Navigating education and employment with a disability is far from an easy task. Across all countries in the WHO European Region, various barriers stand in the way to disability-inclusive health systems and societies. Equally, we have a long way to go to empower, accommodate and promote people with lived experience of disability in the health workforce. “It’s kind of ironic,” says Hannah Daly, “that even though I have so-called invisible disabilities, I can’t really hide them.”
Despite having reading skills similar to those of a 7-year-old and challenges with her writing abilities, the 37-year-old mother of 4 from Ireland has attained multiple university degrees and now thrives as an occupational therapist. Recently, she became an author by publishing an autobiography entitled “Knowing No Boundaries”. However, the path that led her to this point was indeed marked by numerous boundaries, which she now helps other people overcome.
“We all need to feel like we are a part of something”
Having always felt different from her peers, Hannah experienced a sense of relief upon being diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and sensory processing disorder. “I had faced huge amounts of bullying and isolation,” she says, looking back on her early school years. “I started to believe I was unintelligent and not good enough. But when I realized I had a thing called dyslexia and went to school with other kids like me, I knew I wasn’t alone. We all need to feel like we are a part of something.”
Although she continues to encounter challenges with reading and writing, Hannah regained her confidence and took proactive measures to secure reasonable accommodations from her universities. More importantly, she surrounded herself with supportive people who were willing to help her with her studies. Fellow students would volunteer to support Hannah with her reading and writing needs, while her mother went as far as recording her books on tape. “The number of people I’ve had read for me is probably in the thousands,” Hannah says. “Text information feels encrypted to me, but when someone takes time to read it aloud, suddenly it is decoded forever. I still remember something people read to me over 20 years ago.”
Perseverance is not an infinite resource, particularly within a system that is not designed for people like you. Hannah acknowledges that there were moments when she contemplated giving up. “If a person does give up, it doesn’t mean that they are weak,” she says. “We shouldn’t have to go through so much trauma and rejection. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard just to get an education.”
“I love solving problems”
Before pursuing occupational therapy, Hannah specialized in performing arts, an experience that still informs her work today. “Drama is a useful tool for teaching people self-advocacy skills, particularly those considered at risk, young offenders or kids with learning difficulties,” she says.
Although health care wasn’t Hannah’s initial career choice, it ultimately proved to be a natural fit. Having a strong sense of justice and being exposed to disability from a young age, Hannah has an innate drive to help others. “My brother had Down syndrome and was deaf, so I supported and translated for him using Irish Sign Language,” she says.
The bond with her brother, coupled with her own lived experience, has propelled Hannah towards supporting neurodivergent youth in navigating employment and education. “I love solving problems because I’ve been doing it all my life for myself and my family,” she says. “I’m privileged to have got this far, but I had to fight really hard. I’ve had to learn lots of hard lessons that other kids shouldn’t have to endure. That’s why I go around talking to people and empowering them to learn from my mistakes and my journey.”
Self-advocating with confidence
Hannah finds it easier to read people instead of books. She explains that you can gain a lot of valuable insights from the way someone talks, moves, and approaches situations. “This information cannot be found in written notes, it comes from observing,” she says while describing her work process. “Then I start interacting with the patients on a deeper level and help them to identify their strengths. It’s wonderful to see them reframe how they see themselves and even say, ‘I deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, I have value.’ It’s a remarkable moment when it clicks, and suddenly the parents are surprised it was even possible.”
Hannah hopes that someday disability will be perceived and accepted as casually as something like vegetarianism. Until then, students and professionals need to advocate for themselves with confidence. “I’m actually a private person,” she says, “but I’m open about my disabilities because attitudes need to change. When you have a disability, it sometimes feels like you have to prove yourself more and face greater scrutiny. I don’t always disclose it during the recruitment process, but once I get the job, I say, ‘Okay, here are my difficulties and my needs.’”
Making a difference
Sometimes, being different allows Hannah to connect more effectively with people who are also neurodivergent or approach their cases from a unique perspective. “On occasion, I disclose my own conditions to the children or their parents,” she shares. “Some people may view me as broken, and that is a reflection of them, not me. However, it still makes me uncomfortable. On the flip side, there are moments when someone realizes, ‘You get it, don’t you?’ I have also been sought out by people who want a neurodivergent therapist.”
Just as expectant parents might take comfort in working with a midwife who has personally experienced childbirth, having an occupational therapist with relatable experiences can provide reassurance, particularly in the face of lingering stigmas surrounding cognitive and neurological conditions. “Sometimes having that connection because our brains are wired similarly makes all the difference.”
While few careers truly prioritize disability inclusion, and health care still has a long way to go in terms of accessibility, more opportunities are emerging for people with diverse access needs. That’s why it is crucial to be proactive. “Understand your needs,” Hannah says, considering her advice to people with disabilities who are thinking about a career in health care. “Think about the role and potential obstacles. Think about potential solutions that would enable you to succeed. Can you adapt the work? Can you plan ahead? Be open and forthright. Ask about any accommodations in advance, because they can take a long time to be put in place. Pick a career that aligns with your strengths. Try to find someone with similar experiences and talk to them.” And the most vital piece of advice? “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Hannah concludes with a smile.