by Lauren Hislop
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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.