The Co Down woman who believes more than 30 of her job applications were binned because she's deaf
Recent graduate Amy McMillan was turned down for scores of jobs because, she believes, of her deafness. Now in a role she loves, she tells Stephanie Bell how she is now helping others carve a path to success
Ticking a box on an application form proved a barrier for Amy McMillan when it came to securing a job after graduation. The deaf 24-year-old is convinced that declaring her disability meant most of her applications were binned.
It became such a problem that Amy even considered avoiding admitting she was deaf.
Today, she is working in a job she loves in her chosen field of marketing, but the tough road she faced getting there has compelled her to help others.
Amy has teamed up with a charity, Action on Hearing Loss, to help highlight a new campaign aimed at encouraging employers to take action and learn about the support available for recruiting and retaining staff with hearing loss.
The Working for Change project was launched on the back of research by the charity showing that more than a third of employers don't feel confident about employing people with hearing loss.
The research also found that many deaf people had not disclosed their hearing loss when applying for a job because they feared employers wouldn't think they were competent for the role, and they were worried that they would be treated unfairly in the workplace.
After unsuccessfully applying for more than 30 jobs, Amy, from Saintfield, faced a dilemma.
"I'm always in two minds about whether to mention my deafness on application forms," she explains.
"Legally, you're meant to declare a disability, but once you tick that box, you're putting yourself in a box and separating yourself from other candidates.
"I wanted an employer to judge my CV based on my qualifications and skills, not on a box I've ticked.
"I was on the Great Britain and Ireland deaf badminton team - I was sponsored by the Royal Mail and the Mary Peters Trust, and it's something I'm very proud of.
"I used to do tutoring through the National Deaf Children's Society. When I put that on my CV, I never heard back from employers, but then when I took it off, it was fine.
"It was something so little, but I felt like employers were honing in on it and disregarding all my other skills.
"I've been to an interview where they didn't write anything down.
"I'm pretty sure I was interviewed because I was a disabled candidate, but they obviously had no intention of offering me the job - they just assumed I wouldn't be able to do it.
"I have the skills and qualifications - I wouldn't have applied for a job if I didn't think I could do it.
"It worries me that employers could pre-judge me because of a disability. Why bother with the work if it counts for nothing?"
Amy, who lives with her mum, Kim McMonagle (56), and sister Katy (26), recently completed a master's degree in digital media communications at Ulster University.
She also has a BA honours degree in photography, an HNC and a HND in photographics and a postgraduate diploma in digital media communications.
Despite her impressive qualifications, she spent many months searching for a job, so she was thrilled to be recently appointed as a junior digital marketing assistant with the Agnew Motor Group.
She also runs a blog called Deaf Girl in a Noisy World, in which she shares her experiences of the challenges she faced trying to get a job. It has had a huge response.
"I had loads of messages from people who had faced similar attitudes and felt like they couldn't go to job interviews," Amy says.
"All I could say was that you have to believe in yourself before someone else will.
"My family has been vital for building my confidence. My mum always said, 'There's nothing you can't do'. It's only people outside my home who have said otherwise.
"Mum made no barriers for me. No matter what I wanted to do, she always found a way around it so that I could do it, which made me realise that there really wasn't anything holding me back - I may just have to do things differently."
Although Amy is confident about her abilities, it hasn't always been this way.
She attended Saintfield High School until fifth year, and while the staff gave her excellent support, she still had to rely on lip-reading to communicate.
After moving to Hunterhouse College for her A-levels, she found a way to study online, which gave her the confidence to believe in herself.
"I struggled in school because I relied heavily on lip-reading, which can be exhausting - I'd often fall asleep on the bus," Amy explains.
"I didn't do that well at school, but I did really well in my degree - I found a way of learning which worked for me and I never looked back. Studying for my degree online was a completely different approach to learning. I exceeded all my goals and expectations, and was thrilled to go on to complete my master's degree at Ulster University.
"I look back now and feel sad that I thought I wasn't good enough or intelligent enough, when all I needed was a different approach to learning.
"I've often found that people are surprised by my abilities, which frustrates me.
"I saw one of my old teachers a while ago and explained to her that I had just finished my master's degree.
"She was surprised and said she hadn't expected me to do a master's. I asked her why, but she couldn't answer.
"I can't hear, but that doesn't mean that I'm not creative or intelligent."
Amy believes that many people with disabilities, no matter how intelligent or skilled they may be, are being effectively forced out of the job market because their disability.
As such, she loves working for the Agnew Group because the company has given her the chance to put her qualifications and skills to good use.
"I was really excited about the opportunity of this role," she says. "At my interview, I spoke passionately about my blog, where I talk about being deaf, and the work I had completed with Action on Hearing Loss.
"The interviewers were really considerate. They asked me if the room was okay and they didn't speak over each other. It meant that I could ask them to repeat themselves.
"They were very friendly and I didn't feel under pressure or uncomfortable - I've never had an interview like that before.
"They commented about my sporting achievements and were really positive about them, which opened the door to talking about my deafness.
"They saw the love I have for what I want to do, rather than the disability. Unfortunately, that can be very rare.
"I have never felt left out or unsupported at Agnew, and I really enjoy my work.
"My hearing impacts my work minimally. However, as any deaf person would understand, it can be a long day lip-reading.
"That can be exhausting, but when you enjoy something, you push on through."
Amy's dream is to be a full-time blogger or to set up her own digital marketing business.
She believes employers are missing out on the chance to employ talented people by failing to consider disabled candidates.
"There's always a way around things," Amy stresses. "I might need a different phone, but that's all I need.
"I think being deaf actually gives me an edge - I can't hear, so I'm more visual, which helps with things like arranging merchandise and branding.
"I'm also more aware of how to help others with disabilities - I used to work for Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which has an older clientele. Lots of customers had a hearing loss, and they would talk to me because I would make an effort to speak to them, to look at them and not turn away when I was speaking to them. I was more aware, and it made my colleagues more aware.
"I hate it when people assume I won't want to do something, or they question my abilities because I'm deaf.
"It annoys me enough to want to prove myself to people. I believe that the only limitations are the ones I make for myself - that the only disability in life is a bad attitude."
As part of its Working for Change campaign, Action on Hearing Loss is encouraging employers to visit an online employer hub, where they can access free resources, including a downloadable tool kit, for recruiting and retaining staff with hearing loss.
Claire Lavery, communications and campaigns manager at the charity, wants an even playing field in the job market.
"People should be given jobs based on their skills and expertise, yet our research shows that many people feel that if they disclose their hearing loss an employer may look twice at their application," she says.
"Our employment team hear from people in Northern Ireland every week who are struggling to obtain work, or experience problems in work, often due to a lack of deaf awareness.
"We want to encourage employers that employing someone with a hearing loss doesn't have to be difficult, and that they could be missing out on an incredible pool of talent.
"Often the reasonable adjustments required for someone with hearing loss don't cost a lot of money.
"They can be as simple as talking to the employee about their needs, changing where they sit in the office, buying assistive equipment such as an amplified telephone, or training staff on understanding hearing loss."
Visit www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/employers to download a free employers' toolkit for supporting employees with hearing loss. For more information about Action on Hearing Loss' employment service in Northern Ireland, visit www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/northernireland
Hearing loss charity hosting information day
Action on Hearing Loss is inviting people with hearing loss and tinnitus to their Christmas information day to help them hear better over the festive period.
The event is on Monday, December 10, at the Belfast Central Mission, Glenagall Street running from 10am to 1pm.
Recent research has shown that hearing aids can slow the progress of dementia by 75%.
The event will feature information on the importance of wearing hearing aids and the opportunity for NHS hearing aid users to benefit from free hearing aid maintenance, including new batteries, re-tubing and support.
Information will also be provided about sensory support services, and equipment that can help people with hearing loss and tinnitus.
Guests will have the opportunity to hear from the police link officer for the deaf and enjoy a mindful art session with local artist Moyra Blayney.
For more details, contact Paula McAnulty, information officer at Action on Hearing Loss, by telephoning 028 9023 9619/07587 130502, or emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
British Sign Language interpreters and note-takers will be provided at the event.