Guest Blogger: Helen Markey
Helen was one of the job seekers who attended the personal development and work preparation training I
delivered with the RNIB in Manchester. She soaked up all the employment advice and contributed her lived experience to the development days. She left not only motivated to step up her job seeking but also motivated to share her thoughts on her career development.
The Thought of Seeking New Employment
The thought of seeking new employment is daunting enough for anyone. There may be a number of reasons that may spark a job search; you may be unhappy in your current role, it could be down to relocation, a change in career path or even a desire to take on a new challenge. No matter what the reason for the search, we can all agree that the searching and application process involved in looking for our next role poses a huge amount of consideration.
We need to consider what exactly is going to be best for us and how it will impact on and improve our lives. Well imagine taking on the task of searching for that new, life changing role, but imagine what it would be like if you had a lot more to consider. Imagine facing the search with a disability, and specifically a visual impairment. Hard as it is to imagine if you have never experienced any sight loss, you can imagine how much more of a challenge this may pose when considering all the obvious steps it takes to secure employment.
As part of my new job search, I would like to share my experiences from the perspective of a partially sighted person. I have just had the opportunity to attend a course designed to provide information and support for severely sight impaired and partially sighted people, run by the RNIB and co-facilitated by Steph Cutler of Making Lemonade. During those three days I have met some interesting and brave people, and I would like to share our perspective with you.
I think it’s best to explain how I came to meet these amazing individuals and why I started my search for employment. I had relocated to Manchester city centre just around two years ago and decided that whilst I enjoyed my job and had great colleagues, it would be better to look for a new role a lot closer to home.I wanted to save having to commute everyday. I took my time with my job search as I wanted to find a role that would be challenging. I did this by using all the usual considerations and I also had to face a few other realisations in the process.
I had spent most of my life hiding a lack of vision. I am unable to see anything other than bright lights and large shapes through my right eye. Then I experienced sight loss in my useful eye due to an ongoing condition called Uveitis. I also had cataracts and glaucoma and was very short sighted. I did make some of my colleagues aware of some of the challenges I faced, but only really when those challenges were work related. If I could avoid telling anyone then I would.
Over the years I had become very good at being creative with my approach to work. We discussed in the course that visually impaired people learn to become great problem solvers and are very resilient. I also found that the more you tell people the more strange questions you have to answer. The amount of times that people have TOLD me I should be able to drive as I can see as I have glasses is unbelievable.
So, after applying for a large number of roles, I received a few invitations to interview. It was my forth interview when I was offered a job, it wasn’t particularly a dream job, but as it was closer to home I took it.
I was too terrified to be pleased. I was dreading what was going to happen. I knew that I had created a security blanket around myself in the role I had been in previously. I knew that if I were to be honest about needing some support then it would probably be offered to me but I had hidden it for so long that I just couldn’t even begin to be open about it. I regret this a lot as I do believe that a lot of people can be supportive. I know that I was just making things a lot harder for myself by feeling that my visual impairments were a problem that I couldn’t get over. As someone pointed out to me this week, its not that we can’t do things, we just do them in a different way to other people.
I was so anxious about the new job that I couldn’t stop going over in my mind the things that I knew were going to be impossible for me to do in a conventional way. I knew I would be learning to use new, bespoke software for the role. I was excited to do this, and very keen to face a new challenge, but how would I be able to explain that unless I sat very close I wouldn’t even be able to see the computer? My useful vision was decreasing at this point by the week. I was experiencing a large amount of white floaters, which I would describe as looking through a net curtain, and this was making it harder for me to focus on any text. It was obviously affecting my personal life as well, but I was mainly concerned about the work.
I knew when I arrived on the first day that I was going to have to face a very awkward conversation at some point. I tried to convince myself it would be ok, that I would be able to find ways around it like I usually did. Yet, something told me I wouldn’t be able to hide this time. I was an hour into my new job when it was time for me to learn the computer system. I couldn’t even see the writing on the screen. Busted! I had to ask if I could have a word in private, and for the first time I explained my situation and the extent of my visual impairment. I felt so guilty for hiding it at the interview and for even thinking that my visual impairment was a problem.
I may not see as well as most people, but there are so many other things to be thankful about, for that reason I could never quite get my head around how I was supposed to feel about it.
At that point I felt very embarrassed, I felt ashamed and a failure. I hate to let people down and felt that the impression I had left on this group of people was irreversible. I would beat myself up about it for a long time after it happened. I agreed with the manager that we would part ways and I got my things together and left. After an hour or so into my new, life changing role they had told me that even if I had told them about my visual impairment, they didn’t see what they would have been able to do about it. They felt that the only option was for us to part company and for them to find someone else. I look back on that situation now and feel sad that this was seen as the only solution. I felt so alone and didn’t know how to tackle the aspects of my disability and how it can be handled in the work place.
I now know about how wonderful organisations like Action for Blind People, RNIB and Access to Work can assist both employee and employer with finding ways around the challenges that can be faced in the workplace for partially sighted people. They even fund equipment and take the time to assess and support individuals and companies throughout the process. That particular employer didn’t know how to handle the situation and would benefit from being educated on what support is available for people who simply work in a different way and perhaps may just need a slight adjustment.
I have been able to work all my adult life and found that my sight had decreased to a stage that I could no longer work in the same way as I had before. I just wasn’t aware of the help that is available, of the software on offer and the help and funding from local and national organisations. I heard this week that 75% of severely visually impaired and partially sighted people are out of work. I knew I was at a turning point in how I would approach my future employment and that I wasn’t going to give up. There is no reason why I can’t continue to work and be an asset to any company.
I had known that I would need to have surgery on my good eye in order to prevent further sight loss caused by the glaucoma. I had this towards the end of last year and although it didn’t go as smoothly as it should have, I am now long sighted instead of short sighted. I can’t read things close up anymore, without reading glasses, but I can see a computer a lot better than before. I feel so lucky for this, as it means that I don’t need any special adjustments, or haven’t come across a situation where in work terms I would require these adjustments.
I have since learnt to touch type and have even increased my speed. I have found this to be an invaluable skill so far. I have spent the start of the New Year applying for jobs and I am being honest about being partially sighted. I have been disclosing that I have a disability on my equal opportunity monitoring forms and no longer feel embarrassed to do so. I have been working temporarily whilst continuing my search for the right role, and I am finding that I feel quite happy without any adjustments. I feel less pressured testing out my new sight in this environment and I have been offered support from the employer if needed.
I attended the course this week mainly to find out about disclosure. Is it better to let a potential employer know how you are disabled? If so, how would you best go about it? More importantly, how will this affect how you are considered as a potential candidate for a role? I was very skeptical about doing this for a long time but I also wanted to as I wanted to get it out in the open. i wanted it not to be a hurdle, just something that can be adjusted to if needed, and moved on from.
I have noted over the years that I feel more confident about applying for roles within the public sector as they seem to be more open minded when it comes to a disability. From my own experience, they seem better able to handle it than the private sector. I don’t like to think this is just how it will be and that disabled applicants are limited to applying for roles with ‘friendlier’ companies. And is it too much to ask for a company to be slightly open minded about things they may not have experienced? It would be a shame for any organisation to miss out on a great employee and great talent because they see a disability as a hurdle rather than what it is, a challenge that can be handled and managed well with the right information and the right support.
Speaking with other severely visually impaired and partially sighted people, it is so clear to see how much we have had to fight to do everything in our lives. Things that people take for granted. Things like getting about on a day-to-day basis safely and on time always requires forward planning, problem solving and organisational skills that most people just wouldn’t need to exercise. We are survivors and fighters who have faced some ignorance and a lack of understanding, but just carried on regardless. We have developed a thick skin, a sense of humour and ability to laugh at situations and ourselves.
I spoke to one lady this week who told me she was continually spoken to like a robot by her boss. She laughed it off and one day asked him why he did this. He didn’t have an answer.
Nobody with a disability wants pity or for people to wrap them in cotton wool and assume they aren’t capable. I have met eight very successful people this week who have achieved so much in their lives already; they carry on regardless and never complain about how hard the challenges they face may be. They so want to be treated as capable people with a lot to offer, which is what they are. They just want a fair chance and an opportunity to prove
themselves. Everyone deserves an opportunity in life. My visually impaired friends and I would just like an opportunity. I hope that employers can strive to be more aware and less wary of the unknown. There is a lot of help and support out there for employers and employees, so there is no reason why either shouldn’t move forward together positively.