Sunday, 16 June 2013

Disablism, Retraining, Remunerative Work and Volunteering

I've just read Sue Marsh's last two posts (here and here) on the topic of managing your pain so that you can still have a life - I agree wholeheartedly.  I too do not want to give in to this pain and tiredness - I have always struggled to get to where I want to be, why should I give up now? ... however I also agree that the present situation is not amenable to us trying to be 'normal' or even 'differently normal' if we have a fluctuating disability. 

I want to be as useful now as I was before the Crohn's and Fibromyalgia struck me down.  I just haven't found a satisfactory way to do this yet.
Job Centre Plus sign attached to the gable end of a building
Job Centre Plus sign

When my sick pay from my previous employment ran out I applied for ESA (Employment Support Allowance). I was put into the Work Related Activity Group by ATOS and attended my monthly interviews at the local Job Centre ... who were very happy to discover that I'd already signed up to do a teacher training course (PGCE) at the local Uni once my redundancy came through - work had refused to retire me 'due to ill health' as the pension advisor, against all the advice of the occupational health doctor at work and my consultants, had told them that I would recover 'with cognitive behaviour therapy and exercise' - translation, "there's nothing wrong with you, it's all in your mind".  I wish ...

The advisor at the Job Centre, a very nice woman actually, tried to get me to agree to being interviewed on the phone instead of me coming in to the Job Centre - but I objected saying the trip out MADE me get out of the house  - which as you will know when you are recovering from an illness is the hardest thing to do, and you might as well class my symptoms as permanently 'recovering' as I will never be 100% again.  I spent my interviews with her chatting about the weather, my course, holidays and watching her tick boxes on her computer.
Barnsley University Campus part of the University of Huddersfield
Barnsley Uni logo

The PGCE went well for the first six months or so, then they moved the goal posts - instead of teaching for between six and eight hours a week, which I could just about manage, bearing in mind the two days (9am to 3pm) in Uni as well, they wanted us to teach full time.  Teaching IT is a very active job, you can't just sit at the front of a class and lecture, you have to move around and assess learning, assist learners having problems, and in mixed syllabus workshop style classes teach up to six different topics at the same time.  I failed spectacularly one morning in front of a class - I just couldn't cope - the journey from home had been tiring, the walk down to the centre where I was teaching was getting longer and longer every day, and my mentor alternated between never leaving me alone and trying to give me too much to think about whilst I was already busy. 

I was off for several weeks, maybe even a month and came back too late to complete the required teaching hours to get my full PGCE with the rest of my class.  I was offered the chance to extend into the next academic year, but declined as it was obvious that my placement, now knowing I was flaky, were not EVER going to let me take full responsibility for a class - "we can't have the learners disadvantaged by your illness" - which I suppose was fair enough, I did like my learners, generally disadvantaged adults of one variety or another, most of them were wonderful people and I didn't want to do anything to hazard their chances of passing their assessments.  In order to pass the PGCE I needed to demonstrate that I could prepare a lesson and teach, not just one off lessons or lessons to someone else's plans, but a whole chunk of a subject all by myself - it just wasn't going to happen. Even if IT teaching and learning had lent itself to this kind of structure, which in the Adult sector it doesn't - the usual class has six to ten learners all doing something different at different paces at different levels ... it's like driving down a motorway with heavy lorries on either side with no brakes!!  the Centre was not going to risk me becoming ill again in the middle of a set of classes that only I could teach.  Please note that I have nothing but admiration for the tutors I met during my placement - they are tough, hardworking women with unlimited compassion for their learners!

The woman at the Job Centre wasn't too bothered that I'd crashed out of my chance to retrain ... she didn't suggest anything else, in fact she told me that my year was up and that I didn't need to see her again for a while.  My ESA had stopped in the April as I'd had over twelve months worth, so that left me entirely dependant on my husband for EVERYTHING.  In financial desperation I applied for a part time job in our local Co-op (not mentioning the illnesses at all) but didn't even get an interview, overqualified I suppose. 

Because I'd made friends with several of the tutors at the centre I continued to volunteer there for another year - I did a couple of classes a week as a kind of teaching assistant, unpaid of course.  Even then I didn't make it every week, sometimes the dread flare ups caught me and I was too ill to turn in.  I discovered another kind of volunteering - transcribing at the local Archives - that involved sitting down and typing for three to four hours one morning a week - I added that into my plan - of course I still didn't make it every week, but I did feel as if I was being useful.  Over the year it became apparent that other, more able bodied, people were coming forward to volunteer at the Adult Learning Centre and they had another student from the Uni (who I'm glad to say gained from my experience and was given a much more structured programme of lessons to teach).  The economic threat posed by the government withdrawing funding from Adult Learning and the cuts imposed by the local council jobwise made the atmosphere at the Centre difficult for the tutors.

Last September I contacted the tutor I had worked with most often but she could only offer me a Tuesday late morning session with her which clashed with my work at the Archives. There was barely enough work for the employed tutors, many of them were having to take cuts in their hours to keep their jobs, they didn't really need volunteers any more.  I turned her down as I really felt I was getting somewhere volunteering at the Archives - then the Archives closed in November to prepare for their move to the new Experience Barnsley museum in the Town Hall.  This left me with only the Cudworth Local History Group, who meet about 400 yards from my house in the local Resource Centre (aka Library) two mornings a week and my OU study to keep me busy.  
The Open University, a blue shield shaped logo with a round hole offset to the top left and wording running bottom to top on the right hand side.
Open University logo

I started this blog - that does fill a couple of hours several times a week and you can see what you've achieved mounting up in numbers of posts and people viewing them. 

I did a talk on World War One Soldiers for the Friends of the Archives, which has generated several enquiries about doing a similar talk for other groups next year.  Unfortunately in both cases I got the feeling that asking for a small fee to do the talk, just to cover expenses really, put them off inviting me.  So that's not going to be a great money spinner in years to come is it?

The Archives contacted me and my friend GB a few months ago and asked us to come in to do some transcription of index cards towards the new computer system ... we did that for a few months every Tuesday morning - it's a very tiring job, you can only manage about 60 or 70 cards in three hours and then your brain turns to mush!  GB, who was also made redundant last year, and I even managed a fortnightly 'ladies who lunch' appointment where we chatted about family history happily for a couple of hours over a cheap Wetherspoon's meal deal without anyone else's eyes glazing over.  We took a break just over a month ago, GB to go away with her husband and myself to study for my OU exam.  We promised to let the Archives know as soon as we were available again.

Continuing to be financially challenged I recently applied for a part time job at a local building society ... if they'll let me do half days I could manage it, it is sit down work and only a few hundred yards from our house ... I did ask, they said they were very flexible, but I haven't heard anything back from them.

I would really, really like to earn some money of my own so I can buy books and music without feeling guilty, even my OU modules are being paid for by my mum (Thank you, mum!)  But there are no jobs that I know of which let you work just a few hours a week, whenever you can.  And now even volunteering is getting difficult ... with jobs at risk people employed by the council, for example at Learning Centres and Archives don't want lots of overly keen volunteers doing work they need to be paid for.
Blue background, white sketch of the Barnsley Town Hall tower and Experience Barnsley wording beneath
Experience Barnsley logo
The Archives reopens in Experience Barnsley next Thursday, 27 June 2013 at 2pm.  Myself and my friend GB have just offered to help with anything that needs to be done to get ready for the opening ... but have been turned down.  Cross fingers that once the new Archives is open they will need us again ... or I could just spend time there doing my own research ... but that feels nowhere near as useful.  Chances of getting some kind of work that pays money ... what do you think?

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