Change100 – Half Way Through!

Two years ago, I was having lunch with a friend in a small café in Voxel and practically turning green with envy. Why? Because she was telling me all about what it was like living and working in central London.
London has always been the dream. That and NYC are at the top of my bucket list of places I want to live in one day, so to be sitting across one of my friends who was living out that dream right then, I could think of nothing cooler. I remember spending the whole journey on my way to see her fantasising about the amazing stories she would tell me about all the places she had been, the people she had met and the things she had done. I don’t think she realised at the time how very inspired I was. So much so that I even wrote down the name of the internship programme that she’d gotten this opportunity through in my phone.

Fast-forward to last week when I met up with the same friend, again in central London, only this time I was the intern. After writing that note in my phone that day in Voxel, I applied for the Change100 Programme earlier this year and was accepted onto the scheme. This is how I came to be working in central London months after I graduated – a dream come true.

Change100

The Change100 Programme is an internship scheme for disabled students and graduates. Their aim is to change the employment landscape for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions, by offering them paid work experience tailored for their interests and needs. The scheme is run by Leonard Cheshire Disability, a UK charity supporting disabled people in the UK and around the world to fulfil their potential and live the lives they choose. The programme runs for a total of six months, including a three-month internship and three months afterwards when you will receive ongoing support and mentoring.

The application process is designed to give applicants as much experience as possible, while also giving the support and guidance needed for applicants with disabilities. You are required to submit an application, much like a job application, which if accepted will mean that you are invited to an assessment centre. At an assessment day, you are asked to give a short pre-prepared presentation, take part in a group problem solving activity and attend a formal interview. If you are successful at the assessment centre you are accepted onto the programme, which is when the Change100 team will proceed to try to find you the perfect work placement.
They try to match up your skills, interests and preferences with a bank of internship placements available that have already been submitted to them by employers all over the country. When they think they’ve found you the right fit, they offer the employers to chance to choose an applicant from the programme. This is when you are then told that you’ve been selected by an employer and are given the details of your internship. Its then up to you to negotiate with your employer things like start dates and any adjustments you might want to ask for before starting your placement. The Change100 team also present a disability awareness briefing to your employer, if you are happy for them to do so.
As part of the programme you are given a contact within the Change100 team which you can turn to for any support or advice you might need during your internship, and you’re also invited to attend peer development days once a month which include workshops on topics like managing your disability in the workplace. You are also assigned a mentor within your employer organisation who is there to be your point of contact within the workplace during your placement, as well as providing ongoing support after your placement has finished.

My experience

For the last few weeks, I have been interning at a charitable organisation based in central London working within their conference and programmes team as an assistant. My role is to support the team in organising and running their biggest event of the year, their annual three-day conference. I have been having the best time! My colleagues within the team and the wider organisation have been incredibly welcoming and respectful and I feel like I am getting really valuable experience, I could not have asked for a better placement.

I found the Change100 recruitment process largely positive, only encountering a couple of accessibility issues that the team were happy to work with me to resolve. It’s been such a valuable opportunity for me to practice interview skills and attending an assessment centre, as well as the actual experience of being in a workplace. I am glad I took the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, completely relocating for the internship and joining an organisation that I knew almost nothing about before I started. I am also working in a field that I had no previous experience in, so that has been a learning curve and interesting as well. The whole programme has been challenging but massively rewarding so far and I am only half way through!

I have found the peer development days really beneficial in terms of receiving support during the internship, as well as getting the chance to meet the other interns on the programme. It just so happens that I found a fellow intern who is doing her placement within an organisation two buildings away from me, so we now meet up for lunch every week to catch up and chat through how our respective placements are going.
I am also benefiting a lot from the mentoring aspect of the programme. Change100 recommend your mentor be someone who is not a directly a member of your team, so that you can have a point of contact within the organisation but who is separate from your immediate day-to-day. Your mentor will also continue supporting you after you’ve finished your placement, doing things like providing career advice or contacts that might be useful for you to get where you want to be. I’m personally finding it really helpful having someone at work who I know I can turn to with questions, but who isn’t a part of my actual team, and I’m also learning a lot from my mentor about how to achieve my personal ambitions and goals when it comes to work.

I would absolutely recommend the Change100 Programme to any students and graduates with disabilities. We all know how difficult it is to find employment these days, without the added barrio of having a disability to content with as well. So any work experience you can get to demonstrate your skills is going to be hugely beneficial, because it will be something you can refer back to in future applications and interviews to demonstrate to prospective employers your capabilities and strengths. That’s what I’m hoping anyway!

I will be writing future posts on my experience applying for Access to Work, the government funded scheme intended to support disabled people in employment, and look out for a Dog Blog coming up all about Jazzy’s perspective getting to grips with our commute.

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Deferring my dissertation

10 May has been a date branded onto my memory for months now. Why? Because it is the deadline date for my dissertation. Or at least, it was.

When I started my third and final year of university, I made a promise to myself that this year it would be different. That I would get organised, manage my time brilliantly, get all my work done on time and meet all my deadlines. When I came back in September I felt wildly optimistic that I would power through the year and emerge on the other end with a first class degree. 

I say wildly optimistic because my time at university hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride. My struggle in Higher Education isn’t really something I have gone into great detail about on this blog. I intend to, one day, after I’ve finished my degree. But for now, those of you who don’t know me personally need to understand that it has not been easy. I’ve struggled socially, mentally and emotionally and I’ve been so tempted to drop out on numerous occasions.

I think the only reason I haven’t dropped out is because I’m stubborn. I have a fierce desire to prove people wrong; to show that I am just as capable as anybody else of doing everything, even getting a degree, despite my Visual impairment. In fact, this often leads to me wanting to overachieve, not just to do as well but to do better than everyone else to prove that I can. What this means is that I end up putting a enormous amount of pressure on myself. Worse, because I feel as if I need to be able to do everything on my own, because nobody expects me to be able to, I used to feel unable to ask for help for fear of being labelled incapable. Thankfully this has gotten much better recently, proven by my action of requesting a deferral for my dissertation.

In September 2015 I felt like requesting a deferral would make me a failure. I thought that getting extensions would make me a failure. I thought that coming out with anything less than a first class degree, would make me a failure. I want to stress again that nobody explicitly said this to me. It was all me, all these expectations and ambitions were in my head. 

I can think of a few reasons why I feel like this, one being that being undermined and degraded on a daily basis because of an impairment that has nothing to do with my intelligence or mental capability makes me feel so patronised that it drives me to want to prove myself. 

I’m not someone who lets been disabled get them down often. I’ve said before on this blog that I feel 100% content with who I am, blindness and all. The main thing that I struggle with is societies attitude and treatment of me because of my Visual impairment. This is why I’ve think I’ve developed this instinctual determination to exceed expectations. Because if you’re treated and meant to feel inferior for 90% of your life, then if you don’t have some kind of drive and faith in yourself, you will start to think of yourself as inferior.

Anyway, back to the point. It was this attitude that make me so reluctant and somewhat frightened of the possibility of requesting extensions. I’m not going to lie, third year terrified me. The pressure and stress I put on myself to be the best in everything often makes it hard for me to fulfil my potential. In first and second year I had been forced to request extensions usually because of institutional failings. With third-year being such an important year, I was determined that I would need to be on the top of my game to make sure that all of my materials were accessible, that all of my note takers were arranged, that I would have a suitable place to study and that everything I would need academically would be put in place. This did happen; ironically, and terms of accessibility my third year has been the easiest of my whole degree. 
What I didn’t count on was me sabotaging myself and my own ability.

 I spent so long focusing on how I could make sure that nothing to do with my visual impairment would get in the way of me meeting all my deadlines, I didn’t stop to think about what I could put in place to ensure that my mental health would not impact on my work either. So that’s what happened. I became ill, I eventually sort help and I was granted a deferral for my dissertation until August.

It was a very hard thing to be for me to accept, because when you’re so used to dealing with a physical disability, a mental illness is a completely different ballgame. One thing I’ve always prided myself on is the fact that in spite of how people treat me, my intelligence and mentality is not compromised by my disability. I have a visual impairment, this is what I tell people; my eyes don’t work, it has nothing to do with my brain. So just because I can’t see you standing in front of me doesn’t mean that I can’t hold a conversation, alright an essay. So, to then be dealing with a mental illness that does impact on that element of myself that I had always depended on being so stable was very disconcerting.

I definitely think a part of the reason I struggled to understand and accept my mental illness is also because of the stigma that surrounds mental health. Even me, as someone who lives with a sensory impairment and therefore nose in some ways what it feels like to be treated differently because of something that is out of your control, still subconsciously harboured these fears and misconceptions of mental illness.

I am however pleased to say that I feel much better. Even though my year didn’t go to plan and I ended up doing the thing that I dreaded most, I’m now quite proud of the fact that I have asked for a deferral. It doesn’t make me less capable, it doesn’t make me less of a person and it doesn’t make me a failure. I think it makes me someone who understands themselves, someone who is self-aware and better for it. 

So even though the 10th of May is almost been and gone, I will carry on chipping away at the D-Word, I will feel proud of the achievement of just completing a dissertation never mind what grade I get, and I will take the obligatory submition selfie in August 😉

A huge congratulations to everyone who has submitted their dissertation so far, everyone on my course who submitted their dissertations today and everyone who will be submitting in the next few weeks. Be proud of yourselves! You did it!

International Disabilities Day: Cuts to Disabled Student’s Allowance

Why I’m against cuts to DSA
In light of today being International Disabilities Day, I wanted to share my thoughts on the issue of the UK government’s current plans to cut government funding for the non-medical help supplied by Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA). 
This morning I read this article which brought the issue to the forefront of my mind again:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/02/government-to-cut-funding-disabled-university-students-jo-johnson
In this article Jo Johnson, the Minister for universities and science announces that from next September onwards, higher education institutions will be expected to pay for non-medical support for students with disabilities and that funding for specialist technology and adapted accommodation will be reduced.
Upon reading this article, I couldn’t help imagining how different my university experience could’ve been if I’d chosen to start my degree in September 2016 instead of 2013. 
How has DSA helped me?
Before starting my degree in English Literature in 2013, I used DSA to purchase a range of accessibility technology including a laptop, a scanner and software, a screen reader, a Dictaphone and a braille display. My laptop and screen reader is technology that I quite literally could not study a degree without; I access all my course material electronically and I’m able to complete all my assignments and exams independently using this technology. All of this essential equipment alone cost more than £5000.
I’ve also use DSA to fund non-medical support throughout my three year degree programme. This includes note-takers who write notes for me in lectures and who type them up in an accessible format for me in their own time. It also includes my research assistant who helps me access books/inaccessible materials that I need to complete my course, often spending hours manually scanning book chapters into electronic formats and helping me navigate the often complicated and almost always inaccessible online library. Additionally, during my first and part of my second year, non-medical help funding was used to pay for my mobility on campus. This was essential in enabling my independence and wellbeing, as being able to orient myself independently gives me much more freedom rather than having to rely on sighted guides. 
How would cutting DSA affect me?
If my university weren’t able to fund the non-medical help available to me through DSA I would be unable to:
• Take notes in class – I can’t listen to the lecturer, follow the handout with my screen reader and take notes all at the same time.

• Access course materials– If I was required to adapt all my course materials myself, I’d have no time to write my assignments, let alone have a social life (that is assuming I’d have the technology to do my own scanning).

• Complete required reading – I’m studying English literature, so without my library assistant scanning chapters and sometimes whole books for me I simply wouldn’t be able to study my course.

• Complete my assignments – without the notes from my lectures, completing the required reading, accessing course materials and having the ability to source secondary texts, how could I possibly write an essay or exam?

• Write a dissertation – without my research assistant supporting me in the library and sourcing accessible materials, I would be unable to complete an 8000 word piece of work comprising entirely of individual research, which is a required part of my degree.

• Get around campus independently – no mobility training would’ve deprived me from familiarising myself with campus consequentially restricting me from attending lectures, participating in clubs/societies and orienting myself independently.
DSA has been utterly essential in making my degree as inclusive and accessible as possible. The support that DSA has enabled me to access is something that I, nor my family, would ever been able to source from our own pockets and without being able to access that financial support,, I can say with absolute certainty that it would have been virtually impossible for me to obtain a degree.
Why is DSA, and getting a degree, so important to me?
I wanted to get a degree because I want the best chance possible of getting a job, building a career and making a life for myself. I have worked damn hard during these last couple of years to make the most of the opportunity given to me because I fully appreciate that without the support and resources available, like DSA, it would be impossible for someone like me to even consider attending University. It’s been difficult, draining and almost unbearable at times; my mental health has suffered and I’ve contemplated quitting more than once. But I’m still here and I am determined to come out of this with a first. 
Why? Because I read somewhere once that a disabled person with a degree is about as likely to be employed as your average Jo with standard GCSE’s. If that’s true, I don’t really want to contemplate what my chances of getting a job would be without any HE qualifications. Contrary to a depressingly common misconception, most people with disabilities wouldn’t prefer to be unemployed. Living off benefits, without a purpose or anything to get up for in the morning is not the life I want for myself. I want a career; I want success; I want to prove that I, and others like me, can do absolutely anything in spite of our differences. For me, the best way I feel I can achieve this is by getting a degree. And the cold, hard truth of it is that without support like DSA that would be impossible. 
What does cutting DSA funding mean to me?
Cutting government funding for disabled University students is to deprive us of our right to education, our right to equal opportunities and our right to shape our own futures. The quality of support available to students with disabilities is already so varied among establishments that expecting Universities to fit the bill of non-medical support is an unrealistic expectation that can only lead to even more inconsistency. . I fear that this is only the first step towards bigger and more damaging cuts to provisions for students with disabilities in the future and I believe that it’s a mark of how disconnected our current government is from the realities of what it’s like for young people with disabilities living in the UK today that they would even contemplate this ridiculous course of action.