Overcoming the problem of disability

Dr Nicholas M. Almond on why inequality is still a problem.

When I was 14 I was obsessed with psychology. I used to love programs like the X-Files and Cracker, so I was determined to become a psychologist or forensic pathologist. I have severe cerebral palsy which means that I cannot use my arms or legs and my speech is quite difficult to understand. This was the result of medical negligence at birth and fortunately I did not have any learning difficulties. I started my early schooling at a special school and I was one of the first to move to a mainstream school, where I prospered.

I did quite well in my GCSEs and was accepted into sixth form, but due to a lack of qualified support workers I could not undertake A-level chemistry. I took psychology, biology and economics. My A-level psychology teacher had taken a crash course in A-level psychology and it took him a while to get to grips with the definitions of psychology and the critical understanding of studies. Luckily I had two great private tutors, Dennis Warren and Heidi Longhurst.

Heidi was a first year psychology student at the University of Leeds and her tutor was Dr Sylvie Collins (who happened to be the equality officer for the psychology department). My work during the first two years of A-level psychology was good and Sylvie became aware of this, but I did not achieve the appropriate grades to get into psychology at Leeds. I could have gone to the University of York, but due to my disability I was determined to get into Leeds and stay at home. In hindsight this was the best choice I made – at the age of 18 I was not ready for university life.

I re-sat my psychology and economics A-level and achieved the highest grade in Yorkshire for my psychology A-level, thanks to Heidi and to my A-level teacher (Mr Kitchen) who would mark an essay a fortnight while I was getting to grips to how to write the perfect essay. The year out helped me to make new friends and prepare me for life at university.

In third year of university I took a course in chaos theory which tried to explain that one can predict everything if all the factors or variables are known. In psychology we try to do this with ANCOVAs or regression analysis; in reality, it’s impossible. The course of someone’s career has many factors, or people, that can change whether one succeeds or fails. For example, I took my final year of undergrad over two years and I met Dr Chris Moulin when I was doing a course in aging, neuropsychology and cognition. Until then I wanted to do a PhD in evolutionary psychology. When I met Chris and learned that my grandmother had Korsakoff’s syndrome, everything changed.

I was hellbent on becoming the next Fox Mulder, but after meeting Chris and seeing my grandmother go downhill so quickly, my outlook changed completely. I undertook a PhD to investigate cognitive decline in aging and it was a massive success; we have published many articles on the use-it-or-lose-it theory, but one can never get to the bottom of it; there are so many variables/factors that we cannot account for.

According to chaos theory, things do not happen for a reason; factors/variables come into line and change the course of events. This is what happened to me; first, if I was not physically disabled then I would have probably been a car mechanic and not a psychologist. Second, I happened to notice an advert regarding research into aging. I applied and won a scholarship that funded my support workers for the next three years, as well as the research.

When I was younger I was never interested in researching disabilities. However, as predicted by Chaos Theory, I attended a seminar on Cerebral Palsy and mental imagery, presented by Professor Bert Steenbergen with the support of Professor Mark Mon-Williams. I found the talk very interesting, but with my personal experience of Cerebral Palsy I noticed that certain factors/variables were not being considered in the research. At the end of the seminar I asked a few questions and the three of us spoke in depth about my ideas. Not only does this demonstrate that people with a certain condition and a psychological background can provide different perspectives to the research, but it also shows that as psychologists we need to look at any condition or situation from the perspective of the person or individual concerned.

Again, by chance one of my personal assistants, Paige Roberts, was working with Dr Samit Chakrabarty, who was based in a separate department of the University. She mentioned my idea to Dr Chakrabarty, who was also researching rehabilitation into certain injuries such as Cerebral Palsy. I met with Dr Chakrabarty for what was going to be a short meeting, which turned into nearly two hours. I also mentioned my idea to my consultant, Professor Rory O’Connor, (who is also the head of rehabilitation techniques at the medical school in Leeds University) and he was very interested in my ideas.

The amazing thing is that these four experts were working on the same idea, albeit from different angles, but they did not know each other at all. So I organised a meeting to discuss how we could collaborate, and now I am working with a multi-disciplinary team to find new treatments and a possible cure for Cerebral Palsy.

However, prejudice is still rife when it comes to people with disabilities. For example, I attended a seminar with a so-called expert on prejudice regarding disabilities, and we went for a drink after the talk. This so-called expert treated me like I had learning difficulties, despite numerous people explaining that I only had a physical disability and was doing a PhD.

I sat on the equality and diversity board for the faculty of health at the University of Leeds for a number of years. The group were very proactive at promoting equality for ethnic minorities, but when it came to disability rights they were not so forthcoming. And in applying for lectureships elsewhere, I have felt that universities may have great policies in place for accepting job candidates with disabilities, but seem were unwilling to make the suitable adjustments to allow me to compete on a truly equal footing: for example, the room for the interview may be unbearably hot, or the feedback afterwards can leave me convinced that they were simply fearful of any adjustments that may have been required if I was successful in the interview.

Overall, people in academia, especially psychology, need to accept that individuals with physical disabilities should be treated the same as able bodied people. Professor Stephen Hawking is a great example of how someone who is extremely intelligent can overcome the prejudice of physical disability. Furthermore, there needs to be more communication between different departments and experts who are working in the same field, and maybe working at the same University. Focus groups are an excellent idea to bring together these experts, but also to listen to individuals with the condition that they are trying to treat. As psychologists, we believe that we know everything about a condition; this is not the case, and asking for ideas from people with the condition can move the research agenda in the direction of the actual needs of the individuals with the condition.

Dr Nicholas N. Almond, BSc(Hons), PhD, CPsychol
Cognitive Neuropsychologist
Director of www.disabledaccessguide.net
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