Chloe Smith was born blind and is a London youth apprentice. London Youth is a network of more than 300 community youth organisations offering opportunities and support to young people outside of school. She writes in a personal capacity.
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 do, because I didn’t have the IT skills needed to be employable.
When I was 19, I eventually landed my dream job working in a dog kennel. This is when I first needed to use the Government’s Access to Work scheme (ATW). I’m not sure when I first heard of it, but I am certain of the positive impact it has had on my employment journey. ATW is a publicly funded programme to help disabled people start or sustain work by funding reasonable adjustments needed, such as an assistant or specialist equipment/software, as well as help with travel costs.
I next spent nine months with the Thomas Pocklington Trust, which improved my confidence and taught me how to travel independently. I was then involved with the RSBC charity, which suggested I put myself forward for the Talent Match youth board, from which I found an apprenticeship opportunity.
So I then began my apprenticeship with Talent Match London, an employability scheme led by London Youth and funded by the Big Lottery Fund. The programme covers 21 areas in England, helping young people who are the most excluded from the jobs market to gain skills needed to get into work. Just over 20,000 young people have participated, 23 per cent of whom have a disability.
For my apprenticeship at London Youth, ATW funded a support worker to help me with areas of my job that I find challenging due to my vison impairment. They also paid for JAWS (a screen reader for vision impaired people) to be installed on a laptop, along with training and taxi travel to my nearest tube station.
Helping yourself by researching tech options
Six weeks into my apprenticeship, I had an ATW support assessment with a specialist adviser from a sight loss charity, who explained the different sorts of technology and software available.
Although this was very helpful, it is essential to do your own research beforehand because, although the adviser will outline the different types of technology available, they don’t always know what’s best for you. Also, ATW will generally fund the cheapest option – unless you can prove why something more expensive is better.
In order to research what would be best for me , London Youth gave me 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.
Whilst I’m very appreciative of ATW, and understand that I wouldn’t be where I am without it, there are many aspects which 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 funding and support, and it was hard trying to do my job without it. This meant I had to rely on my teammates taking on additional responsibilities.
In addition, ATW didn’t fund the day a week I attended college, despite it being 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 funded the support that ATW couldn’t provide me while I was at college. My self-esteem took a battering yet, despite the hardships, I am fortunate I had a supportive employer and colleagues who made allowances and helped when needed. I also have parents able to foot the bills ahead of my delayed ATW payments, and friends who supported me throughout the mountains of paperwork and assessments. Other people are not so lucky.
Making Access to Work better
If the Government is serious about supporting more people with disabilities into or back into work, then it needs to consider the existing challenges we face in the workplace. Making ATW more accessible and user-friendly would help, as would supporting unpaid internships, work experience placements and volunteering.
I’ve learned how to navigate the system. I had to be organised, and keep a record of all my paperwork including photocopies of applications and logging phone calls with my advisor. I insisted that all verbal agreements be put into writing. I had to learn the hard way – that a verbal agreement isn’t enough when you are dealing with 20 different advisers from 30 different teams. I also learned the importance of having an advocate to help fight your corner if needed, and I know London Youth as my employer has had to learn how to best support me through my time here.
Knowing how ATW funding operates is crucial. 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. I learned that you need to renew your funding at least six weeks beforehand to make sure that there is no gap.
It’s also vital to have a clear, planned-out system for claiming the money back to avoid confusion and incurring any debt. Usually, your employer is required to pay for whatever ATW has agreed to fund (e.g. support, equipment or training), and they will claim the money back from ATW.
In some cases, this will need to be done on a regular basis. Some employers prefer to take responsibility for claiming money back from ATW and other employers prefer you to take responsibility for doing this. Claims also need to be made within the dates of your ATW funding or they will not be repaid.
Whilst ATW can be a waiting game at times, it has supported me to develop the IT skills that were holding me back. I am confident that after completing my apprenticeship, I will be able to progress in my career. The next step in this has already happened. I successfully completed my apprenticeship and last week interviewed for and then was the offered the role of Employability Assistant at London Youth. I’ve shared my reflections employability experts, including officials from the Department for Work and Pensions. I hope it’s a constructive contribution, and am now looking forward to helping others get into work too.