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Juggling Disability and Work: How it worked for me.

Tristram Peters

When I was seven, I decided I wanted to be a palaeontologist. It was a realisation borne out of an unhealthy obsession with Jurassic Park, a movie I first watched when I was home ill from school. For that initial viewing, and for the many that followed, I was transfixed. I wanted to be Dr. Alan Grant, although I was keen to skip the whole being chased by velociraptors thing and just dig up fossils. But I had a slight problem with my chosen career path; I was in a powerchair.

Sadly, being in a powerchair makes some things a little tricky. In this instance, I knew I wouldn’t be able to hop down from my chair and dust off fossils, as I’d simply get stuck on the ground till someone came to hoist me up, a timely exercise that would waste too many hours of the day. So, for the rest of my schooling, I set myself the task of finding a career that would be both realistic and fulfilling, and struck upon the obvious. Writer.

Ten years down the track, I’ll confess I’ve still had to find ways to accommodate my disability as a freelance writer. Overall though, I’ve made a good go of it. And even though everyone’s different, and it would be foolish to assume otherwise, there’s a myriad of different ways that make employment possible for each of us. Here’s how I tackled it.

Writing is what I love, but technology helps

First things first, I love writing. It ticks all the boxes for me in terms of work, but it has one advantage for me: I can do it independently. I wanted a job that I could do solo, with the help of technology of course, in order for me to feel that the work I was completing was well and truly my own. And it’s this emphasis on technology that allows me to accommodate my disability.

Technology influences pretty much every aspect of my work: when I’m conducting interviews for a match report, I use a recording app on my phone so I can transcribe the interview later; when I work remotely from home, I use Skype or Google Meet to connect with my colleagues; when I’m editing someone else’s work, I do it all online via my Google Drive so that we can exchange proofs easily and seamlessly. Small things, but vital.

Although writing is my chosen career (after palaeontology, obviously), I could have chosen a number of different professions that are made accessible through technology: I.T., law, engineering and more. The trick was to find something that I love and could do independently, and let technology get me over any small hurdles.

Working 9-5, in my own office

One of the most challenging things about my disability—a genetic condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2—is the resulting fatigue. As I get tireder, my muscles become weaker and weaker, so it becomes a balancing act between pushing myself and not exerting myself beyond what’s unreasonable for my condition.

As a freelance writer, I’m in the lucky position of choosing just how much I work. If I’m feeling strong, I can accept more work; if I’m feeling measly, I can politely decline and focus my efforts on what I already have. Not everyone wants to do freelance, with the uncertainty of chasing work, but the ability to work part-time when necessary makes things manageable for me.

Beyond the flexibility of my hours, the most beneficial aspect of being a freelance writer is the ability to work from home. I have an accessible space, with my laptop and desk just at the right height. Saying that, every time I’ve worked in an office, my colleagues have been amazing at setting me up appropriately, but working from home does indeed make things easier for me. It’s the reassurance that I know everything is as I need it to be.

Why does this matter?

Technology, flexible work hours, and an accessible home office might seem like small, unimportant things, but each has allowed me to enter the workforce, earn a living, and escape some of the limitations of my disability. It’s uplifting, confidence-building, and everything that I hoped work could and would be.

I know that I’ll never full escape my disability, but I can certainly accommodate it. And even though I’m not a palaeontologist (at least until the next modern technological advancement), I’m writing about it. That counts, right?