A blog post about inclusive employment...
We have sadly waved goodbye to our fantastic PA and Office Administrator Lucy Fisher, who has left NCVS to embark on a new chapter of her career.
Before she left, Lucy, who has Cerebral Palsy, surprised us with a very moving blog post about her employment experience at NCVS and the ongoing support she has received with her disability. We are honoured to share her story here...
I think it’s safe to say 2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year, full of ups, downs, twists and turns like nothing we’ve experienced before and it will be etched into the memory of the nation for many more years to come. Covid-19 has created many challenges, but we’ve all pulled together and seen the world respond in so many different ways.
I’m sure nobody sat in an interview in 2015 would have expected to answer the ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ question with “I’ll become a home-school teacher, master the art of video calling from my spare room, volunteer to get essential supplies to my community and take the time to recognise the true value of the NHS like never before.”
And yet, despite all of the turbulence this year has brought, it is not the only reason I will remember it. On a personal note, 2020 marks the end of an era for me, as I leave NCVS (with a very heavy heart) to embark on a new chapter of my career, but one I am sure would not have been possible without NCVS.
A bit about my career background
I graduated in 2006 with a music degree from the University of Hull (City of Culture, home of chip spice and definitely more than just fish). I have enjoyed a variety of jobs across the public and voluntary sectors, continued my education and spent years volunteering at home and abroad, but although it has so far been a really exciting journey, it has not been an easy one.
I am passionate about education, inclusion and community development - I chose music because I find the arts to be one of the most powerful tools for connecting every culture, generation and ability - well…. that and I couldn’t escape my Dad’s music collection, waking me up every weekend with the dulcet tones of Roy Orbison, Johnnie Ray and Elvis!
As a disabled person, community, inclusion and education are especially important to me in helping to solve problems and connect with others, so it was no surprise that I should want to build a career around promoting these assets to others. However, in my passion to share them far and wide, I never imagined that my greatest challenge would be getting my own career off the ground and finding my place in the community.
My disability is a mild one which affects my mobility (Cerebral Palsy) so, I was brought up in the belief that while I would be no athlete (Usain Bolt’s titles are safe!), as long as I embraced learning, used my head and worked hard, I’d follow the same (if slightly longer and bumpier) path to success that lay before my peers…. so work hard I did!
With that advice ringing in my ears and certain that in this modern age something as minor as a lack of balance and a slight limp would be an insignificant detail after graduating twice, I was ready to embrace the world of employment….the trouble was, it didn’t always seem ready to embrace me!
Of course, I expected to have to earn my stripes and take my fair share of rejections (especially against the backdrop of a recession), but every time I got a whiff of success in employment, it was short-lived – because I made a great volunteer but always missed out on the paid role; because a position was short-term or trainee but never seemed to become permanent for me; because I’d pushed myself to the limit trying to keep quiet and physically keep up but just couldn’t anymore or because the minor support I needed was just not available.
I didn’t want to disappoint and I saw it as my responsibility to succeed, so I brought a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘keep calm and carry on’, but eventually I couldn’t. I also lost count of the amount of interviews I had attended and been unsuccessful at (to the point that I placed bets with friends/family and they stopped taking them!). So, if one of my many interview panels had asked me in 2015 where I would be in five years’ time, I honestly had no idea that I would be able to say I had worked successfully for nearly three years as a PA and Office Administrator at NCVS and had a great time doing it!
Joining NCVS and feeling part of a community
By 2018, I’d completed another series of short-term jobs, my Dad was seriously ill, I’d had to withdraw from university and I was battling to prove I still qualified for Personal Independence Payment, after having this withdrawn. It’s fair to say that 2018 was not my best year and this definitely was not the ideal time for job seeking.
I was exhausted and not relishing the thought of once again getting on the employment merry-go-round, but I was torn because at the same time, I needed a focus. The work of NCVS really piqued my interest and seemed to fit with my skills and interests and I’m sure the managers won’t mind me admitting….quite frankly, by this time I needed a job where I could sit down!
I applied and was called to interview, fully expecting to leave with nothing more than my usual affirmation sandwich – 'you’re great, you didn’t get the job, but it was lovely to meet you.' Yet to my amazement I got the job (and lost my bet!). Little did I know this small organisation that works hard to develop communities and include their perspectives in so many ways, would play such a key role in making inclusion in employment a long-term reality for me.
I have enjoyed almost three years at NCVS both personally and professionally, developing my skills and trying new things because I was welcomed and accepted into the team. At a time when I was facing some of my greatest challenges outside the office, my job and the staff were the steady hand I needed to keep going because nothing phased them and support was always available. From time off for bereavement, agreeing to house my mobility scooter and making sure I could get around the office after an operation (with plenty of people on hand to provide tea), they just took everything in their stride.
It’s not every day that your boss helps you push your mobility scooter through town back to the office when the battery has died! That’s commitment, and from that day on I knew I’d be OK (thanks Jane!). For the first time in a long time, I felt I could be open about my disability without fear of judgment or failure and that I would be accepted for everything I can bring, as well as the things I couldn't. Staff also valued my ideas and trusted me to run with projects that developed beyond administration, so I felt like I was trusted to do a good job and to stick with it for more than five minutes.
After withstanding so many changes, short-term roles and challenges in my career to date, NCVS gave me a sense of purpose, a strong professional identity and the chance to focus on my day job, rather than my disability – which also included indulging my love of Christmas, my enthusiasm for staff lunches and my urge to deliver events!
A few words on disability inclusion in the workplace
It’s true that I have had a variety of jobs and despite some of the challenges I have faced, I have had many positive experiences too. Many employers strive to promote equality and diversity and are now embarking on becoming ‘disability confident’, so what I hear you ask, was so different about NCVS and aren’t all employers the same?
Well, my experience has taught me that while we are all striving towards equality and diversity or becoming disability confident, employers tackle this in very different ways with varying resources and varying success. The policies are in place, but with the best will in the world, how they are translated doesn’t always match aspirations. This is then compounded by fear of the unknown or of getting things wrong, which can inadvertently hinder inclusion where it is intended to flourish.
I think the key to my success at NCVS was their ability to take a genuinely personalised approach and to see me first and foremost as a member of the team with something to offer, rather than bringing preconceived ideas of all the things I might struggle to do. They made me feel that it was safe to discuss my needs and in return, they felt secure enough to respond honestly. We were always open, honest and realistic and that meant we could get things resolved by simply asking each other what was needed and working together to find a simple solution. Believe me when I say, often it wasn’t complicated, it could be as simple as someone picking up my lunch to save me the trip - my colleagues learned very quickly that I work best on chips and tea!
What worked for me
Everyone is an individual and while the opportunities we need should be equal, the way we achieve them is diverse. For me, that didn’t mean completing assessments or checklists (though for some these may work), neither was it necessary to recite the Equality Act or try to fit my requests into a pre-designed, inflexible system. I just needed the chance to get on with what I could do and then have an honest chat over a cuppa about the things that might take a bit more thought.
At 35, I’ve had plenty of practice at coping with the world and all its obstacles – or what have become affectionately known as ‘Fisher mishaps!’ - From falling in puddles on my way to lecturers, living away from home and traveling to India and Australia by myself, there’s not a lot I haven’t mastered in my own unique style. So, with a bit of common sense, listening to my needs (including what I have already tried and tested) and not forgetting the office fuel….lots of tea, I believe that’s how, despite all the odds being stacked against me - from my personal challenges of 2018 and 2019, through to navigating the impact of Covid-19 in 2020, I’ve found success with NCVS!
Feeling confident about the future
Although I am about to embark on a new challenge, I am excited to do this because of the way I have been able to develop my skills over the last few years and because I have been given a renewed confidence in myself and others, thanks to this team.
Developing inclusion isn’t reserved for people with disabilities, it shouldn’t be seen as a separate concern or an addition to the ‘norm’, it is something that can support us all and should be part of a wider spectrum of diversity. Neither is it something that can be quantified into a pre-existing formula, it takes time, communication and a splash of creativity! I realised very quickly that this is not new to NCVS, they build diverse, resilient and inclusive communities as a fundamental part of their daily work and in doing so, they really do put the meaning of community in the community and voluntary sector! They have certainly helped me to find the place in the community I was looking for and have proved to be truly disability confident.
So, as my final days at NCVS draw to a close and I prepare for the next phase of this adventure I call life, I feel this has so far been one of the best chapters that has helped to forge my path more clearly for whatever will come my way. From it, I’ll take with me many treasured memories, a great set of friends and (as always) my Dad’s musical advice ringing in my ears – in the words of Doris Day “Que Sera Sera”….. so as Val Doonican once sang, I will indeed “Walk tall and look the world right in the eye!”