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InFocus

Does our profession have a problem with disability?

In order to be a truly inclusive profession, we must make sure it is accessible to all and help support our colleagues and students who may face chronic health conditions

I doubt that any of us would advise someone looking for an easy life to enter the veterinary profession. Ours is a vocation, but one that can at times test even the healthiest of workers, both physically and mentally. There is an ongoing conversation in the veterinary community about how necessary this is, and in many places, steps are being taken to try to reduce this burden. However, sadly much of it still remains. This burden can make our profession feel inaccessible to those who are living with chronic illness or disability, whether they develop it before or after beginning their training. As we will discuss, vets with disabilities appear to be significantly under-represented. Those of us living with chronic illness encounter many hurdles in our professional lives, but sadly at least as many of them are created not by our job, but by the inflexibility of our employers or the hostility of our colleagues.

How common is chronic illness in the veterinary profession?

This is a difficult question to answer, as (perhaps reflecting the importance this issue is given) there is no good data available on the prevalence of chronic illness and disability in the veterinary profession. However, we do have some information to work with. Currently, the answer appears to be: more common than you might think, and yet perhaps less common than it should be.

Less common than it should be?

The RCVS Surveys of the Profession document the rates of “disability or medical condition that limits work the respondent can do”. For the most recent surveys in 2019, this was 6.7 percent of vets (Robinson et al., 2020a) and 7.4 percent of RVNs (Robinson et al., 2020b). For contrast, between October and December 2020, people with disabilities made up 13.5 percent of all those currently in employment in the UK (ONS, 2020; ONS, 2021).

When considering disability (a legally defined term), there are several reasons to think that the true proportion of working vets and RVNs with disabilities is even lower than might be suggested

The fact that the veterinary profession is coming in at half the national rate might be enough to pause for thought; however, when considering disability (a legally defined term), there are several reasons to think that the true proportion of working vets and RVNs with disabilities is even lower than might be suggested here. For example, not everyone from the RCVS surveys is employed. The prevalence of disability is higher among both the retired and those who are unemployed (ONS, 2019), meaning the true rate among employed vets and RVNs is likely to be lower.

There are some who will argue that it is natural to have fewer vets and RVNs with disabilities, because of the physically demanding nature of the profession. This is a superficially enticing view but fails on closer examination.

Firstly, it likely takes an ill-informed view of what “disability” is. The stereotype of someone with a disability is a slightly frail-looking individual in a wheelchair. Out of the 14.1 million people currently registered as disabled in the UK, only 1.2 million (8.5 percent) are wheelchair users, and only two-thirds of those are “regular” users – many only need to use a wheelchair occasionally (NHS England, 2014; DWP, 2021). The umbrella of disability is far wider – the legal definition includes people with conditions as diverse as type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and cancer, as well as neurodiverse individuals such as those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD, dyslexia and dyscalculia (Citizens Advice, 2020). Furthermore, wheelchair use need not be a barrier to being a clinical vet – even full-time users may be able to continue to work in practice if the necessary adjustments are made.

The legal definition includes people with conditions as diverse as type 1 diabetes, epilepsy and cancer, as well as neurodiverse individuals such as those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD, dyslexia and dyscalculia

Secondly, it takes a very old-fashioned view of the role of the vet or RVN. We are increasingly seeing the wide range of career paths that those with veterinary training undertake outside of clinical practice, whether in management or industry roles within the profession, or further afield. Even those with conditions that bar them from clinical roles can still use the same professional skills in a wide variety of places.

Does all of this give us licence to say that disability “should be” more common? “Should” might imply that I am making a moral judgement here, and certainly I think there is a moral argument for making sure that we are not deliberately excluding certain people from a veterinary career. However, there is also a practical argument – there is a pool of talent out there that the veterinary world is unable to draw upon, a wealth of potentially brilliant minds who we will never benefit from unless we change our attitudes.

Not only that, but we are losing those with personal experience of ill-health. I know that my chronic illness has made me a better vet, in terms of my ability to both understand my patients and relate to my clients, and I am sad to think that our profession may be inaccessible to others in my position.

More common than you might think?

The Equality Act (2010) defines disability as “… a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

As we have just discussed, “disability” is a broad umbrella covering a range of different health conditions. However, there are yet more of us in the veterinary community who are living with the daily consequences of chronic illness, yet do not fall under (or do not recognise they fall) under the legal definition of disabled.

Hard data on how many vets and RVNs are living with chronic illness is currently lacking, and one of the first priorities for British Veterinary Chronic Illness Support (BVICS) will be to try to establish this. Anecdotally we know of large numbers of people who are living and working with an illness in the profession, many of whom do not fall under the umbrella of disability.

What can we do about this?

Support our colleagues

It is hard working in the veterinary profession with a chronic illness or disability. The RCVS survey suggests that vets with disabilities have lower well-being scores and take longer to find their first role in practice than others. Work done by the BVA highlights the discrimination that we face from both clients and colleagues, and anecdotally we see this driving people away from the profession, or at least from clinical practice (BVA, 2019).

Take the time to listen to your colleagues who are living with chronic illness. Do not assume you understand what our lives are like – it is all too easy to draw incorrect parallels with your own experiences, or other people you know, or even with our non-human patients.

Take the time to listen to your colleagues who are living with chronic illness … Support them in practical ways. They may need changes in the way they work (what the law calls “reasonable adjustments”) which could lead to resentment from colleagues for their “special treatment”

Support them in practical ways. They may need changes in the way they work (what the law calls “reasonable adjustments”) which could lead to resentment from colleagues for their “special treatment”. Remember that the better you can support us, the more effectively we can manage our illnesses, and the better we will be able to do our jobs.

When people feel unsafe sharing the challenges they face, they may push themselves beyond what is wise or safe, leading to a “boom and bust” cycle as they crash shortly after. Work to create a culture of openness and support around health issues within your practice, which will benefit everyone. The BVA Good Workplace Guidelines have a wealth of resources to help you with this.

Support students

Students with long-term health conditions may find it harder to get placements in practices which can be flexible or provide for their needs. Consider how your practice books placements (could you offer half days? Days off?) and be open to any adjustments students might need while they are with you.

Widen access to the profession

In order to be a truly inclusive profession, we must make sure it is accessible to all. Currently it can be hard for students with health conditions to gain access to and complete veterinary training (whether vet or RVN)

In order to be a truly inclusive profession, we must make sure it is accessible to all. Currently it can be hard for students with health conditions to gain access to and complete veterinary training (whether vet or RVN). Part of the RCVS’s legislative reform programme is looking at changes that may help (or hinder) this, and voices within the veterinary community can help to ensure these changes are for the good (Cawston, 2021).

Closer to home, consider your approach to school-age students looking for experience. Are you unwittingly raising barriers to certain applicants? Or are you a practice that can inspire and train all kinds of future vets and nurses?

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