21/07/2017 09:23 BST | Updated 21/07/2017 09:23 BST

The Difficulties Of Finding Employment When You Have A Disability


Finding a job that's both rewarding and fulfilling isn't easy for anyone. But for those of us with disabilities or mental health issues, it can be so much more difficult.

If like me you have suffered from a prolonged spell of unemployment due to a mental or physical disability, you'll understand that the difficulties of finding work aren't solved by handing out CV's or going to job centres.

I was born almost blind with extreme myopia. I was put into care when I was three because of my parents' inability to deal with my worsening eyesight. Life was very hard for me as there was a very real possibility that I would go completely blind by the time I reached 10 years old.

Then, when I reached 20 I had a schizophrenic episode and as a result entered the mental health system, spending years in a psychiatric institution. I was discharged in 1997, but for many reasons found life even harder once I was out, one of them being prejudice towards people with mental and physical health problems.

I also had zero qualifications, no experience, life skills or confidence. The result of this was that I remained unemployed for 15 years.

It wasn't a lack of trying that meant I was unable to find myself meaningful work, but having a history of both mental and physical disabilities meant that employers just weren't willing to offer me chance to prove I could do the job.

According to a 2016 Labour Force Survey people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as those who aren't disabled.

I was only able to get back into employment through the help of Sunshine Shoeshine, a social enterprise that employed me as one of their 'Sunshiners' to polish shoes in London.

The act of cleaning shoes was initially tricky, but everyone was very patient and I quickly picked it up. The real challenge for me however, as someone who had experienced no interaction with everyday life, was to integrate into working society and deal with people. It felt like unemployment had institutionalised me.

It was only once I had my foot on the career ladder that I could build the necessary skills and qualifications needed to progress into other areas of work, and I was subsequently able to get a job as an office administrator.

I had long held the ambition to work with technology and the internet, so this role was a real game changer for me. It fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine, but without the help of social enterprises like Sunshine Shoeshine I don't see any other way that I could've acquired this job.

Whilst this might seem like something positive, it remains a huge problem that having been trapped in a prolonged period of unemployment that this was the only available option to finally break that cycle and find work.

I consider myself extremely lucky that I could find a job that would allow me to develop and move onto better things, and I'm now happier, more qualified and have a much brighter future.

The same however cannot be said for everyone who has suffered the same disparaging treatment that both I and other sufferers of a mental or psychical illnesses have suffered when trying to find work.

Although the employment rate gap between disabled and non-disabled people is narrowing, there are still more support needed to help other who like me struggled to enter the working world after being left out of it for so long.

Alan Walton is an administrator and former 'Sunshiner' for Sunshine Shoeshine. If you'd like to hire a Sunshiner to visit your office and polish the team's shoes please visit

HuffPost UK Lifestyle has launched EveryBody, a new section calling for better equality and inclusivity for people living with disability and invisible illness. The aim is to empower those whose voices are not always heard and redefine attitudes to identity, lifestyle and ability in 2017. We'll be covering all manner of lifestyle topics - from health and fitness to dating, sex and relationships.

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