meets the eye
Meet five Imperial staff and students with invisible disabilities
Professor David Nowell
Chair in Machine Dynamics and Director of the Vibration University Technology Centre, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Chronic pain and fatigue following a stroke
In a university environment it’s the people that make the difference. I moved to Imperial in 2017 because I saw there was an opportunity to build a team and pass on my knowledge and experience as I near the end of my career.
I head up the dynamics group here. Our work is principally with Rolls-Royce on vibration problems in aircraft engines. Trying to understand what goes wrong and how to improve the engines is an interesting technological area. My teaching here focuses on an engineer’s responsibility to society – things like safety and risk, sustainability and professional ethics.
Being disabled has made a difference in how I approach my work. I think I’m much more empathetic and understanding now
Up until five and a half years ago, I had had no real health problems. I had a stroke out of the blue.
I now have a nervous system disorder down my entire right hand side. I have a lack of sensitivity in my fingertips so I can’t feel things properly – I can’t find my keys in my pocket, and I can’t manipulate things as well in experimental work.
Also there’s the pain. A lot of the time I don’t notice the pain, but it gets worse through the day as I get tired. I do get tired more easily than before I had the stroke.
I have to recognise that my body and my disability impose limits on what I can do. Sometimes I get to 4pm and actually it’s best to go home and sleep for an hour and then maybe do a bit more work afterwards. I have to be careful about scheduling meetings and attending conferences – I need to make sure I look after myself as well as the team. People here are very supportive and I haven’t found it a problem.
I’d encourage anyone who is disabled to say if you need somewhere to lie down at lunchtime, you need your desk to be near a toilet, or you need to use dictation software instead of typing. These kinds of adaptations are relatively easy to provide but you need to ask for them.
This kind of difference in the way you look at the world is a very useful thing to have. Being disabled has made a difference in how I approach my work. I think I’m much more empathetic and understanding now, more patient – with other disabled people, but also with people with other needs, like colleagues with young families.
I’d like people without disabilities to understand that if someone has a disability it doesn’t mean they can’t make a useful contribution, and that there are disabilities that you can’t see.
Department of Infectious Disease
I really enjoy being in the lab – I like being practical. We all have this joke that being in a lab is 90% moving a colourless liquid into another volume of colourless liquid, but we love it. My research looks at how the gut microbiota can influence your immune system to protect against lung infection.
I have four autoimmune diseases but Crohn’s disease is the main one. If one of the others flare up than it will 100% set the Crohn’s off as well.
No one would know by looking at me that I have a condition that regularly hospitalises me
I think my biggest challenge is exhaustion. There is a lot of pressure to put the hours in at Imperial and achieve a lot, which is great for feeling motivated – but if you are having a bout of fatigue it can be so difficult to get up in the morning and get to work. I’m also in sporadic pain which means I can struggle to concentrate.
Even when you are well, there are so many hospital appointments, which can really disrupt your workflow. But my manager is really understanding, and he can see my frustration and knows I would rather be in the lab getting things done.
Be brave – it is scary telling people.
It is good to know that you have a safety net if you need it. I didn’t access any support from Imperial until recently. I requested a funding extension to give me an additional six months to complete my PhD, because I’d lost that much time with being unwell or at appointments. Imperial said yes, and the process wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.
I never used to tell people that I had Crohn’s disease. But I am starting to be more open about it and I think that the more people talk about it, the more it raises awareness.
It is hard for people to understand how changeable and constant Crohn’s can be. I can feel like I am at death’s door and then an hour later I can be the life and soul of the party.
Be brave – it is scary telling people. Being open and talking about your disability is the best thing to do, because if people know then they can empathise, they can help.
This is the thing about invisible illnesses, no one would know by looking at me that I have a condition that regularly hospitalises me. You don’t have to tell everyone – I don’t go around with a poster! – but it is helpful to tell the people in your immediate team and your manager.
Dr Gus Subero Borjas
Centre for Languages,
Culture and Communication
Dyslexia and Asperger’s
I cover cultural studies and the intersection between art, science and design. I’m one of the lecturers for Imperial Horizons – a programme offering courses in humanities and social sciences across all undergrad year groups and faculties.
The students come from very different backgrounds to the ‘traditional’ humanities students I’m used to teaching. They have a very different way of looking at visual products, and they deconstruct texts in very different ways. It catches you off-guard – but in a good way.
I wish people wouldn’t make assumptions based on how you look.
I explain to students at the start of the year that sometimes I might have to take medication in the middle of a class, or eat something, or sit down as I feel faint. I have Addison’s disease which affects hormonal balance – my body doesn’t produce hormones in the same way as it does for most people. This condition needs continual monitoring to avoid long-term complications and is treated by hormone therapy.
I also have dyslexia. I always do a disclaimer with new groups of students, to let them know I might misspell words or get confused when reading a section of text aloud. I’ve found that the students respond positively about it if you tell them from the outset.
I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s since adolescence, but this has little impact in my teaching. However, my colleagues may find me slightly direct and forthright, as I can struggle to filter information and do not always respond in ways that would be regarded as socially correct.
In my experience, declaring your disability only opens more doors
I wish people wouldn’t make assumptions based on how you look. I’m very into my fitness – it’s part of my regime to keep my hormonal levels under control. When I tell people about my conditions they sometimes say things like “but you look normal”. I have an issue with using such words to describe people!
The biggest issue is when people don’t believe me that I have a disability. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s very frustrating when it does.
If you’re disabled, deciding to declare it is a very personal thing, but I’d like people to know that there’s no shame in declaring it and there’s a great deal of support on offer. You might worry that you’ll be treated differently – but in my experience, declaring your disability only opens more doors.
The sooner students let us know about a disability, the sooner we can accommodate them in our teaching style to ensure they don’t feel disadvantaged, and they can focus on enjoying university life.
CASE Trainee, Advancement
Chronic pain after myalgic encephalomyelitis
I just started working at Imperial in September – I’m rotating around different teams in Advancement, which is a great chance to meet lots of people and get an idea of what I do and don’t like. Although I haven’t found anything I don’t like yet!
I did the telethon at my uni when I was a student, and I loved speaking to alumni and getting to find out about so many interesting people. That experience led to looking into jobs in fundraising.
I went to uni terrified I would struggle. I had myalgic encephalomyelitis from when I was nine until I was fourteen. There were periods where I couldn’t walk, or see properly, or eat solid food. I missed five years of school. It took up most of my childhood. It was terrifying. There was no funding, no treatment on the horizon.
But I recovered and I’m grateful – lots of people don’t. Now I have a permanently damaged immune system so I get every bug going. I had tonsillitis eight times in a year. I also have really low bone density – when I was 16 I broke my leg by just jumping on the spot. So I have to be careful to avoid any kind of impact sport.
Generally I don’t think people notice – I’m lucky to have that passing privilege.
The low bone density means it’s painful when I walk, so I have chronic pain – although it took me a while to categorise it as chronic pain in my head. If I go out somewhere for dinner, that extra bit of walking can tip me over the edge and make walking painful and difficult the next day.
When I started at Imperial, my line manager asked proactively if I needed any special equipment for my desk or had any other needs. Whenever I’ve mentioned my disability to anyone at work they’ve been great – like when I was working with the Events team over graduation, and I explained that I wouldn’t be able to run up and down the stairs in the Royal Albert Hall.
Generally I don’t think people notice – I’m lucky to have that passing privilege. But on the other hand it means you get people judging you for not giving up your seat on the bus. You shouldn’t ever assume someone isn’t disabled.
I want to broaden people’s understanding of what a disability is. The majority of disabilities are invisible, and no two disabilities are the same – two people can have technically the same diagnosis but need different support. I try to be open and honest about it because I think it’s important, but it is hard.
Undergraduate, Department of Bioengineering
Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and hearing loss
Being in London gives you many opportunities – you can easily find ways to expand your knowledge outside of your studies.
In 2017 I founded the Algorithmic Trading Society, partnering with major banks and hedge funds, and we currently have over five hundred members. In 2018 and 2019 we worked with BlackRock to run Algothon, the largest student-led quant finance hackathon in Europe.
There are benefits to declaring your disability when you arrive at Imperial.
Managing an event of this scale alongside my studies was difficult but I really appreciate how Imperial provides its students with the support and opportunities to create something brand new and develop as a person as a result.
I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and hearing loss, which makes studying an interesting experience. When I joined Imperial, I found the dynamic of lectures to be very different to my classes; it was very easy for me to get lost for large parts of lectures.
During my studies I have found methods that help me stay focused. I have found quickly and iteratively experimenting with what does and doesn’t work has been very effective – the combination of several disabilities makes a systematic approach essential.
There are benefits to declaring your disability when you arrive at Imperial. You are able to experiment and figure out what ways of learning work for you while knowing that you have access to a strong support network if needed.
I have made use of the support available to me, such as regular check-ins with my department and 1:1 support if needed. I have been able to have someone write lecture notes for me, which has been incredibly useful. I have also been changing the way I study, focusing on understanding and making the time I can study as efficient as possible.
Support and resources
What is a disability?
Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.
Many disabilities are hidden or invisible – these include:
- a specific learning difficulty, e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia/DCD
- an enduring mental health condition, e.g. depression, OCD, generalised anxiety disorder
- a long-term medical condition, e.g. IBS, ME, diabetes
- a social/communication difficulty, e.g. autistic spectrum condition
The support below is available to anyone who is disabled, regardless of whether the disability is visible or not.
For current students
The Disability Advisory Service provides confidential advice and support for all disabled students. They can provide advice for students with specific learning difficulties, enduring mental health and health conditions, Autistic Spectrum conditions, and sensory and physical impairments. They can also advise other students seeking support or assessment for undiagnosed difficulties.
For prospective students
The Disability Advisory Service also acts as the first point of contact for prospective students who are seeking information about disability support for students at Imperial, and/or disclosing a disability during the application process.
For current staff
The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre can provide information, advice and guidance for disabled staff and their managers. This includes reasonable adjustments and support available within and outside the College. All discussions are held in confidence.
Able@Imperial is the staff network for those with a disability, and those with an interest in disability who are keen to play a part in driving forward cultural change at the College.
For job applicants
Imperial is a Disability Confident Leader. This means the College has committed to interviewing all applicants with a disability who meet the essential criteria on a person specification, and providing a fully inclusive and accessible recruitment process.