Conferences – Including the deaf academic

sign-language-translatorConferences, inclusion, communication support – these are all key words over on twitter at present. Not least because of the International Congress for the Education of Deaf People, where there was a spectacular fail to provide interpreters for deaf delegates, and even when interpreters were provided, they turned out to deliver less than stellar performances (I saw one figure of less than 20% of a talk being interpreted, which is terrible). But this, and other conferences (it is conference season, after all!) are opening up questions regarding conferences for deaf academics. [And by deaf academics, I mean academics who have a hearing loss, and who are academics in any subject, not academics in a field to do with the deaf.]

This is a long blog post, even by my standards, so I apologise in advance for that.

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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.