
      I also became friends with fellow students Caroline and Kim, we would regularly catch up and support each other. They would often seek my advice because I had degrees and this was a real confidence booster, it all balanced out with my request for their assistance to pour a cup of tea! I recaptured a sense of camaraderie I had been missing for so long. 
      
                                      
I was in a state of perpetual motion in my second year with four subjects during first semester and although tired, I achieved decent marks. In second semester we had statistics, this was a terrifying prospect considering my absence of a mathematical brain. I sat in lectures, diligently typing on my laptop and whilst I may have appeared to know what the lecturer was talking about, in all honesty I didn’t have a clue!  Fortunately for me, the statistic component was only worth 50% of our grade, if it was more, I wouldn’t have passed.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
      During second year I was approached by one of my lecturers Michael Howard, who believed I had an aptitude for research and policy writing. He asked if I would consider honours, saying it would be an invaluable qualification. I trusted him, he worked in policy development in Canberra and I was so excited I think I accidentally drove over his foot! The prospect of being renumerated for pursuing my passion, brought me closer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My future suddenly felt illuminated with clear direction, I would be a researcher. 
      In my third year I was focused on achieving high marks, so I could progress into honours and when my degree was nearing completion, I felt a sense of achievement. I was back on course! When I graduated, I farewelled my fellow students and we all went on different paths, mine was towards an honours degree.  
      From the onset of my honours degree, I immersed myself in academic journals in preparation for my thesis. Michael was my supervisor and the topic for my thesis was the effect of the Welfare to Work Act on the employment situation for people with disability. 
      In 2005 under John Howard, the government implemented the Act to increase employment outcomes for people with disability. I predicted it would be a colossal failure because it came from the premise that the unemployment rate amongst people with disability, was due to a dependency on income support. Not surprisingly, their solution was to restrict the eligibility of the Disability Support Pension (DSP).  
      After the act was implemented, those applying for the DSP, were only successful if they were unable to work 15 hours per week, reduced from 30 hours. Those who were no longer eligible were placed on Newstart. Whilst I wasn’t directly affected by the act at this stage, I was outraged. Many people with disability have a deep desire to work, however, extenuating circumstances such as employer’s discriminatory attitudes made this difficult and the Act stood to cause even greater financial disadvantage. 
      I kept my emotional response in check, I was now a researcher and needed to gather facts and keep an open mind. In addition to our thesis, we had to attend a weekly seminar at Newcastle campus. As I was living with mum, I would catch the train up. I think my lecturer and my peers were both impressed and horrified when I strode into the lecture on one occasion with blood on my arm. I had fallen on the platform and continued to uni. “Proof I’m dedicated,” I thought! 
      I wanted to survey people with disability affected by the Act. Whilst researchers were theorising about the act, it was time to ask the experts; people with disabilities, so I designed a survey. I hoped that this would provide a human testimony. I had to gain ethics approval at the uni, which was a lengthy process. Once approved I asked Centrelink to distribute my survey to some of their clients. After prolonging my degree and waiting months, I received a negative response, this was frustrating! Not to be deterred, I approached a disability employment agency who also stuffed me around with a long response time and unfavourable outcome.  
      I decided to undertake a literature review instead and in the last few months of completing my thesis, I was attached to a PC for up to ten hours a day. Our family computer was in the living room, I had papers strewn constantly across the floor and Mum referred to it as the ‘white out’. I’m still astounded by mums patience, she provided me endless cups of tea and was successful getting me to occasionally eat.  
      I grew extremely fatigued, I was my own worst enemy, constantly updating information as a result of reading further articles and research papers. Thankfully I had a due date and when it arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing my study days were finally over. Whilst I was keen to join the workforce, I planned to have a break, catching up with friends and reacquainting my skin to sunlight!  
 


In memory of Basil 

Chapter 7 – The Job Hunt

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by Lauren Hislop 

Click a chapter link (right) to follow this story from the beginning.
As the afterglow of graduation receded, I enthusiastically leapt into job searching mode and, being a novice, I sought the support of the career advisor at uni. I instantly bonded with Sally - her warm disposition, skillset and enthusiasm for my prospects injected hope into my veins. She assisted with my résumé development and drafting job applications, I saw her as my work-seeking oracle.
      Sally was too good at her job and that meant less and less access to her over time so, I decided to register with a disability employment agency and met Wendy, my assigned specialist. At our initial meeting, I was assured that I was an excellent candidate and that their service was well placed to help me secure employment. Subsequent visits began to curtail my faith in Wendy’s abilities: discussions seemed limited to small talk about the weather “it’s a warm day today”, health “how are you?” and praising me for sending out résumés and cover letters. I was expecting her to market me to employers and initially call them on my behalf. I believed she would actually assist me in preparing job applications. She offered me no support at all.
      When we first met she claimed that she had contacts at Newcastle uni and that she would market me to these contacts. On subsequent visits when I asked her about these contacts she just shrugged it off. This contradicted their website as the organisation claimed that they help people with disabilities find work. I was very disillusioned that she didn’t offer the support I desperately  needed.
      During the process of applying for an internship at the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at the University on NSW (UNSW), I sought Wendy’s advice and after providing her with all the information, she just glanced at me with a vacant stare, claiming “you are so good to apply.” Her condescending attitude infuriated me and smacked of paternalistic intent. I asked her if she could look over my applications and received no constructive feedback on any of them. Fortunately, I had my career advisor Sally to help me.
      Sally was still in high demand, my access to her was limited and realising the fallibilities of my disability employment service confirmed my fear that finding a job rested squarely on my shoulders. I had no idea what I was doing, I was literally ‘winging it’!
      
I wasn’t prepared for the solitude of job seeking, spending hours in front of my computer screen, perusing university websites to view examples of cover letters I could draw from as templates. I applied for advertised positions and I emailed organisations informing them that I was interested in work - voluntary or unpaid work experience.
      My first job application was for a disability advocate position. This would be my dream role and apart from my tertiary qualifications. I had firsthand experience. Unfortunately, my application was unsuccessful. I knew I lacked experience and had hoped I could match that with my passion. I wasn’t devastated, graduates were rarely hired at their first attempts for work, yet I had no idea how long it would actually take to secure a position.
      Each morning after farewelling mum off to work, I sat at my PC typing 'To Whom It May Concern' letters. Gradually, I began to resent this faceless person who failed to understand the courtesy of a reply, as multiple email applications and EOIs flew into cyberspace, never to be heard of again.
      
By mid-November my patience began to wane. I had graduated in June so, surely by now, I should have secured at the very least unpaid work experience. Wanting to pursue a career in disability research, I decided to ring the Special Education and Disability Studies Centre at Newcastle University and ask for the name of the director. What a mistake! The secretary stated she was unable to understand me and when I tried to repeat myself she interrupted, asking in an extremely condescending tone whether there was someone with me she could talk to. I was insulted and incensed; how dare she talk to me as I’m though I am a child! Slamming the phone handset hard into its cradle, I was surprised it was still functional.
      My slurred speech was a hindrance and a barrier to finding work because I knew that people found it difficult to understand me. However, I felt I had no choice other than to call because emailing clearly wasn’t working.
      Through tears of rage I glanced at my degrees on the wall - Mum had lovingly put them in gold rimmed frames - and I was thinking they were all for nothing. How could she be so proud when no one wanted to hire me?
      Over the next few years I applied for in excess of one hundred jobs with no success. I felt wretched and hope began to fade, leaving in its place a strong conviction that a two-tiered system was at play: one for able bodied job seekers and the lower one for people with disabilities.
      A horrific thought, worse than anything I could have imagined, lurked in my conscious mind: "was I destined to watch daytime TV all my life?” I could not think of anything worse.
      Despite my feelings, I continued with my relentless emails to places I had interest in working for. One day I received a positive response from an academic at SPRC - she urged me to apply for an internship with them.
      This was a golden opportunity, one which could open doors for me and after several rewrites of my application and with crossed fingers and toes, I pressed send on my PC. Soon after, I received an email requesting my attendance at an interview. I was ecstatic, at last I may have found my break!
      
Mum and I travelled by train to Randwick and took a taxi to the University of NSW campus. Waiting to be called in for interview, I was extremely nervous and tried to replay all the advice Sally had given me. When they called my name, I walked unsteadily into the room, desperately attempting to maintain bravado and was introduced to the interview panel consisting of three people. Although I made every attempt to speak in a clear voice, they asked me to repeat myself multiple times and one panel member maintained a bored expression throughout the entire interview. I was convinced I hadn’t nailed it.
      On the train ride home I told Mum, “I really don’t think I got it. One of the interviewers looked like she’d rather watch paint dry!” We both laughed and thought it had been a good experience for me to have reached interview stage.
      Once home, I was extremely surprised when I received an email offering me the internship. I was elated, responding right away YES! My happiness lasted a few days until I wondered how on earth this going to work was. I live on the Central Coast and the internship was in Randwick. I would have to stay there and arrange for personal care.  I was suddenly overwhelmed. I turned to mum, “It looks too hard, I can’t do it’
      She smiled, "Yes, you can. We’ll figure it out."’
      Mum was right. We did figure it out.

Read More

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8 coming soon