"It is a time of year where I feel I can speak openly about my disability..."

Harriett Rossouw
By Harriett Rossouw     11/12/2023

Disability History Month is a time to reflect on perceptions of disability in society and to highlight the importance of inclusivity and empowering disabled people to thrive in their environment. Giving disabled people a voice and a platform to share their views enables a better understanding of their lived experiences, which can ultimately contribute to improving inclusion for these individuals. We speak to Harriett Rossouw, a clinical engineering technologist at our hospitals and co-chair of our Disability and Wellness Network, who shares her experience of disability in the workplace and what the month means to her.

Describe your role and what you do day-to-day.

I am a clinical engineering technologist at Harefield Hospital. Our day-to-day work varies, from equipment audits, helping fix in-use equipment in clinical areas, and repairing equipment in the workshop, to doing ad hoc training and repairs on the wards. I have also been one of the co-chairs for the Disability and Wellness Network (DAWN) at Royal Brompton Hospital and Harefield Hospital for the past two years. This allows me to chair meetings where like-minded people can discuss disability and help shape our hospitals to be more inclusive.

What does Disability History Month mean to you?

Disability History month is the month where the spotlight is shone on disability. It allows people who may not have considered disability before, especially with regards to staff, to be invited to learn and help create an accessible and compassionate environment for all. It is a time of year where I feel I can speak openly about my disability, and hopefully encourage others to be equally as open, hopefully normalising these conversations and repress the taboos around disability.

What has your experience of disability been like in the workplace?

My experience of disability in the workplace has varied. Initially I struggled with conversations around disability, not believing that I had to tell anyone about my dyslexia when I first joined the Trust. But I found out that there was a lot of support available for staff with dyslexia, including software and computer programs, which enabled me to excel at my role rather than struggle.

I have a shunt in my head, due to the fact that my head doesn’t remove fluid as efficiently as it should (I like to see it as plumbing issues). This sometimes has issues, causing migraines, headaches, and memorably a brain injury when it failed after I had just started at Harefield Hospital. This caused me to be redeployed within the Trust, which I still feel was more traumatic than the brain injury itself. I had my life turned upside down; I didn’t know who I was going to be within the Trust, what I was going to do, if this would be a recurring situation, and if I would still have a job in a year’s time. I found however that I was put into a department that I had previous experience in, with a very understanding manager. He made sure that my role was achievable, knowing I was still recovering and limiting my work initially to things I had previous experience in. He made sure I was not assigned work that would be impacted or impeded by my disability. He gave me time for my appointments and was approachable and empathetic when I was struggling. I felt I had landed on my feet, that there was a future for me in the Trust and this was somewhere I could be my true, authentic self.

When my shunt became blocked last Christmas, I was booked in for a replacement and hopefully a final solution, meaning no more plumbing issues. The surgery in April went far better than expected and I was able to return to work in July, except I had no driving license which meant my commute to Harefield was near impossible. My department, namely my departmental lead, came to the rescue and arranged for me to be seconded to Royal Brompton Hospital, thereby enabling me to use trains and buses to get to work instead. I have not only been able to pay my bills, but I have also gained experience at another hospital. I therefore also like to think I became a better clinical engineering technologist because of it. I am forever grateful to both teams for their understanding and creativity when it comes to adapting to my disability. I hope they can see this when I am at work, where I am able to give my full attention to my work rather than worrying about perceptions or issues due to my disability.

What does positive change look like to you?

Positive change looks like disability being a standard part of conversation. It looks like people being able to speak freely about their conditions, without repercussions or persecution. Workplaces asking, ‘how can we help?’ without being prompted and workplace adjustments being normal practice. This would enable staff to thrive in their chosen field, being the best that they can be and achieving greatness. It looks like all projects starting with the questions: ‘Is this accessible? Will staff and/or patients with a disability struggle with this? How can we prevent these issues?’, rather than disabilities being an unforeseen problem. I would like to see a world where acceptance, understanding and empathy are at the forefront for all protected characteristics. Positive change is moving in the right direction, however long it takes and whatever obstacles get put in our way. Every small step, whether it be an ask if someone is ok, learning about differences or making small changes to how we work, they all add up to this positive change.