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Disability Narratives

Roberta has had back and neck pain, caused by musculoskeletal problems, since she was young. She also suffers from migraines. Roberta found the department’s support processes difficult to negotiate, but once she accessed occupational health at the university she got some of the support she needed.

Image representing Roberta© Disability Narratives


at the time of the interview – 2016

Roberta is a post-doctoral research assistant at the university.

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - 2016

Roberta came to the UK from abroad 18 months ago to work on a three year research project into chronic pain. She has had a long standing interest in musculoskeletal issues, after suffering two back injuries and a neck injury in three separate incidents – the first when Roberta was a teenager and the last in her mid-thirties. Roberta said that she suffers constant pain, but over the years has got used to pushing it to the background. During that time she explored various non-pharmacological approaches to help manage her condition, such as keeping fit and yoga.

Before Roberta moved to the UK she completed a form for Human Resources describing her back condition. She thought at the time this would mean that arrangements would be in place when she arrived. However Roberta found that the open-plan office she works in – consisting of tightly packed rows of desks, strip lighting, no air-conditioning, and chairs with few adjustable features – was a one-size-fits-all workplace environment. As well as being a problem for managing her back pain, it also resulted in Roberta suffering migraines caused by the artificial lighting.

When Roberta sought help for some simple changes to her workspace, she was directed to an online assessment tool. However, this only provided general ergonomic advice. Roberta said that this was insufficient for her specific needs and so she started to seek a full workplace assessment. However, Roberta said this proved to be a difficult and 'opaque' process.

Pain makes me tired. So that's one of the side effects for me, is that the more pain I'm in, the more fatigue I feel. Because ... you're having to fight it, to keep going.

Roberta said it was unclear who she should contact to get the necessary adjustments to her workspace. Roberta said she emailed HR, personnel, and her department health and safety officer; but she just kept getting referred back to the online assessment tool. She said she had to keep emailing and pushing her requests. Roberta therefore had to pursue the help she needed on her own. Eventually personnel referred her to Occupational Health (OH).

When Roberta finally got to OH she said that they were very helpful. Not only were they able to get her a properly adjustable and customised chair, but they also referred her to Disability Support Services (DSS). DSS were able to come to her office and provide helpful suggestions and advice. OH were also able to recommend special glasses to help manage her light sensitive migraines. DSS suggested that Roberta ask her department to cover the full cost when purchasing the glasses, which her department agreed to.

In the end it took six weeks for Roberta to get a properly adjustable chair. In that time Roberta's back pain had worsened. Roberta reflected that six weeks was far too long a period to wait, especially when she had given notice of her needs prior to arrival. Roberta said she still had not had a full workplace assessment and felt it was unlikely she would get the adjustable desk that she needed.

Biography at the time of the interview - 2016