The Access to Work (AtW) scheme is a government backed fund to help disabled people in their work place to minimise accessibility issues that they may face due to their medical condition or impairment (For more information or to apply see the AtW pages). They can fund equipment, some structural changes to the workplace (e.g. a ramp), provide travel expenses to and from work or fund interpreters or personal assistants. Their remit has recently been cut back by the government (and then slightly extended again, although there are some concerning rumors that the budget disabled people will be eligible for will soon depend on how much they earn – the more you earn the bigger budget you can have), which is ironic really as the government claim they want disabled people to work but then remove the support that is available to enable them to do so.
I have known about this scheme for years, long before I first started to think about getting a job and I assumed that, at least large businesses, would be aware of it and the help that it can provide them in employing a disabled person. When I got my first job in a call centre for a large company who is now on the stock market, it became apparent that this was not the case at all. They had neither heard of the scheme nor were they too happy that I wanted to use it (as is my right) rather than use their insurance company (Unum!) to get a new wheelchair. As a large company under the scheme they have to foot something like 20% of the bill and I suppose if they had gone through their scheme this wouldn’t be the case, but I seriously doubt I would have got the equipment I needed. Anyway after a small blip where they suddenly refused to pay their 20%, and then put it through payroll so I was taxed and had student loan removed from it, it got sorted.
Back in July when I was offered my 12 month position as Lecturer in Education at Sheffield Hallam University I applied to AtW straight away, as I know the university well and my condition even better. I knew that working full time was going to be extremely hard for me (at least initially) and having to negotiate heavy doors and carry resources to the classrooms without help, would be setting myself up to fail. I was also concerned that without support I would potentially have to take time off if my car broke down (which it has just the other week but that’s for another post!), if my wheelchair stopped working or if I had a minor health blip, whereas with help I could probably still come into work, teach and prepare materials.
I have now started the role with AtW confirming my funding about a week before I started. Unfortunately a combination of technology not behaving as it should, and the advisor going on holiday means that my support package isn’t quite in place yet however we are aiming for it to be sorted by the first week of teaching or just afterwards.
The process itself, at least if you compare it to the horror stories of applying for other kinds of support, was relatively straight forward. I applied online, I was emailed some questions (many of which are a bit repetitive), they contacted my manager for permission to carry out the assessment, I met an assessor, I filled out another more detailed form (which I did find fairly hard to do as it’s hard to know exact hours before you start the job), they write a report and Bob’s your uncle. It took about 6 weeks from me applying to the decision being made and I wasn’t asked to go for any kind of assessment (although I am assuming the assessor who comes out to ‘see if you need any equipment’ despite me not asking for any is doing that role to some extent) or provide any medical evidence. The support that I was requesting was PA support for when I am face to face with students with a contingency for attendance of conferences and for times when things go wrong and my car/chair or I break and I need additional support – perhaps there are other processes or things that applicants have to go through depending on what they want, I’m not sure, but for me it was quite an easy process albeit a little slow at times.
I was impressed that they seemed to listen to what I said I needed and wanted and even listened to my preference of care agency. I also had the choice to employ someone I knew if they were self-employed or my employer could advertise for someone, employ them and then be reimbursed.
I have met with the care agency that I am going to be using and so far everything seems quite positive. They have supported people in employment before, don’t have any ridiculous rules such as making their staff wear a uniform or name badge and seem to be quite flexible. I have sent them my provisional timetable and I am just waiting to hear back about who they think is suitable for the role – fingers crossed this is sorted by the end of next week!