I am an apprentice paralegal, fresh out of college, studying for my university law degree with the BPP university 1 day a week alongside my work at the firm. Identifying and requesting the support I need is still very new to me and I’m learning as I go along. My disability is a type of muscular dystrophy, called Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy. It mostly affects my mobility; although I don’t currently use any mobility aids, I do struggle to walk long distances and stand without something to hold on to. It also means I get very tired.
The key thing I have found useful at work is flexible working and the ability to work from home. You are expected to go into the office 2 days a week, however they are more accommodating for me. If I find I am tired and my legs are aching, making walking around the office difficult, I can still do my work from home. Whilst my Mum drives me to the office on the days I go in, they have provided a nearby parking space for her to drop me off, despite it being a pedestrianised area, so it’s an easier walk in for me.
In the office, I wasn’t really sure what support I could get so I have worked with Occupational Health. I described my symptoms, and they were able to offer solutions. For example, I get back pain so they suggested an ergonomic chair with arm rests and a footstool so I can sit properly and move and stretch my legs. The ability to take breaks has also been helpful for me, so I can get up, stretch and walk around; this helps manage my pain, posture and mobility. I may need more support in the future however the rest of the office is ok to get around and I know I can go back to Occupational Health as or when my condition changes.
I believe it is important to talk about what you need, even when very junior and you may find it difficult, because it is about being the best you can be. Working with my manager, I helped her understand my condition as it is quite rare. I described it to her and what impact it has on me including the impact on my mental health. One of the things, for example, that I don’t like doing is standing up from a chair in front of people; I feel self-conscious. My manager is aware so she understands that I will stay in a meeting room after the meeting has finished and get up in my own time. I keep my manager updated with what is working well.
Colleagues are also very understanding and offer support such as carrying things and opening doors which helps me a great deal. Having an invisible disability means that not everyone is aware even though I do walk with a bit of a limp sometimes. Some people ask questions, and I will then talk about my disability to help build understanding. I find most people are generally interested and want to help.
At work, we have an Enabled Committee for employees with different disabilities and I am now a committee member. We put on events and awareness days for different health conditions and impairments. It has helped my confidence hugely as I realised that there were people throughout the firm with different conditions, including those in senior positions. Being a new employee and in a junior position, it is reassuring to see that having a disability doesn’t prevent your career progression and that it is possible to become a senior manager. Having a disability can sometimes feel quite lonely so being able to talk to others, raise any concerns, and have people you can relate to really can help.
I had a recent work trip to London which I found overwhelming, and it didn’t go so well. As a result, however, I learned that I can continue to ask for help as opposed to it being a fixed thing that, once support is in place, that’s all you get. The firm is keen to learn and improve too. I used the experience to work out what I would need next time so it goes better. I also spoke to the committee co-chairs, and they have put me in touch with someone who needed support similar to me which has been really helpful.
The most important thing I have learnt is that support is out there: you just have to ask for it. Reach out and discuss with your manager or any support groups if there is anything you are struggling with. It doesn’t mean that you are weak or that you are not coping; on the contrary! I have also learnt that you can reach out again and again – it’s a learning curve for everyone. If something is not working, it can be changed.