A change has got to come

12 January 2017

Bernie Reddington, our Volunteer Campaign Coordinator in Norfolk, tells us about the obstacles she’s faced when going to job interviews, her struggles with Access to Work, and what she thinks needs to change.

Running the interview gauntlet

Every job application I’ve done was a challenge. These have ranged from struggles getting job applications in an accessible format, searching through thousands of vacancies online using Jaws (on sites which at best are frustrating and laborious and at worst completely inaccessible) to deciding whether it’s a pro or a con to declare my sight loss at application stage. It doesn’t end there though. Then I have to get to interviews, and face inaccessible tests when there, despite the fact I’ve made my access needs clear.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard: “There was just one other person with more experience than you” or “The job is very paper-based and we don’t think you would cope with it.” Some interviewers have even asked quite intimate questions about my sight loss, like: “Did someone help you choose your outfit?” “How did you lose your sight?” “Do you live with someone or does someone come in to help you at home?” None of these questions were relevant to the job!

A major barrier to employment is that employers have no knowledge of specialist equipment like screen readers or magnification. I’ve had to explain the Access to Work scheme over and over, and never fail to be amazed by how little companies know about this invaluable resource.   

I’ve also experienced bullying in offices. A manager would point to me, and say loudly: “We shouldn’t carry people like her!”  It was so upsetting, and as he was a regional manager I felt helpless in doing anything about it. It totally ruined my confidence, and faith in my abilities to do the job.

Room for improvement in Access to Work

I’ve used the Access to Work scheme since September 2010.  I receive support in getting taxis to work because my current route to work is really hazardous, so using public transport is not an option. I also have a support worker and driver to assist me with sight-essential tasks within the work environment.

I’ve had regular reviews over the past 6 years, which have been concerning and scary. You’re never quite sure if you’re going to have to battle to maintain your support and it’s not a certainty that you will get an adviser who has a knowledge of the deeper issues of having a sight impairment. 

Due to a recent change in my job, I called Access to Work to request some more support worker hours. It was only then that I was informed that my support was just about to end.  Access to Work used to send out a letter to remind recipients that their support was running out, but they’ve stopped doing this. Two of my sight impaired colleagues were caught out with the same situation and for them, the problem was much worse, as they only found out once their support workers stopped being paid!
I was told I would have to make a completely new application, and that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needed me to provide a letter from my GP to confirm that I can’t use public transport because of my sight loss. If the DWP really do need to justify the funding of transport to work, wouldn’t it be more efficient and meaningful to ask the local Sensory Team, who would have a much greater understanding of an individual’s independence skills and the local infrastructure and environment?
They also asked me to write a support worker log, the layout of which I found extremely difficult to use with Jaws. I was told that the log had been tested on “disabled groups.” I explained that this generic way of testing things is not always the right way to validate a process, as every disability affects people in such different ways. 
While all this was going on, my original support agreement had come to an end. Unbeknown to me, my support worker didn’t get paid for the whole of the month. I had no idea, because the payment department had returned the claim forms to my house with a printed letter which I couldn’t read.

What needs to change

I think some of the key ways in which blind and partially sighted people can be better supported into work are:
  • Appropriate and comprehensive training in using technology.
  • Educating employers and the general public about the adaptations which can be made to accommodate a visually impaired employee.
  • Providing appropriate information in an accessible format.
  • Accessible technology at job clubs, and financial assistance for individuals to purchase the equipment they require to be job ready.
  • Providing an effective way of challenging a decision by the DWP if you’re not happy with support. There is no appeal process at the moment, so if you disagree, more often than not, you have to suffer in silence.
  • Providing a quality work-based assessment for VI employees. The current system means that the assessors know a little about lots of things, but do not have the right knowledge to support the specific needs of someone with sight loss.
  • Educating the DWP, Jobcentre staff, and other customer-facing staff in the needs of VI people, and keeping them informed of the adaptations which could be made in the work place and in preparing for employment.