Personal Assistants and the Professional Line By Holly Williams

By November 24, 2014Disability, Lifestyle
The author Holly Williams

I got a text message from a friend a couple of weeks ago that she asked me to pass on to as many people as I could so I thought I’d use this blog to do just that. It goes:-

‘When is it socially acceptable to ignore an employer and talk to their personal assistant about them in front of them? I as a disabled person employing a P.A don’t think this should ever be socially acceptable but an incident today shows it still socially acceptable to some people. Please treat everyone with respect.’

Powerful words, very well put I’m sure you’d agree. It got me thinking about myself, other disabled people and what is possibly one of the most intimate and potentially difficult relationships we will have with another person. Hiring a P.A is a big deal and, I think, totally unlike most other employee/employer relationships. Their job is, after all, partly a social one, helping you to access many outside activities most people take for granted such as going out to the shops, to shows and clubs, the sort of things you would do with your friends if you weren’t disabled, as well as dealing with maybe very personal care needs.

I get what my friend is saying, of course. It is annoying and bizarre when you’re out with someone you’ve hired and people talk to them like they’re ‘in charge’ of you. It is a pretty belittling situation. But sadly people who don’t have much to do with disability make all kind of assumptions and it’s really our choice how we react to them. Sometimes I think it’s up to those of us with the ability to do so to openly challenge people’s perceptions. But it can be draining and exhausting to get into a long debate about human rights with every person who asks ‘does she take sugar in her tea?’ You can, as my friend said she did when I asked her about the incident that made her send me this text, just call the person rude or ignorant. But not everyone comes into contact with disabled people on a regular basis and many don’t have a wide knowledge of what is politically correct. This is especially the case with certain older people. For instance, my great uncle would never deliberately say anything to hurt or offend me but he refers to people with Down’s Syndrome as ‘Mongol’. He isn’t being cruel, he’s from a different age and doesn’t know any better. Very often I find myself taking the third option and just letting things go when comments are made.

But the topic of strangers’ attitudes is something for me to write about in a future blog. What Iwant to talk about right now is P.As. Like I say it’s a really tricky relationship. I hear a lot of talk about the importance of keeping a personal distance between P.As and people they work for but is that always possible? Shouldn’t there be a level of friendship and honest respect between two people working together in that particular way? I think so. I remember being eighteen and deciding with my parents that it would be a good idea for me to employ someone to take me out now and again. We didn’t really know where to start so we asked someone from an agency for advice. He arrived at our house and at once launched in to a spiel about employment law and insurance that was totally over our heads. When I tried to explain I simply wanted someone nice to go places with, he told me rather tartly ‘you can’t buy friends’. I was upset to say the least. I wasn’t trying to ‘buy’ anyone, I just wanted to find a nice person to help me who I liked.

I did find a very good P.A a couple of years later who also worked with a friend of mine. They do say personal recommendations are the best way to find the right person for a job. We had several very happy years going out places together, chatting and I could not say one bad word about her, while she was my P.A. That was the problem. She was so good at her job, I really thought of her as a friend. Then she decided to move on. Now I understand she totally had the right to take her career in whatever direction she wanted and I would have generally wished her well if she hadn’t decided to let me know about it without warning, in the interval of a Queen tribute concert. Totally out of the blue. I’ve never been dumped by a boyfriend but I can imagine that’s how it feels. I spent the rest of the night sobbing loudly through Radio Gaga, wondering if I wasn’t a big enough challenge for her. I just wish she could have waited till the end of the show or even arranged to meet me over coffee and told me then, but you live and learn. I didn’t hear from her again after that, no text or email or even a Christmas card. In hindsight, I think I understand her mindset. The job was over so she wanted to avoid any tricky emotional strings by just cutting all contact, the Mary Poppins approach. But it doesn’t make in any more painless.

She did the same to my friend who she worked with. My friend is profoundly physically impaired, has very bad sight and finds it very hard to communicate but the expression of rage and hurt when the P.A’s name is mentioned is so clear that you can’t misjudge what she is thinking. But of course, there are two sides to every story and disabled people can mistreat, hurt and disrespect P.As just a much as they can us. I think it’s very easy to use them as 24 hour lackies there to do our bidding with no life of their own. There are some lovely people out there who choose to make a living helping us and it’s wrong to take advantage by expecting them to become living doormats who exist only to serve (I shall ignore my mother rolling her eyes when she reads this. Yes I do expect a lot off her but I’m not sure many P.As would get away with referring to their employers as ‘ratbags’ either!). P.A’s also get ill, a fact I’m sure certain disabled people seem to struggle with. I remember one time my P.A had a long belt of ill health and my mum had to take me to several social events. The looks of disgust my P.A got by some of my mates when she returned were unbelievable. You would have thought she had locked me in a cupboard for two weeks!

At the moment I have a lovely P.A called Amy who loves Brighton Football Club and has the biggest heart of anyone I know. Past experience has made me weary but after several years working and having fun together I can honestly say I trust and respect her completely and hope she feels the same about me. She has been there through good times and bad and I know, even if she isn’t always my Personal Assistant she will always be my friend. She has gone out of her way to help me when the job didn’t require her to and I have tried to do the same for her. We both have flaws but we try to accept them in each other. Because, as my friend so rightly says, everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

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