Maths, Careers and Living With A Disability: Ruth Fairclough’s Story

Maths, Careers and Living With A Disability: Ruth Fairclough’s Story

As the manager of Beyond Secondary Resources, it is a privilege to play a part in numerous exciting and fascinating projects. This week I had the good fortune to be involved in conducting a Q & A session with Ruth Fairclough. The background for this conversation was that we were aiming to create a series of posters that celebrated mathematicians with disabilities. Predictably (and shamefully) we found ourselves with a list that featured a predominance of dead males, but it was then that we came across Ruth Fairclough, the Head of Mathematics at the University of Wolverhampton.

Our chat took us from Ruth’s childhood, up to her life-changing accident, then beyond to career decisions, flirting with the Paralympics, becoming a professional statistician, and a life spent thwarting social expectations and simply being herself. As you’ll see from the chat detailed below, Ruth Fairclough gave us loads more detail than we could include on our poster, so it seemed appropriate to share her insights here. (Once you’ve been blown away by this, then you can also download the poster from the Twinkl website!)

Please could you tell us about your early life before your accident?

I was born in 1974 and grew up in Wakefield. I had a loving family, mum – a school teacher, dad – a university academic, and an older sister.

For GCSE I did three separate sciences. I did maths because I had to. I found maths really easy, I couldn’t quite believe it was worth the same as the other GCSEs, like English which I actually had to work at! I’m dyslexic and I very strategically avoided subjects that required a lot of writing when it came to my GCSE options. This left me with the sciences. I didn’t have to write much and I was quite good at them, they played to my strengths as a practical person.

I got very, very drunk one night and woke up the following morning in a spinal unit and I couldn’t walk.

I had my accident when I was seventeen and before my accident I was (and still am) sporty, therefore my career ambitions at that time were related to physical pursuits. I really fancied joining the army or the Air Force or something like that. I actually started applying to become an officer in the army, and right up until my accident, that was really what I wanted to do, I liked the idea of being a leader of men. I come from a forces family; I’ve got cousins and uncles in the Royal Navy, and I had a cousin in the army. I heard their stories and they sounded really inspiring. I also watched my sister go through university and be a poverty-stricken student, and I decided that that wasn’t for me and that I didn’t really want to go to university. So right up until my accident I was going to join the army.

I had started my A levels: maths, physics, chemistry and further maths, so I was thinking about Corps of Signals telecommunications engineering work. I also quite fancied looking at ordnance and doing things like bomb disposal and blowing things up. The 17-year-old me thought that the idea that you could get paid for blowing stuff up was amazing. That shows how fearless (or naïve!) I was at the time.

I had my accident in the summer holidays between my lower and upper 6th. It was a stupid accident. Nobody is to blame other than myself. I got very, very drunk one night and woke up the following morning in a spinal unit and I couldn’t walk. It started as one of those things that most teenagers do: stupid decisions under the influence of too much alcohol, and most of the time we wake up with cuts and bruises thinking, “How lucky was I?” Well, I did wake up with cuts and bruises, but I also woke up with two broken feet and a broken back. But at least I was still alive.

The first weeks after my accident were on bed rest… complete bed rest: flat on my back, being turned every few hours so that I didn’t get pressure sores. It was absolute torture. It’s like being a prisoner only you’re not even allowed to get up and wander around yourself.

And it wasn’t even planned spinal surgery, it just happened all of a sudden. You didn’t have time to prepare mentally for it either. How did that affect you?

I’d gone from this sporty, very active teenager, to being literally helpless in bed for weeks on end. If somebody put my glass of water beyond my reach, I had to get a nurse to go and reach it for me. If somebody put my TV remote on the end of the bed then I wasn’t allowed to sit up and get it. Plus, it would have been absolute agony.

There was a complication too. After about three or four weeks I was told that my back wasn’t quite healing straight, so I could either leave it for a few more weeks and see if it corrected itself, or I could undergo this massive operation to straighten it, followed by having loads and loads of metal pins and rods inserted in my back. After that though, I was told that I would be up in a week and a half. So, I opted for the operation.

The key thing for me was, could I move from A to B under my own steam? And the answer was “yes”, and that was really all I cared about.

It was a 5 or 6-hour operation. I’ve got a scar going from in between my shoulder blades, right down my back. I’ll be honest with you, most of the driver behind the decision to have the operation was so that the bed rest could end in a week and a half, not the promise of a beautifully straight back or long-term medical benefits. In my head I was thinking, “Just put me through whatever you’ve got to put me through to get me out of bed!”

I’ve had subsequent operations and been through childbirth, but I’ve never been so ill after a medical procedure as I was after that operation. I was clearly doped up to the eyeballs on God-knows-what to try and reduce the pain (although that didn’t really work). I remember cursing the nurses every time they came to move me, saying that the surgeon had broken all of my ribs, because that’s what it felt like, in spite of the morphine.

But then the healing was so quick, and a week and a half after the operation I was sitting up.

How had things changed for you?

I’d spent weeks on bed rest, so I’d lost all of my body conditioning, I couldn’t transfer into a wheelchair and I could barely push myself around, it was really hard work. And there were all of those things that you take for granted: I couldn’t dress myself; I couldn’t get on the toilet myself. But at least I could get my own TV remote, I could get my own glass of water, I could go and make myself some toast. Sometimes we don’t appreciate the little things that we can do for ourselves, until they’re taken away. That feeling of freedom that I got from going from the bed to a wheelchair was joyous.

In the spinal unit, I was surrounded by other people who were in wheelchairs. Obviously being in a wheelchair in a spinal unit is normal because everybody is in one, so you don’t have any people looking at you strangely for being different, you’re all in the same boat. The concept of disability discrimination just isn’t there. And the spinal unit is kitted up for you, so to begin with you don’t experience any kind of barriers due to your disability.

Then I went through my rehab. The purpose is that, at the end when you’re discharged, you can live a functioning life. You learn how to transfer, so that you can get on and off the bed by yourself. You learn how to get on and off the toilet by yourself. You learn to dress yourself. The one thing that I really struggled with was when they said, “You’ve got to be able to get on and off the floor by yourself.” Because if you fall out of your chair and you can’t get yourself off the floor then you’re stuffed.

Part of my rehab involved being sent into the great outdoors. They did things like sending me on shopping trips, or out to the pub. I got to find out other things then. Could I cope with cobblestones? What do I do when there’s a step up to the shop? It was partly assertiveness training. Could I cope in a cafe when the waitress asks the able-bodied person that I’m with whether I take tea in my sugar, and not get upset?

I could see a very, very slippery slope that ended with me, aged thirty, still living at home with my parents.

All of that rehab took about three or four months, which is actually record time, especially for a woman because we don’t have as much upper body strength, and nor does it develop as quickly. Think of a teenage boy: if you feed him lots and make him do weights, then he’ll very quickly increase in strength. You do the same for a very small teenage girl, and that increase doesn’t happen so quickly.

Did you know from when you had the back correction operation, that you would not walk again or was there ever any hope that you would?

When you have a spinal injury you get a lot of swelling around that area, and as the swelling dissipates, that’s when it’s the crunch time that determines whether you’re going to get some mobility back or not. Having looked at the X rays of my back, well… I kind of trashed it. The chances of me getting anything back based on that injury were fairly slight.

But I did start getting some sensation back in my legs, and a little bit of weak movement, and when that first started happening in the weeks after my accident there was a moment of thinking, “If I do loads and loads and loads of physio then I might be able to walk on callipers.” But ultimately there wasn’t enough inclination. Callipers are implements of torture. My wheelchair is my freedom. The key thing for me was, could I move from A to B under my own steam? And the answer was “yes”, and that was really all I cared about.

It sounds like you accepted the new normal incredibly philosophically.

I’m very much a live-one-day-at-a-time person, and I’ve always been like that. I try not to think too much about the past or the future, and focus on the here and now.

You can do maths sitting down…

But it took a couple of years before I stopped falling out of bed. You know, when the post arrives and you try to get up but you’re half asleep. I would swing my legs over and try to stand up, and fall flat on the floor. I did scream at my mum an awful lot because she would make slips, like calling my wheelchair a “pushchair”. That was a real red flag to me and I’d scream at her. She used to come around to try and help, and she was only being a helpful, loving mother. I’d scream at her for coming out and helping me to do housework. Now if she came around and helped me to do housework I would be delighted! But at the time it felt like an erosion of my independence that I fought really, really fiercely against. Perhaps in hindsight, slightly too fiercely.

I was a teenager fighting for my independence, but multiplied by three because I was in a wheelchair. In my mind’s eye I could see a very, very slippery slope that ended with me, aged thirty, still living at home with my parents. And I so actively didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to do teenager things like going out, going clubbing, dating boys and being able to make mistakes. Things that people in their late teens / early twenties do, and you can’t do that if you’re living at home with your parents.

Did the accident and the subsequent rehabilitation interrupt your education?

It did, but there were ways around that. I had a lovely maths teacher called Mervyn who lived right near the hospital and he would come in and run one to one A Level maths classes. I couldn’t do any hospital visit classes for physics or chemistry because of the lab aspects, but I could carry on with maths, so even though I’d missed the first term of classes, I did my maths A Level at the normal time. Because of Mervyn. He was one of those fabulous teachers who really went the extra mile.

I ended up dropping further maths because I just had too much on my plate, and then it took me an extra year to get my physics and chemistry.

All that time, the spinal unit was also encouraging me to consider the Paralympics. I was doing a lot of disability sport, particularly swimming. I swam before my accident so it was just a case of swimming without legs. It felt easy, partly because when you’re training for swimming as a non-disabled person you do your arms separately to your legs, and then you bring the stroke together. So, I’d done arms training and I could just forget my legs!

When I was doing weights to build up my body strength, I was so little and light that a physio actually realised that I was bench pressing above my body weight. As a seventeen-year-old girl in the early nineties, that was almost Paralympic qualifying amounts. I’m sure that it’s all a higher standard now and that I’d have to bench press significantly more, but at that time the spinal unit was encouraging me that the Paralympics was the way to go.

So, I did consider professional sports, but I spoke to my dad because he was very sensible about what I should do next. And it was dad that suggested maths. I was thinking again, “OK, so I want to do engineering in the army. Let’s go and have a look at that.” But my dad persuaded me not to, he was concerned that I had all of these things going against me that people would use to prejudice me, and I took his point. He said, “You know what Ruth, you can do maths sitting down. Being in a wheelchair is not going to impact your ability to do maths.”

Were there any barriers for you at university?

Actually, it was a good experience, and partly because I went to university in South Wales. I grew up in West Yorkshire and they seem to have a very different attitude to hills in those two regions. In Yorkshire they tend to build the cities on the hills and leave the valleys to the sheep. And in Wales it’s the other way round!

I went to Cardiff University because it offered a more wheelchair-friendly environment. The centre of Cardiff is fairly flat and it is a more accessible city, physically. There is a different attitude towards disability in South Wales, in particular to wheelchair users. There had been a huge spike of spina bifida cases in that area in the 1960s and 70s, which is tragic, but that means that there are more wheelchair users per capita in South Wales, and it feels as though everybody knows somebody in a wheelchair. So actually, I found that I was treated differently, more positively. I didn’t get that, “Does she take sugar?” kind of attitude. Random strangers were more than happy to strike up a conversation with me and not wonder what they were going to get in return, which I didn’t have quite so much of in England, and I still don’t have quite so much in England. It comes across that people already know somebody in a wheelchair, they’ve already broken that barrier of actually having a conversation with somebody in a wheelchair. Which, of course, is exactly the same as having a conversation with somebody who’s not in a wheelchair. Apart from the fact that you might want to squat down so I don’t get a crick in my neck! I always go back to South Wales and smile for a week. It feels like I get far more “normal” treatment.

I loved my time at Cardiff University. At that point I was thinking, “Right, so am I going to be an academic like my dad?” And I’ll never forget, I did an undergraduate module in analytic number theory. It was a final year, final semester module and it was that module that made me think, “Actually maths academia is not for me!” I’d now hit some maths that I was struggling with. GCSE maths was easy. A level was easy. First year university was easy. Second year was really hard for about eight weeks, but I got over that. But that analytic number theory that I did in the final year… I’m not convinced it would matter how long I looked at it and how hard I worked at it. After doing that module, the thought of going into academia and doing a PhD just filled me with horror, so I went off and got a job in the actuarial profession.

Did that feel like an easy choice at the time?

Well, I never wanted to be a poor student anyway. I wanted to go out into the real world, into a very, very well-paid profession. Being in a wheelchair was an obstacle though. I graduated in 1998 which was before the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1995 was really on employers’ radars. I got a “no” from a few organisations because I was in a wheelchair and they decided that they were exempt from the DDA. I’m not convinced that they were. But I found a company in Shropshire, which is where I live now, who were willing to give me a job in the actuarial profession.

I was a wheelchair-bound woman in a male-dominated profession.

There were aspects of it that I loved. There were aspects of it that I didn’t love. It was very much that transition from student to professional, which is when I started seeing significant barriers and discrimination. I think that my employers could have coped if it was just that I was in a wheelchair, or if I was just a woman. But I was both together, a wheelchair-bound woman in a male dominated profession. It was at that point that I’d also started a family, so I was a woman with young children at home.

I went to an Institute of Actuaries meeting in London in 1998 and mentioned that I couldn’t stay overnight and go to the party because I had to get home due to childcare responsibilities. The woman from the Institute of Actuaries at the time said, “Oh, we’ve never, ever had a woman qualifying who has a family.”

With a disability, has it been difficult to raise a family?

I found the baby / toddler bit awful, but I think everybody does. I’ve got a feeling that the sleep deprivation of a very young baby hit me harder because I do everything with just half my body. I get more tired. This was especially the case with the first baby who just didn’t sleep. It made me feel physically sick, I was so tired.

My toddlers wore dungarees, so that even if they did lie on the floor screaming, I could pick them up from the straps of their dungarees. I’ve found it easier as the kids have got older. I do think my kids have had to be independent from an earlier age than many; the instant they could tie their own shoelaces, they were tying their own shoelaces, so that I didn’t have to bend over double to do it for them. The instant they were physically able to strap themselves into their car seats, I got them to do it, because that’s really hard work for me. From when I could trust them with a butter knife to put some Nutella on some bread and cut it in half, they were doing their own school lunches. But I think that’s as much about me being a professional mum.

Sometimes my youngest daughter took advantage, she would run upstairs and go, “Haha, you can’t get me now!” A bit of that sort of thing. My eldest was the complete opposite. She’d think, “If I go up those stairs and anything happens, Mummy can’t get to me. That’s not good.” The youngest wanted the freedom. Perhaps you can tell which one takes after me more!

I did once go out into town with my eldest, who would have probably been about six or seven, and my youngest, who was a baby, and I turned up and parked in the disabled parking bay. There was this older woman watching me and she really scowled at me, thinking that I was a young mum parking in a disabled parking bay because I had a pushchair. I got out of the car, got my wheelchair out, got the seven-year-old out, got the baby out, and noticed the look of absolute horror on the face of this woman. She was clearly gobsmacked that I was a disabled woman, not only with children, but with nobody to care for me or the children. It was as though she was thinking, “How could this possibly be allowed?”

Do you find that discrimination from others is mostly an unconscious bias that people have because they see you in a wheelchair?

I think so. I think disability discrimination is absolutely endemic in society. It’s how we’re brought up to perceive disability. There are still disability charities out there that aim to “fix” people with disabilities, and that’s the narrative. We’re either to be put up on a pedestal to be worshipped from afar for achieving so much with all of these impairments, or we’re lazy scroungers relying on the state. There’s nothing in between.

I’m “normal”. I’ve gone to university, I’ve got a professional job and I’ve made a career of it.

I’m “normal”. What I’ve done is, for example, the same as my sister who’s not disabled: I’ve gone to university, I’ve got a professional job and I’ve made a career of it. Ask anybody beyond the age of thirty, “Are you in the career that you dreamed of when you were 16?” And the answer is probably “no”. So it might be for different reasons, but the journey that I followed is actually the same as any other professional in their thirties or beyond.

What led you into your current career, working as the Head of Mathematics at the University of Wolverhampton, particularly considering that you had been put off academia before?

I sacked my actuarial career on the birth of child number two and fell into academia. There was a job going at the University of Wolverhampton and I thought, “Well, I’m looking for a job, I’ll apply.” I got the job, and I’ve been progressing through the university ever since, now I’m head of department.

It was analytical number theory that put me off when I was graduating. I don’t teach that area. Maths is huge. Throughout my career I’ve done financial maths, statistics and probability. The nineteen-year-old me at university thought that stats was boring, but from the day I graduated all I’ve done is stats, that’s what I teach and that’s what my research is in. It’s all applied statistics. Stats are boring as hell at GCSE, and A Level, and university, but they get interesting when you’re doing them for real, with a purpose.

Even in university there are barriers everywhere, but it’s about finding where you can cope with them. And the barriers at university are insignificant compared to the barriers in the actuarial profession. Nobody at the university would say to me, “Well, you’ve got to work until eleven o’clock at night because we’ve got a deadline.” Higher education is not like that. If I’m working until eleven o’clock at night it’s from my own poor time management, not from the quantity of work.

Did you ever pursue the Paralympic idea further?

When I started university as an undergraduate, I had to make a decision because doing that kind of elite sport takes a lot of time, and studying for a degree takes a lot of time. There aren’t quite enough hours in the day to do both, and have a social life. My dad politely pointed out that there’s no money to be made in Paralympic female weightlifting, and if I wanted a good standard of living, I needed to go out and join the able-bodied world of work, and have a professional career, otherwise I’d been weightlifting living at home, or on state benefits, with that lack of independence, and actually for me, that financial independence that a career gives you has been so important. I’ve made my own money, so I can make my own decisions about where I live and how I live.

I’ve made my own money, so I can make my own decisions about where I live and how I live.

My last opportunity with the Paralympics was Rio 2016. I took up canoeing, just as a hobby to keep myself fit, and then the paracanoe team for Rio needed more disabled athletes to do the Paralympic canoeing. I considered the training schedule and whether I could fit it around a full-time job, and I looked at what the prize money was if I were to win a gold medal. It was less than my current university salary! For me to be the best of the best in the world at the Paralympics, I’d have to take a pay cut. I am not the best mathematician in the world by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that earns me more income. Imagine if I won silver and I was the second best in the world. Would that mean that I couldn’t pay my mortgage?

Are there any other professionals with disabilities that you see as role models?

I don’t really have any role models who are disabled. Certainly not with an extensive physical disability like my own. I’m now of an age where I’ve got friends who are acquiring disabilities due to age and health. But no, I think I live my own life and I do what I want to do. There are people that I work with whose value systems I admire and I try and emulate them. I’m thinking of two women that I work with in particular who are very ethically fair and inclusive to everybody; they have a real touch of humanity about them. I do think I need to work more like that in my day-to-day. Neither of them are mathematicians, but they are women in academia.

What would you say to other young students with disabilities who want to pursue a career in maths or stem?

There needs to be more of us. There is no unfair maths…

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