Archive for March, 2011


March 30, 2011

This morning, I had rather hoped to wake up to a stream of sun light pouring into our bedroom through the crack in the curtains; And when my PA opened the window I should have been greeted with the wonderful sound of birdsong that signals that the real start of British summertime.

Instead, what did I get? Grey skies and the merest hint of birds rustling around in the evergreen tree just behind the bedroom.  It’s the last week of March, and for those of us in the northern hemisphere, we should be looking forward to long sunny summer days, when you can open the patio doors and let in the fresh air.  Even if you can’t dine al fresco every evening, you should be able to look forward to a glass of whatever takes your fancy – viewing your freshly manicured lawn, or in our case the freshly manicured portion of green that passes for a lawn, so long as you don’t look too closely for the weeds.

It also appears to be the time of year when (posted through our letterbox) we get an abundance of recycling bags from Charities, some of whom you never knew existed.  These are usually asking for bric-a-brac, pairs of shoes (tied together by the laces of course), good quality clothes – but no books, CD’s or tapes (now is anyone out there willing to admit to owning cassette tapes any longer … No, it really gives your age away doesn’t it!)

Like many local authorities the world over, our local authority here in Cardiff have a penchant for changing their recycling policy every time someone further up the local authority chain says “Ozone”.  Consequently, we currently get black bins, green bins and green bags.  We are told to recycle garden and food waste in a green bin but we dare not put a large tree branch into the gardening green bin, for fear that the Recycling Reich will single our bin out with a label that tells us we will be hauled before the Garbage Gestapo if we ever transgress again.

The net result of our local recycling policy is that paths, driveways, back lanes and previously delightfully pretty front gardens have become homes for polycarbonate pods, that are unsightly at best, and a massive nuisance to wheelchair users, older people and parents with buggies at worst.

Now, I fully appreciate that recycling is the way forward and, in our house we have embraced this process with enthusiasm.  Steve has organised that we have bins for this and bags for that.  In fairness the system does work well, but woe betide anyone who puts the wrong item into the wrong bin.  Suddenly, this relatively tame man becomes a recycling psychopath obsessed with not having one of those stickers that tells the neighbourhood we are failed recyclers.  I have caught him trawling through the green bag at some unearthly time of the night for fear of officialdom honing their environmental antenna in direction of our front door.

There is however, a serious side to the need to protect our environment, the world community, and preserve the natural resources that surround us. 

Listening to the radio earlier on this month, it struck me how many days throughout the year are designated to promoting some area or another of our lives.  Setting aside Patron Saints days, there were twenty nine days in March designated to promoting life, wellbeing, culture and the environment.  I had the pleasure of taking part in two of these event days – World Book Day on the 5th March, and International Women’s Day on the 8th March. 

For World book day, I spent an afternoon with tenants from a local housing association talking about my book, and persuading them that setting up a book club would be a really good way of enhancing the community spirit in the Association.  Then later in the week, I spent the day at the National Assembly for Wales to celebrate International Women’s Day.  Both occasions were very different, but I had the pleasure of meeting some very interesting people.  It occurred to me that those events did much to promote the fact that well being and an appreciation of culture can do so much to enhance quality of life.  And, more importantly, this need to promote a good quality of life transcends race, gender and religion.

A cursory glance at the internet led me to a couple of very different websites on awareness days.  The United Nations webpage promoted a whole host of “world” environmental and cultural days, on topics that we wouldn’t ordinarily think about … Remembering victims of slavery; the promotion of copyright and intellectual property; days to promote environmental issues such as water and meteorology; And the promotion of health matters in the third world – addressing illnesses like tuberculosis and malaria.

Closer to home, I found a site promoting awareness days and events in Britain.  What surprised me was the depth of awareness there is on things that are so relevant to us … Coffee Break Day was held on the 4th March to promote the work of the Meningitis Trust, and World Glaucoma week was concerned with the prevention of blindness.  These are some of the lesser known causes that were celebrated this month, alongside our regular days supporting cancer charities and the work of those involved in other health related research foundations.

Having ambled through the world-wide web, I realised there are many thousands of people who are genuinely concerned with the world that we live in, and in making life better for the millions of people who live in the poorest of conditions.  These unsung heroes quietly go about the business of promoting the wellbeing of the environment and of people who live with illness and impairment the world over.

There is no doubt that recycling is big business.  By 2015 the UK Government expects local authorities to recycle at least 33% of our rubbish.  So it is a fair bet that we can probably expect more of these charity bags to appear in our hallways.

Until recently, I had hesitated to put my old dresses, coats and cardigans into recycling.  After all what would anyone do with a garment altered to accommodate four fingers, or a pair of leggings to fit thirteen toes!  Now, it gives me a good feeling to think that at some point in the not-too-distant future, some of my old psychedelic dresses will be used by a woman in a village in a needy third world country. 

Perhaps, with rose-tinted spectacles, I have this picture in my mind’s eye of such a dress being paraded at a tribal event bringing colour to that occasion in much the same way it would have done on a cold damp day in South Wales.

In thinking about these “World” and ”National” days, it has struck me that anyone can make a difference to life and our environment – no matter what their position.  But, before we can all truly subscribe to the recycling ethos, I believe that “recycling snobbery” has to be eradicated.  What do I mean by this?  Well, certainly in our area of Cardiff, there appears to be a certain sense of “one-upmanship” in the number of green bags you can manage to fill your pavement with on recycling day, and I bet it happens in your area too!

And so, where has all this musing led me.  Ironically, to remember a young Brazilian girl named Rafaela that I met in 1996 – whose story I mentioned in my book.  As one of the second generation of Thalidomide children discovered in Brazil, she and her family lived in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro and came to the UK for the fitting of prosthetic ears.  Rafaela is now a young woman in her middle twenties, but is unlikely to have escaped the poverty that is so very evident in that South American city. 

I understand that Carnival time in Rio is a time when those who live in the Favelas supplement their income by collecting aluminium cans for recycling.  It saddens me to think of Rafaela possibly having to collect, for a living, what we regard as a bit of a nuisance to put into a green bag for recycling.

It has done me a power of good to think about recycling in new light, and given me an appreciation that it’s not just about landfill and saving the planet.  It is about improving life chances for so many needy and deserving people. 

But be warned … I have already said that recycling is big business, and with that in mind there are rogues out there who are anything but charitable or environmental in their intentions.  Any of those charity bags that are remotely suspicious should be discarded.  But why not, if you don’t already do so, use those unscrupulous bags for your non-recyclables.  That way, those who have no regard for the environment, or our fellow human beings, are consigned where they belong … In the rubbish!

And, just one final thought … wars, natural disasters and conflicts aside, what a wonderful world we are privileged to live in … I hope you agree, and if so you might like to know that World Earth Day is celebrated on the 22nd April.


March 3, 2011

Over the last two weeks our news channels have been awash with stories about unemployment and the seemingly endless rise in people finding themselves jobless, in an ever more miserable economy.  I would hazard a guess and say that for the vast majority of the 2.49 million who are recorded as being out of work, they would jump at the chance of doing a worthwhile job.

So, I don’t think I was alone in being more than a little shocked when the media reported that our Deputy Prime Minister had an apparent episode of amnesia over his duties to the country, whilst our PM was in Egypt.    Forgetting your lunch box is one thing, but forgetting that you’ve been put in charge of the country whilst the boss is away is quite another.  So, it was against this background that I mulled over my success or otherwise in the field of employing Personal Assistants.

Anyone who has read my book, or knows a little about me, will know that I employ two Personal Assistants to help me live the full and independent life that I am privileged to enjoy.  In fact, anyone who has the slightest impairment will rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on other people to help do things that are sometimes difficult to manage on your own.

Coming to the conclusion that you need help to live independently is a strange crossroads to navigate.  On the one hand you have a desire for complete independence, but on the other, there is a recognition that a little bit of help can go a long way to making life easier.

I came to that crossroads about 23 years ago, just before I got married, and on the whole reckon I have just about managed to get it right since then. 

When I first started to engage help there was no such thing as Direct Payments, Person Centred Care Plans or user led Independent Living Schemes.  You just had to be content with a home help “carer” who came in and helped you as best they could – Ever mindful that time was pushing and they had another 10 “clients” (as we were called in those days) to get out of bed, do lunch and try and make life as comfortable as possible for the recipients of the service. 

I did manage to get Cardiff City Council Social Services, to agree to me having some control over my care package however.  Thus, the “Helper for Rosie” scheme was set up.  For the first time (in Cardiff anyway) a disabled person (me) sat in on the interviews of the “Helper for Rosie” applicants, and held the final vote in who those ‘lucky’ people were, to become my helpers!

Generally though, this was not the case for the majority of disabled people.  With the introduction of Direct Payments however, all that changed.  This was an opportunity for me to engage Personal Assistants who could help me when I needed help, and not when the timetable allowed.

Becoming an employer is a daunting prospect.  The plethora of forms and procedures that had to be learnt and complied with was phenomenal.  The recruitment process was not for the faint-hearted and   establishing a system of time-keeping was essential.

I was fortunate to have help and support from a number of avenues.  Not least was the Cardiff and Vale Coalition of Disabled People who, through their direct payment advisers, were always on hand with friendly advice, to make the whole thing seem far less arduous.  Also, having been involved in recruiting staff for most of his professional life, Steve had a wealth of knowledge on what to look out for … excellent tea making skills, good telephone manner, and of course to be discreet. 

Now, at first sight, this seems a good basis from which to start.  However, when Steve once employed a receptionist who had a slight hearing impairment – long before the days of disability discrimination legislation, and despite arranging for the amplification on the office telephone system to be increased – he still got messages left on his desk reading “Please could you telephone Mr. Higgins an alien from Porthcawl.” I began to wonder whether his judgement and advice on employing staff could safely be relied upon. 

It would be amiss of me not to explain that Mr. Higgins was not an “alien” at all … but rather a Lion (as in a member of Porthcawl Lions Club) and a good friend.  In fairness to the employee in question, and with a bit of lateral thinking and a large amount of imagination you can see how the mistake was made.  However, I should add, that the young lady to whom I refer did decide a future as a receptionist was not quite for her – I gather she was last seen on the set of the latest Alien movie –“PAUL”.

Back to me – I remember my first month as a PA employer very well.  It was August 1997 and is marked in my memory by the fact that on the very first Sunday I had a weekend PA to help me; it was the day that Diana Princess of Wales died.  Not a great deal was done that day, other than my getting up, and we spent most of the time looking in disbelief at the scenes unfolding on the Television.

After that, I quickly learned that the TV should never be left on when you have a PA working with you. 

I have employed a variety of people over the last 23 years.  Old and young, gay and straight, tall and thin.  Each PA has brought their own unique qualities to the job – some better than others. 

In the preceding 23 years my Psychology degree has come in very handy.  If you took the mailbag of Bel Mooney, Claire Rayner, Victoria Ironside and Marge Proops, to name but a few – you get my drift.  I’ve listened to, and helped sort (I think) a variety of problems. 

If the walls of my bathroom could talk, what a tale they would tell … drink, teenage pregnancies, serious and life threatening illness, failing marriages and family rifts – I’ve heard them all.  I’ve even been able to tell Steve a few things about Coronation Street weeks before the events have unfolded.  Who needs TV Listings Magazines, when you have PA’s who seem to devour the gossip in TV Magazines like the world will end tomorrow!

In general, my PA’s (past and present) have been loyal, caring and have become, in an odd way, an extended member of the family.  But, there are times when I get very frustrated – especially when I think I am being taken advantage of.  One of my biggest bugbears is when my staff sometimes forget the importance of why they are there to help, and decide to take a ‘sickie’ day off for something as simple as a cough or cold.  As far as I’m concerned, no-one ever died of a cold, and a runny nose is not an excuse for failing to turn up for work.  On occasions like that, I have to remind them that one much respected former PA, chose to continue to work during a gruelling course of chemotherapy, and even in the depths of such serious illness, never forgot that the help she gave to me enabled me to lead a fulfilling and independent life.

The job of a PA is an important one, and I always try to emphasis the uniqueness and value of the work they do.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  When it doesn’t, and if all else fails I fall back on the contract of employment that is the benchmark under which my staff work for me.  For example, I have a number of ‘golden rules’ which I expect my PA’s to adhere to.  These are built into the job description and contract of employment.  They are as follows:-

  • Must be Reliable, Trustworthy & Honest – The P.A. is providing me with the support I need to be independent. I need someone I can rely on to turn up and do the job when needed
  • Must be Punctual
  • Have good Communication Skills
  • Must be Discreet & Sensitive
  • Must have a Flexible approach to hours worked and times needed
  • Be able to accept Responsibility but ask if instructions are not clear
  • Be Clean and have no Unhygienic habits
  • Respect my family and our home
  • Must have a ‘good sense of humour’

Whilst I am friendly with my PA’s, ultimately I am their employer, and the employer/employee lines of demarcation have to be observed.  That way, we all know where we are.

When I reflect on being a PA employer, there are a couple of things I think I have learned.  Firstly, you have to have the patience of a saint.  Secondly, don’t put too many “nice” biscuits in the biscuit tin (!!), and thirdly, the shelf life of a good PA is about four years.  After that, interest starts to wane and there is much truth in the saying “Familiarity breeds contempt”.

If I take that last principle, then I think in the not too distant future, I may be looking to a recruit some new PA’s.  When that happens, I shall start to trawl through the CV’s that come with the letters of application.  I’m not averse to considering applications from all gender and religious orientations.  After all I, above all people, who make my living from promoting equality issues, am happy to be an equal opportunities employer … Heaven knows I’ve had enough experience!

There may even be a CV from one Nick Clegg … Previous experience: Deputy Prime Minister … Attributes: Articulate; Personable and with good administrative skills; Reliable and punctual. (I’ll have to footnote this in the reference request to his former employer).

It might be worth calling this candidate for an interview, but then, if he gets through the first hurdle, I just wonder how he will persuade me of his reliability.  After all, if he thinks I’m going to sit in the bathroom waiting for him to hop on a plane back from Klosters, because he’s forgotten it’s a work day, then he has another think coming!

Perhaps after all, I’m better off sticking with idle chit-chat about soaps and family dramas, rather than fiscal policies and the balance of payments. 

I might even be persuaded to open the “fancy” biscuits for the next successful candidate, when I look them straight in the eye over the dining room table and wildly flap one of my four fingers vaguely in their direction, and announce with aplomb that “You’re Hired – Welcome to the mad-house … I’ll see you in the bathroom at 8am sharp.”

Then I’ll just hope, that unlike our Deputy Prime Minister, they don’t forget to turn up for work, and leave me knitting buttons!