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September 2020

Chapter 10 – Independence day

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by Lauren Hislop

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

My heart soared. I felt as though I was floating on air. After years of toil at uni, I had a job.
     I was impressed with my employment consultant Sue Werner, who from the moment we met, exuded positive energy, only ever seeing abundant opportunities and her enthusiastic personality was infectious.
     Sue Brown, Regional Manager of Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) was impressed with my credentials and offered me a ten week contract to produce a research project. I would work twelve hours a week, split equally between the office and home. In a dream state, I thanked her for the opportunity and eagerly awaited my first day.
     When I received my letter of employment my heart was thumping so hard it threatened to fall from my chest and, as my hand convulsed, I desperately tried to keep it from crumpling the letter. My fantasy had finally come to life.
     The offices were located amongst lush bushland in Croudace Bay, a forty minute to an hour cab ride from my house and the travel time did not dampen my spirits! I shared an office with other workers, some of whom I knew from my previous association with CPA. Walking through the doors each week, I felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie with my colleagues, cups of tea and friendly anecdotes flowed freely and I felt an overwhelming sense of inclusion.
     Unfortunately, my experiences with many of the taxi drivers, travelling to and from work were patronising, often I was spoken to in a high-pitched condescending tone and regularly addressed as ‘good girl’. During the journey, I imagined explicit retorts to verbalise back to them and held off, keeping firmly in my mind that I had a job, I no longer felt the need to prove my intelligence to morons.
     Appreciative of the opportunity, I delved into work, desperate to prove my worth as an employee. My first task was to update a resource booklet, containing ‘how to find work’ tips for people with physical disabilities. Producing a research paper about employment for the same cohort in the Hunter region, was my second task and wanting to impress my manager Sue, I completed many unpaid hours at home, believing this would validate me as an invaluable worker.
     After my first week, I was physically weary and the night before my second day onsite, I fell and cracked my head on the kitchen table at home. I was distraught, not about the injury, my distress was due to the fact that a doctor at the hospital had informed me I wouldn’t be able to work the next day. I wanted to lunge at him, no mean feat for someone with Cerbral Palsy.
     Sue was extremely understanding when I explained what had happened and I vowed I would never fall again during my contract.
     In the first few weeks of working, my employment consultant requested that I assist her with a tender she was writing for CPA, to have the same position based in Newcastle. Sue Werner had been operating from Sydney and commuting back and forth to Newcastle. My manager agreed and I began to research statistics relating to the employment rate of people with physical disabilities in the Hunter Region. The most exciting aspect of preparing this tender was being asked to write a personal testimony of my experiences of disability employment services. I was extremely passionate about this topic and outlined all my frustrations, as well as praising the services I had received at CPA. After all, they had been the only ones to successfully secure me employment.
     When it was time to fill out my time sheets, being unable to do this myself, I would email CPA’s community worker Claire my hours and she would write them in for me, always obliging, demonstrating CPAs ethos of inclusion.   
     The day I received my first pay, I begged Dudley to take me to an ATM. My crooked fingers typed an amount, I received cash, and instantly handed the money to Dudley and announcing: ‘here’s my board’. This was my Independence Day. Financial emancipation at last and excited to contribute to our household budget.
     Without a doubt, the praise I received from my manager Sue far outweighed my income. I felt valued for my work and that to me was priceless.
     As a new worker at CPA I was expected to attend orientation at their centre in Sydney and I travelled down with another colleague. My attendance opened a gamut of emotion for me, as I was flooded with memories of my visits there as an infant with mum. It was at CPA in Sydney that I had learnt how to walk and speak and, back then, mum had been uncertain about my future. Now, here I was back again as a CPA employee. My heart was full of pride.
     Our presenter at the orientation regularly and nervously glanced at me during her presentation about Cerebral Palsy. She was acutely aware that I had CP and I gingerly offered her a smile with each glance, hoping to alleviate her fears. It was a long day and I was exhausted when I arrived home nut as I my head hit the pillow, I felt a deep sense of contentment.
     In June, my research contract was extended until September and, whilst I was thrilled, I was also sad to learn that my manager was leaving. Sue had become an invaluable mentor, our supervision sessions consistently renewed my vigour and provided me a landscape of creativity to roam, she accentuated my abilities, constantly strengthening my confidence. It had been a privilege to work with her and fortunately we established a friendship after she left, remaining as one of my most valuable mentors.
     Prior to Sue leaving, we had discussed hosting focus groups comprising of people with physical disabilities, offering them the opportunity to discuss their experiences of finding and keeping work. Whilst I sent out invites and arranged meeting rooms, no one responded. With only a few weeks to complete the project, I altered my research method, formulating and sending out surveys instead, which were well received and I compiled the responses into a research paper.
     My employment consultant Sue had also been successful in her tender and had hired John to fulfil her role in Newcastle. She assured me he was extremely competent and would be able to provide the support I required to secure further employment.
     As my contract came to an end, I felt reassured I would find more work. After all, I now had an actual job to add to my resume. I viewed my time at CPA as a stepping-stone and firmly believed I would find another position. Leaving from work in the taxi, I wondered whether this belief was naïve. Only time would tell.

Chapter 11 – Sam’s Sabotage

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by Lauren Hislop

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

When my contract with CPA drew to a close, I strongly believed that due to my previous position I would find employment relatively soon. 
       I wrote job applications on a weekly basis without receiving any responses. It felt like Groundhog Day.
       The disability employment service that helped me find work was based in Sydney but, for practical reasons they needed to transfer me to a local employment consultant agency. In writing this post, for privacy reasons, I’ll call my new employment consultant ‘Sam’. I still was skeptical of employment agencies but, because I had success with the previous agency, I decided to give it a try.
       I would regularly catch up with Sam. He promised to assist me in finding work.
       As I didn’t receive any income support, my desperation for any form of revenue grew. So, once again, I was churning out job applications weekly without receiving any positive response.
       I relayed to Sam my financial situation, stressing the fact that I needed work of some sort. Although he never appeared alert and highly responsive, his willingness to help me seemed sincere.     
       However, incidents began to occur with Sam that made me question his intention to find me employment. One day, Sam and I were having our weekly debriefing over the phone. As usual, I relayed to him the job applications I had made that week. He responded with, ‘well what else are you going to do, watch TV?’ I was so insulted. Enraged I slammed the hang up button on my mobile.
       A minute later my mobile started to ring—it was Sam. I refused to answer it. Later that afternoon, his supervisor spoke to me, claiming that Sam didn’t mean it, that I should give him another chance etc. Sam proceeded to write me a profusely apologetic email. I stupidly gave him another try as I was desperate for employment.
       Although it was difficult to not feel some animosity towards him, this led to him becoming the source of mockery at our house. My partner Dudley would patiently listen to my regular rants regarding Sam. I would spit his name out in between obscenities.
       During this time I joined a working group for a local disability service—a peer led organisation designed to prepare people with disabilities for the Nation Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The working group was comprised of people with disabilities, parents and allies of people with disabilities. It was a welcome distraction from my employment search and my employment consultant Sam.
       One of the allies of the group, Barbel, was a researcher so, I took the opportunity to network by showing her my resume. I told her that I was qualified in social research and asked her if she knew of any opportunity for researchers could she please let me know. Barbel beamed. She did have 10 hours of contract work to offer me. She needed someone to conduct interviews, transcribe them and write reports. I felt as though I came across a pot of gold. She said I would need an ABN, so this began my work as a contractor/consultant.
       At my next meeting with Sam, I told him about the opportunity Barbel offered me. He asked if I could give him Barbel’s details so he could chat to her about the opportunity. I naively gave him her details in good faith, trusting he would promote my abilities.
       The following week, after my next meeting with the working party, Barbel pulled me aside, and in the poorly lit meeting room, she revealed a horrendous fact. ‘What are you doing with Sam?’ she exclaimed. I was perplexed. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘He was trying to talk me out of hiringyou,’ she explained. I felt ill. He apparently tried to discourage her from hiring me. Heat cascaded through my body, my muscles grew tense. The person who was remunerated to assist me in acquiring employment was acting as a deterrent. I am not a violent person, but visions of slapping his dour face with my uncoordinated hand intruded my thoughts.
       Fortunately, Barbel wasn’t dissuaded in hiring me. I produced what she requested and she seemed satisfied with the result. It was an amazing feeling knowing I was rewarded for my time. The years of study may be starting to pay off.
       Although I was consumed with rage towards Sam I never confronted him about this because he had helped with a job application to the NDIS which resulted in receiving a call back for an interview. I told Sam who seemed to be elated for me. While I was quite prepared to attend the interview alone, Sam offered to take me.
       As I recall, we arranged for him to pick me up early so I would be prompt for the interview. He was a little late, however, we were still ahead of schedule. I was required to bring photocopies of documents with me to the interview but I didn’t have these. Sam wanted to call by somewhere to make copies of the documents. As I saw the time, I explained that if we made copies, I could be late and I’m sure that we would be able to make them after the interview. He insisted on stopping somewhere and making copies, resulting in me being fifteen minutes late for the interview. As the sun beat down on me in the car, I remained silent but my anxiety was at a heightened state. When we parked outside the office, my phone started ringing. No doubt, it was the interviewer asking where I was.
       As I walked into the interview room, the panel had three people. One of the panel members was a woman from the disability service organisation working party I was on. She smiled at me sympathetically, which gave me a moment of solace. I do not recall the questions, or my response. Due to my late arrival, I believed the interview was doomed from the onset.
       When it ended, I asked Sam if he could take me to see my partner at work, as he was close by. Before we pulled up outside of his work, I texted Dudley and told him about the traumatic incidents. I needed reassurance. He came out to meet me and when I saw him, he wrapped his arms around me and my distress melted away.
       The rage I felt toward Sam wasn’t because I felt it lost me a position. Realistically, I viewed the interview as practice for future job applications. The fact was, it appeared that consciously or unconsciously, he was sabotaging every opportunity I had to secure employment.
       As Sam dropped me home, I gently closed my front door, exhaling a sigh of relief. I would no longer use Sam’s services. I was determined to attain employment independently!

Chapter 12 – Working from Home

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by Lauren Hislop

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

The dream of attending a work place each day ended with the reality of being a contractor and working from home. While freedom to earn money arose from being a contractor, it came at a cost to my wellbeing. 
       I was offered a few hours of research work . I was so excited. I was contracted to produce a literature review relating to disability service providers. Being extremely passionate about disability issues, I immersed myself in the project. 
       Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived as it took a long time to acquire my next paid position. During this time of unemployment I volunteered at Connectability, an organisation which assists people with complex disabilities, mainly intellectual, to access social activities. My first role was as a ‘spotter’. A spotter is someone who watches clients in a hydro pool and alerts authorities if clients are experiencing difficulty. I genuinely don’t know how productive I was, however, it allowed me to venture out of my house. Rather than staring at my stark four walls, I was thrust into a vibrant environment. I relished the interactions I had with co-workers and clients, it diverted my attention from the reality of my employment situation. 
       I also volunteered with Community Disability Alliance Hunter (CDAH) by serving on the board of management. During my time at CDAH, I networked with various people. As a result I gained contract work in differing tasks, such as research, writing and assisting in social media. 
       Working from home as a contractor enabled my creativity to soar. However it also was a recipe for overworking. I was my own worst enemy, tying myself to my pc without having a morsel to eat all day. My partner often came home to an overtired, famished and irritable woman. My hair would be in disarray and there were deep, dark bags beneath my eyes. I was an empty shell. My perfectionism would rear its ugly head as though I had an addiction. I couldn’t stop. My next high was my next project. 
       I never considered that my tendency to burn the candle at both ends might result in me being unintentionally exploited. One woman, let’s call her Jenny, contracted me for a few months. She paid me for three hours a week. Consumed by my need to be a perfectionist, I would work more hours unpaid. This would backfire as at the close of each week, I would be physically and emotionally spent. Riddled with the fear of being inadequate, I would be chained to the key board until the wee hours of the morning. Whilst my neighbours nestled in their beds, my lit monitor would illuminate my room. The sound of my fingers tapping unendingly on the keyboard was piercing the night’s silence. This directly affected my health but I was obsessed. I must do it perfectly. Due to my over commitment to my paid work, I stopped my voluntary work which exacerbated my isolation. 
       Throughout the months, Jenny would ask me to work more for no extra pay. Initially I was eager to comply, like a enthusiastic young puppy desperately seeking approval from my master, but as my workload increased, I became more exhausted. This placed a strain on my physical and mental health as my partner would routinely return home to a wild beast waiting to prance at any comment perceived to be directed at him. Dudley said this overworking had to stop. Noticing the exasperation on his face, I knew he was right. 
       I had to open the discussion with Jenny, conveying that I would need remuneration for the extra work. I Skyped her from my kitchen table, gently informing her that the extra work consumed more time and requested remuneration for my extra effort and time. Suddenly her eyes were veiled by a fiery rage. ‘I don’t have extra money to pay you. Why can’t you do this?’ she barked in a belligerent tone, resulting me in cowering in the shadows. I tried to change her perspective but as a new contractor, I wasn’t versed in negotiating. I felt as though I was on an uneven footing. Not having an employment consultant, I was on my own and I was burning out. This was having a detrimental impact on my health as well and resulted in having more painful discussions with her, ending each chat with me struggling to deter my tear duct from activating. 
       Early one morning, I felt as though a wild crazy person was stabbing me with a knife in the abdomen. After undergoing tests, I was eventually diagnosed with a fecal impact. Ultimately, my health contributed to my decision to resign from this position. Although I could use the money, the toll it placed upon my mental and physical health exceeded the financial gain I received from it. 
       In order for me to sustain work I was aware that I needed a work-life balance. However I did not know how to achieve this. I needed the assistance of an independent consultant to guide me. Miraculously the NDIS granted me funding for employment support. Was this a dream? Was I able to use the services of independent consultants for employment services? YES! 
       I was put in touch with a woman named Lou who worked for an organisation called Response. Lou looked at my credentials. Her deep brown eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she announced she had a position for me involving writing and research for 2-3 hours per week. My body pulsated, I could hardly contain my excitement. Not only was I offered work, Lou started to teach me the fundamentals of achieving a work/life balance. 
       My life was back on track!