Opportunities in less formal times

Opportunities in less formal times

Unexpected chances could arise in the less regulated times of the 1970s and 1980s. Former social worker Gill Levy recalls the stories of three people who gained paid work and a place in society – and what happened to them

‘You might sell more books if I tidied them up,’ a young woman announced. And that was my introduction to Laura Green.

With no further discussion, she carefully laid out the children’s books on my stall in the antiques market. ‘There,’ she said, ‘Much better,’ and I agreed. Then she sort of adopted me and took responsibility for the children’s book table.

Every Sunday afternoon, she would help me on my stall although nothing was ever formally agreed. She carefully told me she had learning difficulties, making sure that I knew what that meant.

She regarded helping me as a way to find out about the world of work, having got bored at her day centre. She did not want to be paid although I insisted she took a book home to join her fast-growing collection of early Ladybird books.

One day she did not turn up. She sent her father to tell me she had just started a job in a ladies’ clothing shop nearby. She had to unpack newly delivered stock, stack shelves and rails in order of size, and clean and tidy up generally. Her work included ensuring there were essential things (such as light bulbs) in the shop.

Her father was delighted but very anxious that things might not work out. She had told him that she had learned most of the skills needed for the job on my stall.

Green came to see me a month later. She had lost weight (‘without dieting’) and was wearing smart new clothes. Her confidence had soared and she told me her parents were finding it hard to accept ‘the new person. After all, they had the old me for 33 years.’

She no longer thought of herself as having a disability as she could do everything ‘un-disabled people can do’. I thanked her for helping me for months and she thanked me for ‘training’ her – which I was not aware I had done.

She returned to the day centre to see her friends and was seriously encouraging them to think how they might get jobs. She had tried to get the day centre to prepare her for work but, in the end, had successfully prepared herself.

‘I like the new me lots better than the old one but I do worry about my mum and dad,’ she said.

Found and lost again

Rosie Windham’s mother had been a cleaner at the local pub for many years. When Windham left the ‘dippy school’, she joined her mother at work and they could be heard cheerfully singing as they worked.

Then, the mother – who was elderly and Windham’s only relative – had a heart attack at home on Christmas Eve. The neighbours called an ambulance but she died while the paramedics were there.

Windham was devastated. But, on Christmas Day, she went to work as usual. ‘A job’s a job,’ she told her employers. ‘You couldn’t possibly have a dirty pub today of all days. Mum would be so cross with me if I let you down.’

The pub owners took her on as an employee. She worked all day and stayed in the pub until closing time. Regulars became her family.

The owners handed the pub on to their son and daughter-in-law who didn’t need a cleaner. Windham was devastated but continued drinking at the pub for many years until it closed. ‘I didn’t know what else to do,’ she said.

I met her when she was in her 70s, newly admitted to a psychiatric ward with severe depression and alcoholism. She had lost her mother, job, friends and social life: ‘There was nothing left.’

A life-changing call

I was on duty at social services in the early 1980s when a father and son came in. Sam Smith explained that he was retiring soon and was worried about his son John.

Some years before, Sam had had a heart attack and could no longer carry heavy things. He had asked his employers if John could help him. The firm agreed but payment was never discussed. So John worked full time at the warehouse and Sam gave him some money each week.

Sam assumed his son would need to go to the day centre as no one would employ him. He stressed that John had learning difficulties, spoke with a lisp and walked with a marked limp.

I timidly asked Sam if I could ask his manager about employing John. He thought this a crazy idea and roared with laughter but agreed it would do no harm.

The manager instantly agreed John should continue to work there after his father retired. He felt John had most of the knowledge and skills to do his father’s job but would need help with paperwork. He was a popular worker and the firm wanted to retain him. As John said to me: ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get!’

A few years later, I met him at a bus stop. He was enjoying work – and being paid. He looked and sounded so different.

‘I grew up. I became an adult. Suddenly I had a proper job because I was me – not someone’s son. I felt completely different,’ he said.

He was proud to be paying tax and contributing to the household. He was delighted to be able to buy birthday presents for his friends and family.

To his surprise, his whole world changed. ‘It felt special for a bit, but now I know I am just ordinary – like everyone else at work.’

John thanked me for ‘that phone call that changed his life’ but added how angry he was that so many people had such low expectations of people like him.