A journey through work and volunteering
My first job after university was as a junior consultant. Seven months in and I developed crippling repetitive strain injury (RSI). The partners didn’t say that was the reason they were letting me go, but we all knew that it was. Barely able to use my hands and arms, I was broke and needed to pay the rent. I took a summer job teaching English to European teens. That went well, so next I went to teach conversational English in Japan. I was in my mid 20s, perversely positive and harbouring a dream of becoming a science journalist. I stayed in Japan for two and a half years saving up to pay for the journalism course and voice dictation software.
I did my diploma as a disabled student dictating my articles, interned at the BBC and got a job on a science magazine. In the end I managed three years in journalism. Although the RSI had improved, the long hours at the computer took their toll on my back. I saw a rheumatologist, who diagnosed EDS and told me to give up the desk work.
Access to work scheme
If you’re disabled or have a physical or mental health condition that makes it hard for you to do your job, you can get extra help from a government scheme call Access to WorkInformation on access to work
I was in my early 30s and back to square one. I had another career rethink. Teaching allows you to be on your feet a lot. I got more qualifications and started a career teaching English to adults. It turned out to be my dream job. This is what I had been meant to be doing all along. It was incredibly hard work, but I loved it. Through a government scheme called Access to Work, I received an ergonomic assessment of my workplace and special equipment including a chair and a trolley. I’d declared myself as disabled from the start which helped a lot in talking to my employers about tasks I couldn’t do, such as lifting. I lasted eight years. Then everything broke down. My feet, my eyes, my voice. More than a couple of minutes of any activity put me in terrible pain. After months of sick leave, with HR pressurising me to make a decision, I took medical retirement. Thank goodness for the teacher’s pension scheme. It provides me a small amount to live on along with Employment Support Allowance.
Teaching had been my identity and it was soul-destroying to feel I didn’t have a purpose any more. The sudden isolation during the day was also tough to bear.
I enjoy feeling useful and even though I could do so little of anything, I looked around for volunteering opportunities. Volunteering allows you to do much shorter stints of work in a great variety of fields. There was some trial and error before I found types of work I could do. I started leading a weekly discussion group at Mind. I also got involved with, and now chair, a disabled cycling club. When EDS UK asked for volunteers three years ago, I applied and became the North London Coordinator. This has been especially rewarding, plus I can work at my own pace and the charity is of course understanding of my limits.