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“We Want to Work Just As Much As Able Bodied People”

Belfast Man With Neuromuscular Condition Offers Insight To Employers and Fellow Graduates

Having been excluded from many activities due to a lifelong disability, Belfast man Andrew Bailie, 23, had always felt his career options would not be ample.

“I have had to narrow down the scope of work I was looking for,” Andrew explained. He was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a neuromuscular condition that was diagnosed when he was four. “The nature of my condition meant it was hard to plan ahead for what I could be doing regarding education and employment, so it has been difficult for me to figure out what exactly I'd like to be doing.”

According to NHS, muscular dystrophies (MD) are a group of inherited genetic conditions that gradually and progressively cause the muscles to weaken over time. There are various types of MD, each having different symptoms with varying levels of severity.

Duchenne MD, which usually affects boys in early childhood, is considered to be one of the most common and severe forms. In Britain, as NHS figures show, approximately 100 boys are born with Duchenne MD each year, and there are about 2,500 people living with this condition at any one time.

For Andrew, living with Duchenne MD has meant that some activities, such as playing sports or undertaking certain types of exercise, like running, have been impossible. “It impacts my day to day life quite a lot, as I would have mobility issues when it comes to things like stairs, steep hills, or walking very large distances,” he explained.

“Another downside of my condition is that I am not very tall, which can create its own issues when I'm just trying to go about my day,” Andrew added.

Despite the difficulties that his condition was causing, Andrew pursued his passions and completed a degree in Environmental Science at Ulster University. “I felt that the Environmental sector was growing quickly due to the growing concern regarding emissions and climate change, and that there would hopefully be a lot of jobs available in that sector,” he said.

However, for thousands of people with disabilities, market demand for certain knowledge is not solely responsible for their professional success. Many companies seem to be reluctant to hire people with disabilities despite their skills and qualifications.

One in every five of the UK’s working-age population is classed as disabled, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). When it comes to career chances, this group appears to be at a serious disadvantage.

Across the UK, the employment rate for people with disabilities was 52.7 per cent in 2021 compared with 81 per cent for non-disabled people, ONS figures show. Northern Ireland further falls behind the national average, as only 38 percent of fully qualified graduates with disabilities are lucky enough to have a job.

Looking back at his experience and the options he had, Andrew said: “If a workplace was not accessible for disabled employees, I wouldn't be able to work there. This can be quite disheartening as it makes it even more difficult to find employment when your options are already limited.”

Having left behind worries about how his disability could impact his job prospects, Andrew now works as a Junior Quality Assurance (QA) Analyst within the QA branch at Expleo, a Belfast-based engineering, technology and consulting service. With its 15,000 experts in 30 countries, the company guides businesses to optimise their manufacturing processes and achieve operational improvement.

Andrew has been able to find this work as a participant of a pioneering placement scheme launched by Leonard Cheshire, the health and welfare charity which runs disability-related projects around the world.

The programme, named GradEmployNI, aims to improve employment opportunities for university leavers with disabilities across Northern Ireland, placing them with leading businesses for four months in paid employment at no cost to participant companies. The programme is delivered together with Ulster University Business School, which provides additional workplace training for successful applicants.

Highlighting the importance of the GradEmployNI’s Programme, its Manager Roisin McDermott said: “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.”

According to Leonard Cheshire, various types of organisations were enthusiastic to offer placement roles, including Newry-based charity Bolster community, media consultancy Excalibur Press, and TV company NVTV.

Leonard Cheshire sees this scheme as a positive change against the background of gloomy statistics: 19% of employers say they would be less likely to hire someone with a disability.

On what the main misconceptions are that employers might have about a disability similar to his, Andrew said, they would probably “assume the worst”.

He said: “They would hear about my disability, look up what it is and then would automatically assume that I would be unable to do the work, instead of bringing me in for an interview where I could better explain what I could or couldn't do.”

However, Andrew is understanding: “Some businesses wouldn't be able to make adjustments for a disabled employee because of the nature of their jobs, or perhaps they just don't have the means to do so. I do not feel that employers do this maliciously, they just don't fully understand sometimes.”

At Expleo, Andrew’s day to day work involves helping clients with their projects. He finds his team members supportive of a diverse workplace. “They have covered whatever I have needed while on placement, which is brilliant,” he said.

“Working in an office has allowed me to meet many different people from all different backgrounds, which has helped improve my social skills massively, I do not feel I would have improved as much without the placement programme,” Andrew said.

If he had a chance to give advice to employers, Andrew would tell them to have patience with those with a similar condition to his: “We want to work just as much as able bodied people, we just need a little bit of help to reach our potentials; We can be as useful to a business as anyone else.”

Andrew found out about the Leonard Cheshire graduate programme from his dad, who had heard a representative of the charity speaking on a radio show. Now he wants to encourage fellow graduates with a disability to follow his suit.

“It has led to nothing but positive outcomes, for me at least. It could lead you to more permanent employment and really boost your self-esteem and your job prospects,” Andrew said.


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