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.