Recognising hidden disabilities

Grant Cairns
Grant Cairns
Information Security Architect

Not everyone with diabetes injects insulin, not everyone with dyslexia will be able to read a page of text if you print it on coloured paper, not everyone with MS will need a wheelchair, and contrary to popular opinion, you shouldn't tap a blind person on the arm to make them aware you're there (imagine someone snuck up on you and tapped your arm!). In the UK, one in five people have a disability, and 80% of them are hidden disabilities – so it’s only by talking about them that we can learn.

I learned I had Multiple Sclerosis, one such invisible illness in November 2014, after years of being misdiagnosed with work related stress. Since I received that diagnosis, I've had brilliant support from line managers and colleagues in all the teams I've worked with, both in Tesco Bank and previous employers, so I'm a big advocate for sharing your story if you have a chronic illness, disability, or if you're neurodiverse. Particularly because hidden disabilities are probably one of the most misunderstood things around… both in terms of what it means to the person affected, but also in terms of what support is available.

What is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic medical condition that means my immune system thinks a fatty substance called myelin is something dangerous and tries to launch an immune response against it. That doesn't sound too bad, until you realise myelin is the protective layer that wraps around all your brain cells, spinal cord, and all the nerves throughout your body. In the years before I was properly diagnosed, my immune system had scored a number of points against me – enough to cause a loss of the sense of touch in my left hand because of a damaged nerve, at another point in my spine there are a few crossed wires and I randomly experience electrical pain down my arm as though I'm being tasered, and the list goes on…but you couldn’t tell by looking at me.

People with MS have different symptoms - no two people are the same. My course of MS is ‘relapsing-remitting’. It flares up and recedes, and I take medication to reduce the number of flare-ups. When my immune system gets hungry for myelin, almost any body function can find itself caught in the crossfire. That might mean sudden weakening of leg muscles that causes walking problems, partial loss of sight in an eye, or damage to the nerves in the ear, causing dizziness and vertigo. That’s the worst one I’ve had to deal with – feeling insanely drunk for two months is no fun at all.

MS doesn’t directly cut the nerve ‘wires’, it just damages the myelin – the insulation on those wires. Sometimes there’s enough damage that wires do break, and some part of you stops working. Sometimes wires cross and you feel electrical pain where the nerves in your body literally short-circuit. Often nerves just work a little less effectively – I can tell when my left hand is touching something, but I can’t tell the texture of what that object is. But that’s just my own personal experience up to now. That may change because, as I said earlier, MS is unpredictable.

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