PA required: apply here

BBC Ouch 27th April 2009

Laurence Clark has recently gone through the stressful process of looking for a new personal assistant.

For me, switching personal assistants is a bit like balancing on one leg on top of a tower of children’s building blocks, whilst somebody far below me removes one of those blocks and swaps it for another. It’s difficult to get on with the business of working and actually having a life when the essential support I rely on so much is changing.

I’ve always considered myself very fortunate in that I have never had to rely on a traditional ‘care’ service provided by an agency. From the age of eighteen, I’ve always been in control of my own support fund and been able to use it to employ whoever I want as a personal assistant. This has meant that I’ve never had to spend a morning hanging around waiting for a ‘home carer’ to arrive late, give me five minutes of their time and then dash off to attend to the next poor sod on their work schedule.

On the whole, what I need is support with housework and getting around, as opposed to what some might call ‘personal care’. I always send potential PAs a detailed description of what they would be expected to do, and more importantly a list of things that the job does not entail. I’ve even tried advertising in the local newspaper under different job categories such as ‘administration’ or ‘cleaner’ instead of ‘social care’. But no matter what I do, inevitably I always seem to get my fair share of applicants offering to give me medication and wipe my bum.

Lots of disabled people don’t bother with the rigmarole of advertising for PAs. Instead, they simply ask friends or even family members to work for them. I’ve tried this approach myself in the past, but it hasn’t always worked out. The relationship you have with someone fundamentally changes when they become your PA, since typically we tend not to tell our friends what to do or boss them around all the time – at least not if we still want to keep them as friends. So whilst I’ve had PAs who have later gone on to become good friends, I’ve found that the reverse doesn’t really work.

This time I decided to involve my wife Adele in choosing my PA, since it’s always good to have a second opinion. Also, whoever we get is going to be working in our home, so it’s only fair that she gets a say in selecting them. The other decision I made was to pay a broker to organise the recruitment process on our behalf because of the sheer amount of time and paperwork involved.

In total, we had 65 responses to the job advert, out of which 25 sent back completed application forms. As ever, sifting through the responses was a depressing experience. You tend to look for people who come across as open-minded and willing to take instructions, which pretty much rules out anyone who says they’ve done the NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in social care, since from experience these people tend to come with quite a rigid view of what a PA should and shouldn’t do. Also, I always get a few applicants who have very obviously only applied in order to demonstrate to the Job Centre that they are actively seeking employment so they can hang onto their Job Seeker’s Allowance. These are the ones who don’t bother filling out 90% of the form.

My favourite this time was an applicant whom Adele had mistakenly put in the short-list pile at first, having completely missed the little essay he’d taken upon himself to write for us on the back of his form in order to demonstrate his excellent grasp of disability equality issues. He said that he had been “investigating” disabled people and had “gathered much useful information about people who’ve had car crashes, people with one leg, people with no legs, people whose brains don’t work …” His list went on for one whole side of A4 paper. I was almost tempted to invite him for an interview solely to gather useful information for my own ‘investigation’ into weirdos I want to avoid at all cost.

We chose to hire a room to conduct the interviews, having found in the past that sometimes people don’t take it as seriously if you invite them to come to your home. On one occasion, an applicant even brought their five year-old son with them, who then proceeded to cry all the way through the conversation. There was something about shouting the questions over the background noise of a wailing child which suggested that this person wasn’t going to work out.

In the end we invited six people to come and meet us, out of which three actually turned up on the day and only one proved to be suitable for the role. This in itself was a great relief, because if we hadn’t found anyone who was right for the role then we would have had to start the whole recruitment palaver all over again.

Although a personal assistant is generally thought to be quite a low-skilled and menial job, out of a possible 65 people who showed an interest in being my PA just one person actually fitted the bill. I guess there’s a lot more to it than people think.

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