Disability and job hunting

Graham Clements
My illnesses have made it hard for me to find and keep work. I have lost jobs because of being sick too often. So I try and limit my job hunting to positions I hope won't be affected by my illnesses. But I still worry about whether to tell potential employers I have a disability. I am on the Disability Employment Scheme at the Job Network. They have suggested many jobs I considered unsuitable because of my illnesses. But they have helped in finding a few suitable jobs.
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Graham Clements on 20/08/2013
Red disabled toilet sign on dark corrugated iron wall

My illnesses have not only affected my health, but consistently interrupted my attempts to work and find work.

The job losses started when I worked as a casual storeman in Brisbane. A virus went around the warehouse giving many staff chronic diarrhoea. I took about a week to recover, but after a few months the diarrhoea returned and blood appeared. I thought the blood might be due to wear and tear and waited for the virus to clear up, which it did. But the diarrhoea returned a few weeks later. I missed a lot of work. When the annual winter slowdown came around, rather than be kept on as I had been in previous years, I was laid off.

I moved back home

Having no job and no savings, I moved back home to rural Victoria. A doctor diagnosed me with haemorrhoids. The diarrhoea then went away and I began to look for work.

I hoped to find administrative work as I had many years of administration experience and an economics degree. But none of the local business wanted my skills or experience, so I decided to try fruit picking.

As if to taunt me, the diarrhoea returned the night before my first day of fruit picking. I still decided to give it go, but I spent a lot of time seeking somewhere private to poo. This was time I could have spent picking cherries. I tried every haemorrhoid treatment there was, but none helped.

I went to a different doctor who sent me to a specialist. A colonoscopy revealed I had ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the bowel. There is no known cure, but its symptoms can be lessened with medication. Without prompting, my doctor gave me a three-month medical certificate. My cherry-picking career had come to an end.

Eventually, medication seemed to get the illness under control, so I started looking for work. But because the disease had the habit of returning overnight, I decided to only apply for jobs where I could immediately stop what I was doing and rush to a nearby toilet.

The Disability Employment Scheme

The job network moved me on to a special scheme called the Disability Employment Scheme (DES). I was required to look only for part-time work. In the beginning, the jobs the DES offered me were dominated by labouring positions. This had me wondering if most employers thought that all people with disabilities had mental impairment.

Many of the jobs offered to me were totally inappropriate for my illness. For example, a case manager suggested I help a man with his lawn-mowing business. But what if I quickly needed a toilet?

Broke and back home

My job hunt was going nowhere in Wangaratta, so I took a chance and moved to Albury for a temporary government administration job. But during the six months I was there, I caught the flu, my left big toe became infected and my ulcerative colitis came back. I ended up broke and back home.

Back to the job network

A case manager at a new job network provider knew about my desire to write, and she told me about the DiVine website. I immediately sent DiVine some samples of my writing, and I was given a contract. The job network also found me a subsidised three-month position in a school library.

One of my case managers suggested a part-time job at a supermarket, checking incoming deliveries. The job was early in the morning, when my ulcerative colitis tended to be at its worse. But the illness had quietened down, so I decided to give the job a chance. For about six months everything went well, until I began to get sick. My medication makes me susceptible to catching colds and flus. My disease also became frequently active. My frequent sick days were not fair on my employer and my heath seemed to be deteriorating, so we agreed to go our separate ways.

Another case manager pressured me to take a job in a powder-coating factory. I reminded her that I was also prone to asthma which would probably react to the factory's dust. If I did not attend an interview, she said, then my Newstart allowance could be withdrawn. So I said I would tell the employer of my health concerns at the interview. The job interview was cancelled and I immediately changed to a new job network provider.

How would employers react?

The Job Network has the policy of letting me decide whether an employer is told that I have a disability. I worry that employers do not want to hire people with disabilities, especially if they have employed someone like me who always got sick. Often I don't tell employers about my illnesses.

In a recent job interview I was asked if there was anything that would make it difficult for me to perform the duties of the job. As the position was an office job with a nearby toilet, I decided not to mention my various illnesses.

Sometimes I tell employers that I have an illness, especially if I think they might already know. Wangaratta is a small town after all. Mentioning my illnesses also helps to fill in the gaps in my employment history. I then stress that I am better now, but am I?

I often think I would easily find office work if I moved to Melbourne. But I worry that my illnesses might pop-up just after I moved or in the first weeks of any new job. I always feel tired, so I also worry I might no longer be capable of working multiple eight-hour days in a row.

My illnesses have not only affected my health, but consistently interrupted my attempts to work and find work. With each setback I have become more risk adverse, but I still keep looking for suitable work.

Readers comments (5)

Oh Graham, I had no idea that you suffered from an illness. I can sympathise as I too suffer from a serious, chronic condition that will never be cured.

What a difficult situation you are in, when you say "home" does that mean you return to your family home? I feel your frustration when you are so well qualified and yet, to find a job you find yourself going for things way below your qualification level. I presume there is no surgery that could assist here?

I would stick to the "not telling employers" about your condition, only because I know what the world is like and it's a rare company indeed who would choose to pick the "harder" applicant over the easier one. Unless of course you can find work in the government sector, where they are required to hire people from every part of the community.

I'm home on sick leave at the moment and thankfully I've spent the last 16 years of my career working for the federal government, otherwise I hate to imagine where I'd be now.

Thank you for your honesty, it's a subject most people wouldn't consider and yet it affects so many people at different levels.

Wishing you a healthier future.

What an ordeal you've been through Graham. Incredible, as Sally said, that you've been able to persevere and hold your head up, despite your qualifications, in a small town with small town thinking.
Naturally employers aren't supposed to prejudice, but of course they do, in many forms. I couldn't begin to imagine how it must be for you. All I can say is that I tried picking fruit as a teenager, and failed miserably. It was very difficult, physically and the rest. Maybe it wasnt so bad afterall.
Thank you for sharing your story. Very brave of you.

My disability is certainly not severe but it makes working a job complicated. I cant do physical labour any more because of my lower limb amputation. I am trying to get an admin job so I have been learning to touch type but I have discovered prolonged sessions of touch typing cause problems with my neck as I have a history of spine injury. I just applied for a job installing power saving boards and found out my position involves walking around neighbourhoods carrying an arm load of the products the position is only full time I know I wont be able to keep up. Its so frustrating their are so few suitable positions. I will just have to persevere.

Why not have a go at applying for disability specific career development programs - the Australian Public Service (APS) has some. That way the conditions are good (sick leave, annual leave, flex time) and you get the support and understanding you need. APSjobs.gov.au

Thanks for your comments everyone. I've already responded to Sally's similar comment on facebook where I have been promoting this article. But if anyone else is curious, surgery is only an option for those with totally out of control ulcerative colitis, about ten percent of patients have some or all the bowel removed. I like you Peter will continue to perserve. Currently I am hopeful that a couple of part-time unpaid weeks as a copywriter at a local business, beginning in September (they know about my UC) will lead to a paid position. Carly I had a quick look at the APS site, but could not find any mention of that program, will look again. But I think the article I wrote would be competely different if I had a permanent public service position at the time I had come down with ulcerative colitis, instead of a casual private enterprise position. But then again, with an undiagnosed illness playing on my mind, who knows.

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