Juliet England: Going freelance is no guarantee of escaping prejudice

Posted on August 22, 2017

This autumn marks my ninth anniversary of working freelance at anything involving words – proofreading them, editing them, sometimes even writing them.

As the nights were drawing in back in late 2008, I loaded up half the contents of my workplace stationary cupboard (sorry) and pedalled away for the last time from the pedestrian and cyclist-hostile industrial estate where I had toiled for the previous four years at a Seriously Well-Known Engineering Firm.

There’ve been a few half-hearted interviews and meetings since, but really I’ve barely stepped in an office in nine years. Ask me to do the nine to five again (in actual clothes as opposed to pyjamas as well!) and I’d be speed-dialling Amnesty before you could say employment rights.

Among other things, my by now ex-boss had finally done for me. Her choice phrases included ‘you’re about as useful as a chocolate teapot’ – frankly I was more offended that she couldn’t even be bothered to insult me originally than anything else and, hilariously, after we parted company a scientist actually did make an actual warm beverage receptacle made from the sweet stuff. More seriously, she also came up with such gems as ‘You shouldn’t be working in communications if you can’t hear.’

(I mentioned this once to someone who said well, he did have a point. ‘He’ was a she. They’d managed to be sexist and deafist in a mere six words. It’s almost impressive.)

Anyway, I spoke to her boss, having noted down all comments with dates and times, and my mentor at the company, and the staff association. I was offered a sum of money, I said OK then, and I was on my way with those nicked biros and Post-It notes.

In the nine years since then, I’ve communicated with all manner of clients in places from Latvia to Oregon, and barely had to use the Textphone so thoughtfully supplied to by the government. In all this time, hearing loss has been of almost no relevance, with clients far more interested in having a good job done on time. Sure, one guy did want a phone call but he quickly understood when I said it wasn’t possible.

And, broadly speaking, barring the odd skirmish with HMRC and the lack of paid holiday or constant company all day (I talk to librarians and shop staff a lot) I’ve enjoyed being mistress of my fate and supreme commander of my little empire. (Workforce: one.)

But the other week something pulled me up short. I work for a few digital marketing agencies, and with one of them I was doing the copy for a new website, for their client, an organisation in an industry about as well-known for broadcasting the sloshing sound of the milk of human kindness as Donald J. Trump.

These guys knew from the outset that communication would be by email, Skype instant messaging, texting and, if they really had to, Facebook or my Textphone. They’re not based near to where I live so meeting face to face wasn’t really practical. I explained that I was partially deaf, as I do for all new people I’m working with. No one said that this would be a problem.

The project seemed to proceed fine, maybe a shade more slowly than would have been ideal but certainly nothing serious and you expect a fair bit of toing and froing, not least with a new client. And all along they insisted there was no rush, better to get it spot on etc.

I had produced the bulk of the work required when I received the following feedback:

“I think [not being able to speak on the phone] made it harder as I couldn’t talk to you to sort out issues. I think things took quite a lot longer than they should have, as a simple phone call would have cleared up so many questions and we had to resort to emails which time and time again [which] got confusing. All these sorts of things made the hours mount up. I hope your invoice will bear this in mind.”

This was a genuine kick in the teeth on many levels. Of course, there was the glaring hole in their argument that this agency knew about the hearing loss at the start of the process. There was the fact that, since they were a client, I wasn’t going to complain in the same way I would to a ‘proper’ employer. (I wouldn’t have got anywhere even I had.)

Then there’s the sheer thoughtlessness and lack of inclusivity, the complete paucity of consideration as to how such words would make me feel.

What’s more, there was the wearying feeling of déjà vu, and my heart sank because, frankly, I’d gone freelance to avoid precisely this sort of nonsense.

Still, one of the great joys of working this way is that you can move on from annoying clients swiftly. Which is exactly what I intend to do in this case. That doesn’t mean that you forget.

Read more of Juliet’s articles for us here. Juliet England does freelance social media and PR work for cSeeker.

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