Those of you who are avid fans of my life (hi Bobby) will know that I’ve spent the last ten weeks of my summer holiday from uni working in London for the private bank arm of Barclays, Barclays Wealth. Having had a few days now to mull over the events of the summer, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you about the world of work.
As far as my degree is concerned, internships are the done thing. From really my first term at college I was made aware of the trend of doing eight or ten weeks of paid work in the summer of your penultimate year, and while it’s not compulsory, it’s essentially expected that you spend your summer doing something vaguely productive rather than watching endless episodes of Greys Anatomy and Facebook stalking all your friends who are doing more interesting things with their time off (that doesn’t sound like me at all). For those of you who aren’t sure, internships are essentially paid work placements with a bit more training and the possibility of being offered a job at the end, so they’re pretty useful things to do both for the CV and for the bank balance!
It wasn’t until I started my second year, though, that I really started thinking about the practicalities of taking one of these internships. Firstly, they’re all based in London, which is NOT where I live. Living arrangements aren’t something that most people think about when they try and consider the difficulties disabled people face in finding employment, but if you want a job that’s not local to you, then this can be one of the biggest barriers. I had to find a flat which was close enough to Canary Wharf that I wouldn’t be scuppered by London’s highly ineffective transport system, large enough that I could get my wheelchair around it without taking chunks out of the wall, and cheap enough that I wouldn’t have to busk on the streets at weekends in order to afford it. All from my room at college, over an hour away from the outskirts of London. Not easy, and I quickly ran into problems. There were plenty of places within my budget, but because I wasn’t already resident in London (and wasn’t going to be any time soon) the local authorities were unable to provide any funding for the equipment or adaptations that I needed, and my home authority argued that it wasn’t their responsibility, either. The London universities had some adapted accommodation which was very helpfully in places like Bethnal Green – hours away by bus from where I wanted to work, and nowhere near an accessible Tube station. This left me with only one option – find a large apartment which we could make do with – but this was way outside my budget and I just couldn’t afford that kind of accommodation on my own.
Luckily I had support from my employer. While I’ve heard plenty of tales from other Trailblazers about employers just completely writing off disabled people before even giving them a chance, I honestly couldn’t have asked for better treatment from Barclays. Throughout the entire process they were so willing to help, ensuring all my interviews were accessible and even paying for my taxis to and from Paddington every time I had to come down to London. On top of this, when I let them know about the problems I was having with my accommodation, they immediately offered to pay for over two thirds of the cost of the rent on top of the salary they were already paying me, which was an incredible help and allowed me to take out a lease on the flat I’d found but previously couldn’t afford. In addition, when it was discovered that Access to Work funding (which is supposed to cover any adaptations and assistance I might need at work) wouldn’t cover part-time employment, they agreed to pay for all the extra equipment I needed in the office.
It might seem like this post isn’t really focused on the problems specific to employment, and I think that’s really the point. In terms of applying, interviewing, and carrying out the tasks I was required to do for the job, I really can’t complain. I received so much support from my manager, the graduate recruitment officer and all the contractors hired to train me and the other interns. But what did become evident to me is that without this support, the other problems I faced (in accommodation and transport specifically) would have become almost insurmountable. I was lucky. Others might not be. And while the powers that be will struggle to coerce every single company and corporation to comply with disability regulations and make our lives easier, they CAN improve the other areas. They can make Access to Work actually accessible to all. They can improve the availability of adapted, cost-effective accommodation available both in the short and longer terms. They can MAKE THE TUBE SYSTEM ACCESSIBLE.
London is the commercial centre of the country, and if the government is serious about getting the top talent into British business, then they’re going to have to recognise that the top talent includes disabled people, and they’re going to have to take steps to accommodate us.