My Story – Diane

My name is Diane Marks and I am totally blind with a wonderful guide dog called Morris. I am currently working as part time admin support for the Equality Unit within the Business Services Organisation (BSO).

I acquired this role by being involved in the RNIB Eye Work too program and the Disability Placement Scheme run by the BSO and Supported Employment Solutions.

I had moved to Northern Ireland five years ago from England and throughout my time of living in the UK I have always encountered some kind of discrimination whether overt or blatant when applying for work. I trained as a physiotherapist at the University of Brighton and even when I qualified every NHS hospital recruitment drive I approached was met with an overt form of discrimination. When I then went on to work for a rehab case company the blatant discrimination was very obvious as it was intended to make me quit due to ensuring that the reasonable adjustments were not in place and if they were, they were not explained to me. I was left to flounder on my own.

When I joined the Disability Placement Scheme I was made to feel like a real member of the team. My colleagues couldn’t do more and if they were unsure of something they just asked me which made so much difference. To be able to explain myself and my needs regarding reasonable adjustments and also having the support of the RNIB and my Employment Support Officer ensured that when I finally entered the job environment I was able to make a positive impact right from the start. My colleagues are amazing and have included me in everything. They have used my passion for equality and inclusivity and have allowed me to give my lived experience and input into any piece of work they have been doing.

My role within the Equality Unit is to be the admin support for my colleagues i.e. answering phones, keeping an eye on the shared team inbox, working on pieces of work like our Disability Awareness Days, organizing room bookings and catering for events taking place, keeping on top of set daily, weekly and monthly pieces of work that need to be monitored.

My colleagues have treated me like an equal member of the team and have not given me any preferential treatment which has made me feel like an equal and valuable member of the working community.

I also received fantastic real on the job training for interview techniques when it came to interviewing for the Band 3 waiting list for full time recruitment within the BSO. It was only due to this training that I was able to confidently go forward for the interview and get to the point where I have now got a full time permanent job as a band 3 admin support within the Health and Social Care Board.

I feel that I’ve brought my passion for inclusivity and equality to the role. I continued to work from home throughout Covid within the equality unit with some additional adjustments such as working from home and remote access. I feel that my honesty, professionalism and hard work will stand me in good stead and this is only reinforced with all the work I’ve done for the Equality Unit at the BSO. They have given me the increased confidence to know that I can do anything I put my mind to with the right kind of support. I have hopefully been able to smash some myths around sight loss and assistance dogs. My guide dog, Morris, has become a very loved member of the staff within the BSO as he always goes and says hello to everybody who comes into the office. Explaining from the start the do’s and don’ts with regards to my dog has helped to settle a lot of nerves from the staff’s point of view. They accepted him as one of their own and he has become an unofficial mascot.

Apart from the part time work I do for the Equality Unit I am still involved in my disability activism although it is all done via zoom or Microsoft teams these days. I play sound tennis and still broadcast online for an internet radio station. I work voluntarily as a personal assistant for the CEO of the internet radio group.




My Story – Gerard

My name is Gerard McWilliams and I have a learning disability. I have worked as a Personal and Public Involvement Officer for the Patient Client Council since 2014.

Before I worked for PCC I was met with a few challenges. I felt that a lot of organisations had quite big barriers in terms of the experience they were looking for and what I could get into. In the past I was told by careers advisors that I could work in a supermarket or in catering and that I could not do an office job. I always thought that I could do more and I fought very hard to get to where I am today. I have an NVQ level 2 in Health and Social care and an NVQ level 3 in play work which I was also told I would not be able to do.

I applied for a post in the PCC that was set up specifically for a person with a learning disability or a mental health condition. I was approached by the Orchardville society to apply as I am a service user with them. I attended the interview with assistance from my employment support officer from Orchardville. PCC staff who interviewed me took their time and asked questions in a way that I could understand. I was successful in getting the post and I started my role on 9th October 2014. I am supported in many ways to carry out the functions of my Personal and Public Involvement Officer role including an Employment Support Officer, Access to Work, Workable and I also have a mentor within PCC. Because I struggle with reading and writing, I also have reasonable adjustments in the form of software packages Dragon, Read and Write Gold and a Live Scribe Pen to help me carry out the administrative functions of my job.

My role within Patient and Client Council is to go out to various organisations to promote the voices of people who use health and social care services within Northern Ireland. I deliver presentations, hold focus groups and advise on the main functions of PCC and how people can get involved in our work. I also give talks on the importance of my role as a person with a learning disability and how I am able to do my job.

When I first started in PCC my managers and colleagues were really well prepared and were extremely patient with me. I do still face some barriers in my work. For example, within Health and Social Care there is a lot of high level terminology and a lot of acronyms are used which I sometimes find difficult. I think sometimes people forget that I have a learning disability because I am so capable in many ways. Sometimes there is so much information coming at me that my brain gets tired and it is important that my colleagues and line managers are realistic about what I can and cannot do. My manager has been extremely supportive of me and has gotten to know my strengths and weaknesses and recognises that I may need additional information or explanation for some tasks. I do the same work as anyone else at my grade, I just do it differently!

What I feel I bring to my role apart from information and services is honesty, directness and helping colleagues to have a better understanding of learning disabilities and get rid of assumptions surrounding disability. I am very direct.

Aside from my role in PCC I am also involved in the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) participation partnership, I have volunteered for the special Olympics as a team leader at the world games, I have worked as a childcare worker in an after schools club, in a nursing home and volunteered at weekends for children and young people with disabilities teaching them life and social skills.

I am a member of the Disability Champions Network and Tapestry, the Disability Staff Network for the 11 regional HSCNI organisations and I bring real life experience to these groups. My main aim through all the work that I do is to raise awareness and educate people on all the positive aspects of disability, of which there are many!

My Story – Janet

My name is Janet Sproule and I work as a Corporate Services Officer, BSO Estates Team.
I started working with BSO and the Estates team in June 2018 after being made redundant from a long term post.
I was originally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder/chronic depression at the age of 17 but was diagnosed again at the age of 35 with bipolar disorder. The only reason I was diagnosed again is a total change in my behaviour and ability to cope with my day to day working and personal life.
I have been through many struggles over the years and have experienced a number of particularly difficult work environments where my mental health hasn’t been taken into consideration. In fact, I have experienced the stigma on a number of occasions, both at work and with family members which made me reluctant to talk about it.
Since taking up my post at BSO, I have been encouraged, supported, accepted and reminded of my value as a team member and my illness has not been a source of concern for my employer.
I consider myself an advocate for eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness and encourage people to talk about it. The more we share our stories, the better educated people will be and the more respect, understanding, and support we will receive.

My Story – Catherine

I have lived with mental health issues for nearly 20 years of my life and this has included depression, anxiety and unhealthy coping techniques. These issues developed as a child but were not picked up until 2012, when at 22 I was given a diagnosis and started treatment.

I like to use dark humour to cope, so a common joke I used was that I left university with a single honour in Film and TV studies and a joint in “Depression and Anxiety”. But at the end of my degree, any confidence I had in myself and my future was gone.

I had been living under the illusion of ‘wellness’ when in fact my unhealthy mindset, coping habits and perfectionism had led to a false confidence and – like a manor house built on crumbling foundations – it was going to fall eventually.

This worsened when I graduated. Finding employment in the real world is already competitive but it can feel hopeless for those living with a mental health condition and who cannot even big themselves up in the mirror, let alone at an interview. Every rejection and dismissal was “proof” that I was unemployable and not worthy of someone investing their time or training.

That changed when I applied for the Work Connect Scheme with Action Mental Health and the HSC Disability Placement Scheme and received a six month placement in the Health and Social Care Board. I then was successful in securing a place on the HSC Intern Scheme for 2016-17.
Initially, I was terrified that everyone would find out how useless I was. Instead, the people I worked with were patient, supportive and accommodated my mental health appointments. They even took the time to talk about mental health programmes they had seen on TV and it was so validating to hear someone say “I didn’t know how hard it was”.

I have received overwhelming support from an organisation of people telling me that I was worth this opportunity, their time and their investment. I still have “dark cloud” periods and often need to drive myself to keep getting up and work through it, and it’s reassuring when colleagues have to remind me to take breaks and proper time off to recharge and avoid burnout – I’m still a perfectionist.

I have also been given wonderful opportunities by the Equality team to speak at events for the Disability Placement Scheme and to share my mental health experiences. Being able to stand in a room with people facing similar issues is a wonderful thing. I’ve even attended and spoken of my experiences at HSCB and BSO Board meetings! It was lovely to hear that my story got a room full of board members to reflect on the struggles people with Mental Health issues are faced with every day, and to realise how much of an impact the Placement Scheme has for people with such issues.

Mental health issues may not be something we chose but it is our choice to live and improve our quality of life despite them. I successfully applied for a permanent post in the Business Services Team in BSO and started in in January 2018. For the first time in six years; I am no longer planning for recovery, but instead planning for the future.


My Story – Hazel

My name is Hazel and I have been deaf since birth. I joined BSO in April 2018 as a Human Resources Assistant. Before this I was a full time mum to 3 children for 14 years until they got to an age where I decided to try to return to work.

I approached Action on Hearing Loss at a job fair to ask questions and before I knew it I was enrolled into the HSC Regional Organisations’ Disability Placement Scheme. (Action on Hearing Loss are one of a number of disability organisations who are linked with to recruit to the Placement Scheme.) I was lucky to be placed in a very welcoming team in HSCB; the placement gave me 6 months of really good experience of an office environment. I then applied for a job on HSC recruit and was successful in getting onto the Band 3 waiting list. A short time later I was delighted to be offered my current post in BSO.

I manage everyday life by either lip-reading, writing things down if I don’t understand the person or British Sign Language (BSL), which is the easiest form of communication for me.

Finding work when you have a disability is a struggle. When people find out I cannot hear they think “Oh she’s deaf, how will she cope?”, but ask yourselves how I cope every day? There is such a stigma with Deafness; it’s a hidden disability and people seem to be afraid of trying other ways of communicating, which can exclude deaf people from all aspects of life.

When I started my new job, I had mixed feelings as I was returning to work full time after being a full time mum for 14 years. I worried people couldn’t cope with my disability, that I wouldn’t be understood and not understand others, especially my boss as he is the one who would be giving me work to do and how could I do it If I didn’t understand him?

The first week in my job I attended some meetings. I had an interpreter, which made it easier, but I have to be honest, I came out of it feeling such a failure, feeling inferior to everyone and feeling incredibly stupid. This was because I felt overwhelmed going into a full time job and feeling like I was being thrown in at the deep end. I had to overcome being out of work for 14 years, my deafness and my depression.
My confidence has grown since then as I have learned things and picked the job up more quickly than I ever imagined and my line manager is extremely supportive.

Something to bear in mind in large groups when there is a deaf person present, whether at a coffee get together or in a meeting, is to try to not talk over each other, as a deaf person can only follow one person at a time.

I really enjoy my current work place; I have lovely colleagues and a very good manager. My boss has been very accommodating in providing me with all the help I need to carry out my role. I absolutely love the work that I do and love being busy, as there is nothing worse than sitting trying to put your day in.

I actually have two hidden disabilities; the second is Depression which I have lived with for over 20 years. I struggle every day with my Depression but with medication it keeps on a level peg to help me get through the day. People should never assume that a person who has a constant smile on their face is feeling ok inside.

From the day that I spoke to Action on Hearing Loss at the job fair, saying “I am only thinking about it” to 2 years down the line – look at me now! I am very proud to have successfully gained a full time job, after 14 years being a full time mum and having 2 disabilities. I do think sometimes, ‘am I dreaming?!’ as it all happened so quickly.

Please do not let your disabilities hold you back and Employers don’t be afraid to take a chance on an employee who has a disability. Ask your disabled employees questions about their disability – most will be happy to talk about it.

Finally, all I ask is that if you see a deaf person please do not feel you cannot approach us as we are human just like you, the only thing that makes us different is that we can’t hear.


My Story – Siobhan McGrath

All my professional life I have worked in the field of science and research. I gained a PhD in Biochemistry and Immunology from Queen’s University Belfast. I had a post-doctoral research career in academia but moved into the medical devices industry where I was a development scientist, then a project, regulatory and clinical trials manager. I was part of team which brought a number of medical device products for use by patients to market in Europe, Canada, the United States and Japan.

I joined the HSC in 2003 and have worked in the field of research ethics for BSO and for the National Research Ethics Service in England. As Head of the Office for Research Ethics Committees Northern Ireland (ORECNI) BSO, I lead a service of staff and volunteer committee members who provide ethics review of all research which involves patients and service users within the HSC and the wider NHS. I currently chair the Disability Staff Network, Tapestry.

I have suffered from depression especially post-partum depression. Also as a teenager I had anorexia nervosa but have been one of the lucky few who have made a complete recovery. Anorexia had a devastating effect on me and my immediate family growing up but being part of a close loving family was pivotal in my recovery.

With depression there have been times when I have struggled. I am not unique and it is important to show human frailty sometimes. I have two grown up children and have a very exciting career and believe I have shown my children that disability does not always hold you back; it is part of life and does not define you.

Depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It is important to be open about disability; my team knows about it and I am not treated differently because of it. I believe having a disability gives me the empathy and personal context which makes me a better manager and leader of a research ethics service.

My employer has been very supportive. I have openly declared my disability (through HRPTS) and am able to avail of counselling should I wish through my employer which is a valuable asset. I have had very limited time off work due to disability.

Some people are concerned that having a disability is off putting for employers, but my experience is that good employers and leaders value their people. We need to understand that in Northern Ireland at any one time 1 in 4 of us could have a mental health condition at some point of their life. If we exclude or isolate people with disability we are throwing away so much talent.

People should be confident in themselves and we should celebrate and value our differences.

Dr Siobhan McGrath
Head of the Office of Research Ethics Committees Northern Ireland (ORECNI)
Business Services Organisation