I was diagnosed with developmental hip dysplasia at the age of 12. To a lot of people, that probably doesn’t mean very much. Basically, hip dysplasia is when the ball and socket joint of your hips don’t fit together properly – cue pain when walking. Now aged 25, I have had 4 hip operations but it’s not all bad. I can walk unaided. I can swim. On holiday in Greece this summer, I climbed 350 stone steps in search of an archaeological museum (although admittedly regretted this later). At first glance, I doubt anybody would realise that I’m disabled. Perhaps they might if they paid close attention to the way that I walk, or watched me struggle to stand up on a moving bus. Usually the only way that somebody knows I’m disabled is if I tell them.
The fact that my disability is not immediately obvious to people is both a blessing and a curse. It means that I usually get to choose who I tell, and when. I don’t feel like it’s the first thing that people notice, when they meet me. However, the fact that people don’t realise that I’m disabled often means that they expect me to be able to do things that I can’t. In the context of being a PhD student, it means that colleagues might expect me to help them carry something heavy, or to ride a bike on a fieldtrip, or to sit on the floor during a seminar. I would struggle to do any of these things. If a colleague asks me to do something that I am physically unable to do, or that will be painful for me, I often feel awkward when I have to point out my disability to them. In particular, it can be intimidating telling a senior colleague that you can’t do something they have asked you to.
And here’s another thing: academia can be exhausting, and so can having hip dysplasia. Bring the two together and it can really take it out of you. Sometimes I have to turn down social events that colleagues or friends are hosting, because my hips are particularly painful and I am in desperate need of a relaxing evening in on the sofa. I’m determined to finish my PhD on schedule, but this means that things have to give in other areas of my life. I find this difficult to explain to anybody who doesn’t have any experience of disability or chronic illness.
Whilst being a PhD student with a disability is challenging, I have found a number of different ways in which to deal with these challenges:
- I have developed a supportive network of friends, family and colleagues who know about my disability and who I can turn to for support.
- I work from home for part of the week, to cut down the amount of walking that I have to do.
- I listen to my body, and arrange my breaks and rest time accordingly.
- This one is a work in progress: I am getting better at letting people know what I am physically able to do (and explaining why I can’t carry that box of essays upstairs for them!)
I love being a PhD student (most of the time!) and, if anything, having hip dysplasia makes me even more determined to succeed. Clearly being disabled doesn’t have to hold you back in academia; but it would make it far easier for those of us with disabilities if there was a greater recognition of our needs. Being in academia with a disability can feel like an isolating experience, which is why I’m so excited that this discussion is taking place! Please, join in the conversation and feel free to ask questions. We can support each other.