Professional discrimination with cystic fibrosis. Part I: on TEFL and South Korea

This is a topic I really want to talk about and if I could give any advice to young adults with health conditions it would be this. I suppose it’s about more than work discrimination, it’s about being comfortable with who you are and having the confidence to believe in your abilities,  which is definitely something relevant to everyone; not just those with health conditions.

As far as I know,  I’ve not been subject to any significant discrimination in the UK workplace due to my CF, but it has affected me elsewhere.  I travelled widely in my gap year as I was well enough to do so and had no reason to expect that would change. I studied Spanish in Cuba, worked in an orphanage in South India and travelled around Bosnia and Croatia. Living in other countries is something I enjoy immensely and I hope to do it for much longer in the future.

When I graduated in 2010 I also applied to teach English in South Korea for a year.  I was interested in Korean culture, wanted to study the language,  had a good degree and was in many ways, just the kind of candidate the Korean government was looking for.

So I applied for the EPIK programme, run by the government to place native English teachers in schools around Korea. I’d heard they were getting tougher with their selection process that year, on account of the global recession taking a big bite out of Western economies and sending many fresh grads further afield.

I worked really hard on my application and was short-listed for a Skype interview. My interview passed without incident and me mentioning that I had ‘a lung condition that did not prevent me from working full-time in the UK and generally good health’. The interviewer told me this shouldn’t be a problem and I should just provide a doctor’s note with my documents.

An hour after the interview I got an email informing me that EPIK was delighted to welcome me onto this year’s programme.  I had been accepted! I was seriously chuffed,  but also a tiny bit scared when I thought about that doctor’s note, as I knew that cystic fibrosis was poorly understood in Korea and might be considered a much more serious condition than it was for me.

CF varies massively in terms of severity as a condition and naturally the more serious cases are the ones more frequently heard about. When my doctor put the letter together for me I was even less happy and felt really vulnerable about having to expose details which I did not think were relevant to my ability to teach in Korea.

Doctor’s are (quite rightly) very thorough sorts and this was no exception. My full medical history,  which looks much worse on paper than in reality, was divulged. Including: secondary diagnosis of cystic fibrosis-related diabetes (a sub-type, neither I nor II), chronic sinusitis, a lengthy medication list and lots of medical jargon. Thanks doc.

Of course, they were doing the right thing,  and they also explained that my lung function was within the average range and that I worked full-time in the UK and was in good health etc, but really the damage was done. I sent the letter off to EPIK with a heavy heart and then heard…nothing for over 2 weeks. Finally, a formal email came through informing me that “unfortunately they couldn’t proceed further with my application on this occasion.” Even though I’d already been accepted. I was devastated.

Don’t get me wrong, from an impersonal and purely economic point of view I got it; there were hundreds of other eager grads to pick from and I was just a bigger risk than some others. I understood that,  but from a personal perspective,  it still fucking hurt. It was a massive knock to my confidence and made me start to worry that, off the record, all potential employers would see me as the bigger risk compared to candidate b and pass me over, legal or not. I had not had any significant problems with my CF until a couple of years before then anyway as I’d had such a healthy childhood. I started to be scared that my career ambitions would end up being too big for me.

Fortunately, I stuck two fingers up to EPIK and went to Korea anyway. More on that in Part II.


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