Pioneering Employment Scheme Opens Up Career Chances of Newry Woman With Crohn’s Disease

“Do not be put off by that word – disability” –  Sarah Fox Urges Fellow Graduates

A Newry woman who has been plagued by Crohn’s Disease has revealed how a new grad employment scheme has helped to kick start her career.

Sarah Fox, 23, revealed that the chronic health condition she has had since her teens left her unsure of her career prospects due to being concerned that employers might not understand.

“With Crohn’s disease, you have constant ups and downs, you can never figure out when you are going to have a good day or a bad day,” said Sarah.

For Sarah, finding a way to live a full life whilst dealing with her illness was something she aspired to following her time in University.

Sarah was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2015 when she was 16 and doing her A levels. 

“I was very sick for a long time and in a lot of pain. It was a really difficult time” she said. 

According to the NHS, Crohn’s Disease is a chronic condition where parts of the digestive system become inflamed. It can affect people of all ages, but symptoms, including stomach ache, tiredness, and weight loss, typically appear in childhood or early adulthood.  

Data from the University of Oxford show Crohn’s Disease affects approximately 55,000 people in the UK, with around 3,000 new cases being diagnosed every year. There is no complete cure for this disease, but treatment can reduce pain and help manage symptoms. People suffering from Chron’s can experience unforeseeable flare-ups and the need for regular check-ups which can be disruptive in terms of school, work and social life.

However, with the help of supportive teachers, Sarah managed to keep up with her studies and succeeded in starting a degree in Anthropology and English at the Queen’s University Belfast. Though, in terms of an impact on her education and employability: “Crohn’s made everything a lot harder,” Sarah said. 

Many people with Crohn’s Disease say fatigue is the most difficult symptom to deal with. That has been the case with Sarah as well. 

“For example, I was working in a coffee shop for a while, and I was literally always so tired that I couldn’t keep it up. That was tough to realise. I said to myself – oh, if I can’t work in a coffee shop, how am I going to have a career?” 

Another dominant symptom for Sarah was arthritis – pain and tenderness of one or more joints –  causing her to feel like “an old woman” sometimes.  

One day, overwhelmed and unsure about her life after the graduation, Sarah was scrolling her Facebook newsfeed when information about a new placement programme popped up: “UK’s leading charity Leonard Cheshire was reaching out talented graduates with disabilities to place them with Northern Ireland’s leading companies in paid internships”. 

“That was actually the first time I enjoyed a Facebook advertisement,” Sarah said.  

“I think most graduates feel overwhelmed about the future but if you have a disability, you would feel it even more because you are concerned – who’s going to hire me,” she explained.

Following an easy online application process, Sarah was surprised by how quickly she was offered a place – with Bolster Community, a charity and social enterprise in Northern Ireland with offices in Newry and Kilkeel. 

“I was really really happy because it was in my hometown and I would not have to travel,”  said Sarah, who grew up in Newry. 

Sarah found Bolster Community’s team very friendly. She said: “The Leonard Cheshire programme was a good transition for me because between being diagnosed and finding your normal life, you have to find a way to do that. And Leonard Cheshire was really important in that way. I cannot imagine I could have been in a better place if I had not come across this opportunity.” 

Leonard Cheshire launched the GradEmployNI in an attempt to help turn the tide of poor unemployment rates for fully qualified graduates with disabilities in Northern Ireland, with just a 38 percent employment rate for this group compared to the national employment rate of around 80 percent for individuals who do not have disabilities.

The charity supports the rights of disabled people, including their employment rights around the world. Its GradEmployNI was launched in partnership with the Ulster University Business School, providing workplace training for the successful applicants. According to the scheme’s managers, many graduates who have applied have hidden disabilities such as depression, anxiety, epilepsy, and diabetes.  

Apart from Bolster Community, many prominent employers, including Belfast-based Northern Vision Television, media consultancy Excalibur Press, and charity enterprise Fresh Minds Education were among the first to offer places to the group that traditionally struggles with employment opportunities.   

With their services focusing on three categories such as family, ability and elderly, Bolster Community connects individuals of mixing ability. Their support covers problems from mental issues and family breakdowns to parenting difficulties and rural isolation. 

Sarah has been enjoying working on these issues from the moment she joined in, particularly valuing the team environment and constructive feedback she receives. She elaborated: “I love to get to work with children, I love to get to work on disability issues. Generally, I would not like to work on my own, you can get a lot of experience from working in a team,” she said. 

Most importantly, Sarah appreciates that her employer understands her needs.

She explained: “If I am very tired and feel really sick, they would not put pressure on me. I do not have to elaborate all the time if I feel bad. They would say – ‘alright, no bother, we’ll see you tomorrow’.”

To those HR managers wary of hiring somebody with a disability or health condition, Sarah would advise to not write people off for that reason: “Even if they have a disability, they are still capable, just might need adjustments. If a person has no experience because they were held back by their disability, look at their character, their work ethic. Give them a chance” she said. 

Sarah also has a useful insight for those fellow graduates who might want to participate in similar schemes but feel uncomfortable about disclosing or discussing their disability openly. 

“Do not be bothered by the term disability,” she said. 

“For me, it would have put me off; I do not like saying I have a disability because that does not seem like something that should highlight you as a person. But in reality, you do have to take your condition into account. So, do not be put off by that word, do apply, focus on building your skills and enjoy your programme. Take your chance.” 

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