To celebrate Black History Month, specialist occupational therapist Shanique Simpson shared her story.
Hello, my name is Shanique. I work within the Kirklees adult learning disability team as a specialist occupational therapist (OT). Through my work, as an OT, I support people with learning disabilities to live a meaningful and fulfilled life by promoting their health and wellbeing through occupation and engagement.
During Black History month, I am proud to talk about my heritage and the wonderful country of Jamaica where me and my family are from.
I was born in St. Elizabeth in Jamaica in the late 1980s. When I was tiny, my dad travelled from Jamaica to Canada to find farming work. Later, he moved to Huddersfield and found work in a factory. He preferred life in Huddersfield, so sent for me and my mum to join him, when I was 3 years old.
Me and my parents lived in a flat together in Huddersfield, whilst my older brother and sister stayed with my grandma in Jamaica. I remember I found it a bit weird when my siblings came to live with us in Huddersfield, a couple of years later. It was just the three of us and suddenly, we were a family of five, living under one roof. My sister is four years older than me, and my brother is 10 years older. I adapted to them being in the UK and mostly loved them being around.
Life was so busy for my parents. When my mum first moved to the UK, she had lots of different cleaning jobs. She would drop me at my godmother’s house whilst she went to work. My dad was working nights, so they covered the childcare between them and did not see much of each other. In the afternoon, she would pick me up from school and drop me off her to dad whilst she went to do another job. This pattern continued for a while, until she went into a care role. She opted to do night shifts, so that she could drop me off and pick me up from school and make my tea They cared for us well and are great parents.
My earliest memories are of life are in the UK. I first returned to Jamaica when I was 11 years old. I had developed good relationships with my Jamaican relatives over the phone and we often looked at pictures of them. To meet them in person was simply amazing! We stayed with the family for 3 weeks. I even got to go to school with one of my cousins for the day – I loved it!
After that trip, I was determined that I wanted to go back again. When I got into my teens, my mum let me and my sister go back for 8 weeks, each summer holiday. It was fantastic to reconnect with my family and get to know my cousins who are a similar age to me. We stayed in my dad’s house in St. Elizabeth. My auntie had a house on the same bit of land. She also had a shop which I worked in. I loved the responsibility and quickly adapted to the local currency of Jamaican dollars.
I found it interesting to see the level of independence the children have in Jamaica. Young children, as young as 3 years old, walked quite a distance to come into the shop. They arrived with a shopping list and money and handed it to me. I got their items for them, gave them their change and sent them off back to their home. People knew that other people in the community would look out for them and I enjoyed the community atmosphere of everyone looking out for each other. I had a sense of belonging.
I found the authentic Jamaican food so tasty. I loved the beef patties the most. I had one every day. Fresh fruit and vegetables are more accessible due to the rich red dirt in St Elizabeth, which provides over 80 per cent of Jamaican domestic produce. We enjoyed pears and mangoes from our own fruit trees. My uncle is a farmer and grew vegetables which we picked and cooked for dinner.
Me and my sister went with my older cousin to teen pop concerts on the island. We went to Reggae Sun Fest, four years in a row, and Teen Splash too. I can still remember the music and dancing with everyone around us – the atmosphere was incredible. We learnt the famous dance moves out at the time such as signal di plane and parachute.
Some of family in Jamaica are practicing 7th Day Adventists. They observe the sabbath and go to church each week. I am a Christian and I go to church at various points throughout the year.
When I was growing up my parents were honest with me about the challenges that Black people and me as Black female face. They told me I that I would have to work harder to get recognition. Their saying was “If you want good, your nose is going to have to run cold” referring to the need to work hard. At school, at times, I felt disheartened as my white peers did the minimum but because they had different ethnicity, they got better results than me. Me and my friends would challenge it in high school – my friends would stick up for me and point out that I had worked hard but not got fair results.
As you get older, it is harder to challenge situations as I worry that people might misinterpret me. However, at the same time, I do speak up when things are not right. There were issues in college and in temporary care jobs I had when I had to speak up to challenge discrimination.
Recently, a shop assistant wrongly assumed that a child of dual heritage was mine. The child’s mother was of white heritage and the little girl had Afro Caribbean dual heritage features. I was amazed when the shop assistant called me back to the till and asked whether I had forgotten anything, meaning the other mother’s child. I left the shop feeling shocked that in 2022, someone would make that assumption – I was with my son at the time and it upset me to think that she would think I would forget one child and not the other.
In college, I was the only Black person in all my A-level lessons. In University, I was the only Black woman as an occupational therapist, even when merged with larger cohorts of students, such as podiatry and physio. In my current job, I am part of a diverse team of people. It makes such a difference. The sense of belonging and representation in the workplace makes my work so much easier. I have colleagues who intuitively understand my responsibilities for my relatives in Jamaica. When my grandma gets ill, she has no option but to pay for healthcare. Me and my family are the first point of call, to help cover those expenses. You never know when you are next going to get a call and it can be daunting. It can also be worrying as living abroad, I rarely feel as though I can get a full picture of what is going on for my grandparents’ health. My colleagues recognise my facial expressions that show I need support and if I try to pretend that I am ok, they get me to chat to them about what is really going on. Their constant support is wonderful.
I’ve known friends and family members who have deliberately not recorded their protected characteristics on a job application form because they think that the recruiter may immediately rule them out for shortlisting on the basis of the colour of their skin. The sad reality is that some recruiters do make racist assumptions about people. I feel so glad to work for this Trust that is totally committed to equal opportunities and sees the value of everyone’s differences. I encourage anyone who is applying for a job to disclose their ethnicity as part of the application process. It helps to make sure that the people appointed are representative of the people in the communities we serve.
These days, I still live in the same area in Huddersfield where I grew up. I have my own kids now: a boy and a girl and an older stepdaughter. They love it when I point out to them the places where I have lived in the community. Huddersfield is home to me, but I am equally at home in Jamaica. Everyone I talk to who visits Jamaica is so positive about the country. They love the weather, the food and the warm welcome they receive. The whole vibe of the country is unique!
Jamaica’s national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People.’ It reflects the strength of our diverse culture and makes me proud of being Jamaican. I’m equally proud of being a British Citizen too. I get my sense of belonging and I am held, loved and supported in both places.