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Carissa’s Story: Living with a Disability Before and During the Pandemic

Carissa’s Story: Living with a Disability Before and During the Pandemic

Carissa is a student at the University of Oxford. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, we spoke to Carissa to find out more about her disability, her studies and her thoughts on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world of work and accessibility.

Can you please tell us about yourself?

Hi, I’m Carissa. When I was 12 I had a spinal stroke which resulted in paralysis. This led to an official diagnosis of Incomplete Tetraplegia. In total, I spent a year in hospital, first in intensive care whilst I had a tracheostomy as my lungs were paralysed. 3 months later I moved to Stoke Mandeville for 9 months for rehab. This meant that I missed year 8 but luckily my school was very supportive and I managed to keep up enough that I didn’t need to be set back a year. I can walk, but only short distances because of leg and core weakness and also weak lung function. The biggest disruption to my life that resulted from the accident is that my shoulders are completely paralysed, so I have very limited arm function. This means that I need personal assistants to help me with day-to-day living. During the time that I spent recovering in hospital and in the years since, my academic life has kept me going; it was a motivator when everything else seemed rough.

Has your education or experience of education ever been affected by your health?

As previously mentioned, my stroke led to me missing a year of school. Additionally, in the first few years after being discharged from the hospital I was ill several times as a result of my lung weakness. This meant that I would miss work, and I became used to having to catch up. More recently, I came down with freshers’ flu at the beginning of my first term at Oxford which, again, meant that I had to catch up on work. The weak arm function and speed with which I tire because of my disability also means that my work always takes me longer. This meant that I became used to working long hours (which did actually help prepare me for the long studying hours that come with an Oxford degree!).

How has your disability affected your ability to find work?

I’ve never actually had to get any work experience as it isn’t required for my degree. However, I think that some remote, online internships that are available now as a result of coronavirus would suit me very well! I hope that going forward as we move out of and on from the pandemic, companies are more flexible about how they employ people and provide opportunities to people through work experience.

What was your general daily routine like before COVID-19?

I’m a maths student at the University of Oxford, and my routine was pretty much the same as everyone else on my course. The biggest difference was that whenever there were events, particularly ones outside of college, I would have to prepare a bit more than the average student. This could involve having to book a taxi, checking that the place I was visiting was accessible, and bringing my personal assistant with me if necessary, etc. The intensity of Oxford degrees means that a lot of my time is spent studying in my room or going to lectures/tutorials.

How have you found working from home, especially during the pandemic?

Working from home has been quite tricky – as with everyone else, including those who aren’t disabled, there are lots of distractions and your mind isn’t in the same place as when working in an academic environment. Also, I don’t actually have a desk at home, so that’s made studying a bit more difficult. However, online lectures and tutorials have made the logistics of learning with my disability easier, and I think that if I did have a workplace set up at home, working remotely (at least a few days a week) would be a great option for me. I hope that in the future, companies who employ me would be flexible with me sometimes working from home.

Do you think that the pandemic and the last few years will change the way we work in the future?

Yes, I think companies will be more flexible with those who want to work remotely and might even actively rearrange how their businesses run, to have more people working from home. This would be beneficial for companies as they wouldn’t need such large office spaces. Also, they could expand the applicants they reach because people won’t necessarily relocate for their jobs.

How has your disability impacted life at home with your family?

When I was in primary school, my mum did a degree in spatial design. Unfortunately, by the time she was ready to start looking for work, my accident happened. After that my mum couldn’t work as she was caring for me. Even now, I’m home for the holidays so it’s not easy for her to get a flexible job, as she wouldn’t be as able to work 9-5 hours.

What career would you like to do in future? Do you think your mobility impairment could affect how you get into that career, or your job prospects in general?

I’m not sure what career I want to go into yet – possibly finance or something that involves applied maths. In recent times I think that attitudes towards disabled people in the workplace have improved a lot and companies have been making more adjustments for them. In a way, coronavirus has been good for accessibility, as it’s pushed employers to be more flexible and realise that remote working is possible and quite easy! I hope that going forward employers are more willing to accommodate people’s needs to work from home and that workplace accessibility will further improve.


“I hope that after the pandemic, companies will be more flexible with those who want to work remotely and might even actively rearrange how their business runs, to have more people working from home and increase their accessibility.”

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