This Disability History Month Lucy Cureton, the Athena Swan CTU Rep, shares the importance that active inclusivity and workplace adjustments make to her experience at work.
Tell us a little bit about you and your disability
In 2016, I had an operation on to fix a large tear in the cartilage of my hip joint. I did not recover well from this operation and as such, I have been left with chronic pain in my hip. Chronic pain is not visible, it varies day by day and hour by hour and it has an impact on the entire body and mind, rather than just the affected area. Due to having chronic pain, I am more prone to fatigue, general aches and pains throughout the body, irritability, mobility limitations, difficulties with appetite, sleep problems, low mood and stress.
How does your disability impact your daily life?
Day-to-day, I feel pain in my hip. Sometimes it limits my mobility or tasks such as tying my shoelaces, and the pain isn’t necessarily related to movement, it can be painful just lying down or sitting on the sofa. Whilst the nature of chronic conditions is that they can be unpredictable, there are certain things that I know I will always ‘pay for’: sitting too long at my desk especially during an intensive activity like delivering online training; lots of walking or travelling; certain types of exercise; and any kind of walking that is ‘start-stop’ such as shopping, visiting museums etc. In addition to the chronic pain, I also suffer with anxiety and depression. Pain and depression work together in a vicious cycle, with depression often increasing pain levels and vice versa. Both my pain and depression are managed with medication (the side effects of which are a whole other issue!), but there are things I can do to increase my chances of feeling well.
What adjustments can be made either in work or outside of work that help?
I really enjoy being in the office, but I find it’s too much to be there all day every day, as the pain often increases throughout the day. So on the days I am on site I will often leave earlier in the afternoon and work the rest of the day from home. The journey to work itself can often be challenging especially in the cold weather, so not having to do this every day is really helpful for me. Being able to join meetings, especially bigger events like Departmental Meetings, via Teams is so helpful. Lecture theatres are often very uncomfortable and overcrowded, plus having to factor in additional travelling or walking can really impact my day. Not being able to attend would mean missing out on important updates and discussions.
There are several adjustments in the office that I have requested to make my life easier. I have my own chair that has been specifically tailored to me, which was funded by an Access To Work grant. I have been able to take this with me from a previous department – it was specially escorted from NDORMS to the Gibson Building when I started at the CTU! The Access to Work grant also provided me with an additional laptop stand and keyboard, so that I could be comfortably set up to work at home. When on site, I find it easier to work nearer to a door and to not be far away from tea rooms and bathrooms. To help with mental health there are very minor adjustments that I have made myself that help me when I’m in the office: I like to keep my work area colourful and positive, my laptop background is a slide show of all of my favourite photos, and I keep a selection of books and snacks at my desk! Sometimes I just need to take a quiet ten minutes to stop myself from being overwhelmed, or to get out of my chair and stretch, so being able to take regular breaks is vital.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to a policy, criterion or practice where a disabled person is placed at a significant disadvantage because of their disability.
As chronic pain and mental health issues are invisible illnesses, colleagues often won’t know I’m suffering unless I’m open about it. Whilst I try not to overshare, I find it helpful for people to know what my situation is, so that they can understand why I may work in a slightly different way to them. As with anyone with a disability, I’ve had negative reactions at work, ranging from a well-meaning "You shouldn’t be sitting with your legs crossed" to the baffling "It’s a good job you don’t have children because you wouldn’t be able to pick them up". Generally, people express empathy and understanding.
Whilst I find it important to share my situation, not everyone with a disability is able or willing to speak so frankly. You may wish to speak to the department’s HR team who can facilitate adjustments and support them being put in place or you can go directly through Occupational Health or the University’s staff disability advisor. Whether or not a disability has been disclosed, line managers are encouraged to ask staff what their needs are, and to check in with them regularly. Furthermore, once a line manager is made aware of a disability, they have a responsibility to ensure that adjustments are put in place. Additionally, it is important to know that requesting adjustments for disabilities isn’t necessarily a one-off exercise; I have recently completed a DSE assessment and been referred to Occupational Health as I am finding I am in much more pain in the office than I am at home. Managers should be aware that a staff member’s needs may change over time and having a manger check in with my needs and adjustments on an ongoing basis is hugely helpful and removes the burden from me to speak up.
What to read next
This Disability History Month Charlotte Albury, Athena Swan EMCR Rep shares the importance and difference that active inclusivity makes to her experience at conferences and work.
Taking the MSc in Translational Health Sciences: an opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge needed to increase the impact my lived experience could have on the healthcare experiences of others.
Amy Dickinson who recently completed her MSc in Translational Health Sciences shares her experiences of the programme as a chronic illness sufferer and her recommendations for students taking the master’s from the patient perspective.