Friday, 28 June 2013

Inspiration to Scrounger, a personal story

I wrote this post in anger after one too many people accused me of being lazy with zero knowledge of my illness or background.

AGES: 19 ,  20,  22,  25, 31

Image is a purple background with butterflies and a caption "a lupie life". 
It shows 5 photos of the same woman of increasing age (19 to 31) from left to right. In the first she is jumping, in the second standing with a walking stick, in the third sitting in a manual wheelchair, in the fourth using a powerchair, and in the fifth lying reclining on a daybed. She is smiling throughout. 

Sick or Lazy?

So why don't I work? The main problem for me is that my main illness, lupus (SLE) has not responded well to treatment. Over the course of the past 17 years it has gradually affected more and more systems in my body, causing a long list of symptoms ranging from minor to major, not to mention overall issues such as severe pain and exhaustion. There are very strong drugs which do help but I am still continually "ill".

On top of all this I have a separate progressive muscle condition hence my use of my electric wheelchair and assitance from social services.

The mobility side of things got worse quicker but I was lucky enough to contnue working, thanks to a very accessible job as a university mathematics researcher (yes, some of us enjoy that sort of thing!). Unfortunately,14 years on the illness side of things eventually progressed to a point when it was simply no longer possible to continue.

Ever since then I have had to put up with being called lazy, accused of not doing enough to get better, or not having a positive enough attitude.

The irony in this is that for the previous 15 years it was the complete opposite. I was called an inspiration. Note that I have had no control over how ther people have chosen to see me. They have lazily assigned me to a stereotype: supercrip/benefit scrounger.
Yet all along I have been exactly the same person, with the same character, determination, willpower and desires.

My Track Record 

The "inspiration" years:

Jan 1996-1997: Start of illness exactly one week before my 17th birthday (triggered by a minor head injury in a sport accident). 18 months off school, undiagnosed, untreated. I'm permanently sick, have lost all sense of balance, am unable to sit up and spend most of the time undergoing medical investigations.

1997-1998: Illness goes into what we will later know is a remission. I'm still undiagnosed but we put everything down to a "glitch", decide I'm "cured" and I go back to my "old life". I return to school and do my A-levels.

1998-1999: First Year of University
I start University. The illness returns in Easter. I'm still undiagnosed and my muscle condition is steadly worsening, so I need a lot more support. I get kicked off my Chemistry course for "health and safety" reasons. 

1999-2002: University Degree
I start a new university course in mathematics on the basis I can do this from home if required.
I finally get diagnosed with Lupus (SLE) but treatment is only partially successful. I have numerous flares. I am housebound for months at a time. Some semesters I miss all lectures. I spend unpredictable time in hospital. I develop more and more symptoms.
I learn to work solo from books and photocopied lecture notes.
Thanks to this I excel at end of year exams and eventually graduate top of my year with a first.
I win the Second Year Prize, the Final Year Faculty award, a joint University-City Outstanding Achievement award, Young Achiever of Hampshire award and a Golden Hello awarded to outstanding students for starting their PhD.

2002-2005: PhD. 
Both lupus and muscle related symptoms deteriorate steadily. I face numerous health scares. I have to cope with an increasing number and severity of symptoms as more systems are affected.
I start using an outdoor electric wheelchair in 2004 as soon as I get accessible accommodation and office.
During my PhD I am housebound for a total of 20 months off and on. I'm also in and out of hospital and unable to work at all for a total of 6 months.
Luckily the flexibily of a PhD really suits me. It isn't uncommon for me to be doing mathematical research at 3am!
Thanks fo this I finish on time and write an international standard paper which nets me an EPSRC fellowship.

2005-2010: Research Fellowship.
Due to the effects of my illness I go 75% part time, having estimated that I am too ill to work 20% of the time.
I can only go to work mornings due to a complex and varying mix of symptoms and a worsening problem sitting up for more than a few hours due to my muscle condition. I sleep afternoons and then work evenings/middle of the night when I am often awake due to poorly controlled pain. Unfortunately The side effects of better painkillers would compromise my work.
I still go to selected conferences and seminars to give my talks but it makes me ill for over a week afterwards.

As time goes on I have to cut down on the number of days I go into the office.
By 2008 I am only going into the office 1 morning a week. I an now using an indoor electric wheelchair. My health is very bad. I am now often not only housebound but bedbound too. I have to have a lot of time off. By 2010 this will have added up to a total of 18 months.

However I still don't stop yet; not out of a sense of obligation, but very simply because I love my job and don't want to give it up until I absolutely have to.

There is support to help me do this. I advocate the use of telecommunication to work from home and even give guest talks remotely thanks to new technology. 
Thanks to this I am able to complete my research, and write 3 more successful papers. 
Unfortunately by this point the illness has started affecting my cognitive skills, in particular my short term memory, which makes continuing in this line of work impossible.

2010-present: The "scrounger" years:
I finally realise that I have to give up work and I start claiming ESA (out of work disability benefit).
My illness has continued to deteriorate as has my muscle related disability. I am now bedbound 95% of the time. I am continually ill along with periods of flares when things are even worse. So far I have had many more hospital admissions every year.
After seeing the erosion of the state support which had allowed me to go to university, do my PhD and get a job despite being ill and disabled, I start online disability campaigning as and when able to. DLA had bought my electric wheelchairs, ILF had allowed me to return to university, DSA helped me as a student, Access to Work helped me be a researcher. All of this has either gone or had cuts. This activism really takes off in 2012 with the Spartacus Report and Past Caring in particular.
Eventually though this too has to stop.

From "Inspiration" to "Scrounger"

Yesterday I was admired by society and held up as a shining example others should follow (whether or not it was, in fact, possible for them to do so). Whether or not I wanted or deserved it, I was considered "inspirational" and a "positive example and role model". I was "breaking down stereotypes and barriers". (See previous posts for disablist comments from academics who didn't think "people like me" could do a "job like this").

Yet in the blink of an eye I turned into someone despised by society, someone suspected of being "lazy", being "irresponsible" and "not trying hard enough", someone told to "get a better attitude". In short, I've gone from "inspiration" to "scrounger".

I think I upset people because I don't fit the correct "story". A disabled person is supposed to "overcome" their disability.  You're supposed to start out a scrounger and become an inspiration, not the other way round! If you become "inspirational" you're supposed to stay "inspirational".

I knew all along that I would eventually have to give up work. When people made nasty comments in my presence about disabled people who didn't work, I would point out that one day I too would be unable to do so. This made people very uncomfortable. Many simply refused to believe me. It just didn't fit the steterotypical narrative they wanted to believe in.

My own view is that although I am proud of some of the things I did (as anyone would be, disabled or not) I was not doing things to be "inspirational", but simply, like anyone else, because it is what I wanted to do (in fact I consider myself very lucky to have had the privilege to do a job I loved, if only for a limited time).

I think it is important to note that the fact I was able to do all these things was in part due to "luck" as much as anything else.
Had my illness started earlier, then I would have got sicker quicker and would never have worked at all.
Had I not received the support I did (social care, benefits, friends, family, employer), I would not have been able to work at all.
On the other hand, conversely, had my illness started later or even not at all, I would still be working today.
I also had great support and happened to be able to do a job well suited to a fluctuating illness which requires working from home or even bed! These are like gold dust!

That is all there is to it. Nothing to do with character or willpower or attitude.
The same goes for every other sick and disabled person out there.
We all deserve the same respect and support whether we are still working or not.

AGES: 19 ,  20,  22,  25, 31

Image is a purple background with butterflies and a caption "a lupie life". 
It shows 5 photos of the same woman of increasing age (19 to 31) from left to right. In the first she is jumping, in the second standing with a walking stick, in the third sitting in a manual wheelchair, in the fourth using a powerchair, and in the fifth lying reclining on a daybed. She is smiling throughout. 


A stark reading of how my illness has progressed is pretty grim. The problem is that a list of medical facts as above simply doesn't show the whole picture and is not representative of my true life. There is SO much more than just my illness. And thanks to that my life has been surprisingly good.

Obviously there have been some very dark moments and a need to adapt to my changing and worsening situation. With a progressive condition this can be difficult. No sooner have you got your head round one limitation then another comes along and slaps you in the face.
But overall I am and have been pretty happy throughout. Whether it be hobbies, friends or family, there is plenty in my life that is very good and most of the time it is more than enough to make the emotional difficulties which may sometimes arise from my illness take second place. 


  1. This is such a brilliant post.

  2. This is amazing and so inspirational. My mother who's worked her entire life and now due to an injury at work is disabled and and instead of work to support her - they didn't even try to accomodate her condition and help her find a more suitable role, they basically called her lazy, said she was faking it and fired her for being off sick. And the struggle to get benefits is beyond a joke because again, the people in the job centre just think she's lazy and should be in work when in fact some days she can't even get out of bed. Thank you for writing this! You're going to help so many people with your words xoxo

  3. Unfortunately Cece's mother's story is probably typical of how disability is regarded by most employers, it certainly echoes how I was treated. JobCentre Plus are if anything worse - and that includes their so-called disability experts. Having been forced out of a cutting-edge engineering post, JCP's advice was to apply for minimum wage positions, which shows what their view of our potential is. Nor were their suggestions even practical - just how many minimum wage positions are there for someone who can't stand or sit for more than a few minutes at a time?

  4. This is a wonderful post and thank you so much for an "insight" into your life and your illnesses/disabilities.
    I too am disabled and so is my hubby, both at different times and I had to leave work to look after my husband, which broke my heart.
    I cannot work and will never be able to again but I try to fill my life with other things. It's really hard sometimes as you do have to push yourself and I hate it when the "push" doesn't work!
    Hubby and myself don't know what is going to happen to us next. We have been spat on, sworn at and called so many names but people don't know us, or what has happened to us. We also feel ashamed that we have to live off the state, but we can't do anything else about it. I would love to come into a good amount of money so that I could buy a home (just a nice bungalow), have our pets and be able to pay our bills. How wonderful would it be to stick two fingers up to Iain Duncan Smith and his ilk by telling them to shove the small amount that disabled people have to live on.
    Thank you again for opening your heart up to us, so many people will be inspired, as I know I am.

  5. Glad you are fighting back against these awful people. It must be a massive kick in the teeth to get called lazy after all you've fought for. I will say though, seems like you are still glorifying this mentality that people are not worth anything unless they are pushing themselves to their limits and are really ambitious. As someone with chronic fatigue it is especially difficult to deal with this because a lot of the time, you can push yourself in the instant, but you have to fight really hard not to, because if you do, you will make your health much much worse in the long term. I don't know much about Lupus, it seems like the kind of thing that gets worse no matter what you do? With CFS your symptoms and recovery are often very dependent on how much you push yourself - I think actually a lot of people with CFS their condition is partially caused by this mentality of pushing yourself to the limit, since we don't allow ourselves to recover properly when we are ill and just run ourselves into the ground. We shouldn't have to show the world a dazzling CV to prove to them that we are allowed support, this whole way of thinking is just damaging to people overall. I mean, I know it's great all you've achieved and you should be applauded but there are many people out there who are disabled and didn't achieve much with their lives, and that doesn't mean they are worth less or are less deserving of support.

    1. I'm sorry you've taken it this way because that isn't the point I was making.

      I'm the same person today as I was yesterday. I deserve the same support today as I did yesterday. I deserve the same respect today as I did yesterday.
      It should not matter what I am doing. It should not matter whether I am a maths researcher or a benefit claimant.

      It is wrong that it makes a difference. It is wrong that I (and others) should have to justify ourselves.

      The only point I'm making with my background is to all those people out there who are accusing me of malingering/laziness etc. I'm still the same person I was then. I haven't changed. So they are wrong.

      And if that is true of me, then it is true of most people in my current position even if they weren't lucky enough to have the opportunities that I did in the past. My background is proof for all of us, not just me. We're not lazy. We're sick.