The only way is Aldi …

All first year Physiotherapy students at the University of Birmingham have been undertaking a wheelchair expedition as part of their patient-centred practice module this term. Here’s how two of those students got on

Our route:

From 52 Pritchatts Road, University of Birmingham to Aldi on the Bristol Road, Birmingham.

From Pritchatts Roas to Victoria Hall

  • In Pritchatts road we used the internal lift to get from the fourth floor to the ground floor – buttons were quite high to reach from the chair, and the alarm button was out of reach. (If I had fallen out of my chair, then I would not be able to get back up to call for help!).
  • Bought lunch from the café downstairs in Pritchartts road- the staff moved around the table in order to take my sandwich and to pay which was very helpful.
  • Crossed the road – we used the crossing and had to ensure the green man was on. We realised we couldn’t just cross anywhere along the road as the gaps in the traffic weren’t large enough for us to cross. It was also difficult to see around the corners of cars or above parked cars from the chair to see if it was safe to cross the road.
  • Muirhead lift- We used the lift and came out on the car park and had to negotiate ourselves around a VERY big lorry.
  • Stayed on main footpath through the centre of campus. There was some steep hills that required assistance in steering as they were “Attendant propelled” because it was so steep.  (kept steering onto the road).
  • Tree roots and uneven surfaces lead to a rocky ride and made it difficult to get over and negotiate around, making the chair very unstable. We therefore often had to go the long way around.
  • Disabled ramps that we used were often situated further away from normal pavements, so we had to take a longer route.

In general, people looked away/down from the wheelchair and the assistant -often looked more towards the person pushing than individual in chair.

Victoria Hall, halls of residence

  • Lift within the accommodation had lower buttons , this made it easier to use for the individual in the chair.
  • Difficult to press the green exit button to get out in time before the door re-locked.
  • Builder working on pavement offered to move the temporary barriers to allow enough pavement for the wheelchair to go through as the pavement was too narrow for the wheelchair to go through.
  • Couldn’t cut across the road at the short cuts as it took too long to get on and off the kerbs against the oncoming traffic. Also the gaps weren’t large enough in the traffic to cross, as we couldn’t just run across the road with the wheelchair; it therefore took more thought when crossing the road.
  • Van blocked the drop kerb so we had to negotiate around it and lever the wheelchair down a steep kerb. This was dangerous as the wheelchair was very unstable and the individual could have easily fallen out. It also blocked the way for other pedestrians.


  • The isles were narrow so the wheelchair often caused problems for people pushing trolleys behind as the isle was often blocked.
  • Left a large box/container box in the isle so it was restricted to move making the isle blocking problem even bigger. It also made it harder for the individual in the wheelchair to reach products on the shelves as they couldn’t reach the shelf as the chair was stopped to far away for them to lean over and reach.
  • Difficult to see the prices on the top shelf and reach the top shelf as you are so low down. This meant the assistant often had to pick up the shopping for the individual in the wheelchair.
  • Cashier was very helpful and packed the shopping bags for us which made it a lot easier.

The Potential Pitfalls of the Virtual World

One of the challenges we continually face in the development of our multi-sensory virtual environments for healthcare is how we can overcome the blinkered beliefs placed by potential purchasers of interactive 3D technologies on the over-hyped Internet claims of their developers and vendors.  Be they responsible for new Virtual or Augmented Reality wearable displays or even new forms of gesture recognition or multifunction hand controller, we all-too-often come across the attitude that “if it’s on YouTube”, or “the CEO of this games company says it’s fantastic”, then it must be true. 

Over the past 3-4 years, we have been developing two unique and comprehensive, fully interactive virtual worlds, based on coastal and rural scenes from real areas in South Devon.  We have done this primarily to conduct research on the potential for simulated natural environments to deliver the same levels of accelerated post-operative recovery as has been demonstrated with through-the-window views of real-world natural scenes.  During that time, we have also been engaging with a wide range of clinical groups within the QE Hospital and elsewhere, as they begin to see potential applications in developing skill-, cognition- and rehabilitation-based activities for the disabled (including amputees from the military and cardiovascular units), the elderly and those suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and a range of other debilitating conditions. The research is quite challenging, as it has become quite clear that there is – despite the enormous range of new human interface products emerging onto the games market, and from “crowd-funding” initiatives such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – no single interface that yet exists that can adequately support every new healthcare application we face.  Sure, we can instrument wheelchairs and other mobility aids to assist the exploration of these virtual environments, but what then if the user then wishes to undertake more dynamic forms of interaction? 

Some of the future activity suggestions we have received from patients and carers alike over the past few months vary immensely – from plant collection and ship-spotting to hang-gliding and even scuba diving!  Very recently we have been looking at appropriate hand controllers for use by patients in Intensive Care.  The majority of these individuals suffer from extreme limitations in mobility, significant levels of manual fatigue are exposed to quite intensive medication regimes.  Devices such as the popular Xbox hand controller, the Kinect and Xtion motion sensing products, typical games joysticks – even the simplest “retro” style of joystick – cannot be used effectively by most of these patients.  And for those that can, the complexity of each controller, despite the fact that we typically use only a small amount of the controls available, is simply too much to deal with on a cognitive level.  Add to that the fact that, assuming they are able to interact vocally, each patient will often demand his or her own style of interaction, not to mention on-screen walking and head-turning speeds, places further demands on the Human Factors specialists in our team to ensure that each interface is carefully tailored to the needs of needs and post-operative capabilities and limitations of each individual we deal with. 

Eventually, as our Virtual Environment systems move out of the hospital and into care organisations, clinics, even the homes of patients themselves, these Human Factors and Ergonomics issues will become even more critical if individuals are to benefit from the content of the simulations, rather than spending their time battling to get to grips with poorly-designed or poorly-chosen human interface devices.

Professor Robert J. Stone
Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems,
School of Electronic, Electrical & Computer Engineering
University of Birmingham, UK

Wheelchair Expedition

All first year Physiotherapy students at the University of Birmingham have been undertaking a wheelchair expedition as part of their patient-centred practice module this term. Here’s how two of those students, Natasha Cassidy and Daniel Foley, got on.


We started the wheelchair expedition from 52 Pritchatts road, the University of Birmingham, to our target destination, The Secret Garden at the top of the new library in Birmingham city centre.

We had barely wheeled an inch before we met our first challenge - the door to exit the room. Not easy. Especially as it was a door that you had to pull towards you in order to exit. We thought about all the doors we used in a day, and how many of those are disabled friendly (i.e. with a button for automatic entry/exit), realising that they are quite rare.

The next challenge was not far off, when we realised how high up the button was to call the lift. Ironic I feel, seeing as one key reason to install a lift is for disabled access. But anyway, we had made it into the lift, and out of the building without too much trouble.

On exiting the building, we automatically headed in the direction we would normally go to, to get to the University train station. This is when our brains really started having to work, and it sank in that this journey would be very difficult. 

Access on and off pavements via dropped kerbs and avoiding routes with steps is not always straightforward, they don’t always match your desired route, meaning having to add more time to your journey to double back and find a new way. Like one of those children’s puzzle, where you have to draw a line through a maze to get to the other side, and you keep meeting dead ends.

Getting up this hill unaided in the chair was near impossible

We reached the bottom of the hill that would be our last leg to the train station. We are fairly fit people, but quickly realised that getting up this hill unaided in the chair was near impossible. So it was up to me to push Dan all the way up. After 10 minutes of pushing I felt more worn out than an hour at the gym. And it wasn’t over yet.

We reached New Street, and as it was only a 10 minute walk to the library we did not think it would take us too much  longer. However, from the train station to the Library was almost entirely uphill - meaning a lot more hard labour with pushing the chair, and Dan, the chair-user, starting to feel quite useless. To make things harder, the pavements were sloping  and very uneven.


But we did it, we got to the Library. Things were actually quite easy from that point onwards - being a brand new building, it was very wheelchair-user friendly, with automatic doors, roomy lifts, and helpful people about to give us directions. However we were told, ‘well you’re going to be really annoyed when you get to the Secret Garden, as you will want to stand up to get a good look of the view!’ I think he missed the point a bit …


We arrived at our destination of The Secret Garden, feeling very pleased with ourselves, but also very introspective about the whole situation. What had started out as a fun challenge was now a very real glance at living in the shoes (or wheels) of someone who may be living their entire lives in this manner.

People so often talk to the person pushing the chair and not to you

And I haven’t even described how horrible it feels when people are staring at you, and you catch their eye and they look away. Or how people so often talk to the person pushing the chair and not to you. Or how weird it is to have a conversation with the person pushing you and not being able to look them in the face. Or how so many non-wheelchair users use the disabled toilets, (we’ve all done it). Or even how annoying it is when your train changes platforms at the last minute, and you have to get the lift back up to the top floor, find the lift that will get you down to your new platform, and try to catch your train in time.

We only spent a few hours in the chair, and came across so many problems that a wheelchair-user might face.  This short space of time could not possibly show us all of the struggles one may encounter as a wheelchair user, but for us, our minds have been broadened, and we feel fortunate to have been able to gain insight into this way of life. 


Natasha Cassidy and Daniel Foley, University of Birmingham UK.

As a Theologian and a Carer

For myself and my husband, the backdrop to our academic careers was caring for a son with profound learning disabilities. It was only after retirement and after 45 years of caring that he left home for residential care. He never acquired any self-help skills, had no language, and in adulthood even lost what little mobility he’d acquired, as the consequences of his failure to develop according to normal milestones led to increasing physical disability. In the early years, with other young children, our situation was not so different from other two-career households with a family. Nursery and school provision, along with the flexibility of academic life enabled us to box and cox. The difference was that this went on for years longer than most couples experience. It meant constant organisation since our son could never be left on his own.

How can the believer maintain the claim that this world is the creation of a good God in the face of such profound disability?

We had our struggles, but also benefits. After taking early retirement my physicist husband found a new life serving four different disability charities in Birmingham, while my own research interests were affected by the issues raised by the condition of my son. As a theologian I at first found key questions sharpened up – the so-called problem of suffering and evil, in particular: how can the believer maintain the claim that this world is the creation of a good God in the face of such profound disability? My research area has been early Christian texts, from the New Testament through to the fifth century, and I soon found myself reflecting on the fact that the so-called problem of suffering is a remarkably modern issue: why was it that thinkers of the past, when there was far less ability to relieve suffering, far more infant mortality, and much poorer life expectancy, were apparently so much less bothered by this question. I also found myself supervising postgraduates who raised questions about attitudes to disability in the Bible, as well as in the societies of antiquity from which biblical and early Christian texts came. It became apparent that Christianity, as it became powerful in the Roman world, in certain respects changed attitudes towards and provision for persons with disabilities, but the legacy has been charitable institutions, almsgiving and the stimulation of patronising attitudes which have rightly been challenged in recent times. Yet even as we offer critique of the past, the past may have challenging things to say to us.

Generally speaking, I have resisted turning myself into a single issue theologian. Nevertheless, research questions always arise out of one’s interests, and latterly my work has been affected by the fact that life with my son has profoundly changed my perspectives. I would now claim that he has given me privileged access to the deepest truths of the Christian tradition. Asking the ‘Why?’ questions implies that my son’s life has no value, but that is profoundly misguided. A recent re-write of an earlier, more popular and personal account of his life and my response to it has shifted the focus from that initial question to his vocation. Meanwhile, my latest academic book has been an attempt to integrate my historical research with contemporary reflection on the way things are, along with the various disparate elements of my life, not only being an academic, but also an ordained woman and a carer. In other words, it acknowledges the ‘hermeneutical gap’ between early Christianity and the world we/I now live in, and seeks to reach some kind of critical yet coherent understanding as to how and what of early Christianity one might appropriate in a different cultural and intellectual environment. The material was assembled for the 2011 Bampton lectures in Oxford and has just been published as God’s Presence. A contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity (CUP 2013). It is on the basis of this work that I make the claim that the past is capable of challenging the present.

In the core doctrines of Christianity, the reality of disability as an endemic aspect of human existence plays an important role

Here, in pursuing issues like creation, especially our human place in the created order, as well as sin and salvation, the cross of Christ and the experience of God’s Spirit in the life of the church – in other words, the core doctrines of Christianity as they were articulated in the early centuries, the reality of disability as an endemic aspect of human existence plays an important role, and enables the identification of past insights and perspectives which might make us think again. Here are some examples:

  • Early Christian thinkers recognised that in our physical being we are no different from animals, as did the Bible (Eccles. 3.18-21). It’s a pity 19th century Christians forgot about that when faced with Darwin’s tree of life. We are all vulnerable creatures; loss and death are part of life. This may seem all too obvious, but our culture constantly resists accepting this as the success of modern medicine keeps lengthening life and offering the illusion that all ills can be removed. Popular sentiment, at least as expressed in the media, places impossible demands on the NHS. To sense the commonality of basic needs and vulnerabilities and so identify with profoundly limited persons like my son is to regain an important spiritual perspective on the limitations of the human condition.

  • Disability hate crime, abusive regimes in care homes, exploitation of the vulnerable by the callous, not to mention things like the Nazi Holocaust of persons with all kinds of disabilities and the parallel eugenics movement in our own cultural history – all this provides as good an example of the ‘gone- wrongness’ that Christian theology has called ‘original sin’ as any other. This has been described as the only empirically demonstrable doctrine of Christianity. Other religions and philosophies may present a more optimist take on humanity, but is it realistic? Human goodness and its dark opposite can be recognised as coexisting within persons, groups and societies and demanding resolution, in other words, what Christians would call salvation.

  • We are all in it together. I’ve been particularly impressed by the sense of human solidarity to be found in some early Christian texts. Interdependence is a reality obscured by the individualism of our culture. Of course, affirmation of the worth and dignity of each person is important, and for some with disabilities, achievement through, e.g., Paralympic sport or gaining university degrees can be particularly self-affirming. But for those with profound disabilities, for whom such achievement is impossible, being held in a community, where there’s deep mutual respect between carer and the one cared for, is what enables each to feel part of something bigger than themselves, creates dignity and gives value to the lives of each. This I have seen realised in the daily living and spirituality of Jean Vanier, and the L’Arche communities. I’m grateful that there are signs of it in the little multicultural community of residents and carers where my son is now housed and looked after. More than anything else relationship with those with profound disabilities generates what St Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5.22). Surely such community values enable what is truly human better than appeal to rights. ‘My saviour is the one who needs me’, and this is ‘the gift of the unlikely givers’ – to quote a couple of proverbs arising from a group reflecting on the contribution to society of L’Arche and its values.

I have picked out examples which may speak to all of us as human beings. But it is above all the insight of the Christian tradition that in Jesus Christ, the God who created all things took responsibility for the gone-wrongness of creation, shared our vulnerable bodily existence, bearing our suffering and the consequences of our sin on the cross, not wafting it all away with a magic wand, but transforming it all into glory from within, that has enabled the discovery of delight and joy, gifts and graces, in the daily ordinariness of attending to basic bodily functions, accompanied with the chuckles and smiles of loving relationship. This is not to be sentimental or to deny that there have been dark times and periods of real struggle and difficulty, but it is to discern the pattern of cross and resurrection in the reality of human living.

Professor Frances M. Young

Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology, 1986-2005; Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1997-2002, University of Birmingham UK.

Inclusive Education and the UK’s ratification of UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, after a prolonged period of deliberation, finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons (2006) with Disabilities on 8 June 2009 with ‘reservations’.

Arguably, the publication of the Convention marked a significant step forward in ensuring that over 650 million disabled people across the world have the same human rights as everyone else. Standards to support the aspirations of the Convention are set out in a wide ranging set of Articles covering, for example, the rights to life, access to justice, to personal mobility, to health, to education and to work.

Article 24 in the Convention is concerned with education and calls for signatories to the Convention (States Parties or nations) to ensure that persons with disabilities can access an inclusive education without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity. In some majority world countries, achieving this goal is unlikely to be possible unless radical efforts are made internationally to reduce economic and social inequality.

In the UK achieving this goal is altogether more realistic and achievable. However, when the UK ratified the Convention in 2009 it did not unequivocally confirm its commitment to the development of an inclusive education system. Instead, it qualified ratification with a declaration that argued both mainstream and special school settings are part of a general education system, and that such provision does not run counter to efforts to improve access to mainstream education.

The politics of education in England are driven primarily by market forces and matters of rights for persons with disabilities are subservient to these

This may be the case, but in England in particular, this masks the fact that ‘good education’ is increasingly regarded as a matter of market choice, and that the education of persons with disabilities will be determined by this dominant value rather than one aligned with the value of equality.  The value of choice features both implicitly and explicitly in England’s new Special Educational Needs legislation due to implemented in September 2014. This is set out in the Children and Families Bill making its way through Parliament at the current time and in the Draft Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice: for 0 to 25 years (statutory guidance). Neither the legislation provisions in the Bill or the accompanying guidance in Code make any reference to the Article 24 of the UN Convention. Why, we might ask?

In teaching on matters pertaining to education policy and disability in the second semester, I am looking forward to hearing from education professionals I work with, and exploring why they think the UN Convention appears to be so marginal to policy that I think it should be at the heart of in England.*

My own view is that, as already noted, the politics of education in England are driven primarily by market forces and matters of rights for persons with disabilities are subservient to these. But I also think that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is too readily dismissed by politicians and policymakers, and regarded as more relevant to the ‘development’ needs of ‘other’ countries.

*The national legislation and policy referred to in this blog refers to England rather than other parts of the UK.  Although the UN Convention was ratified by the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, education policies within the UK are not uniform.

Christopher Robertson
lectures in inclusive and special education and is based in the Disability, Inclusion and Special Education Department (DISN) in the School of Education, University of Birmingham UK. He has a particular interest in the politics of education policy and its impact on education professionals, parents, and persons with disabilities.

Are lecture recordings useful for supporting dyslexic students’ learning ?

For many of us, the first week at University is a mixture of excitement and personal triumph, but as term progresses, the grim reality hits - University is also about work!  Often one of the first challenges - How to take good lecture notes? – is also one of the trickiest.  This is important as it is such a crucial skill to pick up, particularly on courses with lots of content, and where lectures are the main teaching approach. Most of us eventually become expert in note-taking, and the intellectual juggling required to: (i) understand the lecturer, (ii) identify the main ideas or facts, and (iii) fiercely scribble them down. Not surprisingly, researchers confirm note-taking is hard - requiring ‘significant cognitive effort’, and comparable with playing chess, translating, or writing an essay.  

What is clear, is that note-taking presents a real challenge for many dyslexic students who have problems in following a presentation and writing at the same time. Dyslexia often presents difficulties for students working with text-based materials, and can be a serious barrier to study. With ~7% of the undergraduate cohort in the UK found to be dyslexic, finding ways to support these students to study is a really big issue. 

What support does the University currently offer dyslexic students?

Students who think they might have dyslexia are invited to contact the Learning Support Team, and may be offered screening, diagnosis and advice on practical approaches to get the most from their studies. However, the University is also exploring whether courses can develop ways to support dyslexic students, and this is the focus of our study on lecture recordings.  In Birmingham, these have an audio recording of the lecturer’s voice overlaying the Powerpoint slides, and typically are used to supplement lecture attendance, rather than replace them altogether.

What are we doing in this study?

Lecture recording is widely used at universities in many countries, but surprisingly little is known about how students use it, or how it affects their studies – areas we need to understand if we are to use the approach in a more structured way. As beginners at educational research, we initially planned a small studyto understand whether this is a useful approach, however this has now morphed into one of the largest evaluations of the technology in the UK. This followed on from encouraging findings – on the course we studied (BMedSc. Medical Science) we found ~50% of students used the recordings at some point, either to improve their notes, catch up on missed lectures, or for revision. What also emerged is how the recordings were heavily used by many dyslexic students – though this shouldn’t have been a surprise, as many use audio-only digital voice recordings for their learning. Comments on questionnaires and from focus groups showed the approach was really useful for many dyslexic students who found taking notes stressful, as the recordings acted as a back-up.  Here are some comments from the study…

 I’m dyslexic. Sometimes when I’m tired, when I get back [to my notes] they’re just complete rubbish’.

For me lectures aren’t that a great way of learning… but being able to go back over it, makes you able to do it at your own speed. 

It depends on how you learn. For me, listening to a concept over and over again, it helps. It helps reinforce the concept.’

 However, it was also clear that many students spend a huge amount of their study time on the recordings, and some make close to verbatim records of lectures.  This may not be the best use of their study time.

 Where are we now..?

We are now in the second year of exploring lecture recording in Years 1 and 2 of Medicine and are using a combination of questionnaires, focus groups and download data to understand how students use the recordings in their study.  Medical students are enthusiastic about the approach (~80% used recordings regularly. 2012-13), but  the large numbers of students studying on the course (380 per year!) allows us to understand how  dyslexic students use the recordings, and whether it really is useful for their studies.  Please get in touch with Karl Nightingale ( if you want to know more about the study.

Vikki Anderson & Sue Onens (Student Support Services),

John Coupethwaite (Educational Technology, Medical School)

Karl Nightingale (Birmingham Teaching Fellow & Senior Lecturer, Medical School)

University of Birmingham, UK

This study is funded by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Learning and Teaching

Independence pays?

In 1996, the passage of the Community Care (Direct Payments) Act was described by many disabled people and their allies as one of the most significant changes since the creation of the welfare state.  Rather than receiving directly provided social care services from the local Council, disabled people could receive the cash equivalent – using this to design their own care and even to employ their own staff.  Rather than being told what they could receive or not, they could now be in charge of the ‘who, what, where, when and how’ of their own care.  A leading figure in the campaign for direct payments and a life-long disability rights campaigner was Baroness Jane Campbell, later awarded an honorary degree by the University of Birmingham in recognition of her achievements.

Decisions that really matter to people are made as close to the person they affect as possible

More recently, Simon Duffy (an honorary member of staff at the University) was a key figure in the development of personal budgets – an approach which seeks to be clear upfront with disabled people how much money is available to meet their needs and to allow them much greater choice over how this money is spent.  This could be on public services, private services, voluntary services or a combination of all three – and even on things that don’t look like traditional services at all.  The key innovation here is that being clear about the money enables disabled people and staff to know how much they have to play with and to be much more creative in meeting their needs.  It also means that decisions that really matter to people are made as close to the person they affect as possible – ideally by the person themselves or , if not, by someone who knows them well and cares about them.

Throughout, the University of Birmingham’s Health Services Management Centre (HSMC) has been at the forefront of these changes – publishing the first introductory textbook on Direct payments and personal budgets (Glasby and Littlechild, 2009), advising Downing Street and the Cabinet Office on the extension of these concepts to the NHS and exploring the spread of this so-called ‘personalisation’ agenda to other areas of the welfare state (see, for example, Catherine Needham’s landmark book on Personalising public services, published by The Policy Press in 2011).   HSMC have also launched a series of national policy papers on Creating a Beveridge report for the C21st, exploring the implications of this way of working for health care, for disabled children, for community development, for criminal justice and for the tax and benefits system.

Throughout these changes, the University has been at the forefront of local and national debates, collaborating with disabled people’s organisations, advising policy makers, training front-line workers and publicising new ways of working.  When Joseph Chamberlain created the University of Birmingham he wanted it to be a civic University, playing a key role in the local community and making a practical difference to people’s lives.  Over a century later, the role of the University in helping to shape the development of direct payments and personal budgets is a good example of this mission in action.

Professor Jon Glasby

Professor of Health and Social Care and Director of the Health Services Management Centre at the University of Birmingham UK

For further information on all the resources cited here, see: 


Focus on Disability: Questions of Visibility

As we move in to the University of Birmingham Focus on Disability ( I would like to invite you once again to follow our blog in which we aim to present a small selection of the research that is being undertaken within the University on issues relating to disability.

Of all the protected characteristics that we are focussing on as part of the Advancing Equality in Employment ( it is perhaps the focus on disability that causes an institution such as the University of Birmingham the most trouble. Not only are we faced with a very wide diversity of conditions, but each and every individual is entitled to a very different set of responses and accommodations. What strikes me particularly, however, is the level of ‘invisibility’ that still surrounds so much of the impact of disability within an employment context.

The stereotypical image of disability is of those disabilities that are visible and permanent

The stereotypical image of disability (as still expressed in the use of the wheelchair as a catch-all symbol) is of those disabilities that are visible and permanent.Much of what we engage with, however, on a day to day basis is neither of these things. By far the largest single ‘disability’ within both our staff and our student population is dyslexia. I battled the consequences of my own dyslexia throughout my schooldays, often being accused of laziness, only to be diagnosed within the last few months of sixth form, just before heading off to University. It took me most of the next seven years of undergraduate and PhD experiences to develop my own tools to manage the dyslexia and, ultimately, to make it work positively for me. At that time I had very little support from the University concerned and deliberately chose not to reveal the diagnosis, wanting to prove, to myself at least, that I could achieve despite the dyslexia and rejecting any kind of ‘special treatment’. Things have changed, technology has made my life as a researcher and manager within the University so much easier, and there is a much more open debate and recognition around dyslexia throughout the University today, with great support on offer to those who choose to take advantage of it.

The question of visibility, however, still remains. Over the last year I have had the privilege of acting as chair for the appeals around REF that deal with special circumstances. All the cases that came into the panel were confidential and anonymous, but what so many of these appeals opened up to me was the number of individuals across the University who are trying to deal with illness and disability while still expecting to perform well at their job. In many cases the individuals had not told, and were very reluctant to tell, their managers of what they were experiencing on a day to day basis. In many cases the temporary nature of the illness (although ‘temporary’ often expanded to cover many years) meant that people did not consider themselves to have a disability or to seek accommodation from the University. Again the stereotypical images were getting in the way and leading to institutional invisibility.

We often forget those many people who are full time carers for other family members with disabilities

When we talk of a focus on disability, we often forget those many people who are full time carers for other family members with disabilities.This is perhaps the ultimate form of invisibility from a workplace perspective, but the impact of such care on the life and work of the employee is often very profound. As an institution we do try to offer support and flexibility in employment whenever we can, but my guess is that we are still failing to reach many people who could benefit from the advice and support that is available. Let us, therefore, use the Focus on Disability to raise awareness, to increase visibility, and to provide an opportunity for all of us across the University to learn more about what is on offer.

Martin Stringer (Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor)
University of Birmingham, UK