Choosing a career when you have a physical disability generally involves picking what type of desk you want to sit behind. The simple fact is that certain occupations are closed to us. I really wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid but that requires fitness, robust health and numerous other qualities, such as liking being outdoors in lousy weather, which I don’t have. Potential employers and workmates make judgements, or should that be pre-judgements based on appearance. I picked a job which, fingers crossed, does not require great physicality and where progression can be based on ability and work rate. That’s how I decided to become a librarian
When I completed my BSc in computing from Athlone Institute of Technology in 2002 I worked in a variety of settings based around service, research, and libraries to get experience in the field. The experience of applying for jobs, however, was difficult. In some cases, after filling in the section on the application form detailing disability, I found myself receiving a rejection letter, while at other times after leaving the section blank, I got called for an interview!
FAS (Irish National Training and Employment Authority) and CE (Community Employment) schemes were great ways to get work experience, and through these I got two positions: Ballinasloe branch library and Offaly historical society. Both these places were brilliant places to improve and learn skills such how to use library management systems, interact with customers, aid those conducting research and the ability to work as part of a team.
The Balliansloe library position was arranged by the NLN (National Learning Network),the branch librarian and I. At the time the NLN ran a programme for the physical disabled to get work experience and training in interview techniques, health and safety, and other work related issues. The programme entailed working four days a week and attending a course the other day. They are well worth contacting as they have many different schemes.
I did the graduate diploma in library studies part time over two years choosing a wide range of subjects which would hopefully allow me to apply for careers in many different information roles. The good thing about SILS (School of Information and Library Studies, University College Dublin) is the variety of modules on offer. The ones that stand out in interviews for me is advanced information retrieval and media production. But perhaps the best thing I did was signing on the DSS (Disability and Support Service) and AHEAD (Association for Higher Education Access & Disability) as this led to my current employment.
I graduated just as the recession hit so it was not a good time to be applying for positions as the biggest employer (the State) was no longer hiring. As a disabled graduate, and a new potential employee, you can’t give employers any reason other than your disability for not hiring you, so the CV has to be as good as others. I needed to build up practical working experience after qualifying, so I made a list of organisations, bodies and companies who may have an information centre, and either visited and handed my CV in personally or posted it to them. I also applied for every advertised voluntary post I could. Cold calling led to two posts; one in RCPI (Royal College of Physicians of Ireland) and the other in Tullamore Hospital
The RCPI at the time had their own internship scheme independent from Job-Bridge, working in the Dun library in the heritage centre on Kildare Street. They had an ongoing project moving the Kirkpatrick collection records from a card to an online catalogue. This gave me some practice working with MARC, which I think SILS doesn’t spend half enough time on.
Tullamore Hospital was a very different environment. I had never thought about working in a health information centre before, but I thought it would be an interesting place to work and develop skills. The role involved doing literature searches, ordering articles, as well as issue deck duties.
When this ended, I saw that AHEAD were running a WAM (Willing Able Mentoring) work placement scheme. This is a brilliant scheme for disabled graduates to get work. I applied the year before but didn’t get it. This time I had a lot more work behind me. Each programme lasts approximately six months; the graduate comes off whatever welfare payment they are on, and are paid a wage for that role in the company. This means you can afford to live in Dublin if have to move up from the country like I did. Almost every year there is some library or information graduate role: this year it was the Department of the Taoiseach. They were two interviews to get the role; one with the public appointments office on Abbey Street and the other in the Department.
The role was very enjoyable: literature searches for some speeches and I researched some PQs, (Parliamentary Questions) and FOIs, (Freedom of Information). I’ve learned about report writing, catalogued from scratch, built Dewey numbers, handled old material (which is why I wished the rare books module had been available when I did the course), and helped organise the library and its store as well as learning a bit about project management. The people at AHEAD are very helpful and always ready with advice and support should you need it. What I’ve learned in the last year I know will stand to me in the next interview and workplace. Most of the skills are transferable to other employment situations.
1) Disabled graduates, don’t be afraid or too proud to use your disability to open doors for you. Schemes like the WAM scheme at AHEAD are there to get you into the workplace. They are tailored for you and you will earn a lot more than on a job bridge programme.
2) Register your name with charities and organisations for the disabled as they will help with knowing your rights.
3) Volunteering can be problematic as some places will dismiss you because of insurance concerns, don’t let it put you off as it’s a good way to get experience, but don’t get taken advantage of either. Set out the time and days you’re willing to work and stick to it. If you’re in receipt of disability allowance you could be in a better position than others to volunteer, as you have a small income.
4) Apply and be damned. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs you think you might not be qualified enough for. It’s good to have interviews under your belt at the very least. The more you do, the better you will be at them.
5) Finally for everyone not just disabled learn to drive! If you are disabled and are living in the family home, it will increase the area you can apply work in. There are grants and other funds and relief available for the purchase of a vehicle.