Lexicoblog

The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Disability works


Those of you in the UK may have noticed that last week, the BBC was focusing on disability in the workplace with its Disability Works theme. 28 February is also International RSI Awareness Day, so it seemed like a good time for a post about working with a chronic pain condition. For those of you who don't know, I had to leave my in-house job with a publisher back in 2000 because I was suffering debilitating pains in my hands, wrists, neck and shoulders that made it impossible to sit at a desk nine-to-five every day. At that time, I was diagnosed with RSI, but over the years it's morphed into a more general chronic pain condition, but still mostly affecting my hands, arms and shoulders.

Until recently, I would have described myself as having a chronic health condition rather than being disabled. A few months ago though, I started a part-time MA course which involves commuting from Bristol to Cardiff a couple of days a week for lectures. I was a bit wary about how my studies would fit around my work, but I hadn't been ready for how physically challenging I was going to find it. After 16+ years of working from home, managing my time and controlling my environment, it was a real shock to the system.

It sounds a bit silly to say that I struggled with getting up early - leaving the house at 6.30 in the morning to get the train to Cardiff - but my pains make getting started slow-going some days, especially if I've had to take painkillers the night before which leave me feeling drowsy and 'hung over'. On a bad day, a 30-minute walk to the station in the cold and damp is really the last thing my body needs. And carrying a bagful of stuff has been a real killer. My shoulders are where the worst of my pain is, so I tend to avoid carrying bags as much as I can. I started term heading off with a packed lunch, a flask of tea, notebook, tablet and of course, a brand new pencil case. I soon gave up on the lunch and the flask, and on days when there are library books to take to and fro, I've had to ditch the tablet too.

I'm finding ways to cope, but it's really made me think about how much my health makes me unable to do - it really is a disability. It's also made me realize just how much I appreciate being self-employed.

Self-employment and disability:

Environment: The most obvious thing people think of when I tell them about my situation is my desk set-up. My work station does take into account all the usual ergonomic advice, but I don't actually use that much specialist equipment. Having tried all kinds of things over the years, the main difference to my set-up is a graphics tablet instead of a mouse - which I find gentler on my hand because I don't sit and clutch it all the time. I do have voice recognition software, but I only use it occasionally.

Time management: What I think is far more significant is being able to manage my own time. For me, the biggest no-no is sitting at my desk for long stretches, so I take LOTS of breaks. I generally work for 3 stretches in a day with significant breaks between (one stretch in the morning and two in the afternoon), but between those longer breaks I fidget a lot. I rarely stay sitting for more than half an hour before I find some excuse to get up - make a cup of tea, go to the loo, collect the post that's just arrived, put on the washing/dishwasher, empty the washing-machine/dishwasher ... you get the idea. And perhaps even more importantly, I can manage my work around how I'm feeling. My condition's very variable, so sometimes I can manage a fairly full, 6 or 7 hour working day, other days I'm struggling to think at all through the pain. As a freelancer though, on a bad day, I can just do less - get up late, work on easier stuff, go for a longer swim - whatever helps get me through.

Choice: Similarly, I can choose to take on work that I know will suit me. A lot of the time that just means taking on less work. I know from speaking to freelance colleagues that I take on less than most and I do less juggling of several projects running at the same time. I only take on as much as I think I can cope with without overdoing it. I can't afford to find myself working long hours and weekends because everything's come at once - my body just won't allow it. That means that my income is effectively that of a part-timer, but that's something I've accepted. I also think carefully about the nature of the work I take on. Some time back I found that I had to pull out of a couple of projects that involved work on digital materials because the work was just too fiddly - lots of keying in or copying and pasting text repeatedly to fill fields. It killed my hands and just wasn't sustainable. Now I'll ask about formats and templates, etc. up front before I agree to work on something.

Overall, I love being self-employed and most of the time, it enables me to lead a productive working life while managing my condition. I know lots of other freelancers who are working with health issues that limit what they can do to a greater or lesser degree, so I just wanted to give a shout-out to all of you. Hope your work-arounds are working!

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