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  • Writer's picturePeta

Emma Vogelmann: I was told I wouldn't succeed because I'm disabled

Such a fantastic chat with Emma Voelmann today.

We discuss, her career in the charity sector, how covid impacted her and how an opinion changed her career.

Connect with Emma:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke



Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the @icantstandpodcast the podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have Emma Volkman on the pod and I'm so excited for you to hear her perspective. If you have a question that you'd like me to answer for a future episode of The Pod, please let me know. You can contact me via my Instagram. My handle is at Peta Hook spelt petih0ka by my email or via the website Without any further ado, let's hand over to Emma.

Emma [00:01:07] My name is Emma, Vogelmann. You might know me as the wheelchair activist, which is my podcast, but I am a disabled woman. I have a condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. It's a neuromuscular condition. So I'm a full time electric wheelchair user, and I also use a ventilator through a tracheostomy. Outside of the medical staff. I work in the UK, in the charity sector and poverty affecting disabled people. So I try to create change on whatever level I can to try and improve the situation for disabled people.

Peta [00:01:58] Just going off script for a minute. I see that you got a promotion. Congratulations.

Emma [00:02:04] I to thank you so much. I am. Yeah. I'm moving organisations and I am going to be the policy and public affairs manager for a wonderful charity called Transport for All, and they focus on campaigning and policy and providing advice on all things transport in the UK. And as someone who has been left on the train many times, I have I'm excited to support them in their mission.

Peta [00:02:39] I have to say, it's so lovely to hear somebody with a disability that actually succeeding in their career. I speak to so many people who have a similar background to me, who are underemployed, who weren't given the opportunities that their qualifications maybe suggested that I should be in. So it's really lovely to speak to you, Emma, to say that, you know, it is possible to succeed.

Emma [00:03:06] I've been really lucky in my career journey. And I mean, I do work in disability and I work in the charity sector and not that that's by any means a easy area to enter, but I have been able to bring value to an organisation I work with based on my own lived experience of disability. And I've been really lucky that the places that have really appreciated that. I've learnt so much about how blind people navigate the world, how deaf people navigate the world, and a whole host of other impairments and conditions. So yeah, I have been lucky, but I think it's also really important to acknowledge that I have also really worked my arse off and I've done everything that I possibly can to get where I am and I'm really grateful.

Peta [00:04:12] Well, you certainly deserve it. Congratulations. And I know from doing research before we sat down to talk today, Emma, like you didn't start off. Well, I won't put words in your mouth. I should ask you a question, but your qualification, you have a law degree. So talk to me about why you did a law degree and what you were hoping to achieve. Walking away, feeling in both cases, out of university with that degree.

Emma [00:04:39] I decided to study law at university so that I could pursue a career in human rights, further damage human rights law or something else in that field. But I have to say that my university experience, for lack of a better phrase, it's it was very I experienced discrimination as a disabled person for the first time, which isn't like it sounds kind of ridiculous when you say it out loud because I was in my early twenties and I've never experienced that before and it was there that I wasn't able to go to classes and try to participate properly because of some of the risks that the university just couldn't be bothered to tell other students not to use if they didn't need to use it. I thought I was going to be a human rights barrister because I think that my public speaking skills are best suited to that type of work. And human rights was my passion. I ended up taking a completely different turn and going into disability activism. And I also had some work experiences at university where I shadowed barristers for a few days and I was eventually told that I wouldn't be able to succeed because I'm disabled. It's one of the biggest regrets of my life that I listened to that advice because I think there were definitely ways that I could have succeeded in that job. But the way that it was painted to me was that you have to be the first one in the morning and the last one out in the evening, because you have to show, particularly in those early years, that you are 100% dedicated. And as I'm sure you know, when you have a disability, life doesn't always work like that. And I knew that I wouldn't have the stamina to do that all day, every day. And yeah, that's that's where my career really started was listening to bad advice and being discriminated against.

Peta [00:07:13] Well, I'm really sorry that happened to you. You know, I felt really discriminated against probably more during my high school years than my university years. But so I appreciate where you're coming from, even though it is a different environment. And it the irony is not lost on me of the fact that you were doing a human rights law degree, and yet your human rights were being discriminated against every day.

Emma [00:07:42] Yeah. I mean, it's, it's kind of funny and I say that in sort of a, I don't know whether to laugh or cry kind of way. I went into thinking that I would really be advocating for. You know. Asylum seekers or, you know, people in extremely different circumstances to my own. But I then had to advocate for myself, which, as you know, disabled people, we have to do a lot anyways. But it was the formalising of that process, like, you know, formally writing to the dean of the university, and that went nowhere. But, you know, sort of doing that was really interesting and the abjectly ironic.

Peta [00:08:39] Were you comfortable to start in a professional capacity, to start to think about disability advocacy? From my perspective, I've always been fairly comfortable in advocating for my own needs. It's, you know, so needed because often people don't understand and even worse cases, they don't listen to you. So you almost have to yell for them to recognise that your needs and wants are as valid as anybody else's. But for me, I resisted to be a disability advocate from a professional standpoint because I didn't want people to only think that the only thing I was valid for was around disability issues. So I'd love to hear whether that was something you felt as well or whether you were just very comfortable in taking on this role.

Emma [00:09:32] To be honest, I don't know how much of a conscious choice it was. I mean, honestly, the day that I started doing anything publicly with disability was a day I was at uni and I was waiting for the left and I saw some students who didn't use it and were waiting to get on the left as well. And so I politely pointed out, you know, hey, I don't have to breaking down because appropriate use and carry a lot of weight if you don't need to use a cookie. And they just went to lazy. I don't, you know, whatever. I was so angry because I had explained to them that that overuse and the carrying way too much weight and it was meant to meant I couldn't get to my classes. And they just said to my face that they didn't care. I called my best friend and had a rant about it and she said, You need to write something. So I ended up reaching out to the Huffington Post and saying, I want to write this piece about how a seemingly small decision from a non-disabled person can impact me as a disabled person. I almost didn't think about what that would mean becoming a disability advocate publicly. And I think really similar to you. I advocated for myself for so, so long. So when I started doing it professionally, it was sort of a, well, if I don't do this, you are just going to do it. So I. And at that time, even when I wrote that first piece, which started my career, I don't know if I still really identified as disabled. And I think that goes to. And I said to you about I had never experienced discrimination before. So to me, my disability. Was there. And it wasn't a big deal. That makes sense.

Peta [00:12:07] Completely. My disability was never an issue until people pointed out to me that it was. I am so struck and I shouldn't be surprised because disabled people are so resilient and driven. But I am so struck by your ability to just keep going. You're told by the barista that law didn't suit you. You did a degree at a university that clearly weren't that welcoming to you or your needs. What made you keep going? I'd be like, You know what? No, this is. This is me.

Emma [00:12:45] I appreciate how it comes across as resilient. I sort of kept going. I didn't pursue. Becoming a barrister after being told that. And I really wish I had. I guess I found the charity sector. Okay. This is a slower paced version of kind of doing the same type of job. And by that I mean like advocating and campaigning. I wish I had an answer really for what kept me going. Other than that. But I mean, my anger at the injustice of different situations and my anger at the wider human rights conversation that was happening and still is happening, and my anger towards the injustice of my situation made me think of great guy. I, I have to do something about this.

Peta [00:13:56] Yeah, it certainly gets to the point where you're like, okay, whether it's the universe or whoever you believe in, whatever religion you are, you're like, okay, clearly I'm being directed. I have had so many signs that I need to do something about this, and I certainly see that that's something that you have followed.

Emma [00:14:16] Yeah. Now, 100%. I think it's it's tough, though. And I think that as disabled people, we don't always give ourselves enough credit for it dealing with the constant rejection or the constant pushback. And I think it's really important to acknowledge that there are days where it's really tough and there are days where you think, why can't this just go better? Why can't it be easier?

Peta [00:14:52] Probably the most prevalent that you were so far in your work was in and around COVID. You appeared, I think, on the BBC talking about the petrol crisis over there. Can you talk to me about what happened and why that event could impact your life in a significant way?

Emma [00:15:15] Again. I got really angry that I had the message from one of my carers page, whatever you want to call them. Saying that they were not sure if they were going to be able to come to work because they were driving petrol station to petrol station and because of the shortage they weren't able to get to me. It had for me. If I don't have someone with me 24 hours a day, my life is at risk. You know, I have a tracheostomy, like I said, and I need clearing of that airway. And without someone to do that, it's you and me that I die. And I got really angry that loads of other people that I was seeing on social media were being covered in the news. People were filling up their cars, the petrol. And priority wasn't being given to essential workers like Cameroon's doctors, nurses and people like that. So for people who are filling up because they're just worried about not being able to get petrol, but it's not essential for them or their jobs or someone's life that they get petrol. I saw that as being really selfish and I spoke to a few news outlets about it because there is a perspective that a lot of people haven't thought about. And it's one of those things where people aren't aware of what their seemingly small decision. An impact on a disabled person, then how are they going to necessarily know to change their behaviour?

Peta [00:17:15] It just goes to show how much of an impact your work can have. Which is a really, really great thing. Not only that, but it reminds many of us, including myself, to be less self-centred and think about how my actions could impact a stranger. And it's not only until you get confronted with somebody else's reality that you're like, Oh, of course, of course. People need to have priority for things like petrol. That's a total logical thing. So thank you. I really appreciate you doing that for us.

Emma [00:17:55] I can't say it made a difference, and at least not on a government level. You know, they didn't introduce a priority system, which they definitely should have done if it changed someone's actions. And that's a win. But I really agree with you. You know, there are things I will do or things I won't notice because they're not a barrier for me. But it could be a barrier for someone else with a different disability or a different impairment. And it it's only through learning about it, like you said, go out and die and then you do something about that. But without awareness raising how people can know now.

Peta [00:18:49] How has life changed for you as a disabled person since COVID?

Emma [00:18:57] Before COVID, I was commuting into London from where I live. Three days a week. It's happening out and about a lot. And I am now coming up on three years of working from home. For me and for some of the other disabled people, it's still a very real threat and it's still a very real concern. It saved my life before afterwards. It's almost unrecognisable to what it is now, and I have started to go out and do things a little bit more. But I have no intention of commuting. You know, I have no intention of going on this rush hour packed train trip. People are two inches away from your face because of that risk.

Peta [00:19:59] I'm so fascinated with how you've grown up, Emma. I haven't spoken to many people before that have moved countries with a disability. Can you talk to me about that? How is that? You going to have to wait until next week to find out Emma's answer to that? I feel like Oshie Ginsburg, when he used to host Australian Idol and he used to say, you'll find out who's voted out of Australian Idol after this break. Next week, we talk all about what it was like for Emma to move from the US to the UK and how she views both countries as far as disability rights and where she would prefer to live out of the two. So until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye.


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