Imperial College London

Lisa Phillips: "When you have a disability, you fear being unable to work"

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Lisa Phillips

As part of Disability History Month, Lisa Phillips, Senior HR Manager, reflects on life since her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

In January 2015, Lisa woke up to find that she couldn’t feel or move one of her legs. “I remember phoning my sister and telling her ‘I need to visit the GP, I can’t move,’” recalls Lisa. 

Before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) three years ago, Lisa had initially felt a loss of sensation in her feet. MS is a lifelong autoimmune condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, resulting in a wide range of symptoms that can vary from person to person. It affects about 100,000 people in the UK. 

“I didn’t know what MS was at the time”

It was during her morning commute to work that Lisa first experienced one of the symptoms of MS. “I used to walk from Paddington station to the South Kensington Campus every day,” Lisa explains. “One day, I was doing my usual walk through Hyde Park but suddenly, I couldn’t feel my feet. I ignored it at first, but later that day I was in a lot of pain and my feet had started to swell. After an initial visit to the GP, I was given medication and told that the pain would disappear over time. I didn’t think much of it.” 

Lisa’s symptoms grew worse shortly after this - she found it difficult to wear shoes as her feet swelled and her knee began to stiffen. On the morning that she could no longer feel or move her leg, Lisa was urgently referred to Accidental & Emergency by her GP. It was here that she was diagnosed with MS. 

"I remember sending a text message to a senior colleague informing her that I had MS. She gave me strong reassurance that I was still very much part of Imperial and that I had her full support. " Lisa Phillips Senior HR Manager

Like many people newly-diagnosed with the condition, Lisa didn’t know much about it. “I didn’t know what MS was at the time. I’d never thought about it. My initial question to the consultant was ‘what does MS mean? Does it mean I’m going to be in a wheelchair?’ They never answered to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It dawned on me then that one day, I might be in a wheelchair.” 

As she tried to absorb the news of her diagnosis, Lisa had many fears. "When you have a disability, you fear being unable to work. I remember sending a text message to a senior colleague informing her that I had MS. She gave me strong reassurance that I was still very much part of Imperial and that I had her full support. 

“At the time, I needed reassurance because I had started to worry that I would no longer be able to work. I’ve been working my whole life and to suddenly be told I had MS… I kept thinking ‘will I have to give up my job? How will I pay my mortgage? How will I cope? How will I do anything?’ It was a complete shock at the time."

“I’m just a person who is able but has mobility issues”

Lisa Phillips with her walking stickFollowing her diagnosis, Lisa returned to work but describes it as being “hard”. In her view, she says that people were shocked about her diagnosis and would often label her “amazing” for returning back to work. “Many people didn’t know how to react when I first came back. I think they found it hard because I was normally the one running up and down.  

“I don’t consider myself to be amazing. If someone else is sick and gets better, nobody would say they are ‘amazing’ for coming back to work. I’m just a person who is able but has mobility issues. I think people were showing concern by asking about my wellbeing but personally, it felt like they were suggesting that because I have MS, I shouldn’t be working.” 

Lisa adds: “I have often been asked questions such as: ‘how do you have the strength to keep working? Why do you bother to work? Why not consider ill-health retirement?’ One of the biggest realisations I have had since being diagnosed with a visible condition like MS is accepting that some comments are positive and can help me to cope, but others are negative and would stop me from living my life to the fullest if I took them to heart. 

“I think I’ve come a long way now. I don’t feel sorry for myself”

Lisa feels that over time, her team and managers have learned to accommodate her. “Personally, I don’t like sympathy. Within my team, everyone knows me really well and knows if I’ve had a bad day. They don’t treat me as if I’m disabled, but like any other person. Managers that I work closely with also do the same now.” 

Occupational Health supported Lisa by helping her to apply for Access to Work, through which she was given a grant to pay for a scooter that helps her move around the South Kensington Campus. In addition, she has been given a car parking space so that she can drive to work using her adapted mobility car, works from home when needed and feels that her colleagues consider the location of meetings so that she does not become fatigued when travelling. 

“I also have an excellent family support network and because of them I’m able to function quite well,” Lisa adds. “I’m still normal and do normal things – I go on holiday two or three times a year. I might not be able to go dancing or clubbing, but I have just visited Miami and went on a cruise.   

Lisa was awarded the Imperial College Medal in 2016
Lisa was awarded the Imperial College Medal in 2016

“In the beginning when I was first diagnosed, I was very defensive and I wouldn’t accept any help. I think I’ve come a long way now. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I know there are others with MS who might have more severe symptoms, so I feel quite fortunate. 

“If I had one wish, it would be for the stiffness to go. I wish I could move around. I don’t know what the future holds, but I can’t think of it negatively.” 

Lisa is also co-Chair of the College’s staff network for individuals living with a disability, Able@Imperial. If you are interested in working alongside Lisa as co-Chair or would like to shape the direction of the network, email Lisa for further information. 

Imperial will also mark Disability History Month with a talk from Raquel Siganporia, Partner and Head of the Spinal Injury team at law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp. In her talk, titled 'How not to judge a book by its spine’, Raquel will discuss her personal experiences of good practice in the workforce when employing someone with a disability. This event will take place on Tuesday 4 December, 12.30 – 13.30, Lecture Theatre G100, Imperial College Business School, Exhibition Road, SW7 2AZ. Register to attend.


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Martha Nahar

Martha Nahar
Communications and Public Affairs

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6708
Email: m.nahar@imperial.ac.uk

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