Ruth Fairclough

Becoming a wheelchair-user at 17 changed the course of Ruth Fairclough’s life, but not her desired destination; a career in maths. With pragmatism and a passion for her subject, Ruth has worked in the corporate sector and higher education, becoming Head of Mathematics at the University of Wolverhampton in 2013.

Adapting to disability

Ruth Fairclough sustained a paraplegic injury from a fall when she was 17. It meant she had to make a big decision about her future.

‘At the time I was looking at civil engineering. But for a disabled woman in the 1990s, before the Disability Discrimination Act, it would’ve been a real uphill battle. My dad said “Ruth, do maths. You’re good at it and you can do it sat down”.’

With her characteristic pragmatic approach, that’s what Ruth did; completing a maths degree at Cardiff University. She’s never looked back.

‘There is an elegant beauty to mathematics, you see patterns in the word. I love taking simple problems and interrogating the complex theory behind them. It meant that after my degree I knew I wanted a career in the subject.’

Finding the right fit 

Her first step was the actuarial profession, but Ruth found the schedule didn’t suit her. For a few months each year, when a major report had to be prepared, the physical demands were too great.

‘I’m a wheelchair user and so do everything with my upper body and I do get more tired. In the job there were a few months when we all had to work seven-day, 100-hour weeks. I couldn’t keep it up because I didn’t have the weekends to recuperate. I gave it a good go, working there for several years, but I knew the culture wasn’t sustainable for me.’

Leaving the corporate sector, Ruth applied to become a lecturer and researcher in maths and statistics at the University of Wolverhampton.

‘They valued my industry experience, because most maths graduates want to go into corporate roles. And the university felt like a very comfortable place to work. I imagined I’d be here for five years or so – I blinked and I’ve been here 15!’

An inclusive approach

Ruth’s longevity at Wolverhampton is no doubt partly due to the support she has had there.

‘I’ve always had managers who are sympathetic to my needs. Getting the kit I need has never been an issue. I can’t stand and deliver a lecture so I’ve always had a tablet – even when touch screen technology was still shiny and new. It means I can do ‘pencil and paper’ maths that is projected up, rather than reaching up to use the bottom third of the white board.’ 

The inclusive approach in Ruth’s department is deeply rooted – going beyond assistive tech and wheelchair ramps. When timetables are developed for the term, she’ll have very few 9am starts, because it’s recognised that it takes her longer to get ready in the morning.

‘My faculty – science and engineering – is very flexible. One time a faculty meeting was being held on the third floor, but the lift had broken. Instead of saying “never mind Ruth, you don’t have to attend this one” they moved the entire meeting to the ground floor.’

Rewarding work  

In 2013, Ruth was promoted to Head of Mathematics. It’s a strategic role that she relishes, but teaching the subject she loves remains her favourite part of the job. 

‘I get paid to solve puzzles, and to teach others to solve puzzles. The sense of satisfaction you get when you solve something – I don’t think you get that in any other subject. And when you see that lightbulb moment in your students it’s so rewarding.’

With such a passion for lecturing, it’s unsurprising that Ruth recalls a particular teaching experience as her career highlight. 

‘A student from Nigeria had signed up to do a postgraduate Masters in maths, but didn’t disclose that he was blind. He’d done his undergraduate studies sighted, and then lost his sight, so he’d never actually done mathematics as a blind student before.’

Ruth and her colleagues soon discovered that this was a challenge, and nobody in the university had the tools and techniques to teach him effectively.

‘I worked with him for a year to find what he could access and what he couldn’t, how we could assess him and what wouldn’t work for him.’

Together, Ruth and her student found ways to overcome the barriers or find new routes to the end goal. They swapped some teaching modules for a research-based approach, found a maths PhD student who could read out required texts and scribe for him, and vivaed a lot of his assessments.

‘He was so grateful to be able to go back to learning mathematics. The adaptations we made really worked, and he got through.’

Disability adviser

As a vocal disability rights campaigner, Ruth values her additional role as one of Wolverhampton’s Student Enabling Coordinators.  

‘I talk to students whose disability is affecting their study, finding work-arounds and alternative routes to help them succeed.’

In this role, and in her advice to any young person with a disability, Ruth’s pragmatism shines through.

‘Living and studying with a disability is harder, so choose the path of least resistance. Choose a course in which your disability won’t hold you back. If you’re a wheelchair user choose a university in a flat place – that’s partly why I chose Cardiff – then there’ll be fewer barriers to your success.

‘My spinal injury drove some of my decisions. It didn’t stop me going into STEM or being the best I could be, but it drove the way I got there.’