A frustrating start
In 1980s Manchester, it was standard practice for children with disabilities to be educated outside the mainstream, in special schools. Hamied Haroon was one such child, and he remembers this time with a mixture of fondness and frustration.
‘It was a wonderful place, full of fun, but the focus was on physical wellbeing and practical skills – lots of wheelchair dancing and sports. There was very little academic learning. The one day a week I spent at my siblings’ mainstream school showed me just how far ahead they were.’
This wasn’t enough to satisfy a bright and curious child like Hamied. Luckily, he found himself ‘in the right place, at the right time’, when the idea of mainstreaming the schooling of children with disabilities was gaining ground. He was selected as one of three pupils that year to attend Manchester’s only accessible mainstream secondary school.
The transition was not without its challenges. Hamied has Charcot Marie Tooth Disease – a hereditary condition in which the body’s peripheral nerves deteriorate, beginning at the extremities and progressing up the limbs. At that time, he could walk with callipers but would fall a lot, and using a pen or pencil was difficult.
‘It was tough, I felt a bit like a guinea pig. We didn’t have nearly enough support initially.’
A passion for medicine
Despite these challenges, it was at school that Hamied fell in love with science and maths. Back home he’d be glued to the BBC’s weekly science programme, Tomorrow’s World, and sci-fi shows like Star Trek.
‘I was excited by the possibilities of how science and engineering could make life better and more interesting. My dream was to become a doctor, but the school’s careers service told me there was no way I could pursue medicine with my disability.’
With his ambitions dashed, Hamied remained determined to continue with the subjects he loved. Ignoring careers advice, and his Mum’s best-intentioned instructions to go for English and law, he quietly signed up to study physics, biology and maths at A Level. Once at college, he realised there was another way to achieve his dream.
‘I spotted a book on my physics teacher’s shelf called Medical Physics. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning, I suddenly realised that being a doctor wasn’t the only way to work in medicine. And in fact, this route was even more exciting to me!’
Degrees in physics and medical physics followed. Then a PhD, and subsequent Research Associate posts in quantitative biomedical MRI, at the University of Manchester.
‘We’re currently researching changes in the microstructure of the brain in the early stages of dementia. My main role is to develop scanning protocols, and I’ve developed software to analyse the data from a technique called diffusion MRI, to produce maps of the brain’s complex microstructure.’
Adaptations and support
Hamied can stand with callipers but has a powered wheelchair to get around, using ramps and lifts around the University. His own workspace is arranged to give him space to manoeuvre in his chair, and he has a height adjustable desk. He has to keep well away from the MRI scanners – they contain very powerful magnets, and his callipers are made of metal!
‘I no longer have any hand dexterity or grip strength, but I can still use a normal keyboard – typing with my knuckles. I have voice-recognition software, but prefer to type.’
The main impact of his disability on his career, he says, is his geographical restriction.
‘A lot of scientists progress their careers by travelling between institutions. It’s not as easy for disabled people to do that. I had an amazing opportunity to work at Harvard but I just couldn’t make it work due to the time it would take to set up an adapted home and get all the support I need in place. It just wasn’t feasible.’
As well as adaptations to his home, a large part of the support Hamied requires is human. Through the government’s Access to Work programme, he has funding for a full-time personal assistant (PA).
‘My PA helps me to get ready in the morning, takes me to work and to meetings, opens my post, assists me at mealtimes and when I need the bathroom. Without that support I wouldn’t be able to work. The scheme even enables me to go to at least one international conference a year, by funding travel and accommodation for my PA.’
Rights and opportunities
As well as enjoying a busy family life – he has a wife and two children – and a stimulating career, Hamied is an active campaigner for the rights of staff with disabilities.
‘In 2006 I got together with colleagues to set up a disabled staff network at the University. It was one of the first in the UK, and I was elected as its inaugural Chair. The first thing we did was to get the University to provide the same level of support for disabled staff as it did for disabled students. That means that staff now have access to the advice and expertise of the University’s Disability Advisory and Support Service. It’s great because they support staff in all sorts of ways, including getting adaptations in place, sorting out HR issues, and seeking funding or benefits.’
Hamied has since launched - and is Chair of – the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN), which has become a hub for people with disabilities working in universities and other organisations across the UK.
‘I’ve absolutely loved seeing it grow, and it’s proved to me that disabled people with all kinds of impairments or chronic illnesses make such a huge contribution when the right support is in place. My advice to disabled young people considering science as a career would be to go for it! Follow your passion, be positive and optimistic. Go and talk to academics that work in the area you’re interested in – generally they are really supportive and will want to help you. Your enthusiasm and academic abilities are what matter, regardless of physical impairments.’