In 2020, Heather’s proofreading business became a victim of the pandemic. She had fallen into her line of work by helping other students with their essays during her degree, and found that she was “very, very good at troubleshooting other people’s work.” She realised she could make a living out of it and did so successfully for ten years. Then, the international students – her bread and butter – went home, and work dried up.
“I had no idea how long it was going to go on and I thought, ‘I’m going to need to find something else.’ Then I realised how rusty I was. I needed to get my skills back up because if I was going to reorient myself, I had to do it properly.”
To brush up on her work skills, Heather joined Jigsaw, a social enterprise that prepares people with disability for employment.
Previously, Heather had settled on self-employment for a variety of reasons. She worked well independently and was a talented writer and editor. She had also struggled through disappointing job-seeking experiences due to her disability.
“I use crutches. I often had people who had read my resume or dealt with me on the phone look at me, and it was clear that I was not what they were expecting. They were never particularly rude about it but you could see this moment where their brains went, ‘oh.’ It was a visible recalibration.”
Like many people, Heather gets nervous before interviews, but for her, it compounds people’s negative perceptions.
“I would try to prove that my legs didn’t work, but my brain was fine. But when I get flustered, I start slurring my words. Speech gets a lot harder for me, which is quite common with cerebral palsy. I slow down because I can’t necessarily control the muscles to respond. And then people assume that you can’t understand.”
After ten years as a freelancer, Heather thought Jigsaw could help her adjust to a more structured office environment, working with other people, and to external deadlines. With a focus on soft skills that transfer to any workplace, Jigsaw’s Academy curriculum covers twenty learning modules on topics including teamwork, organisation, prioritisation and workplace relationships. Heather and other trainees study these in one-to-one and group sessions, whilst putting the skills into practice from day one with work experience in Jigsaw’s business. Once trainees have mastered the twenty core skills, they are offered an award-wage contract with Jigsaw, so they can continue to build their skills, experience and confidence until they are ready for a mainstream job.
“I have found Jigsaw really valuable. The thing that came hardest to me was actually learning to pace myself and not push myself. Remembering that I needed to take breaks and that my focus wasn’t necessarily always as tight as I thought it was.”
After six months developing her core soft skills at Jigsaw, Heather progressed to a paid contract processing health insurance claims for Australian Unity, one of Jigsaw’s key clients. She receives the bills that customers have sent in to Australian Unity and enters details into a system which can see whether the items are covered by the customer’s insurance policy or not. She can troubleshoot by sending out letters to customers requesting more detail when needed, and is aiming to progress to making calls to customers. Making calls is something Heather would need to do from Australian Unity’s offices – a prospect she finds exciting.
“There are old school benefits to face to face relationship building – the kind of skills that I want to polish up.”
Working closely with the team at Australian Unity has been a far cry from Heather’s early experiences of bias and negative attitudes from the mainstream world of work.
“They’ve been amazing. They knew from day dot that they were going to be dealing with people with disability and that we might need to do things a bit differently. They took that on board and put time aside to train us. They know we’re capable of it with the right support, and they provide that support. And the level of support we’ve needed has become less and less.”
Heather credits the Jigsaw model – which allows businesses to outsource services to people with disability – with building the confidence of people with disability, and potential employers, in each other.
“You’re doing real meaningful work, and you’re earning actual money. It means something hugely powerful, especially for someone who, through no fault of their own, may have had a broken up work history, or may never have had a paying job. And that outsourcing model is a flexible way that lets us work to what we’re capable of without overstretching“
Heather’s time at Jigsaw, and particularly her work with Australian Unity, has empowered her to set her sights on a big goal for the future – a mainstream job in the publishing industry. At the same time, she looks back on what Jigsaw might have meant to her, had it been around when she was leaving school.
“Honestly, I wish something like Jigsaw had existed when I was 17 or 18, and thinking, ‘how do I get into the workforce?’ People with disabilities are often infantilised and, rightly or wrongly, having a job is a huge part of how we understand adulthood. You ask yourself, ‘am I a fully realised adult person, if I have to stay with my parents for a bit longer, or I can’t get a drivers’ licence, or a job?’ Having access to the job framework, and the training and the preparation means the world, because it’s part of your identity and how you perceive yourself.”
Jigsaw is a social enterprise that provides an innovative pathway to open employment for people with disability. By embedding a comprehensive skill-based training program within our commercial document and data management business, Jigsaw enables people with disability to achieve their employment goals at their own pace. Jigsaw’s holistic approach starts from the very basics of core work skills and supports trainees all the way through to transition to open employment with ongoing support and coaching once they have transitioned.