Moving up the career ladder
Niamh (24) learnt to stand on her own two feet and feel confident asking for adjustments. Now she’s the youngest ever Private Secretary in the Scottish Parliament.
Although she felt the interview went well and that she’d done a good job working in the Scottish Parliament for the last seven years, Niamh was nervous waiting to find out whether she’d got the job as a Private Secretary. “I was beyond shocked that I’d got it,” she says. “It was my biggest achievement so far.”
Niamh, who’s moderately deaf and wears hearing aids, enjoyed her time at mainstream school. She experienced some problems, including name-calling and concentration fatigue, but felt confident about her deafness. With extra time and a lot of hard work, she achieved her Standard Grades (GCSE equivalents in Scotland). “I did a lot of afterschool classes – Maths, English and French were my big struggles,” Niamh says. She went on to achieve five Highers and one Advance Higher (AS and A-level equivalents in Scotland). “I never thought I’d get those, particularly in Maths,” she explains. “I did pretty well.”
Throughout her school years, Niamh built up her CV. “I’d done work experience at John Lewis and I really liked working with people,” she says. “Before that I collected eggs from a chicken farm then I was a waitress at a golf club. The customers were brilliant but my boss was difficult. When I said I was having problems hearing orders in the dining room, he just put me on the dishes.”
Niamh wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after leaving school but knew it wasn’t university. “A careers advisor ran an employability group at my school,” she explains. “I didn’t want to go to university but my school very much encouraged it. This group was different; it wasn’t deaf specific but it taught me how to tie a tie, how to shake hands, interview skills etc. At the end, people from the NHS and some companies came in to do mock interviews with us for practice.”
When Niamh’s dad saw an advert for a Modern Apprenticeship with the Scottish Government, she decided to apply, sending in her CV and a personal statement. “I had a long-standing argument with my dad about whether I should declare being deaf on applications,” Niamh says. “I didn’t want them to form an opinion before they’d met me. Luckily they offered me an interview with just one person. I was so nervous but the next day they offered me the job. I wasn’t sure it was the right job for me at the time but taking it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Niamh’s apprenticeship involved working in the Scottish Parliament recording correspondence while also studying for a Business and Administration qualification. “The building wasn’t designed with deaf people in mind,” Niamh says. “It’s noisy and open plan. I couldn’t hear the phones and it took me time to work up the courage to say something because I was used to my parents dealing with it. I did speak up eventually and I got a desk assessment. They gave me a phone with big buttons, a flashing light and amplified volume.”
After the apprenticeship Niamh moved to the office of the Cabinet Secretary for Health. “I felt more confident in my new team so I suggested they do deaf awareness training,” Niamh says. “With my hearing aids, my deafness can become invisible. After the training, they made a more conscious effort not to talk to me when the printer or TV was on.”
But after moving to Adult Audiology Services, Niamh began experiencing problems. “One of my hearing aids broke and I couldn’t get an appointment for two weeks,” Niamh explains. “Without my hearing aids I couldn’t do my job.
“My manager was lovely, came to the audiology appointments with me and drafted emails to them.” Unfortunately, though, it became too difficult and Niamh decided to move to private healthcare.
With the support of her team and no longer worrying about broken hearing aids, Niamh soon decided she was ready for a new challenge and applied for a job as a Private Secretary. “I struggled with my confidence but I knew I was going to give it my best shot,” Niamh says. “This time I did tick the box to say I had a disability. My deafness was flagged to the interviewers and a couple of times I asked them to repeat the question or write it down.”
Niamh was delighted to get the job but it’s brought new challenges. “Sometimes the Minister shouts across at me from inside his room across the hall which can be challenging,” Niamh says. “I’ve had another desk assessment and they got me radio aids for big events.
“We have big division meetings with about 140 staff in a room. The last one was in a church-style building so it was an acoustic nightmare. I put a radio aid on the lectern. We also have a lot of conference calls and I struggle to concentrate on what people are saying when I can’t see them. The Minister is aware and makes a big effort to make sure someone’s there to take notes.”
Niamh has big ambitions, in the future she’d like to work for the First Minister’s Office or abroad in the US. “I’d say the biggest battle is to make people aware of the struggle you go through,” Niamh says. “I’ve learned you have to stick with what you believe you’re entitled to even when it feels like you’ve got more barriers than not.”