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September 11, 2019

Cerebral Palsy is no barrier for Kathryn and Laing O’Rourke

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Kathryn Bergstrum (Health, Safety and Environment Administrator – MTM Track Renewals Project at Endorsed Employer Laing O’Rourke) was born with Cerebral Palsy due to a brain injury caused during birth. She spent 10 years looking for full-time employment, working multiple part time jobs simultaneously, and doing her best to remain positive and hopeful during a frustrating job hunting period.

Kathryn has given us some great tips on building resilience, and we also spoke to Kathryn’s manager, who offered advice for other organizations looking to create more inclusive workplaces. In our next article, we’re bringing you a collection of Kathryn’s tips for job seeking and creating a great career.

Staying positive despite an uphill battle

Kathryn travels in a wheelchair for longer distances, and for shorter distances uses sticks, as her Cerebral Palsy predominantly affects her lower limbs. Prior to Laing O’Rourke, her job hunt for part time roles was extensive. Out of 200 applications, Kathryn made it through to just five interviews.

“I have two degrees; two unique qualifications, and still couldn’t get to where I wanted to go. It was a lot of frustration,” recalled Kathryn.

“I’m just a naturally determined and pretty resilient person” continued Kathryn. “I think that’s a product of growing up with the disability as well. I’ve been raised to not let the disability stop me doing what I want to do. I’m just like any ordinary person; the only difference is that my body doesn’t work the same way as an able-bodied person would.”

Eventually, Kathryn’s persistence paid off; at her brother’s encouragement (he was already working at Laing O’Rourke) Kathryn applied for a role in a team where there was interest in finding people from diverse backgrounds, who’d found it challenging to gain employment. She joined the North Eastern Program Alliance (NEPA) Level Crossing Removal Project and told us with lots of excitement,

“Full time employment in particular, has just opened up so many doors for me, both professionally and personally.”

Supporting employees with disabilities

Laing O’Rourke is a company that understands that businesses with a diverse workforce benefit from a wider pool of talent and a greater variety of experiences and perspectives.

Nick Arcaro, the HSE Manager for Rail Operations and Diversity Council Member says the business has made a huge push in the past two years to embed inclusion internally, and to use their influence externally to drive change. They have several inclusion pillars, ranging across Gender, Ability, LGBTIQ and Indigenous participation, and welcome the addition of new working groups as needs are identified.

When speaking to Nick, it’s obvious that he is a true champion of inclusivity. According to him, while you can have a strong positive intention to build and recruit a more diverse workforce, you need to be mature in thinking about how it affects the business, and what you may need to do to onboard people with disabilities. Nick’s advice on how to get started;

“Businesses need to diversify policies, procedures, process for onboarding, and go right back to basics such as the job advertisement language, as well as needing to look at the physical work environment. Then once they’re in, it’s about celebrating consistent success of the individual and the team they work in.”

For Nick, education is very important. “All decisions need to be cognizant of the fact that we have an employee – who we’re lucky to have – who is in a wheelchair 90% of the time. The education piece is about getting people involved in the process, and through that instilling some knowledge, and passing on some wisdom for the next round.”

Kathryn suggests that speaking to new recruits with disabilities before they commence work is a helpful approach. By being open about their needs, you can clarify what can be set up in advance to enable them to have a positive start on day one, as well as ensuring you haven’t missed anything by making assumptions. That approach can also reduce any anxiety for both parties.

Laing O’Rourke invited Kathryn into the office prior to her first day to discuss and explore the adjustments needed for her workstation and general work area; thinking about modifications in advance can have a big impact on maintaining independence and dignity.

Celebrating personal and professional milestones

Kathryn recently bought her first house! This is a major personal goal for Kathryn and gives her that next level of independence. She says;

“This is why diversity and inclusion are so important; without companies taking the attitude of trying something different, and employing someone from a different background, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

The other thing is that it’s given me is a purpose each day. I know that sounds a bit cliche, but it’s really important for everyone to have that purpose of something to do each day. I’m in a really happy space right where now, which has taken a long time to develop.”

Professionally, Laing O’Rourke have invested in Kathryn’s development, and she has grown in leaps and bounds.

“Previously in part time roles, because people didn’t quite understand my disability, I tended to get pigeonholed into certain tasks. The thing I like most about working at Laing O’Rourke is that I haven’t been pigeonholed. People have been very encouraging to foster my development professionally and give me opportunities to try different roles.

The leadership team are all really behind me. I’m delivering projects and onboarding new team members. I’ve never done that kind of thing before, so it’s challenging me and extending my skills. They’re not afraid to let me be up front representing the business and are proud to have me here; that’s a very nice feeling.”

Some of Kathryn’s other career milestones include being part of the project team responsible for removing the level crossing and rebuilding the station at Rosanna in Melbourne’s North East. She’s also travelled to Sydney to be part of Laing O’Rourke’s Diversity and Inclusion Pledge video

In our next article, we’ll dive into Kathryn’s top tips for job seekers, and advice on overcoming barriers when trying to enter the workforce.

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About the Author
WORK180 promotes organizational standards that raise the bar for women in the workplace. We only endorse employers that are committed to making real progress so that all women can expect better.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.