SIA magazine (Forward) article (2/3 posts today)

Back to work


Getting back to work after a spinal injury is never going to be easy.  There are hurdles to pass, of a variety of different sizes.  Thankfully the rewards are great and the expectations of others are small because people tend to appreciate the effort and willpower needed to make this step.


Before my snowboarding accident I was gearing up to taking my finals in electronic and microelectronic engineering (bachelors) at Brunel University, I had just completed my dissertation on my final year project, and had successfully negotiated a contract with Roke Manor Research Ltd starting in October 2007 (my accident was in April 2007).


After my accident the administration board and lecturers at Brunel University discussed the possibility of granting me my degree based on past performance, expected exam performance and dissertation results. After much deliberation they granted me a first and I attended my graduation in July 2007 whilst still in hospital.


I am lucky (never fails to seem a bit ludicrous saying that) in that I had a software related job offer prior to being injured.  Transitioning from being a hardware electronics engineer with some understanding of software, to a software engineer with an understanding of Electronics was fairly straightforward.


After 15 months in hospital I was able to take up a position at Roke, the contract negotiation was not straightforward however, I required help from the human resources manager at Roke who performed much of the negotiation with hiring managers on my behalf. I was regularly in touch and updated Roke with my progress, undertaking small software projects whilst in hospital to keep my brain active and attempting to continue with my studies. I underwent further assessment and interviews at Roke whilst at hospital and was persuasive about my improving productivity levels due to utilising voice recognition software.


There was a long discussion with access to work, including an on-site interview with access to work and a human resources manager from Roke. Building modifications and workplace adaptations were discussed. In the end only the workplace adaptations were made, including adjustable height desk, voice regulation software, bluetooth earpiece and wireless microphone. Access to work have also helped me purchase a Permobil C400 wheelchair which allows me to stand at work enabling me all the associated benefits of standing during my working week (I would not have time to use a standing frame otherwise).


After a seemingly long negotiation period I was offered a temporary three-month contract as a probationary offer so that all parties involved could gauge the suitability of the employment. It involved a two day a week commute down to Southampton from Oxford in my adapted vehicle which had the potential of being very physically taxing if my health was not good.


Since then I have had a six-month contract extension and recently a permanent three-day week part-time contract. This contract took a while to work through the books as it is a non-standard contract type. I work two days a week in the office and one day a week from home.


At work I have had success as the technical team lead for a small but complex project, it has taken some time for people to get used to working with someone who has such a high level of disability. Mainly people are concerned with offending disabled people with even subtle actions and decisions, but the majority of the time the disabled person understands the good intent and is not offended. After the understanding of this, people can start to treat the disabled person in a manner similar to any able-bodied person but with obvious consideration as to timings and physical logistics. I do not expect to be given extra allowances in terms of productivity otherwise I would not be a fair candidate for the job.


My C4-C5 complete spinal cord injury has left me paralysed from below the shoulders (no arm movement), I have chosen to rely fully on voice recognition software to control an assortment of laptops. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 and a Plantronics wireless earpiece to control each laptop. I have two laptops with two wireless earpieces working at the same time. I have written a script* to enable custom commands so I can switch between operating each laptop with both microphones active. I also use scripts to perform monotonous tasks to help improve productivity.


Getting back to work has been a crucial part of my rehabilitation and has allowed me to retain a good standard of living within a relatively short period (2 years) after my accident. Financially it allows me to travel and lead a more dynamic lifestyle than I would otherwise. Having said that there could be more government incentive offered to make returning to work a more financially viable option (the reduction in benefits resulting from returning to work is often not met by a starting salary).


I live with my girlfriend in a house extension built onto my grandad’s house in a small village in Oxfordshire. Outside of work I am a huge music and film fan, my girlfriend and I enjoy watching films home and at the cinema as well as going to gigs and music festivals home and abroad. I’ve always loved travelling and will try to continue as best I can, even if getting on a plane is a little bit more difficult now. My father has just recently adapted his house near Geneva so I would like to spend more time there with his side of the family. I go out to local towns, Oxford and London to pubs and the occasional club and like watching live football (Spurs fan).


I still love snowboarding, even if it’s just watching.


*I use a piece of open source software called Natlink to integrate Python (a programming language) scripts into the voice recognition software (this is a cheaper alternative to purchasing the “professional” version of Dragon ~£500, I have the “preferred” version ~£100).

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