October 16, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans
Staff profile: experiences of being disabled and trans at the University of Nottingham
Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your current role
My name is Sarah Stephenson-Hunter and I’ve been at the University of Nottingham since September 2009. I work as a Disability Adviser, part of the Accessibility Team in Specialist Services. Throughout my time at the University I’ve always had a keen interest in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion issues, relating to staff like myself with a recognised disability and LGBT issues; particular those relating to trans people. I’m the current chair of the Disabled Staff Network, an active member of the Staff LGBT network and the Stonewall LGBT role model of the year – 2018; for the East Midlands.
Can you tell us a bit more about your experiences of working at the University as a disabled member of staff?
The problems with my health began very early in life as I was diagnosed with a particular type of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis known as “Still’s disease” aged 2 and first started experiencing issues with my eyes aged 4. Although arthritis has had an impact on me, including having to have knee surgery when I was 15 and taking regular medication to control the symptoms, problems with my eyes have dominated my life..
I had cataracts in both eyes aged 7 and was diagnosed with glaucoma around the age of 12 which resulted in me having around 50 surgical procedures and over 200 hospital admissions between the ages of 13 and 17.
I can’t remember ever having “normal” vision and have over the years used a variety of specialist equipment and assistive technology for work, study and leisure. When I started as a Disability Adviser in 2009 I had no vision in my right eye but did still have some useful vision in my left eye although even then it wasn’t much and I used a long-cane to get around and a speech screen-reader to use the computer. I finally lost all of my remaining vision in July 2011 when one fateful Monday morning I had a painfully close encounter with the corner of a cupboard door at home which left me with a ruptured eyeball and no vision.
My own particular experiences of working at UON as a disabled member of staff have on the whole been positive but I think this has very much been down to the fact that for the majority of my time here I have had a very supportive line-manager who themselves was disabled. That’s not to say it’s all been plain sailing, there have been and continue to be some major issues with regards to the accessibility of University systems and software and the lack of a clear policy on ensuring that any new software or hardware that is used within the institution meets accessibility standards. It can also be incredibly frustrating to have to keep reminding colleagues and other parts of the university that I am disabled and for example don’t access print and therefore need access to key documents in an alternative format. This has been of particular concern over the past couple of years throughout the period of Project Transform and the introduction of Campus Solutions.
Being a disabled member of staff can often leave you feeling incredibly isolated from colleagues and the wider university and it is incredibly tiring having to repeatedly ask for your needs to be considered when time after time it seems like they are viewed as seemingly unimportant or an after-thought. For me this is very much where the Disabled Staff Network comes into its own as a source of mutual support and advocacy and I would encourage any staff member with a disability and/or long-term health condition to join
Could you tell us more about your experiences of being Trans and working at the University of Nottingham?
I began my formal gender transition in November 2013 and have had a generally positive experience of transitioning at work. As a result of all of the difficulties with my health growing up I don’t think I really had the emotional space or capacity to engage with questions over my gender identity. Also growing up in a small town in Northumberland in the 1970’s and 1980’s; being anything other than white, straight and able-bodied wasn’t referred to in positive terms, therefore, I guess I instinctively knew that the feelings I had about my gender weren’t things I could discuss openly with anyone. If I’m honest I think my feelings about wanting to be a woman scared me and as real as they were I somehow hoped they would just go away even though they never did. From my early teens right up until I began transition 5 years ago I felt trapped in a tortuous process of self-denial and suppression of anything to do with my true gender identity.
This all came to a head however after losing my vision in 2011 and then my dad dying from lung and spinal cancer in 2012. This was the watershed moment when I came to the point, that as terrifying as it might be, I had to finally face the truth that I was Transgender and gender transition was something I had to do.
The process of transitioning at work went pretty smoothly. Again my line-manager was incredibly supportive and was aware of LGBT issues. I had and continue to have incredibly supportive colleagues. Apart from the initial difficulty with them getting used to my new name and new pronouns, I can honestly say I’ve not encountered any significant prejudice for being Trans. I know that it was more difficult for some than others to adjust to the change but I knew that whatever happened I could go to my line-manager and talk about any problems I was having or colleagues could do likewise. We did seek support from HR throughout the process and again I feel that the process was handled sensitively throughout.
As positive as my experiences were, however, I know this is not the case for everyone. Again being Trans can often feel very lonely and isolating and I am thankful for the support I’ve received from being part of the LGBT Staff network, Trans working-party as well as my involvement with Stonewall. Although Trans people have always existed it does feel like we are only now starting to properly address what it means to be Trans in society and whilst the University has done some good work in this area I feel there is a long long way to go before Trans staff at UON feel confident to be who they truly are at work and in the wider University community.
Based on your experiences what 3 steps do you think should be taken to improve the situation for staff with protected characteristics across the University?
Firstly it’s abundantly clear to me that there needs to be a lot more work done on increasing the awareness of staff with protected characteristics to line-management and they need to be trained further on their responsibilities and how to support their disabled and LGBT staff.
I know we currently have some policies and guidelines in these areas and have some EDI training for those new to line-management, but in my view this simply doesn’t go far enough. I’m well aware that often it’s not that managers are deliberately being difficult or prejudiced; it’s more that they themselves don’t have the knowledge of dealing with staff from protected groups and aren’t aware of what resources area are available. I appreciate that we all face incredible demands on our time but I believe that this is an area where we as an organisation urgently need to improve.
Secondly I think we need to invest time and resources into developing some form of “Equality champions” programme”. By this I mean some way of recognising staff from within different equality groups who are empowered to be visible role models for other staff with similar protected characteristics. As I write this and think back over my time at UON I am really struggling to think of any other disabled and/or trans staff who are or have been in positions of significant leadership or influence across UON. I’m well aware that the EDI agenda is a vast area and lots of work is being undertaken but I do believe that visible role models have a powerful role to play in increasing awareness of the issues faced by staff from within different equality groups and breaking down barriers for other staff to develop their careers.
Finally I believe that we need to develop the role of a specialist Adviser for staff, who can act as a central point for advising on equality issues, developing training, liaising with other parts of the University and acting as a central referral point for staff from protected groups. This is something the Disabled Staff network has been campaigning for and which I still believe is necessary. It seems unfathomable to me to think that we have so much support and resources available for students with disabilities and/or long-term health conditions and specific learning difficulties and yet we have nothing like the same level of specific support for disabled staff with similar issues.
University of Nottingham