This is a guest post by Anna Ta, a PhD Researcher in Economics, and a member of the Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network.
From a disabled person, to an economist working in disability research.
I am disabled, aren’t I? Actually, it’s quite complicated to get my head around. I certainly used to be disabled. I was partially paralysed for most of my childhood. I was infected with poliomyelitis (polio) when I was just one year old. The disease attacked the muscles in my left leg and destroyed most of my hamstring and quadricep. Luckily for me, I recovered some of my physical ability after surgery, which I had when I was 11 years old. However, I couldn’t run, nor do any sports like my peers. Even after my surgery, I was constantly called ‘disabled’, and that, for me, came with some quite limited thinking about what I could and couldn’t do.
I lived with the idea that I was disabled, until I came to the UK to pursue a Masters course. Being in a new environment, and for the first time in my life living independently, I learned that I was not disabled in the way I thought I was. I started walking every day for hours to get across the campus. Norwich is such a small town that I was able to walk every small path. But walking for a long time to build my strength, actually used to knock me down on my knees.
I learned to listen to my body, listen to the pain and the fear inside my head. I started challenging myself more gradually, by walking and then running for 1 or 2 minutes. Running was something which before I had never dared to think about.
Coming back home after a year in Norwich, my parents were surprised how much I had changed. For the first time I felt more confident about myself. As well as having some further treatments, I went to the gym and started doing weight training. I fell so many times, and hurt myself and cried while doing exercises, but all of those tears just make me feel more determined and remember that I am not limited by what has happened to me. It was not my ability that limited me, it was what other people thought about me.
Then I got scholarship from the University of Sheffield to do my PhD in the Economics of welfare, with a focus on disability. I faced the dilemma of either staying in Vietnam to continue receiving treatment, or leaving to start my PhD. I decided to stand on my legs and go for my dream.
Needing help of a different kind? Or just need someone to listen to me?
I started my PhD journey just about a year ago. I quickly got so busy and I have not had as much time to train my left leg as I did before because I worked very long hours. I now realise that doing this was a mistake, but I stayed in the office until after 11pm almost every day in my first year and went to the gym even after midnight. I couldn’t let go of the idea that I had to do all this or I was letting my disability win. There was a time when I walked back from the gym after 1am in pain, and cried on my own, not just because of the pain but also the loneliness and hopeless, from fatigue and over-work.
I now realise that I was suffering from depression, and was putting far too much pressure on myself. Half way through my first year I knew I needed to make a change. That was when I decided to join the PhD peer-mentoring scheme.
I met my mentor, Nathalie, through that programme. By listening to her stories and experiences, I found solutions for my own problems of balance, doubts, and finding time to train. My mentor kept encouraging me to fight and fight, but in a more structured, strategic way. She told me that I would never know whether I could do something a until I tried, and encouraged me to try different ideas, strategies, and helped me change my thinking.
I started putting ankle weights on my legs to walk to work, using stairs instead of the lift or just jogging around my office when I am too busy for gym. I do little and often, and integrate my work and my training together. I gradually am coming to feel better and better every day, which is actually helping me to focus better at work and be more effective with my time.
I have realized that considering myself not able to do things, stops me from actually achieving anything. This applies not only to my physical impairment but also to my PhD work. Doing a PhD is such a difficult process in which we will fail many times, but we should never stop trying new things. The key to success is to work smarter and in a balanced way, not simply to push longer or harder.