Chloe at work event

Disability and work is a hot political subject, but for many people it’s not a news story but just part of their everyday lives. London Youth apprentice Chloe Smith was born blind and shares her story and her top tips for getting on when everything is holding you back.

“I have never let my disability hold me back. That was until I started looking for work.  Then I discovered that it was preventing me from doing something I really wanted to dobecause I didn’t have the IT skills needed to be employable. Like most young people I was trapped in the vicious cycle of wanting a job to develop my skills, but lacking the skills needed to work.

When I was 19 I eventually landed my dream job working in a dog kennel. This is when I first needed to use Access to Work. I’m not sure of where I first heard of the scheme  but what I am certain of is the positive impact  it has had on my employment journey.

Access to Work is a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help disabled people start or sustain work by funding reasonable adjustments that disabled people such as an assistant or specialist equipment or software and help with travel costs.

For my apprenticeship at London Youth, Access to Work  funded a support worker to help me with areas of my job that I find challenging due to my visual impairment. They also paid for JAWS (a screen reader for vision impaired people) to be installed on a laptop for me, along with training so I could learn to use it efficiently, as well as travel to the nearest tube station by cab as I wasn’t confident on buses.

Helping yourself by researching tech options

Six weeks into my apprenticeship, I had an Access to Work assessment with a specialist advisor from a sight loss charity. He told me about the different sorts of technology and software available to support me to do my job.

Although this was very helpful, it is essential that you do your own research before the assessment so you know what is the best option for you.. Although the adviser will tell you the different types of technology you can get, they don’t always know what is the best for you. Also, Access to Work will always fund you the cheapest option, unless you can prove why something more expensive is better.

In order for me to do this research, my employer let me have some time off to go to Sight Village, which is an exhibition for vision impaired people to touch or try out all the different types of software and equipment.

Battling bureaucracy

Whilst I’m very appreciative of Access to Work  and understand that I wouldn’t be where I am without it, there are many aspects which do need to be improved. There are enormous barriers and challenges that candidates have to go through… There is form after form to complete and candidates may have to wait months to actually receive the funding and support once they start their role. This is based on the belief that unless you’re already doing a job, you can’t be sure of the kind of reasonable adjustments you need. Although this is a fair assessment it does mean that disabled people are left in the lurch, until a full assessment is made six weeks after their start date.

I had to wait five months to receive the funding and support I was entitled to via Access to Work   and it was hard trying to do my job without having the full support I needed. This meant my teammates had to pick up a lot of the work I was unable to do, taking on additional responsibilities to support me as well. Going to meetings also proved incredibly difficult, as did using the computer.

In addition, Access to Work didn’t fund the one day a week I was at college despite it being a necessary part of my apprenticeship. It was only after a year into my apprenticeship that my college suggested I apply for an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) from my local authority. This would fund the support Access to Work couldn’t provide me while I was at college. So yes, more paperwork and delays!

My self-esteem took a battering during these periods, and I grew frustrated. Yet despite the hardships I faced I know that I am one of the fortunate ones. I had a supportive employer and colleagues who made allowances for me and helped me when I needed it. I also had parents who were able to foot the bills ahead of my delayed Access to Work payments, and friends who supported me throughout the mountains of paperwork and assessments. I dread to think how others much more vulnerable than me would have coped.

TML visit

Making Access to Work better

There is so much more I could say on Access to Work, particularly around its refusal to support unpaid internships, work experience placements and volunteering.  If the government is serious about halving the disability unemployment gap, then it needs to consider the existing challenges faced by disabled people in the workplace and not make things more complicated. Making  Access to Work more accessible and user friendly can be the key to making this happen, but it needs lots of hard work to get there!

Whilst Access to Work can be a waiting game at times, it has supported me to develop the IT skills that were holding my career back. I am confident that after completing my apprenticeship, I will be able to progress in my career without this barrier delaying me any further.

I urge all young disabled people to dream big when it comes to their careers, and don’t let their disabilities hold them back. Often they are given a narrow selection of jobs they should pursue and are told they cannot do a lot of roles. I say think broader and when deciding what you want to do for a career, imagine you don’t have a disability. Once you have decided what you want to do, you can then think about what reasonable adjustments you need to make it happen.

Chloe’s Top Tips for navigating Access to Work:

1. Be organised and keep a record of all your paperwork from Access to Work, this includes making photocopies of all applications and logging all phone calls between yourself and the advisor. Although many young people may not have record-keeping skills, they are crucial to reducing errors with payments and claims.

2. Insist all verbal agreements are put in writing. I had to learn the hard way, that a verbal agreement isn’t enough when you are dealing with 20 different advisors from 30 different teams.

3. If you are not confident or unable to fight your corner, get an advocate who can. You need a lot of resilience to make it through Access to Work, so find someone who can help.

4. Remember that your Access to Work funding isn’t indefinite. It runs out on a certain date. This could be six months after you first start your job, or at the end of a current contract. Remember to take a note of that date and renew your funding at least six weeks beforehand to make sure there is not a gap in funding.

5. Make sure you and your employer have a clear, planned out system for claiming the money back from Access to Work. Usually, your employer is required to pay for whatever Access to Work has funded you (e.g. support, equipment or training), and they will claim the money back from Access to Work.

In some cases, this will need to be done on a regular basis. In some workplaces, the employer prefers to take responsibility for claiming back their money but in others the employer prefers you to take responsibility for doing this. If there is any confusion as to whose responsibility this is the employer could get into thousands of pounds worth of debt until the money is repaid. It is also worth keeping in mind that any claims made after the end date of your Access to Work funding, will not be repaid (see tip 5).

A version of this blog was first published on Conservative Home and can be accessed here.