Being a disabled OT

The article below was published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy sister magazine, OT News, in November 2012. Since writin this article, I discovered Mickel Therapy and have made a full recovery from Fibromyalgia. I now have no limitations on what I am able to do and run a thriving business offering OT to children as well as Mickel Therapy to people with fatigue conditions, such as Fibromyalgia. I was lucky in that I was able to find work to fit my ability and limitations at the time. But my experience also brought home to me the importance of "occupation" and the value that work adds to a person's life. 



The move from healthy to disabled and NHS to independent practice.


Being disabled is a very personal thing and I still find the words relating to disability to be very negative. I often think of Sue Sylvester, the coach from Glee, who refuses to use the word “disabled”. She says “differently abled”. Although this can sound like we are being very PC in today’s world, when you consider the words, it really is an appropriate phrase for us OT’s. We enable people to be differently abled.


I have been working as an independent OT since February 2011. Prior to that, I worked within the NHS and Social Services for 20 years. I was looking at moving into private practice for approximately 5 years prior to this but I just couldn’t pluck up the courage to make the jump. Then Fate took over.


In November 2010 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia as a result of a car accident several years before. I had, at this point, been dependent on a walking stick for outdoor mobility and was unable to walk as far as I used to. When I was diagnosed I was barely able to walk and was using a crutch for extra support. Now I am dependent on 2 crutches, have very limited energy, feel constant pain throughout my body and have the concentration of a gnat. How on earth can I function as an OT like this?


Well, independent practice has enabled me to do just that. To function as an OT.


Initially, I started working independently through a friend and colleague who had a Social Services contract and needed a paediatric OT one day a week. This allowed me to do two visits, come home and do the reports a couple of days later. I could spread my work to suit my energy and pain levels. I then placed my name on the OTIP website and have had a constant flow of work since then. Most of these have been one off assessments that require a single visit and then a report, with some research. This has allowed me to again manage my work in line with my health.


I have found the difference with working in independent practice is people’s opinion of a disabled OT. When I worked in my last role in the NHS I was in a meeting where a manager of a supported housing group stated that, when she first met me, she didn’t know what good I would be to her clients as I needed a stick to walk. This is possibly the most negative response I have had since I became disabled. It made me totally review how people see disability and realise that just because someone is in a caring profession it does not mean that they have any understanding of disability. Not everyone has the attitude that we, as OT’s, have of encouraging people to achieve their optimum potential, despite any physical or mental limitations they may have.


Working independently I have found that people like the idea of someone who has some understanding of what they are going through. One client in particular said she was so happy to have an OT who had some awareness of the limitations of decreased mobility. She was a below knee amputee who, like me, was fit and well prior to a road accident. I was able to explain how simple changes and some equipment, although changing her life, could enhance it. She demonstrated more faith in me because of my personal journey and limitations. This made me realise that I have a great deal to offer to people that other OT’s would not necessarily have. I could empathise with clients in a way I had never been able to before. I could demonstrate that there was a positive aspect to doing the best that you can in life.


I now have the daily battle with fibromyalgia and the way that this has changed my life. I continue to be able to work, one or two days per week, with the time spread across the whole week as opposed to full days. I have never been short of work since becoming an independent OT. There are peaks and troughs in the level of work but this enables me to have the rest periods needed to manage my condition.


Within the NHS I would not have been able to work in the way I currently do. I had to leave the NHS because they could not accommodate my needs any further. Although this was one of the harshest things that I have faced in life, it was also the beginning of my independent OT career and has turned out to be the best option for me.


What I would say, without trying to preach to the converted, is that becoming disabled is not necessarily the end of your career as an OT. It has made me redress my life and my priorities. I am able to feel worthwhile by working at the level I am capable of. This allows me to have worth. I don’t think I ever really realised the importance of work within my life. It really does do what we are taught it does. It gives us self-worth, a reason to get up in the morning and a link with others that would otherwise not exist. It elevates our mood and makes coming home at the end of a day feel so much better.


Being an independent OT has given me back a life that I truly believed had been taken from me when I had to leave the NHS. OTIP has provided the base for that to happen.