From being disabled to working in disability research
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 paralyzed 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 quadriceps. 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 quite some 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 Master's 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 getting further treatment, 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 made 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 a 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.
Did I need help of a different kind? Or just someone to listen to me?
I started my PhD journey just about a year ago. I quickly got busy and I did not have as much time to train my left leg as I did before because I worked very long hours. I now realize that doing this was a mistake, but I stayed in the office until after 11 PM 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 1 AM in pain, and cried on my own, not just because of the pain but also the loneliness, and felt hopeless, from fatigue and over-work.
I now realize 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 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, taking the stairs instead of the lift or just jogging around my office when I was too busy for the gym. I trained little, but often, and integrated my work and my training together. I am gradually coming to feel better and better every day, which is actually helping me focus better at work and also be more effective with my time.
I have realized that perceiving myself as unable 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.
This is a guest post by Anna Ta, a PhD Researcher in Economics, and a member of the Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network. This story was published on November 6, 2018, on the Think Ahead Blog (available here) and has been republished here with her permission.