Talented Graduate Gets A Life-Changing Chance Through Disability Placement Programme

Queen’s University Belfast graduate Anna Lawrenson was scared to enter the labour market. That was until she was given a life changing opportunity with Leonard Cheshire’s Grad Employ programme, writes Maia Biermann.

“I was still unsure of myself and my capabilities. I was quite scared actually,“ said Anna Lawrenson of her alarm about entering the labour market.”

Anna, 27, will graduate from the Queen’s University Belfast this year with a degree in archaeology. At the age of 15 she was diagnosed with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), a neurological disorder causing extreme exhaustion and constant flu like symptoms.

For Anna, each day is a battlefield. Apart from ME, she also struggles to cope with two other diagnoses – severe depression and anxiety.  

Anna’s fears about the future had a reason. Across the UK, thousands of people with disabilities are failing to find a job despite being fully qualified. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the employment rate for people with disabilities was 52.7 percent in 2021, which is much lower than for non-disabled people at 81 percent.  

To help fill the disability employment gap, Leonard Cheshire has just completed a pioneering scheme for talented university graduates with disabilities to place them with leading businesses for four months in paid employment at no cost to the company. 

Leonard Cheshire implements this programme in partnership with Ulster University Business School, who are providing additional workplace training for the successful applicants to fine-tune their skills. 

The programme GradEmployNI aims to increase employment opportunities for university leavers with disabilities across the country, where the employment rate for fully qualified graduates with disabilities is just 38 percent, far behind the UK average.  

GradEmployNI’s Programme Manager Roisin McDermott said the project has received a diverse range of applications.

She added: “It is a very positive step forward in boosting the employment rate for graduates with disabilities or health conditions in Northern Ireland, which is currently the lowest in the UK.”

Anna, originally from Somerset but currently living in Belfast for the last seven years, heard about the programme from a friend. At that time, she was struggling with writing her CV and had worries whether she would meet all the criteria employers set out in their demanding job announcements.  

Anna saw the Leonard Cheshire scheme as an opportunity and contacted them. Shortly afterwards they found a place for her – with Women’s Tec, Northern Ireland’s largest charity providing employment support for women and girls in non-traditional sectors. 

Whilst it was happy news an unexpected twist meant the job wasn’t in the industry Anna had been trained for. Her degree was in archaeology, but due to the highly competitive nature of the field, Anna chose to take on the employment with Women’s Tec.

“I told Leonard Cheshire that I really care about social issues, and I am a feminist” said Anna. 

That proved to be a lucky statement. Within days, Anna was offered a place at Women’s Tec, an organisation that offers programmes and courses to women and youth to explore careers in male-dominated areas from joinery and plumbing to electrical and furniture making. 

Anna felt immediately inspired. “I love Woman’s Tec!” she said.  

She’s currently working on a report on discrimination in the construction industry, interviewing women from different companies and industries to get their testimonies. 

“I have just developed a really strong grasp on how the charity sector works,” she said, adding:“Although my degree is archaeology, I think I would rather work in the charity sector.”  

Women’s Tec was one of the first companies to express interest in participating in Leonard Cheshire’s placement scheme. Other successful businesses taking part in the programme include leading charity Bolster Community, global engineering and technology service Expleo, media and software developer Ethel Care, health charity Fresh Minds Education, local television company  NVTV, and media consultancy Excalibur Press. 

Like Anna Lawrenson, many graduates who have applied for GradEmployNI have hidden disabilities such as epilepsy, depression, anxiety, diabetes and Crohn’s, among many others. 

“My disability, in particular, is not very well known, and there is always a lot of stigma around it” Anna said. 

“The placement has allowed me to ease myself. Thanks to this programme I felt secure, I was not on my own, I had support all around me.” 

Anna said that being asked on her first day how she could be best supported was highly comforting. With her employer asking her which days she wanted to work at the office and when she wanted to work from home. 

This approach has been decisive. 

“Because of my disability, if I had a busy day at work, I would feel incredibly unwell and exhausted for a good few days afterwards,” said Anna. 

“Being allowed a high level of flexibility has helped me to continue and not give up. 

“I made friends with a few of the employees. And we chat. We have a nice laugh and joke. I know if I can’t make it into the office and need to work from home, they would be absolutely fine with that,” she said. 

Asked how the diagnosis changed her life, Anna explained: “It was a scary time because I was right in between finishing my GCSEs, and college and I had to take a good number of years out of education, and it really ruined my confidence. It felt like I was bound to bed forever.” 

But slowly, she was able to return to her college, got her A levels and started a university degree. However, for her, it has always been a struggle keeping up “with everyone else.“  

Anna’s struggles are not an isolated case. In the UK, according to ONS, one in every five of the working-age population are classed as disabled. Increasing awareness of various conditions, as well as opportunities for people living with these conditions, is likely to become more vital as a growing number of people “are reporting a long-term health condition or disability than did so eight years ago,” largely driven by an increase in mental health conditions. 

Observing positively that mental health is becoming an increasingly important issue, Anna believes that hiring people with experience of disability could be useful for employers because new hires could then offer mental support if any other employee is going through a period of depression. In her opinion, people with different perspectives, skillset, and outlook can make any company more dynamic. 

Anna has a message to talent recruiters: “Be lenient, be flexible, because if you allow this, our work will be the best it will possibly be.” 

“I see a lot of companies are realising this,” she added, “and schemes like the Leonard Cheshire programme would encourage more and more companies to follow and realise the value of us – the disabled people.”  

For more information go to https://www.leonardcheshire.org/our-impact/our-uk-work/northern-ireland 

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