Hannah Barham-Brown
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So I roll onto the ward one day, and this elderly patient takes one look at me and yells at the top of her voice, "What's wrong with my doctor?" (Laughter) The whole ward falls silent. (Laughter) And from her bed, she continues to stare at me. "I said, what's wrong with my doctor?" Ongoing silence because no one knows what to say. So I roll closer towards her, reach out and take her hands. "Well, I'm quite disorganized, (Laughter) I'm very loud, and my legs don't really work. Now, how are you feeling today?" I wasn't always disabled. For the first 27 years of my life, I was "normal." Well, I say normal. I was so normal that when my disabled mum tried to yell at me, I'd just run up some stairs so she couldn't chase me. (Laughter) I was so normal that when my baby brother, Theo, died when I was 23, I baked cupcakes for three days straight. Because sugar solves everything, right? And then I went back to my nursing degree. Somehow, caring for other people's babies helped me recover when we lost ours. Two years on, and I moved to London to start medical school, finally fulfilling a long-held dream, and life made sense, at last. But back in Newcastle, my eldest brother's heart was starting to fail, nine years after a life-saving transplant. Gareth died in the early hours of Boxing Day. He was 24, I was 27, and I was devastated. To regain some sense of purpose, I ran a half marathon for the British Heart Foundation, running through a lot of emotional and physical pain, trying to process some of the grief that had threatened to overwhelm me. But while mentally, I started to recover, physically, something was going very wrong. All my life, I had been really flexible. But it turned out that the bendy joints I'd always thought of as an asset in my ballet classes were actually the sign of a syndrome so rare most people can't pronounce it, let alone spell it. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome had become a part of my life, and life would never be the same again. Now, I learned a lot in that year of medical school, but a key lesson was this: if your kneecaps dislocate while you run, that is decidedly not normal. (Laughter) I had gone from running charity events for other people to crowdfunding my own wheelchair just so I could finish my course and qualify. Suddenly, I was the charity case. My diagnosis changed everything. I'd catch my reflection in a shop window and not immediately recognize the woman with the walking stick looking back at me. In my chair, I'm a few foot shorter than everyone else, I struggle to hear, to sidle into conversations, and I live in fear of rolling over people's toes. It battered my self-confidence. I thought nobody would ever look at me in a wheelchair and fancy me ever again. I couldn't believe that anyone could ever think of me as sexy. But worst of all, as a doctor, I know how EDS can progress. Every injury feels like another step to the day when I'll have to call time on medicine. But in many ways, getting my diagnosis was a relief. I wasn't going mad; my body was not normal, and now I had a name for that. I could access the support I needed. Four years on, and I'm in constant pain. Something always aches or throbs or spasms, and I wake up every morning not knowing what surprises my body is going to throw at me. A daily unlucky dip. Except, in many ways, I've been quite lucky. I have grown up with my own role model. Get it? (Laughter) My tenacious and, frankly, terrifying mother. Now, mum has challenged stereotypes for more years than I've been alive. Having grown up watching her disabilities slowly progress, I never thought of disability as a weakness or as something that stopped a person from doing anything because disabled people are just people like my mum. She has had four children, has so many letters after her name that both of us have lost count, and now spends every day using her skills to make the world a better place for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. So I wasn't going to get away with using my disability as an excuse to not succeed because mum would never stand for that, though in fairness, she rarely stands at all. (Laughter) 18 months after my diagnosis, I qualified as a doctor. And now, I'm a trainee GP. There aren't many doctors in wheelchairs. I've become a bit of a novelty wherever I go, and you know what? It's bloody exhausting. Sometimes, I don't want the double takes as I roll in, or the questions or the well-meaning comments. I've had a very mixed response from my patients, and even some of my colleagues have been less than welcoming when I roll in and introduce myself. But why am I such a surprise? There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK. That's one in five of us. One in five. And yet, the disability employment gap currently stands at 30%. That's the gap between the number of disabled people in work versus the number of able-bodied people. And I want to change all that. I want more people like my mum, like me, to be visible - in medicine, in work, and in society - because we are here. But we're rarely seen or acknowledged. So I have become focused on being a role model. So why is this important? This is important because I have seen the eyes of kids in wheelchairs light up when their doctor rolls in in a chair, just like them. Suddenly, they're not the kid in a wheelchair anymore. They are the kid who could grow up to be whatever they want to be regardless of their legs misbehaving. It's that spark of self-confidence even when the world is telling you you're different. That spark is life changing. Becoming disabled does change you. It's changed how I speak to people, and it's sure as hell changed how people speak to me. One day, a patient who'd had a really tough few years opened up to me in a way she'd never spoken to a doctor before. And at the end of our conversation, she reached forwards. She took my hands and said, "See, I know you get it, Doc. Because you're broken just like I am." Sometimes, I am broken, and that's OK, because my brokenness gives me a unique ability to connect to my patients: as that patient realized, I get it. I have an intimate knowledge of their experiences and the systems they are forced to work within. In the last few years, we've seen a greater push towards having more inclusion, having more voices of disabled people in the conversation along with other voices you may not always hear, and these voices are important. And the tick boxes, the diversity tick boxes that I worry people are filling when they invite me - those tick boxes are important, and they are a vital safeguard for many of us, but they risk watering down the richness that our voices bring. We should be included in the conversation because our skills and our knowledge and our perspectives are invaluable. Every job advert you see will say that a company is looking for problem solvers, people who think outside the box, great "team workers." Well, we are nature's problem solvers because we live in a world that was designed without us in mind. I've developed phenomenal problem-solving skills because the world has not given me the option. I can access about a quarter of London's Tube system in this thing. And yet, I will always find a way round town. We excel at teamwork because we're comfortable communicating our needs and making practical assessments of who is best suited to different tasks. Companies should be begging people like me to work for them because what we have to bring is exciting, is under-recognized, and woefully underutilized. We do so much more than tick a diversity box. Ultimately though, I'm not just a disabled doctor. I'm not just disabled. I have so many other things I want to talk about, and boy, can I talk. I am outraged that a caring profession like medicine is seeing a spike in suicide rates because we are so burnt out and under-supported. Having lost a brother who was waiting for a second heart transplant, I passionately want more people on the organ donor register. And don't even get me started on Brexit, (Laughter) which threatens to decimate the NHS that every politician claims to cherish, and could be catastrophic for our patients and staff alike. Now, none of these things have got anything to do with my disability, but I will pop up on TV or in newspapers talking about them, and yes, I will be in a wheelchair. And people will see that, will see me in a wheelchair, talking about something completely unrelated. I will once again be "normal," right? Except I never was normal, was I? And you know what? None of us are normal. We are all different, and we are all hugely valuable to society because of that. We are a beautiful, diverse collection of differences, and it's time we made the most of that. So let's go beyond normalizing difference. Let's start celebrating it. (Applause)