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The Disability Unemployability Conspiracy (Part 4)

So here we are, nuzzled comfortably into the ample bosom of the 4th week of disability awareness month. This week I talk to Shaun who, after three and a half decades in a wheelchair, knows all the ins and outs of life after spinal injury, including the ups and downs of seeking employment.

This is his story…


Year of injury & cause: 1983, swimming pool accident
Age at time of injury: 14
Current age: 49
Injury level: C5 complete

At the time of his injury, Shaun was a schoolboy with no previous experience of employment. He spent the best part of 12 months in hospital (remember, this was 1983, long before the 12 week spinal injury conveyor belt system of rehabilitation was introduced), and upon discharge set about spending the next few years completing his education and gaining the necessary qualifications with which to seek employment.

However, Shaun found it very difficult to find a job in the years after leaving school and completing his rehab, and whereas he was never directly told that his disability had played a part in him not getting a job, the nagging thought would linger. So instead he chose to focus on living his life to the full; becoming involved in the likes of Back Up and SIA, making numerous trips abroad to explore Europe, the Americas, the Orient etc, travelling to support GB at multiple Paralympics and starting up his own wheelchair rugby club which, to this day, competes at both national and international levels.

Then in 2003, a new spinal injuries unit was opened in Shaun’s home town and the volunteer post of peer support officer was advertised, something that Shaun felt he was ideally suited for, given his 20 years experience in adapting to and fully embracing life with a high level spinal cord injury, where his wheelchair would be seen as a reason why he should be hired, as opposed to an excuse for why he shouldn’t.

 “My injury has definitely had a positive impact on my current job.”

Naturally Shaun got the job, which involved him going into the spinal injuries unit a couple of days a week, seeing newly injured patients and their families, and advising/supporting them on all manner of topics: everything from coming to terms with the injury itself, bladder/bowel management and family matters, to life outside hospital, finding accessible accommodation and keeping active with sports and hobbies. In fact, back in 2005, Shaun was the first person to come and talk to me about life after injury and the possibility of taking up wheelchair rugby once I was discharged. Yes even back then, as I lay hooked up to various monitors in the high dependency unit of the spinal ward, Shaun could see the potential for me to one day become a slightly below average wheelchair rugby half pointer!

Spinal Injuries Association realised the value of the work being done by people like Shaun and made it a paid position which he has now held for over a decade.

“None of [Shaun’s] colleagues or fellow staff members at the spinal injuries unit treat him or see him any differently due to his injury.”

Shaun’s job is specifically tied to him being spinally injured and his acute knowledge and ability to empathise with and relate to those newly injured means that he almost certainly would not have been suitable for this job had he not suffered his injury all those years ago. Shaun is also insistent that none of his colleagues or fellow staff members at the spinal injuries unit treat him or see him any differently due to his injury. And really, why should they? Shaun is there doing a job that is just as vital as any when it comes to patient rehabilitation, and outside of work he has travelled and experienced more of the world than most could ever dream of.

“More career advice is needed both inside and outside of hospital to help newly injured people find employment opportunities.”

On the question of whether more could be done to help people find work after spinal injury, Shaun is adamant that more career advice is needed both inside and outside of hospital to help newly injured people find employment opportunities. He believes this is especially important for those who are unable to return to their pre-injury careers/jobs; people such as Peter, who I wrote about in Part 2.

Next week I’ll conclude this series by briefly assessing what these individual stories say about the bigger picture involving disabilities and employment, before looking at the best routes to take if you have a disability and wish to seek employment.

The aim is to provide some handy info and resources for people to check out so hope to see you then!