Disability Confident

#disabilityconfident gave me pause. It made me reflect on where I am now. I spent a decade from the age of 17 fighting my own suspicion that what was wrong with me was mostly that I was just weak. I was making a fuss about nothing. I had a gp during my first few working years who would just ask me how stressed I was at work every time I saw him. Underneath my efforts to get a diagnosis and treatment there was always the sense that maybe I was just weak and lazy. I didn’t, not for one second, see myself as disabled or becoming disabled during that period.

Things changed in 2004. They got dramatically worse in fact. I couldn’t work any more. Suddenly being disabled became something I had to admit to in the course of battling for the insurance monies which would save my home and my job (the DWP didn’t give me any trouble at all over Incapacity Benefit). I wasn’t at all confident about having a disability. I was called faking, lazy and self indulgent over the next nine years, even after returning to work after a three year absence having taken the risk of racking up thousands in debt to skip the long waiting list and have surgery privately. Fortunately, there were also healthcare professionals telling me the opposite. I had serious problems. I was working as hard as anyone could to deal with them. And, ultimately I had to accept it too, this was a permanent state of affairs. When my employers were the ones challenging my work ethic, I also had the praise of clients, who had no idea what was going on in the background and thanked me for the quality of my work, my diligence and my care for them. They never knew most of my self esteem was bound up in them at that point.

It was to be three years before I learned that the worst series of meetings, at the height of the financial crisis when fee income had dropped across the whole firm, mirrored meetings with other people in my department. My disability was a stick they used to “motivate” me, while other solicitors were also being threatened in other less personal ways. I found out because they stuck to this “management technique” and I ended up talking about it with a colleague. It was only when he filled me in on what had happened to the others that I found the courage to say that I was out performing full time employees and they’d better be ready to let those people go if they came after me. They’d been right, you see. I’d felt guilty and inadequate that I couldn’t put more hours in. Their focus on my disability isolated me.

Almost a year to the day ago I found out I was being laid off in the course of a merger (ironically the redundancy process was the first time I ever heard my employers openly acknowledge that I had a disability at all!). I’d just written a long, statistic heavy blog post on the challenges facing disabled jobseekers. All of us, regardless of qualifications, are at a massive disadvantage in the jobs market. By that time I’d spent years pushing myself to the point of collapse, just to keep my job. I’d tried and failed to find a new one after being directly threatened with dismissal for my “lifestyle choice” of needing to work part time. My routine a year ago was completely geared to surviving until I could change that one thing: my job. I had nothing left over. Quality of life is such a relative concept. For some people even breathing unaided is impossible. For me, the single biggest impact of my disability was that a “work/life balance” became impossible.

Last Spring I wrote a post about the advantages of being temporarily unemployed with chronic back pain. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong, but my body was absolutely desperate for the three month break I got and although I only had statutory redundancy, it was enough to see me through that period. I did find a new job and it’s one where I’m working hours I can cope with. Nobody in my new job’s suggesting I’m overstating the problem. Nobody’s asking for more than I can give. Nobody’s criticising me for having a life outside the office. There’s no guilt or shame attached. Physically it didn’t all fall into place immediately – when I started the new job I had a long commute for the first few months, along with very little secretarial cover – but the three month rest beforehand helped.

Then one day I realised my life had changed immeasurably. I have energy for more than just work. It’s a confusing luxury to actually get to make lifestyle choices. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this new power over my own life yet but at least I can see now that I have some. I’ve realised how much my life has changed for the better, if I let it. And emotionally? I’m finally in a place where it’s fine to just be me. I don’t have to talk about it or justify it. Having a disability isn’t part of a battle anymore. It’s just something that is. It’s taken for granted by the people around me and that is what makes it possible to be confident about it.

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