Ballymena Man Praises Disability Employment Scheme 

“For me, it was a big thing. It was that sigh of relief moment.”

A graduate with ADHD and social anxiety has secured a paid job placement he loves, leaving behind worries that the condition would hamper his career prospects.  

Stephen Baird, 25, was doing his four-month placement with a TV station in Belfast, NVTV, fully enjoying his new journey. “I’m getting to experience a lot of different angles,” he said. “One day I could be out on location doing interviews. Other days I’m at the computer, editing programmes for the TV; there are days when I’m the guy behind the camera.” 

Stephen was given this opportunity through a graduate programme initiated by UK’s global health and welfare charity, Leonard Cheshire. 

The programme, exclusively targeting talented graduates with disabilities or health conditions in Northern Ireland, offers placement roles with the nation’s leading organisations, thus championing an important cause. 

Like many countries worldwide, the UK too has a critical gap between employment chances for people with disabilities and non-disabled persons.  According to Leonard Cheshire’s figures, one in every five employers say they are less likely to hire somebody with a disability, mostly justifying their reluctance by potential cost required for adjustments. This attitude is reflected in the actual statistics.  

Across the UK, the employment rate for people with disabilities was little over 50 per cent as of last year,  compared with over 80 percent for non-disabled people, according to the ONS. In Northern Ireland, the picture is even more worrying for this group as the employment rate for them is just 38 percent.  

Roisin McDermott of Leonard Cheshire, manager of the GradEmployNI Programme, sees their initiative as “a very positive step forward” in stimulating employment opportunities for graduates with disabilities or health conditions in Northern Ireland, which has currently the poorest performance in the UK.  

To be eligible for GradEmployNI Programme, graduates must have a disability or long-term condition as defined the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This can include dyslexia, autism, mobility or sensory impairments, or long-term conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy or mental health conditions. 

The charity matches successful applicants with participating employers and ensures the experience is positive for both, with a bespoke programme of onsite training and support. The benefits include providing access to a one-week virtual Bootcamp, 12 weekly business workshops, and two personal coaching sessions.

The eligible students are those who are recent graduates and have a third-level qualification such as HND, Bachelor’s Degree or Master’s Degree. 

Stephen studied music at Queen’s University Belfast, graduating in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. His main instrument is guitar, but he also plays cornet, percussion, base, vocals and even started learning violin and banjo over the Covid lockdowns to get more skills on his resume. 

However, as Covid affected the performance industry badly, Stephen’s chances to find a job as a musician were few. Feeling down and undecided, Stephen heard about the Leonard Cheshire grad programme on the radio. Then, friends and family pushed him to apply.    

“Roisin, the programme director, was on the phone with me a lot,” Stephen remembers, “She said it was really hard even with my degree to find a place somewhere.” 

Instead, another creative industry – television – opened up for Stephen as NVTV offered to host a participant of the scheme. 

 “The job is only part of the thing,” Stephen said. “It’s a lot about really breaking through that door.”  By that, Stephen means his past struggles. 

“There’s some days when I didn’t want to be in a packed train at 8am and feeling crap and panicking about leaving the house. That’s hard to say to somebody who maybe hasn’t had that experience. It’s literally like you’re paralysed. You can’t move.” Stephen explained.  

Stephen was hardly four years old when he was diagnosed with ADHD. “I was a real over the top kid – hyper to the point without sugar,” he said. 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. According to the NHS, children with ADHD may be restless, have trouble concentrating and act on impulse.

Usually, the symptoms of ADHD improve with age, but many adults diagnosed at a young age keep experiencing difficulties, including problems with coping with stress, relationships and social interaction.

In Stephen’s case, the condition caused “total social anxiety” in his late teens and early 20s. This meant that he couldn’t walk into a room with more than five people in it. “It’s not that I feel a bit down today,” Stephen explained.

“I would have been standing facing the wall. I wanted to walk out.

“As a kid, I would chat to anyone. But now, if someone comes up to me in the street, I may panic. It’s been a real struggle trying to live with it and cope with it at the same time. It never goes away. It doesn’t matter what medication you’re on, it doesn’t go away.” 

Following the graduation, in between changing jobs, Stephen was “at that point” when he couldn’t even leave the house. “I stopped playing music. I just gave up and I didn’t know what I wanted to do any more. I thought it was a closed off thing,” he said.  

But with the engagement of Leonard Cheshire, Stephen found onboarding with NVTV only a pleasant experience. Nobody asked “any difficult questions.” The entire team was just welcoming.  

The biggest highlight of his placement so far has been a chance to work on a programme where Stephen interviewed another musician as a presenter. “I’d just done a video edit and then the penny dropped on the way home, and I thought ‘that’s going on TV’ and for me it was a big thing. It was that sigh of relief moment. I was doing the thing I wanted to do. It wasn’t Hollywood and Marvels, but it was that starting point,” he recounted. 

The greatest takeaway from his placement that has changed Stephen’s entire attitude, is advice from one of his bosses – ‘this job can be as stressful as you make it, it’s down to you. No matter how stressed you are about the edit for 4pm, whether you’re worried or not, it’s the same result. Just go in and do it.’ 

For Stephen, that was “a great philosophy” to go with. 

“Sometimes you have to remind yourself about that, especially after a long day of editing and interviewing. When I joined here, I really took to the fact that we get our work done and we have fun doing it. No need to get stressed out.” 

Feeling confident about his professional development, Stephen says that in the future, he would not be annoyed if potential employers asked whether he has a disability. 

“It’s actually the right question,” he said.  

“They want to know about you. It helps them too. It makes them a better company. When that question came up, I never thought of this as a disability. I believed it never stopped me but obviously, it did, and I didn’t realise it. That’s a problem in itself.”

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Tina Calder