Recently I’ve been asked, more than once, why I’m a youth worker? Why don’t I go into something safer? AS IF I don’t know about the extent of the cuts to youth services, and most organisations doing good work struggling to stay afloat. And IF I’ve chosen to do sessional work? So, since I’ve been asked about it, I’ve decided to give myself permission to write about it. I’ve also been asked by people who attend the dyspraxia support group I set up locally, how I got on at university? If their relative will be able to do what I’ve done too and all of the “what if” questions that are inevitable when someone worries about someone they love being different or fitting in.
When I was 16, I went to see the school careers advisor who quickly told me that I shouldn’t study GCSE History, and not much else. He’d decided then that, from the little he knew about me, which was of my dyspraxia diagnosis and statement for Special Educational Needs that History would be too hard a choice and I wouldn’t cope, so I should do something perceived as “easier”, like ‘health and social care’. There was very little advice about careers then at school, it was expected people like me just “wouldn’t” and that would be it. I don’t remember any useful discussions around how to write a CV, interviews or even self employment, there may have been for those on the “gifted and talented” programme, for the few being primed for oxbridge or those invited to prize giving *every year*, of which all three were a mystery to me. I did go on to take History GCSE, and achieved an A* in my coursework, then went onto do A level, and eventually to study History and Politics at university. Since then I’ve made a habit of doing things people once told me I wouldn’t be able to do, which I think has served me well. I don’t think I’ve ever had a positive experience of careers advisors, mostly because they don’t know how to advise people like me, who aren’t all-rounders, have a distinct uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses and aren’t going to be able to do practical, so called “easy jobs” for work experience and to get by until something better comes along. The last one told me to “use LinkedIn” and very little else, after completing a second MA.
When I was 14, I wrote a speech about why people in my school should vote for me and was successful in being elected onto my local youth assembly, that taught about life, defying adversity and accepting your vulnerabilities in a way I’d never learnt before from anywhere else. The youth assembly was my first introduction to youth work and gave me a clear indication of who a youth worker should be. Until then I’d felt quite lost, I’d never really fitted in at school and was always looking for someone who got me. The youth assembly was all about listening to young people and making our voices heard. We planned and delivered conferences, travelled to 10 Downing Street, campaigned on issues important to us and learned about how to participate and ensure everyone felt included. The youth assembly was the first place I felt able to explore public speaking, and realised that, despite being painfully shy and dealing with, up until then undiagnosed anxiety, I was pretty damn good at standing up and addressing an audience with confidence. I didn’t realise then, and indeed found out years later how immensely proud and blown away, my then youth workers were. I’d asked to deliver a session to other young people in the group, my youth worker was *understandably* apprehensive by this request, not because she didn’t want to give me the opportunity, in fact far from it, they couldn’t have been more supportive, although the slight problem then was that I didn’t speak. Not because I couldn’t, I just hadn’t had an opportunity to believe that my voice mattered. She didn’t want me to stand up there and fall apart. I stood up, led the session, and from then on people realised that “all Alice needs is to be given something to do, and then she thrives.” I was okay if I felt I had a purpose, a structure and was included because of what I could bring to the table, and not because an organisation/or school needed to practice inclusion or they had a box that needed to be ticked. I felt valued and respected for the first time in my life, and supported when I needed someone to listen. I know now that these feelings of being understood and recognised for what I was good at, were things I wanted other young people to experience. For the first time in my life I was told that I “could” and I wanted, more than anything else, for others to know they can too.
When I was about to turn 18, I had a breakdown and everything almost fell apart. I suddenly realised I was going to be an adult, and this terrified me. I remember sending texts to a young persons text service, about my worries of not achieving everything I’d wanted to by 18. I had a scattering of friends and few who *actually* understood, and an embarrassingly non-existent relationship history, amongst other anxieties that I didn’t know were anxieties, nor did I understand the reasons behind why I felt them. I was eventually referred to a young persons counselling service, when it all began to unravel and I jeopardised my A levels, and a place at university. Reflecting on this years later I realise that actually, if someone had sat down with me and said, this is what my dyspraxia will mean at work but this is what I am good at, so I should play to those strengths. That anxiety is actually A Thing but there are strategies, I might have felt marginally better about the imminent 18th milestone.
My experience at work, partly because of the lack of good early guidance by someone who understands a neurodiverse brain, has ranged from one absolutely amazing employer, to others that have varied from mediocre to could-do-loads-better. I have also realised that across the board, there’s improvements that can be made to how employers recruit people, the way interviews are conducted and the assumptions that are often made about disability and mental health. I’ve had employers assume that because I’ve mentioned “anxiety” that I must be weak, feeble and unable to fight back. And when I do, and write formal letters outlining how I feel (to date this has been four..), people are shocked and taken aback that I’m *like that* and not how they imagined. Similarly any mention of dyspraxia makes people automatically infantilise you, pity you or assume the help you need. Recently I had someone lie about carrying some equipment for me, to imply that they had been a supportive, inclusive employer. When, at no time had I ever mentioned that my dyspraxia affects my strength or ability to carry equipment (by which I mean shopping bags) from one room to another.
After university and post India, I explored teaching and decided that this might be the career for me, without realising what this would involve, or indeed understanding the realities of such a career. I remember a careers advisor just before I graduated telling me about how to get into teaching and was led to believe that this was the next best middle class option, if you can’t become a lawyer, or doctor, are no good at STEM and will struggle in high flying business. My only real understanding of teaching was the three months I’d spent teaching in an Indian school and my own negative experiences at school. Not really a lot to go on. I spent that year training as a teaching assistant to get the experience to apply for teacher training, the year spent in a school on placement was a massive lesson if anything, about how not to do things. Young people with additional needs were asked to re-do work because it didn’t fit the teachers high standards for displays and when I explained why this wasn’t the best thing to do for their confidence or mental health, I was challenged for answering back as if I was one of her children in the class. I was then sent into another room for most of the days to do endless photo copying and laminating, and if you’ve even just googled dyspraxia you’ll understand why this would be a challenge. Despite this lesson about how not to be a teacher, I still thought that teaching was the only thing *I could do*. I applied for a PGCE that year, through a course called SCITT which stood for ‘school centred initial teacher training’, a course that was based in a school and included training on the job, with a day at university a week. I got an interview, but didn’t get onto the course because I failed the maths test. And with hindsight I would have never got on in a primary school because of the so called ‘easy’ practical tasks that were involved. I can do the difficult stuff like leading a group or writing session plans but I can’t put up a wall display or use a laminator quickly, and primary school teachers seem fixated on presentation being perfect all of the time. A six year old in the school I worked in was not allowed to colour in “little red riding hood” purple, I saw this as creative but the teacher just saw it as defiant. You see, schools and I would not get on.
After not getting onto the teaching course, I still had a vague idea that I could work in a school, so registered with an agency to get some teaching assistant work. It was then that it all began to unravel again, and I realised that the ease of agency work that was sold as reliable and flexible, was entirely the opposite. I began getting calls to ask me to attend a school in an hour, I wanted to, I needed the work, but I wasn’t physically able to get myself there or accept it. I turned down a lot of work as a result and didn’t understand why. The agency then began to get increasingly impatient with me and I would hang up the phone after turning down work in tears. I was desperate to work with children and young people, and signed up to an agency like everyone else did, but so called easy work for other people, resulted in genuine emotional distress for me. It was only after I trained as a youth worker and began to understand myself a bit more that I learned why I found an agency ringing me up out of the blue at 7am so hard. It was because it goes against everything my brain is wired to process. I need planning time and I like to know what is coming up, dealing with uncertainty is something I’ve never been able to do well. I also need time to process what I am about to do, so phoning me an hour or two before I’m due to work in a school, is likely to cause panic, because I haven’t had time to process what the agency has just told me or to plan how I am going to get there. I don’t drive, so was regularly told “Oh it’s just up the A1” which is fine if you can jump in a car, but not if you have to plan a route when spatial awareness isn’t your strongest point, involving three busses, a metro and a boat. It wasn’t easy, and I beat myself up every time I said no because it was expected to be easy. I recently read this piece that explores many similar issues, the line, “If you can do “difficult things” therefore, you must be able to do all difficult things with no help at all, and if you can’t do “easy” things you must be a waste of space,” rang many bells with me as I nodded along empathetically.
Eventually I left the idea of teaching behind and trained as a youth worker, where I have belonged all along, my very positive early experience of youth work as a teenager on the youth assembly led me to believe that everyone is like that. And now I know, they are not. When I first qualified I was told by a then friend who I respected for her wisdom, that “I wouldn’t make it as a youth worker,” looking up to someone a decade older than you, who you respect professionally and as a person, who you’d go as far to say cared about you, isn’t always a wise move. But we learn. In a similarly unsupportive situation when I lost a friend and wanted time off to go to the funeral, I was told to pull myself together and come into work because we were taking young people on a residential that day, and they needed staff for the coach. I didn’t. I lost my job as a result, but given the circumstances was the best decision I’ve ever made.
I hear time and time again from friends and young people I work with about difficulties in education, the workplace and even finding a job in the first place. There’s a lack of understanding by society of what it actually means to provide reasonable adjustments, and that actually, the best way to understand how you can support a new employee, is to sit down and have a conversation. I am very happy to talk if people will actually listen to me. There’s too many organisations who employ disabled people to make them look inclusive, when actually employing someone is only the start, you have to actually work at it. Through my work, I’ve heard young people with disabilities describe in great detail what the “can’t do” and things they find difficult, “Oh I’m rubbish at writing they’d say,” but I always ask, and I think everyone should whether you work with young people professionally or come across them in your day to day life, “BUT what can you do?” I’m almost always met with surprise as it’s often rare, particularly for young people with disabilities, to be asked that question. I know it would have done me the world of good if people talked about my strengths more. I had a statement for Special Educational Needs, and my reports for annual reviews always said: “Alice needs to get better at…” and never “Alice is really good at this, and must work on developing this skill more.” Targets always reflected things I struggled with, and not surprisingly one of them was maths. I was never going to be a mathematician, so why every year, tell me that I wasn’t great at maths? I knew this. It’s no wonder so many young people with additional needs have low self esteem and mental health problems, if they’re constantly being told they are not good enough at things they will find very hard to change.
I’m in my 30’s now and still working as a sessional youth worker over three jobs, it’s not ideal and certainly not a choice, but it’s all I can do and that’s what matters. I’m good at youth work. I could get a full time job working in a shop or in a restaurant but I wouldn’t be good at that, and probably wouldn’t last a day. It would be more secure than sessional work, there’d be more rights and the pay might be a bit better, but I wouldn’t be able to do the perceived easy tasks. I’ve realised that there’s very little solid careers advice for people in their 30’s, by people who understand a neurodiverse brain. If the careers advisor I saw at university did, they would have probably not suggested teaching. I’ve had several job interviews recently. I always get interviews for jobs I apply for, so I know I can write a good application and my CV is pretty good too, so generic careers advice wouldn’t be beneficial for me. I need something more specialist and someone to talk to me frankly about self employment because that is, the only feasible option I see at the moment. Thinking about becoming self employed for the first time ever is pretty damn terrifying. An option I feel forced into. Naturally we all want security, and most of the time that will be in full time contracted work. Some people have the freedom to choose self employment but then can move into something safer if they need to, but others don’t have that option. I do well in interviews but then often miss out on the job because I don’t score highly enough or someone has marginally more experience, and recently it has only been marginally OR they only wanted To recruit internally anyway. It takes me longer to process information, so panel interviews also present unnecessary barriers. I haven’t got a job before because I didn’t answer the second part of a question. I didn’t know there was a second part. See the difficulty there? I’m great at presentations and speaking though, give me a topic to talk about and a presentation to prepare beforehand and I will show you what I CAN do. Equally give me a group of young people to deliver a session to, and you will see that I’m a pretty good youth worker. And that’s not just me bigging myself up, people have told me this. Although, why can’t we big ourselves up sometimes?
The most poignant lesson I’ve learned from all of this is that sometimes people won’t be where you expect them to be, I’ve written about this before, and have always concluded that this is absolutely okay. But there’s only so much shouting from the roof tops we can all do before we get tired and worn out. I’m getting to the exhausted stage hence the radical change in direction and a very brief “hmm I could leave the country and volunteer in Greece” last week. I also know people can do and should do better, and it makes me angry when I hear of experiences similar to mine, with the same conclusions of “Oh that’s just the way it is.” Well, it shouldn’t be the way it is. Accessibility should be that. Accessible. Not a half hearted way for organisations to look good. And people should listen. I mean really listen. We are the best people who can advise on our own experiences, and disclosure should be a thing we do because know we are going to be understood. Not something to make us feel embarrassed or less of a member of the team.
I’ve decided on a few things, the first that if you follow me on twitter, you may have seen already, is a petition challenging how ethical sessional worker contracts are, that in many ways open the gates to discrimination. Sessional work is most definitely not a choice, it is a necessity and a pretty appealing alternative to Universal Credit, but it shouldn’t be that necessity. Everyone should be able to access proper contracted work that provides security, and the ability to progress on the career ladder. One of the reasons *I think* that I get to interview but I don’t get the job, is because I’ve been stuck in sessional work for so long. If you can sign/support/share my petition calling to abolish sessional worker contracts here, it would be very much appreciated: https://www.change.org/p/abolish-sessional-worker-contracts
Secondly I’d love to talk to any of you who have been through, or are going through similar experiences to mine. It would really help me, and I hope you. I’m a firm believer of more voices making change happen, and it upsets me to think that if something doesn’t change now to how employers and education providers view equality, disability or inclusion, the young people I work with will have to experience similar. I also want to see it mandatory for careers advisors to have training on neurodiversity, and not it just being an optional attractive add on. You can get in touch here or if you follow me on Twitter, over there.
I became a youth worker to give young people the support, time, understanding and belief in themselves, I eventually had as a teenager. I work with young people to understand the world around them, how they can fit into this world and to feel valued. Participation is something that thanks to excellent youth work role models, I’ve had drummed into me, and now it’s important for employers & businesses, who these young people will eventually work for, to get that too.
It is important to me and so many people I know, to make inclusion actually matter. Listening is a skill, I learned that when I volunteered at The Samaritans, but when it is brought into the workplace and people are able to have frank and open conversations, the productivity of the workforce will improve ten fold.
At the end of the day, look at what I can bloody well do, and not what I might struggle with. If you do that, we’ll get on just fine.