I was born without any hope of surviving.
I was extremely premature and weighed less than a bag of sugar. Being born so early meant that my internal organs didn’t have time to form fully and I was left with a very narrow and complicated windpipe.
The priority at that time was making sure I could get enough oxygen, so it hadn’t been established whether my vocal chords worked.
This resulted in me having a tracheostomy, which makes speech difficult, and so as a child I often had adults speak for me.
Being voiceless had an impact on my growth mentally and emotionally and when I was with other children I felt invisible due to my narrow airway.
I often felt like I didn’t have an identity and it took me a long time to know the true power of my own voice because society, local authorities and extended family members never asked my opinion or how I felt.
This feeling of isolation was only made worse by the bullying I received at school. Children would make fun of how I spoke and even my breathing was picked on. It ground me down, making me feel worthless and unwanted.
They called me Darth Vader because of the loud noise I made to inhale. I used to cry myself to sleep every night.
It became a struggle to go to school a lot of the time and I got into fights. Looking back I realise this was a cry for attention.
My experience is something I wouldn’t wish on any child. If I had my time over again I would tell my younger self to speak and hold teachers to account as to why they let children bully me over something that wasn’t in my control.
I wish I could say it all changed as soon as I left school and found employment, but even in adulthood I was discriminated against or not listened to, simply because I am disabled.
Like many disabled people I have had to fight my case to the Department of Work and Pensions that I qualify for benefits.
I also took an employer to court who failed to recognise my disability and therefore make provisions and adjustments for me. The judge ruled in my favour but up until that point I had been struggling in my job, and because of a lack of support I couldn’t manage my health either.
In winning the case, I finally felt heard. I was no longer voiceless.
After this I went on to learn about the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. If my workplace failed to take into consideration my needs, I thought, there must be many other companies up and down the country doing exactly the same to their disabled employees.
I founded a company that gives people with disabilities a space to speak out on employment issues and how they feel in the workplace.
I know what it means to be voiceless and I wasn’t going to let anyone else feel hopeless.
I received messages from people who had been taken advantage of by employers, people who had been told by employers that having a disabled person work for them tarnished their company image, and some companies declined job applications flat out.
My voice became loud and I began challenging the status quo because I believe that if we start having difficult conversations, rather than ignoring them, we can begin changing the narrative.
Every company should be given mandatory disability training. In every sector, whether public, private or voluntary, we can change attitudes.
Disabled people too often have to fight for our existence to be seen and heard. From gaining state support, to asking for safeguarding needs within your own home, or just reasonable adjustments in the workplace – you are made to feel that your disability is a lie or you are just lazy.
Being disabled doesn’t make you any different as a human being, it just gives you an alternative way of living life.
You might ask why I am happy to be labelled as voiceless. It’s because growing up I was a shy, invisible child who wasn’t really noticed or heard. My disability and low tone of voice meant people would often strain to hear me.
If you had told me then that I would one day be an advocate, enabling people with physical, hearing and learning disabilities into work and educating employers and students about what it is like to grow up disabled, I wouldn’t have believed you.
The boy who grew up being called voiceless is now using his voice to change the lives of people who need encouragement to stand up and use theirs to fight for their rights.
Being heard is empowering, and I want to pass the microphone on to others.
You can follow Nana on Twitter here to find out more about Unique Abilities Ltd.
Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity — positively or negatively — and what the label means to them.
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