Carol's return to work after spinal injury

Published: 18 February 2020

The English for Academic Study lecturer is back at work in the Hetherington Building

Carol Irvine, who has taught English for Academic Study at the University’s Language Centre since 1987, suffered a serious spinal injury two years ago. She now uses a wheelchair and has been making a phased return to a 14-hour working week since September last year when she started with a three-hour week.Carol Irvine 650

"On the day of my accident early in 2018, I was cycling around Millport with a friend visiting from overseas. The last thing I remember was seeing a pothole up ahead and then everything went black,” says Carol. “I don’t think I reacted in time. When I came to, my first thought was ‘I’ll just lie here for a minute or two and then get up’. Of course, I soon realised I couldn’t. Fortunately, a couple passing in their car had seen me. They called the island ambulance service and stayed with me until the ambulance arrived.”

Carol had sustained a spinal cord injury in her neck and was to spend seven long months in the Spinal Injuries Unit within the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. She is full of praise for staff in the unit – without their dedication and skill her rehabilitation would not have gone as well as it did.

Upon hearing about the severity of her condition, she says: “The x-ray confirmed that I had damaged my spine at neck level and because of the height of the break I wouldn’t be able to walk again, as my legs were not weight-bearing.”

She remains thankful for the friends and work colleagues who visited her in hospital. “I was never short of visitors and they were a wonderful source of support.”

It was while in the unit that Carol was introduced to the outreach and support team at UK-wide charity Back Up. The organisation has a National Lottery Community Fund award of £149,859 to support people in Scotland who have recently sustained a spinal injury or have just left hospital, to stop them from becoming lonely or isolated.

“Being in a wheelchair is a huge adjustment both physically and mentally,” says Carol. “Back Up helped me to become more skilful at using the chair and using my upper body strength to push myself. They have been a wonderful source of support. You go through a range of emotions when you have a spinal injury so having that awareness and having Back Up to help recognise that is important.”

Reflecting on leaving hospital, Carol says: “Before the accident, I had lived happily for 25 years in a tenement building in a third floor flat, but I wasn’t able to go back. A Housing Association offered me a ground floor property and I now have the support of a district nursing team, and carers come in each morning to help me get ready.”

As her rehabilitation progressed, there was one pressing thing on Carol’s mind: returning to work as an English language lecturer at the University of Glasgow. At 69 she was still enthused by her passion for teaching English to overseas students.

“I love my job, and I have great colleagues, so was anxious to get back among them.”

Returning to work was not as straightforward as she might have liked and Carol is keen to use her experience and insight into the obstacles a wheelchair-user faces to help other people who may encounter similar challenges in the future.

Her first meeting with HR and Estates took place in November 2018 and led to a detailed report into what required to be done in the Hetherington Building to adapt it for her needs. It was not until the following September (2019), however, that she was able to return to the classroom. In the last month she has had a motorised wheel fitted to the back of her wheelchair that helps her negotiate inclines which to the able-bodied appear relatively flat but feel like insurmountable mountains to a wheelchair-user. The cost of that adaptation has been shared by Carol herself, the University and the Department for Work and Pensions.

The space in disabled toilets should be reviewed, she argues – at times she has had to perform 10-point turns in the nearest disabled toilet to her office before she can shut the door behind her. Outwith the University, disabled facilities in premises along Byres Road are not fit for purpose, she argues, with “hardly one that is properly accessible” and a tendency by businesses to use disabled toilets as storage facilities.

Carol has offered to “test out” disabled facilities for wheelchair users at the University’s current campus and its new campus under development.

“When I was in hospital I didn’t want to be identified as someone who was disabled. In the hospital I would always turn my back for photographs. It’s a level of my own adjustment that now I don’t mind going public. I can’t be the only person who has become disabled while working here,” she says.

She points to issues varying from the difficulty in finding an accessible meeting room on the main campus to having to ask a student to put in a USB stick for her because she can’t reach the console from her wheelchair. Her priorities now are to express her appreciation to everyone who has supported her but also to raise awareness of the challenges facing people like her.

The University’s Disability Champion, Professor Frank Coton, described the commitment Carol has shown in returning to work as “terrific”.Frank Coton 650

“I am delighted that she is back with us and it is clear that she has had wonderful support from Back Up and her colleagues at the University. Although adaptations are now in place, it is clear that Carol is still encountering difficulties using our physical estate, some of which remains inaccessible. It is important, moving forward, that we ensure all new development achieves the highest standards of accessibility and that, where possible, we take every opportunity to improve accessibility on the existing estate,” he said.

Professor Coton added: “Where that is not possible, we must ensure that our rooming processes and in-room equipment meet the needs of disabled staff. Understanding the experiences of Carol and others like her will help us to get this right and I am delighted that she is willing to help test out new facilities for disabled users across campus. That is something we will certainly take her up on.”

First published: 18 February 2020