on helpfulness

on helpfulness me and orla
photo by Helen Stephens

Hi, I’m Sara & I left my meaningful, rewarding job in Speech Therapy to take photos of coffee & write about my phone. Well, pretty much.
I can’t say I regret it, because they wouldn’t be true; but equally, it hasn’t been an easy decision. I think anyone with a degree of empathy & conscience would struggle when faced with a similar choice: did I want meaning, with crappy pay and occasional exposure to other people’s bodily fluids, or champagne press launches with financial and creative freedom?

In my moments of self-criticism I try to remind myself that I did my time: ten years, in which I helped more children than I can remember. I have scars on my hands & arms from some of the SEN kids I worked with. Once I stood barefoot in a fresh warm poo (it was on a visit to a Muslim home, so I’d just removed my shoes…)

There was never a child I met on the Autistic spectrum who I couldn’t find a way to connect with, somehow. I honestly believe that that is my gift in life – not photography, or writing, or any of this stuff. I was really good at my job, and I loved it, but the pay was lousy, & the conditions just kept gradually getting worse. I was appreciated by my brilliant colleagues, but not by the outdated management team. I had zero prospects, and in the end, there just wasn’t enough to keep me there.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to have been handed the opportunity to follow different dreams – brilliantly exciting dreams, at that. I’m addicted to the buzz of my inbox surprising me every day with new opportunities and offers that I never thought would be open to me, & I’m earning more than I ever did in the NHS. This month I was the main breadwinner in our household, in fact! I’d long ago written off the idea of that happening.

I’m smart enough to know you can’t turn moments like this down, & sharp enough to know I was wasting a lot of my sass and savvy at the bottom of the NHS heap.

But I do miss that feeling of helpfulness. I miss the relationships I formed with people I’d otherwise never get to meet; getting past the obstacles of learning disabilities to know the brilliant, funny, warm-hearted and sometimes completely badass young people underneath. It’s not professional to have favourites, but I had them anyway – shit loads of them; ones I visited at weekends, ones I spent my lunchbreaks watching YouTube videos with. I truly met some of my favourite humans ever in Manchester’s special schools, & I’ll never forget them, as long as I live.

So while I love what I do now, I still harbour this vague hope that I’ll be able to weave it all together some day. I continue to get very excited when anyone mentions visuals or PECS or AAC. I still spot an undiagnosed ASC in a toddler in 30 seconds flat, still sign along in BSL to my favourite songs on the radio (funnest thing evs).

& so, in a tiny step in the right direction, I’m starting a Sign Supported English / BSL Instagram account. It’s a sign a day, aimed at people with learning disabilities and their families and carers, but suitable for anyone wanting to learn a little sign language. Right now my video quality isn’t great (& my camera presence even worse ?), but I’ve got plans to make it better. You can follow along here, if you’re interested. Maybe if I have some followers I’ll feel compelled to swallow my fear and post something.

Do you feel like you make a contribution to the world through your work or in your free time? How do you strike a balance?