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This Disability History Month, our Deputy Medical Director for undergraduate education and Foundation programmes, Professor Liz Hughes MBE, shares her story and perspective.

3 December 2021

I’ve been a hospital consultant for over 30 years in chemical pathology and metabolic medicine, and I’m also a proud Disability Champion. This Disability History Month 2021, we celebrate great disabled people of the past and present and the potential to create change to build a more equal future. I’ve seen a lot of change over my career, but sadly I also still see and meet colleagues and trainees who feel unable to be open about being disabled. Sometimes people are scared to talk about their disability or living with a long-term condition because of stigma or discrimination.

This means that having conversations about reasonable adjustments can be a challenge. It often means that people are missing out on the support they are entitled to, and this can be detrimental to them and of course to their work. I do feel frustrated by this, but I know it’s largely because we still don’t have a culture in which it’s normal to talk about disability openly. The word ‘disability’ and the language we use is sometimes heavily stigmatised.

I remember going on holiday to Cyprus with my family in a particularly rebellious point of my teenage years. We went on a tour of a cave, and a man who was serving  in the Horse Guards just asked me, “What’s wrong with your hoof?”. My parents were horrified, but I found his openness refreshing. I’d got used to people staring at my leg and whispering as they passed me, making me feel ashamed and that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. I would much rather people were more like the Horse Guards man and chose to ask me about my disability. I think sometimes people, including allies, think disabled people don’t want them to ask questions and should instead pretend their disability does not exist. This may be the case for some people, but for me, I’d much rather you did ask me. It would help remove the idea many people have that everyone has to hide disabilities to belong. Because in reality, so many people have disabilities, or long-term conditions, and we are just normal people.

In another instance, when I was a medical student, one summer the porter came to get me as I was needed on call. One of them said to me, “We (the porters) think you’ve broken your leg in a skiing accident.” Now that really made me laugh – it was the middle of July, so the likelihood of having had a skiing accident was pretty low! I now say don’t make assumptions- if you want to know, please just ask me instead of guessing!

I really want to normalise the conversation around disability. I want people to know that it’s ok to talk about disability and to have an open culture around this. I’ve been working with the new Disabled Students’ Commission, which is part of the Office for Students. I’m really interested in the work they have been doing to make sure that these conversations are happening and are making a difference to the lives of disabled learners. I know there is more we can do here at Health Education England and for many people, our action could mean the difference between a thriving career and struggling. I want us to create a culture in which our trainees and learners with disabilities feel confident and safe to be open about their disabilities. I want to make sure people can access the support they need to be at their best.

Earlier on in my consultant career, I was working in an outpatient clinic and there were no adjustable beds to examine patients. As a result, I was getting severe back pain. At one point I was walking straight out of the outpatients and straight into physio after my clinics because I simply didn’t have the adjustments I needed. I got help from the Access to Work scheme, which these days provides up to £63,000 to eligible applicants, as after the Trust organised a workstation assessment for me. They then arranged for adjustable beds, screens and computers in the rooms I worked in. This meant that I could do my job perfectly well without it sending me to the physio afterwards!

Reasonable adjustments look different for everyone. I once had a trainee who experienced mental health difficulties and needed to adjust the way they worked. For this trainee, working every other day and working from 10-6 rather than 9-5 helped them to thrive both personally and professionally. These were entirely appropriate and reasonable adjustments that made the world of difference to the trainee.

I also had a another trainee who following an accident became paraplegic and kept insisting they didn’t want any help. They said that they didn’t want to be a burden and I said to them accept the help that’s there! But the trouble is if people are made to feel like they are a burden, they will continue to struggle rather than ask for help. This is help which could make a real difference to them, their work and of course their patients.

I want to emphasise to trainees with disabilities, learning differences, or managing long-term conditions (including people now living with the long-term effects of COVID19) there is help. There are funds and support mechanisms in place, like the ones I’ve accessed previously, to support you to achieve your training goals and career aspirations. I know that the process of applying for, and accessing, the support available can be confusing and overwhelming. Which is why I’ve been working with Diversity & Ability to put together great resources. We have helped develop the Find Your Way Guide, which is a helpful interactive guide to practical and financial support available such as the Disabled Students Allowance and the Access to Work grant scheme.

This month, I’ve very much enjoyed watching Strictly Come Dancing, and seeing Rose Ayling-Ellis (the first ever deaf contestant) thriving in that ballroom. Over summer, an estimated 4.25 billion viewers tuned in to watch the Paralympics. It’s the kind of viewing that really draws you in to people’s lives and stories.

Disabled people have always been a part of our world and in every part of society, whether recognised as, or known for, having a disability or not. Some famous people with disabilities that you may or may not know of include Frida Kahlo, David Beckham, Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder, Selena Gomez…there are many more.

Society is becoming more open to seeing people like me, people with disabilities, as a normal and important part of the fabric of society. I believe that everyone deserves the same opportunities to succeed. It’s about time we all started talking about disabilities as the norm, and I think a welcome shift is underway.





Posted by Prof Liz Hughes MBE