Being a deaf student … and working

The BBC recently published an article entitled “Increase in university students ‘working to fund studies‘”. In short: with increased tuition fees and reduced maintenance loans, more students were seen to be working to fund their studies. The reason for this is fairly clear and is discussed in this article, also from the BBC, “Are we missing the real student loan story?” which discussed the situation that some families find themselves in, where the two parents combined earn more than £42,600, in some cases, only just going over that amount, and being bracketed in with the super rich … meaning their child gets nothing in the way of grant support, and the parents are expected to find up to £5k – which they may not have, particularly if they have multiple children attending university at the same time.

Then there are the adult, mature students, who work to put themselves through university. This is more common at postgraduate level, particularly since any kind of state help stopped being granted for postgraduate study. There was a huge gap in provision between MA and PhD level, with many MA students being left to either choose a loan (which you had to repay to the bank, not Student Finance England), as soon as you finished your studies – not ideal if you were planning to go on to study for a PhD. Although universities and other sorts of funding are now beginning to address that gap, obtaining such funding and grants is still hugely competitive and difficult to find.

So its perhaps no wonder that up to 77% of students are now working, up from 59% the previous year. But where does this leave the deaf student, who often struggles to access the kind of jobs that other students will be doing, that are often of the kind that a deaf person may struggle to do? Things like bartending, waitressing, shop working – all of which depend hugely on communication? Yes, sure, it is illegal to discriminate but to a bar owner, thinking about trying to deliver drinks as fast as possible to a thirsty clientele on a Friday night…? Its a no-brainer. So… what’s the deaf student to do?

I freely admit, I struggle with this myself. In the last two years, I have been studying part time, with the intention of working part time as well to fund living costs and next year’s tuition fees. I have had precisely four jobs in that time (not at the same time I hasten to add), all of them temporary – and which added up to around £1,000 of work, no where near enough to support me, or to pay next year’s tuition fees. At this point I am being supported by family: and I spend far more time looking for work than I really should.

There is also the added issue that, in many ways, you want work that you do at this time to give added value – something that you can point to on your CV, and explain how it gave you experience at something that is relevant when you’re at a job interview in future. I am lucky, in that I have around 10 year’s worth of administrative and office experience behind me, before I started my degree studies, so I do at least have that to call on. I can prove I can hold down a job. In some respects, the four jobs I have held will do exactly that: I have teaching experience now, that will look fantastic on my CV for when I apply for PhD funding, and I have research experience – both voluntary and paid – and paid social media experience. But not every student can gain this kind of work – and more to the point, not every student can find work that can give added value to their field: its hard to see how shop keeping might give added value to, say, a physics degree. So that’s where you have to think outside of the box, and think about skills, rather than specifics. For example: you could, somewhat laughingly, refer to how you used physics spatial theory to make a display of something in a shop (and no, I am not in the field of physics. Does it show?). You can refer to a difficult client from a shop when you need to give an example of conflict resolution. You can refer to decorating a bar for christmas, for an example of group work or leadership. Soft skills, rather than hard ones. Your career service should be able to help you more with these if you find them difficult.

The other thing to try is to see if your university has a student’s employment agency. Some really good, interesting jobs can be available through them, although, often, non students are right in there and competing with students as well (which I feel is a little unfair). The work I did, transporting ballot boxes on the night of the 2015 General Election, which turned out to be one of the more interesting nights I’d spent in a while, was found through an agency like that. I only got paid around £25 for the night, but it was the experience, rather than the money, in that case – and that’s another thing to remember – that sometimes, you get paid in experience, rather than cold hard cash. Don’t carry that too far though!

You may also need to think in terms of multiple roles. A (hearing) friend of mine actually held down 3 jobs, all at the same time – working in a bar at weekends, in the student union shop during the week, and as a paid student blogger, which gained her credits for the career that she wanted to go into (journalism), as well as voluntarily working on the student rag. The last two were around 5-10 hours a month between them, but they made a big difference to her CV – the soft skills side of things – while the first two helped pay her rent.

Finally, whatever you do, do not allow the finances to interfere with your studies. That is far easier said than done, I do know. But if you find that working is taking so much out of you that you’re not able to give as much to your studies as you would like, if your marks are going down as a result, then find help. Your student’s union may have some kind of finances adviser who may be able to suggest sources of additional finance (many universities have hardship funds, for example) and may also be able to look at your current financial situation, see if they can make your pennies stretch further. You can play a big role in that, in learning to shop, cook and eat cheaply, for example.

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Are you a deaf student? What have you found that works for you? How do you balance the demands of work and study? If you feel like writing for the DeafStudentUK blog, please, do get in touch – deafstudentuk at gmail dot com is the address. I look forward to hearing from you!!

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the removal of disability employment advisers from job centres

Thanks to my twitter account, I’m now kept fairly up to date with the goings-on of the deaf world – politically, at least. One of the people I follow is Alison, or @Deaf, who often posts really interesting news about deafness or disability politics that touches on deafness. (Thanks, Alison!) This morning Alison posted a link to a blog post by Kate Belgrave on getting rid of Disability Employment Advisers at Job Centres, which made me remember that I hadn’t posted anything about my most recent experience of ‘service’ from our local job centre.

Although a student, I am a part time one, and moreover, a self-funded one. This means that apart from an award to help with part of my tuition fees, I support myself. It’s not easy. Anyone who talks about students having the life of riley really needs a reality check because it is incredibly difficult to undertake postgraduate study; funding is competitive and not automatic, no matter how good your grades are. I have a first class degree, and in line to get distinctions for my Master’s degree. Funding for a PhD is still not guaranteed. But I digress.

Although I worked (temporarily) last summer in between graduating and starting my MA course, matters were made more complicated by the fact that a) my partner was out of work as well and b) we had to move house (the same week as I started my MA course. My stress levels were unbelievable, as I’m sure you can all appreciate). We rapidly discovered that the house needed work doing to it that the surveyor’s report had NOT uncovered (more stress) and by the beginning of December, with neither of us working, we were broke. Flat broke.

So, we resigned ourselves and went down the job centre. At first it seemed to be okay. We were assigned to an adviser called Neil who told us we needed to be job searching for 36 hours a week, but not to worry about it over Christmas, as everything was shut. By January we were searching hard for jobs. Our second appointment came in the second week of January. It was a busy, loud environment and my partner (whose ears work perfectly fine) didn’t hear Neil calling our name, and of course, neither did I, despite Neil standing right behind me (and I didn’t see him). When I eventually realised he was there I got a really filthy look… like ‘how dare you keep me waiting’. He had clearly forgotten that I was deaf, despite me asking at the previous appointment for it to be listed clearly on my notes. Before very long he was putting pressure on us. Why hadn’t we applied for more jobs? (in the previous week, my partner had applied for, I think, 5 every day). Why hadn’t I applied for this receptionist job? (um. telephones….). Why hadn’t I applied for this shop job (um… customer services… ). It was like he had absolutely zero understanding of the fact that I’m DEAF and that there are certain things I just cannot do.

And it was like that, week, after week, after week. It wasn’t just me either. When my partner eventually found work – his first job in more than 10 years, his dream job, working for a dream company, in an industry he never thought he would ever work in again, it was initially part time, two days a week, which put his hours in at 15.5 hours a week. Anyone with job centre experience knows that you can do work, up to 16 hours a week, but at 16 hours, you get kicked off JSA. The company my partner were working for had actually stretched themselves to hire him for those two days – they’d interviewed both him and another chap for the same job, and wanted them both, knew they were going to need them both in the months to come, but could only afford to give my partner the two days a week at that point. ‘Bear with us, please, in a couple months, we’ll make it full time’, they said. This actually suited my partner just fine – at that point, after being out of work for 10+ years, the part time work gave him a chance to get used to working again, instead of jumping in at the deep end with 5 days of work, which quite frankly, worried him, about whether he would cope with it.

Instead of saying “well done”… Neil’s reaction was to put pressure on my partner. “Can’t you get another half hour out of them?” … he seemed to totally miss the point, that the company was already stretching themselves financially by employing my partner at all. By pushing for that extra half hour, it could have wrecked any chance of a permanent full time job. In the end up,, my partner refused to give Neil the details of this new job because he was so concerned that Neil was going to call them and essentially ruin it for him. At around the same time, I got a temporary part time job as a teaching assistant at the uni I attend, and also a week’s worth of admin, which put me over the 16 hours a week limit. Between us both, we were kicked off JSA for a week.

I re-applied almost immediately. The first interview we had with Neil it was clear that he still did not remember that I was deaf. No attempts to slow down so that I could understand what he was saying. No attempts to talk directly to me, he was constantly talking to his computer keyboard. Constantly asking me to consider jobs that were totally unsuitable for me, given my deafness. Within five minutes he was hectoring my partner again. ‘Just half an hour extra, you must ask them, if you don’t, I’ll have to sanction you’. I was LIVID. It got to the point where I would go in there and refuse to talk to him, because the only way that I could retain control was to just bite my lip continually for the whole 20 minute appointment. My partner would answer for me (he’s better at remaining calm when he has to).

Around 2 weeks after we signed on again, my partner came home from work absolutely over the moon. His company wanted him to start the following Monday, full time. Less than 2 months in, actually, 6 weeks, they had kept their promise. My partner could sign off, and he wanted me to sign off as well. What he wanted didn’t come into it – we would have been kicked off regardless, with him working full time – but I was glad to. We signed off immediately, and the relief from stress was incredible – palpable. Our daily lives had become controlled by Neil, by fear of what would happen on Friday (our sign on day), we would argue at weekends, argue in the days before sign on day as we each struggled to cope with the stress and feared that we would never find a way to get off benefits. As it happens I was close to requesting to see a disability employment adviser because it was very apparent that Neil had no interest whatsoever in understanding my deafness, nor working with me to find me a job that I could do. It wasn’t just me. My partner has a disability too, and Neil showed a similar disrespect for his needs. Frankly, he just did not care. All he wanted was for us to get out of his office and not bother him again. It was clear that he hated his job, and hated us, with a passion. That man should NOT have been working as an adviser, because he was totally incompetent, and could not have ‘advised’ his way out of a wet paper bag.

To read that IDS now wants to get rid of Disability Employment Advisers… it just makes my heart sink. We were lucky. We were able to get off benefits relatively quickly, and with a first class degree, I knew that if necessary, I could find something on a graduate scheme and give up on my dreams of working as a lecturer in my field. It would have been horrible to have to do that, sure, but between a rock and a hard place, I would have done it. We’re both intelligent people, and we had the love and support of our families and friends as well, during that dreadful, dreadful period. Even through all the stress, we knew it was temporary, and that it would come to an end. For those who don’t have all that, the support of their families, the knowledge that they would get out of it, that they would find something… to have to deal with a man like Neil without respite, knowing that there was no way out, no understanding of their position… I fear for people. I fear that they will be pushed into jobs that they are unable to do, entering a cycle of finding work, losing it, and signing back on – with the attendant spiralling depression that will result. I fear that it will not be long before we read of suicides and deaths – we already are with other disabilities. The Independent recently wrote that the conservative rhetoric means that people with disabilities have no choice but to live with what is happening… or die.

I honestly believe that in the years to come, people will look back on this period with a sense of horror, much as we now look at what happened during the holocaust. I believe that people like IDS will be branded as criminals. I believe the Tory party will have to change its name completely – and will probably spend years in opposition as a result of what happens in this parliament. I only hope that events happen that makes it so that Cameron and co can no longer govern, and that they are forced to call an election earlier than five years.

And if this country votes them in again.. then I wash my hands of the UK. I really do.