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Disability Narratives

Sue has lived with chronic back pain following an operation in 2002. She was initially unsure about asking for support at work, but over the years has become more confident in seeking and getting support to manage her work environment to avoid causing her pain.

Portrait of SueBackground

at the time of the interview – 2016

Sue is a conference organiser in the Department of Paediatrics. She has two children.

Ethnic Background/Nationality: White-British.

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - 2016

Sue is a conference organiser in the Department of Paediatrics, organising medical training for infectious disease specialists. She is responsible for both large international conferences and smaller local events.

In 2000, before she worked at the university, Sue had severe back problems and in 2002 had an operation on a collapsed disk in her lower spine. Sue said she felt pressured to return to work and after four weeks off went back to work. However, this did not allow her to manage her recovery properly and in that time her pain increased. A year after returning to work Sue had to leave her job as she was no longer able to manage the pain levels she was experiencing. Sue took six months off to properly recover. When she returned to work it was for 18 hours a week at the university, and now works four days a week.

Sue said that she was initially reticent about saying what help or adjustments she needed at work. She felt that this was partly because of who she was, but it was also in part a response to the work environment she initially found herself in. However Sue realised she had to voice some of her concerns about her work space. At first this meant establishing a permanent work space and getting a suitable chair. Sue later felt comfortable asking for a more supportive chair and has since got an adjustable desk that allows her to stand when she works. Over the years Sue felt that she has got better at both understanding her needs and articulating these to others.

Around four years ago Sue developed sciatica and needed to take around three months off. Sue said her line manager and occupational health were very understanding and she did not feel pressured to return before she was able. When Sue did return she had a phased return to work. She said that when her back pain or sciatica is bad it takes all her mental and emotional energy to manage it. For example, when she had her phased return to work, she would have half a day in while making sure she had nothing else in her diary as she needed the rest of the day to recover. Sue said that this all-encompassing aspect of dealing with long term pain conditions is often overlooked.

A lot of it has, has been my own journey, about me learning to voice my own needs. And not being afraid to do that.

Sue felt that over the years the university has become more receptive to the needs of people with impairments and disabilities. She feels more value is being placed on enabling disabled people to come to work. Moreover, she believes that people with impairments are less willing to tolerate the difficulties they have faced in the workplace and more likely to voice their needs.

Sue said she has had to pay for a lot of support that helps her keep going, such as having regular physio and massages which she paid for herself. One particular form of support Sue has had was from her physio. In particular, the physio has been very helpful in changing the way Sue thought about her condition. Initially Sue was worried that she would be living in pain for the rest of her life. But the encouragement from her physio has helped her find ways to reduce her pain and manage her life so that she has a more positive outlook.

Sue's advice to people with similar chronic pain conditions is to have the confidence to ask for help. She advises line managers to be aware that people can be reticent asking for support or help. She suggests managers should ensure they foster an environment that encourages staff to voice their needs.

Biography at the time of the interview - 2016