Joanna’s Story- My journey to becoming a Disability Coordinator

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My Journey to becoming a Disability Coordinator.

 

I have never been one of those people who always knew what they wanted to do career wise. In some ways, I envied people who ‘just knew’ from a young age that they wanted to be a doctor or designer or engineer, I didn’t have a clue.  I didn’t have a passion, I was happy just plodding along studying the things I enjoyed.

As someone with type 5 OI, a full time electric wheelchair user with restricted growth and limited energy, I was well aware that my disability may impact on my career options. The way disability impacts on work choices was evident even as a teenager looking for weekend work.  I’m a practical and pragmatic person. I understood it was unlikely I would be in a position to do work stacking shelves, or behind a bar or waiting tables like some of my friends were doing.

During my teens I was lucky enough to work in my Grandpa’s warehouse doing whatever they could find me to do, mostly writing their return address on labels, until I suggested they get an address stamp and almost worked myself out of a job!  I was well aware that they created the role to give me a job, as I couldn’t find work elsewhere, but I did appreciate it. And the £10 I earned each Sunday morning.

And without a career path in mind, when it came to choosing what I wanted to study at university, I just went with what I enjoyed, with no thoughts of the future past that.

 

Studying at University

 

I went to the University of Central Lancashire to study BA (hons) History with Education Studies. I had the most amazing time as a student, including a semester in New Orleans (which I loved and hated in equal measures but will never regret). I made brilliant friends and loved student life. My subject – I enjoyed it but it never developed into a passion.  My studies were definitely not the highlight of my time as a student, but I did ok and got awarded my degree.

Although I had no idea what I wanted to do career wise, other people seemed to have a lot of opinions; mostly “you should work with disabled people, you’d be good at that!”  As a teenager this suggestion, of course, pushed me to say I was never going to work with disabled people. But as well as saying this due to being an objectionable teen, I later recognised that this reaction was also down to my internalised ableism.  Just because I was disabled, doesn’t mean I had to work in disability, I was more than that!

 

First steps into the working World…

 

After I graduated, I applied for many entry level jobs, still not really knowing what direction I wanted to go in.  There were a few times I was offered an interview, which was then rescinded when I called to ask about wheelchair access…

Eventually I got a job in a call center working for Cellnet, a mobile phone company, doing credit checks for people who wanted a new mobile account.  The team was great, and two of the friends I made there are two of my best friends today.  I worked my way up in the company through customer services, team leader, then got involved with training new staff.

In time, changes in structure within the company encouraged me to look for new work, and after a couple of similar roles, I ended up working as a team leader in Tesco Motor Insurance.  I really enjoyed this job too, and had some great co-workers.  The job was going well, but I knew that ultimately I wanted a career that felt more meaningful to me.

One of my friends, who I met during my first job, was going to study in Sydney, Australia for a couple of years, and asked me if I wanted to go with him.  I decided this was a great way to take some time out and decide what I wanted to do with my life!  My manager was amazing, and said that she would do everything she could to offer me a job again when I returned.

I went on a working holiday visa for a year.  It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I had a truly brilliant year, making new friends, having new experiences, and having a think about what was next.

 

Disability and Identity

 

Being a disabled person from birth, you would think you would automatically accept this as part of who you are.  But although of course you accept that you are a disabled person on a practical level, seeing it as part of your identity is another thing.

When you are brought up in an ableist society where most see disability as something negative, to pity, or purely to be used as a way to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves (please see Stella Young’s ted talk ‘I am not your inspiration, thank you very much! (For more on this; I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much | Stella Young ), it can be hard to embrace being a disabled person as part of your identity, to be something to be proud of.

I started to think more about this around this time in my life, and during my time in Australia, decided this is something I wanted to learn more about.  I also began to realise that actually, I WOULD be quite good at working with disabled people, and thinking about my experiences, I realised the people that had the most positive impact on my life, was the disability support team at university, who enabled me to have such a great experience.  I decided this is an area I would like to work in.

I applied to the University of Leeds to do a part time Post Graduate Diploma in Disability Studies over two years, and started when I returned from Australia (whilst also working four days a week back at Tesco Motor Insurance).  Learning about disability from a theoretical perspective, totally changed my view on disability, and totally changed my life.

The social model of disability showed me that the vast majority of the difficulties I was experiencing in life wasn’t because of me or my body, it was because of the physical and attitudinal barriers created in society which prevent disabled people from accessing it fully.  Learning about this was empowering and liberating, and gave me the confidence and pride in identifying as a disabled person.  Although not exactly the same, I feel that many disabled people have a similar experience to ‘coming out’ as LGBTQIA+ people at some point in their lives – you were already disabled, but there is a time in your life when you personally accept and embrace being a disabled person as a positive part of your identity and carry the label with pride!

Lots has been written about the social model, I won’t go into it more here, but I do recommend disabled people and parents/carers of disabled people take a look at it to help frame how they think about disability.  Here is a good place to start.

Half way through my two year Post Grad Diploma, a job was advertised at the University of Leeds for a Trainee Disability Coordinator, and I was offered the role.  Unbelievably to me, I am still working in the same team today, almost 18 years later!!

 

Working as a Disability Coordinator

 

As a Disability Coordinator, I work with individual disabled students to ensure their time at university is accessible to them, and I work with the University to improve accessibility and inclusion more generally.  Disability support in Higher Education has changed hundreds of times over during my time at Leeds.  It is impossible to get bored in the role, as the job is constantly changing, as are the parameters we need to work within.  Every student’s needs are different.  I am always learning.

It can be difficult, frustrating, and the amount of work that still needs to be done can be overwhelming.  But at the same time, I get to work with the most amazing team of like-minded people who work together to make what often seems like impossible changes across the university and sector.  Who make real, tangible differences to student’s experience of university.  Who help break down barriers and create environments where disabled people can succeed.

As a young person I recognised my disability would have an impact on my career.  What I didn’t realise, is that ultimately, that impact would be positive; I believe I am better at the job I do because I am a disabled person. I feel incredibly lucky to have eventually found my passion.

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