Picture by Tuesday Temptation on unsplash.comAccess to Work is a government employment support programme that aims to help more disabled people to take up or remain in work. It is a discretionary grant scheme that can help provide practical and financial support if you have a disability or long-term physical or mental health condition. There’s more information on the government’s website in terms of checking eligibility and applying for the grant here.

I’ve known about Access to Work for a few years now, and despite knowing that I could be eligible and that the scheme could really help me, I was never quite sure about applying for it. Mostly though, I was afraid.

I’m always overwhelmed at the thought of applying for any type of government funding or support, so the thought in itself has always proved very powerfully limiting to me. This was to the extent that I never really took the time to investigate the programme. Let alone take the decision to apply. This blog is split into two parts: the first looks at the application process and how you go about finding a support worker, while the second part considers the journey from submitting the application form. I’ll also throw in some tips along the way!

Firstly, I want to say that I had a charity supporting me through this process. And to this day, if this hadn’t been the case, I don’t think I would have done it

I would 100% encourage you to apply for this life-changing funding, but if you’re like me, perhaps find a charity that can support you through this process. Maybe one that covers the area of work that you do, or a charity specific to your geographic area. As an artist, I used Disability Arts Online (DAO), and they have been truly sensational. At the time, they were able to offer one-to-one support and actually did the application form alongside me. They supported me through all the queries, and I am very thankful to them and their incredible help. If you are an artist: please check them out here!

I decided to apply to Access to Work because as an autistic person, I struggle with delayed cognitive processing time, anxiety, sensory overload and being overwhelmed. As a consequence, this leads me to experience exhaustion, physical manifestations of my stress and anxiety, as well as meltdowns and shutdowns.

This means that I’m not working on the same level playing field as my neurotypical peers

I feel I already start the day at a minus capacity; a deficit almost, and this continually diminishes as the day progresses. As a result, I have less hours in a day in which I can function well and can work, and I therefore don’t have that full time work capacity available to me. I felt that was the right time for me to step up and take on applying for funding, as I always feel I’m on the verge of burning out with my art. And having experienced burnout at times in the past, I just knew that this wasn’t going to be a sustainable way forward to develop and prosper as an artist. The support of the charity meant that I had that additional resource to go for it. So went for it, I did.

When completing the application form, it was kept pretty simple, and points were even repeated to home in on exactly what the issues I face are, and what I needed to have put in place. In my case this was a support worker, but you can also apply for a job aide – or both. The difference between the two is that a support worker is an adjunct to the work you are already doing / need support with, whereas a job aide is a replacement for when you are not able to perform. For instance, if you are a ballerina, but experience an epileptic fit prior to a performance – that job aide (like an understudy), would step in and do this job for you. My application reiterated that there are certain parts of my job that I cannot do due to my disability.

I would suggest keeping your answers very straight-forward and to not use any jargon, as the person reading the application is unlikely to know much about autism per se, and they simply need to know how you are affected, and the impact of this has on your job

Note that you can be employed or self-employed to apply for the funding, but there are certain criteria / thresholds you need to meet. Additionally, the funding can also be used for equipment, to assist with travelling (e.g. taxi fares where public transport can’t be used, or for support in interviews, so it’s worth seeing the full extent of what can be funded on their website.

Though I had a lot of support with my application form, I took the lead when it came to finding a support worker. This is something I would strongly recommend, as you’re ultimately going to be the one working with this person/s (you can have multiple support workers).

I took quite a bit of time to work out exactly where I needed support and what the role would look like. I did this by considering my work tasks – and also looking at all that I could be doing if I had more time, energy and support.

And the latter is a really important component to include, as this accounts the opportunity cost of what you’re economically missing out on doing and creating. I created a job title and role description, and this also included the type of person I was looking for in terms of their temperament and personal qualities. I emphasised flexibility and wanted someone who cared about neurodiversity, as my art is based around championing this.

I didn’t stipulate that this person needed an in-depth understanding of autism to do the role, but I certainly wanted someone who was prepared to learn more and embrace the wonders of neurodiversity

I then put the job description out to friends and family, visual art colleagues, as well as advertising the role on my social media. I also put the role on my LinkedIn, which I would highly recommend for reach purposes. If using LinkedIn, definitely add to screen out anyone that could be unsuitable, so you’re not inundated with applications. I’d also suggest creating a template response to send to people stating that you’ve received the application and that you will be in touch with them in due course. Also, have a closing date – this helps create a framework around the process.

Once you’ve filtered through the applicants, you need to prepare for the interview stage. I scheduled mine in for one day, so that each person was fresh in mind. There are many that can suggest interview questions for you to use. I would use these as a guide, but then decide what you wish the interview to focus on. For me, it was important to check that the person had particular technical skills and could talk me through their experiences of this. The rapport was also crucial, but you quickly get a sense of this as the interview unfolds. I did worry about the interview process quite a bit, as I don’t have a great deal of experience in conducting these. I even asked each candidate if I could record the interview to refer back to afterwards. But in fact, I didn’t need these in the end. I would consider recording interviews again though – if just from a confidence and backup perspective. I’d also suggest having another person to interview with you, as this is something that I feel could have been helpful to me. Once completed, I knew immediately who I wanted, so I didn’t feel the need to do any second interviews. But I would have done if I wasn’t sure – and even readvertised if I didn’t find someone suitable.

Bear in mind that you’ll be working closely with this person, so do take your time in getting it right, as best as you can

Once your finalist has accepted the job, politely let the others know that they weren’t successful. Keep it amicable though, as you may actually want to take on additional workers in the future, and these are people that you’ve already met and vetted.

I delayed starting my Access to Work application form because I wanted to be further along in the recruitment process. However, I would strongly suggest completing the form as soon as possible. In total, my application took around four months, when it should have taken about six weeks*. Also, the funding is backdated to your original application date, so it really doesn’t make sense to delay the process. In the meantime, I would use the time to draw up a (again, I kept this fairly simple) and to write a 12-month plan of what you want to work on with your support worker. You can also consider setting up a file sharing system and processes of how you can best work together, while you wait. With hindsight, I actually feel that I was grateful to have the extra time to really get my head around the fact that I could be receiving extra support. It’s such a change to how I’d been working for so many years, so it took a long time for it to sink in. The wait can of course be frustrating, especially as you have the expectation that it’s going to take a certain length of time. It’s also anxiety-inducing, because as confident as the charity were that I would receive the funding, I certainly wasn’t going to take that assumption for granted, on any level.

In the second part of this blog, I’ll cover the waiting process for Access to Work, what came up in terms of queries, as well as what it’s like to have someone working with you.

Mahlia Amatina

February 2022

* Editor's note: the response time to an Access to Work request varies. Average response time at the time of publication is six weeks, but has previously been much shorter.