Podcast: Disability Pride with Dr Hannah Barham-Brown

Following on from Disability Pride Month, Dr Hannah Barham-Brown talks about disability activism and what makes her proud to be disabled. She also discusses LGBTQ events and why they need to be more inclusive.


[Excerpt from podcast]

Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown: Actually you can be neurodivergent, you can have ADHD, you can work in a wheelchair and be a bloody good doctor. And hopefully that makes the life of the next generation of disabled doctors one hell of a lot easier ‘cause I've… yeah… kind of rolled / led the way as best I can.


Beth Wilshaw: Hello and welcome to the Disability Download, brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. On this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Today we're going to be hearing from my colleague, Nick, and his incredible guest, Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown. Hannah is a GP living in Yorkshire, an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Consultant, and an inspiring speaker.

Driven by a passion for creating a more inclusive world, Dr. Barham-Brown travels the globe, engaging audiences with her powerful talks on diversity and disability. Her insights and experiences shed light on the challenges faced by disabled individuals and inspire others to take action. So, get ready for an enlightening and thought-provoking conversation today.

[Main podcast]

Nick Bishop: Welcome, Hannah. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown: Thank you for having me. This is lovely.

Nick: Thank you. So we'll start off with just a brief introduction from you. And er, yeah… a kind of elevator pitch of what you do.

Hannah: I'm not sure If there's an easy way to put this into an elevator pitch! So first and foremost, I'm a GP. I'm nearly – very nearly – a fully qualified GP after far too many years of training. But I also work as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant and speaker. I do a bit of writing. I'm a wheelchair user.

I'm neurodivergent. And I'm part of the LGBTQ plus community as well. So I spend a lot of time talking about equalities and inclusion. But also just trying to make the world a better place for disabled and LGBTQ people… because - goodness knows - we've got a lot of work to do!

Nick: Well, that's brilliant. We need people like you. So thank you for doing it. You've talked about the importance of being a “roll model”. So can you explain why you feel there need to be more disabled role models – in your field and more generally.

Hannah: So yeah. I refer to myself as a #rollmodel but I spell role with 2 “L”s because that's how I roll. Boom! Tish!

Nick: [Laughs]. I see what you did there.

Hannah: So proud! If in doubt, make a wheelchair pun. It's always going to go well.

Nick: [Laughs]

Hannah: So yeah. I focus on being a role model - both as a doctor and in the rest of the work I do –because I'm hyper-aware that I am an incredibly privileged person in so many ways. You know. I'm white; CIS; I'm well-educated; I became disabled – in terms of my physical disability – in my late 20s. So for the first, like, 25 years of my life, I was very much assumed to be non-disabled and I had all the privilege that kind of came with that – in terms of my educational opportunities and how I was brought up.

And so I think it's kind of incumbent upon me, to an extent, to take that privilege and use it to make the world a bit of a better place. So I became disabled during medical school. I went into medical school running half marathons. I didn't know I had ADHD at that point. I probably would have found the three degrees I did a lot easier if I'd had a diagnosis, but never mind. But I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) in my penultimate year of medical school. And I went from like running half marathons to graduating in a wheelchair, and trying to work out how one becomes a doctor with a significant physical disability.

And what I realised very quickly was that there were very few disabled doctors that I could find, that I knew of, that I could ask for support. There was no real network for disabled healthcare professionals at that point. And so I was almost like literally reinventing the wheel whilst also trying to, you know, come out of medical school and learn how to be a doctor…. which you very much still learn on the job. I was terrified. I didn't like, have the guts to prescribe paracetamol for the first week.

Like, it was really scary! And I was trying to do that whilst working out how to do it on wheels and all of the practicalities that come with that. Because you know, I'm not leaping around a hospital jumping up and down people’s chests. It's not very much like Grey's Anatomy, which is quite a disappointment to me. That was kind of why I went into medicine.

Nick: [Laughs]

Hannah: But yeah, I joke. I honestly really love my job. But yeah. I think I became very aware that there wasn't really anyone I could look up to, anyone I could connect with, any support network for me as a disabled doctor at that point. And since then I've found more and more of us, and I've supported more and more students into medical school and then out into the profession.

And I've done a lot of work with the British Medical Association about how we support disabled students and staff within the NHS. But there's a long, long way to go. And I think it's so important that people, at whatever stage of their career, can go: “You know what? If that wonky bird can do it, then yeah… I'll probably be fine!” Because being the first was terrifying, or at least feeling like I was the first was terrifying. And so, um… Yeah. I'm aware that there's a desperate need for more role models. And not just for disabled people, but for non-disabled people.

You know, disabled staff in the NHS do still face a lot of inequalities and a lot of additional challenges that they shouldn't need to [face]: they struggle to get even the most basic reasonable adjustments in many cases, and there's a lot of stigma around being disabled and working in the NHS.

So I think it's really important that non-disabled people see people like me and go: “Yeah! Actually you can be neurodivergent, you can have ADHD, you can work in a wheelchair and be a bloody good doctor. And hopefully that makes the life of the next generation of disabled doctors one hell of a lot easier ‘cause I've… yeah… kind of rolled / led the way as best I can.

Nick: Brilliant. That's fantastic. Well done, you! We're coming up to Disability Pride Month, as you know. So, I'm aware this is a bit of a big question… but can you try to explain what disability pride means to you?

Hannah: It's a massive question. Yeah, you could write a book on this. I'm not writing a book on this but, you know, I could! So, for me, I am very proud to be a disabled person because: I'm hugely proud of what I've learned, who I've become, the community that I consider myself to be a big part of now… and the work that we do collectively to make the world better for other disabled people.

I'm really, really proud of my disability and all of those opportunities I've been given. Disabled people are so bloody resilient and remarkable in many ways that we shouldn't have to be but we just are… because society is designed as if we don't exist. And so I'm really proud of being a disabled person. That doesn't mean I don't struggle with a body that disagrees with me a lot. I'm somebody who naturally wants to be outdoors on my allotment, digging stuff up.

I want to be climbing trees and rocks. I'm very kind of outdoorsy. I live in rural Yorkshire. Like… my dream was to be like the James Herriot of the medical field and me jumping in and out of the Range Rover in North Wales. That… that was the dream. Or North Yorkshire - that works too! But erm.. I'm really proud of my disability, but I can still at the same time accept the fact that I have challenges that my body presents… that I wish it didn't. I can still experience pain and fatigue and be frustrated by that, and that doesn't diminish my pride in any way.

But I think it's really interesting coming into Disability Pride Month as a queer woman because the month before is LGBTQ Pride Month. And you know, there's parades and everything's rainbow-washed. And it's very hard almost because you can't help but compare it in a way. You kind of see the ways in which the LGBTQ movement has made huge progress in some ways, but is facing huge barriers and increasing homophobia, transphobia, on the other hand. But then you look at Disability Pride and you’re sort of like: “we make up 16 million of the population.”

Where the hell are we? Like, where is our representation? Why is it not such a big deal? And what can we do to improve that? But I think I always kind of come back to the idea that pride is a protest. Whether that's LGBTQ pride or disability pride. Both communities have so much further to go in getting our society to be equal, to include us and to respect us. And so yeah, for me, I'm proud of my disability. I'm still frustrated at my body sometimes, and that's OK.

But most of all, it reminds me of all the work we still have to do and the amazing capacity of our communities to do that work. And there are some really remarkable people out there leading the way, who… many of whom I'm very proud to be associated with.

Nick: Brilliant. Are there any events near you that people can go to? And how do people find out more about Disability Pride in the UK?

Hannah: So, I'm going to be completely honest. I've not found masses locally. So I live in North Yorkshire. And we have a few really decent groups. So I know that York has the amazing Disability Rights Forum, who are really fab! And they're doing a silent LGBTQ pride – for people who find, you know, the traditional Pride too much. But I'm not sure what they doing for Disability Pride Month. But they're on Instagram. Definitely check them out!

And Leeds have Leeds Disabled People's Organisation (LDPO) who I know are also amazing! And I saw them, actually, in the LGBTQ pride parade last year, which was really lovely! Because, I think, so often, as disabled people, we kind of get put into this disabled box, if you like. And, no – there isn't a ramp out of it; it's always up steps! But we're kind of put in this disabled box… and you can't possibly be disabled and queer! And so it was so lovely for me to be sitting on the side of the pride parade in my wheelchair, holding my girlfriend's hand and see disabled people and wheelchair users going past me as part of the parade.

And [I’m] thinking: “Oh, my goodness! I’m not alone! There's other queer wonkys out there. This is so lovely!” I think it's really fantastic when I go on my phone – which I'm constantly attached to – and look on Insta, Facebook. and Twitter (not so much Twitter: it's a hell site!) and TikTok. I can find my people and I've got my disabled community that I made in those spaces. So if anyone's still kind of out there listening, thinking: “I don't know any other disabled people. Where are they?” They're on social media!

Nick: Yeah.

Hannah: And the more we can platform each other and all these amazing influencers who are educating people out there, the more we can help, like, share those messages… I really believe that does help us cut through into the non-disabled world and educate people. So yeah. If you want to find stuff like that, if you want to find disabled pride: get on Insta, get on TikTok. You don't have to necessarily even contribute. Just go and find your people because we are out there – probably having a very nice chat over a cup of tea.

Nick: Excellent. Are there still problems with Pride Month? And accessibility of LGBTQ pride?

Hannah: Oh, hugely. Yeah. The LGBTQ community has a disability problem. I don't think that is particularly surprising to anyone. If I want to go to various known LGBTQ venues and stuff, they're often upstairs. They're often not accessible. Part of that links to our history and the very kind of underground history that we had to have for so long. But also I think as I kind of said earlier, we do tend to forget the intersectional element of LGBTQ.

The LGBTQ community isn't always good on race either, and I think we tend to forget the kind of massively intersectional community we have. You know, LGBTQ people are hugely diverse. Goodness knows, we don't agree on everything. We rarely agree on anything! But I think we tend to forget that: actually, yeah, disabled people are part of that community. And you know, I've been to huge Pride festivals and parades where I've turned up and gone: “Right. So I'm allowed to sit on a ramp – on a ramped area with one other person. Out of the way. I can't get through”.

I went to Leeds Pride last year and I was out by like… I'd left by about 4:30. Because it just was so, well, overwhelming as somebody in a wheelchair. And then the only way I could see what was going on – on the stage – was to kind of be on a sectioned off bit by myself with my girlfriend holding my hand. And all of our friends were like disappearing off and I couldn't track them down. And it made me feel like I wasn't part of that community. It made me feel like I wasn't welcomed and I was very much othered and separated out.

So I think there's a long, long way to go for the Pride movement and the LGBTQ community in terms of acknowledging and supporting disabled people within the group [or] community. There are some great organisations working on this: so Para Pride is a charity that's doing a lot of work in supporting disabled LGBTQ people. But yeah… there's still a huge way to go. And I think it's kind of time that, yeah, the LGBTQ community acknowledged that we have a bit of a problem and actively try to solve it.

Because a lot of the time when we do put ourselves forward to try and like, approach, like, support these [LGBTQ groups or events] the response isn't always welcoming, and that's quite disappointing. So yeah. We've got a way to go to make Pride accessible.

Nick: Interesting. I hope that changes. And with people like you, hopefully it will. The next question on my list is: how do we get more disabled people involved in UK politics? And while we talk about that, you can probably tell me more about your own background in politics as well.

Hannah: Yeah. So I've been known to dabble in politics! So until December last year I was Deputy Leader of the Women's Equality Party in the UK, which we think made me the first visibly disabled UK political party deputy leader ever – which is great, but also bloody horrific. It shouldn't have taken until 2021 to have a visibly disabled like Deputy Leader of a UK party. And it's kind of devastating that none of the main parties managed it yet.

So I've contested various elections. I've contested local council in Leeds. I've contested the EU parliamentary – the last ones we had for the EU Parliament. I contested the North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner election about 18 months ago, which was fascinating. And every single time I've contested an election I've come up against so many barriers in our political system.

So, you know, the first time I contested [an election] was Leeds City Council. I turned up to the briefing for candidates and said: “Has there ever been a wheelchair user on Leeds City Council? And can you tell me if the council chamber is accessible? So if I get elected, will I be able to actually take part?” And they had to go away and find out the answer and get back to me, which I think tells you everything you need to know.

Nick: [Laughs]

Hannah: It was just such a shock to this political system that a disabled person would do this. When I then did the North Yorkshire election… Like York – many people listening to this may be aware that York is an incredibly inaccessible city at the moment. They've basically banned Blue Badge users from the city centre.

They've got rid of a lot of the parking, they're not even allowing taxis in. It's been a huge, huge issue. And so I was in this position where I'm sort of like: “I could become the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner of a city I can barely get into.” Like that's… that's bonkers to me. And so I came across all that. And then, like, just our very basic systems…

The way we get elected is you go out and you canvas, you knock on people's doors and you say: “Hi. I'm contesting this election. I'd like to know what you think are your priorities for the area. Blah, blah blah.” You don't generally say the “blah blah blah” bit – they don't take you seriously if you do that. It's really hard getting to people’s doors and being able to knock on them if you're a wheelchair user because: lots of people live upstairs; lots of people have gravel drives! And so it got to the stage where I'd go out with a team canvassing.

And I would basically be rolling up and down the road that people were canvassing on… and, they'd kind of go and knock on the door for me. And I'd be waving from the pavement – like, 10 metres away – going: “Hi! I'm the candidate. Please vote for me! If only out of guilt that I can't even get to your front door!”

Nick: [Laughs]

Hannah: Like… it's so, so difficult! But then we kind of look at the… more meta level… and I was…. So I'm currently writing a book (I think possibly one book; possibly six books…. so I don't know how big this is going to be) on disability rights. And kind of creating a manifesto for change for disabled people, looking at lots of different sectors of society and interviewing lots of disabled experts.

And I couple of weeks ago I went and interviewed Lord Shinkwin. He's a disabled peer in the House of Lords – which is lovely because I got to go and have a drink in the House of Lords and. Interview a fascinating human being. I was talking to him, like: “OK. Like, tell me what it's like. What's the kind of disability ratio?” And we have about 800 peers in the House of Lords. Very few of them actually turn up regularly, but we have 800 who have the right to be in the House of Lords.

Ten of them have long term experience of disability. Now remember that we make up nearly 24% of the population. And out of 800 peers, there are 10 of us. That's kind of terrifying because these are people that inspect our laws. These are people that, you know, get stuff from Parliament from the Commons and go: “Yes. No, no, no, no. You're not doing that” Or “Hell's, yes! that can go through. Thank you very much.” We are not represented. Like… we make up 0.3% of MPs, I think.

We’re massively underrepresented in the Lords. And I think what needs to happen… and having had a long conversation with him… We need the major parties to all sign up to say: “Yeah, actually. We need to do more about diversity.” They're doing far better when it comes to gender. It's by no means representative. I think 34% of our MPs are female. But, you know, we've got better at gender representation. We're getting better at minority ethnic representation. But we are not there at all, like even in the stratosphere, when it comes to disabled people. And yet we have so much that we need legislative change on, and that we need support for.

So I think we need the major parties to all kind of sign up. And there's a general election coming up next year. So if people want to start writing to their MPs now about what they want to see in the various party manifestos, it would be a great time! Saying: “Yeah. We want you to commit to having X percent of disabled MPs, with X percent of disabled peers. Because they're the people that get to choose who gets to contest elections. They're the people that get to choose who Labour or the Tory party, or whoever, put forward to be their peers. They have the opportunity to increase diversity in Parliament in both houses. So we need to do that.

But I think we also need to kind of make sure that we're supporting disabled politicians when they’re there… because it is incredibly hard to contest elections. I'm so lucky that I was part of a party that's been hugely supportive and really prioritised supporting disabled candidates. That is not the case in many major parties, but we need to kind of collectively come together and go: “Actually, we're going to get behind as many disabled candidates as we can.” And you can do that from wherever you are in the country, in the world. There are ways to support people on the local and national level.

And I think we need to come together and say: “Actually, where's our representation? We want more. What are you going to do about it?” And support those who are contesting elections because it's bloody hard work.

Nick: So how would we support the disabled MPs that we like that are contesting [elections]?.

Hannah: Yeah. So find them, first thing! There aren't many of us, but we're there! I mean… When I contested, like, the police fire and Crime Commissioner election, I was really overwhelmed by people who…. like had followed me on social media, who were like getting behind [me]. Sharing stuff to their [social media] stories. You know. Leaping on TikTok going: “if you're in North Yorkshire, please go and vote for this woman.”

Random people who were in the area, who were sort of like: “I've never met you before but I really like your policies. I really want to support you. I'll go and drop some leaflets off.” You know, there are various ways people can get involved. And you know, I know times are tough right now - there's a cost of living crisis. But if financially you're able to support candidates – because it costs a small fortune to contest elections and that's a massive barrier for disabled people as well – that sort of thing can be really helpful.

So there are various ways you can do it. But I think you know a really key way that everyone can do is write to their MP and say: “I have serious concerns about the lack of disability representation in the Commons and in the Lords and in local councils. What is your party doing to address this?” And if we all did that then the message would get through that actually there is… there are votes in in this.

And that's the thing. If people realise that 16 million of the population want this as disabled people, that's one hell of a lot of votes they don't want to lose. We have massive electoral power as a community that we very rarely access.

Nick: And how do you think we can use more of that electoral power and make ourselves more visible and more listened to?

Hannah: So I think there's a few ways. I mean there are there are obvious barriers. Like with everything as disabled people, there are huge barriers we face. We know that simple things like getting into polling stations can be a challenge, and that puts people off even trying. But simple things like making sure you have a voter ID because that's now a thing: you now have to have ID to vote. It's ridiculous. But there are free sources of that. You can go and get voter ID for free. Making sure that you know if you can't go to a polling station in person, you register for a postal vote and you use it – like, every single election! I don't care whether it's for your parish council or your town council.

Whatever it is, make sure you're using your vote. Use a postal vote, use a proxy. Make sure you know your electoral rights. And if you write to MPs, if you email them… I have a folder in my Gmail which is just emails to Nigel Adams MP of all the things I sent him and all the things he sent back. he did resign about two weeks ago. I don't think it was me. He is best mates with Mr. Johnson. So I don't currently have an MP [episode recorded before late July byelection]. But I was constantly emailing him going: “What about this? What about this in terms of disability? What are you doing about this?” Because they have to pay attention to that.

If you are their constituent, they have to pay attention to it and they have to respond. So doing that and really putting the pressure on. And when you're talking to disabled friends, talk to them about politics. I think” there's a lot of anxiety about getting involved in politics, and I'm not saying everyone listening to this should go out and start contesting elections. It's a very unique thing to want to do.

But just raising the question and going, you know: “Why are we still falling through the gaps when it comes to the Equality Act? Why don't we have the protections we need? Why have reasonable adjustments not got a time limit enforced when it comes to the workplace? You know. All of these questions… a lot of them can be solved if we have politicians who understand. And so having those conversations and informing people of the importance of this – even if it's just getting out to vote – can make a huge difference. Cause 16 million of us could make a huge difference in terms of our elections.

Nick: Absolutely. While I have a GP here: Are you seeing the impact of an underfunded social care system on the patients that you see? How is the lack of funding from government for social care impacting your work as a GP?

Hannah: Yes, I am seeing it every single day and it's breaking my heart and it's making me incredibly angry. Before the pandemic, we had 125,000 vacancies in social care. That's gone up to 165,000, I believe. It's probably slightly higher now. So yeah. I see the impacts of that every single day: when I'm seeing patients who are getting sick because they're not getting the care they need; seeing patients who are having to go into respite because they're not able to get the care they need at home; seeing patients who are carers becoming unwell because they're not able to prioritise their own health.

There are huge, huge issues with all of the challenges in the service. And I think, unfortunately, people don't really consider social care until it directly affects them. People kind of forget that it's a thing. We think about the NHS. We're all very proud. We'll, you know, go out on our doorsteps and clap with a saucepan if needed. But the NHS is falling apart. But the state at which the NHS is falling apart is only eclipsed by the rate at which the social care system is falling apart. Because it's something that we don't think about until, you know, our parents need it… or we have a sibling or a partner who needs it, or a child who needs it.

Until you come face to face with the huge issues and challenges around social care, you don't necessarily appreciate the importance of it. And so it's not sexy politically. It doesn't win votes politically. There is very little push to tackle social care because they know full well the main way you do it is you raise taxes. I mean, they could also close one hell of a lot of tax loopholes and end non-dom status. Just a thought. But you know. If you speak to the most of the politicians, they'll tell you they're going to raise taxes. I mean, they could just tax, you know, the major companies.

But that would be outrageous. And so they don't wanna tackle it. They don't wanna talk about it. It's not sexy, it's not popular. And they see it as a very small cohort of people who are directly affected. So yeah, I see the implications of it every single day. I see the impact of it every single day. And what people fail to recognise is that when social care falls apart, that just puts more burden on the precious NHS. The NHS ends up picking [up] the slack when the social care system falls.

Because if there isn't good quality social care for people, then they end up: going into hospital. All of which put additional pressure on the NHS because they and their loved ones become sick. It's that simple. So if we don't address social care, we're just going to speed up the massive, massive catastrophe that is hitting the NHS right now. And we can't afford to do that. We need to tackle social care. And it's really interesting that people are starting to talk about it more after COVID, but still by no means enough.

Nick: Absolutely. And yeah. You mentioned your… you mentioned your book earlier. When can we expect to find out more about your book. And what should we look out for?

Hannah: The current plan – it's very much a work in progress – is: I'm interviewing lots of disabled experts on a whole different range of sectors in society, trying to create a manifesto for change. So how we improve. What the challenges are in areas like sex and relationships, transport, health, education… and how we fix them. And asking disabled people in each sector because we have experts bloody everywhere. We're everywhere! And asking them how we fix it.

It's going to be quite a big book at this rate because there's a lot to do. Get comfy on the waiting for it front. I'm about one chapter in and I've still got a hell of a lot of interviews to do. But that is the plan. I'm kind of interlacing it with a memoir because I think it's really important that you put a human face to a lot of the issues disabled people experience. And, you know, I'm a disabled woman who is the daughter of a disabled woman who had two significantly disabled siblings.

So I've grown up around disability. And hopefully those experiences I've had in a whole variety of sectors – whilst many of them are incredibly traumatic – will hopefully be quite informative when it comes to casting a real light on the challenges that the community face… because society likes to think we don't exist. Umm. [Laughs] So yeah. I've got my work cut out. But that's the plan anyway.

Nick: It sounds great.. It would be really useful for policymakers. But just listening to you, I'm sure it would be a really entertaining read as well.

Hannah: Well. You’ve got to make this stuff fun, haven't you? Cause otherwise it can be really bloody bleak. So you can't get too in your own head about it.

Nick: [Laughs] Well, thank you very much indeed for all of your time. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking to you. And I wish you all the best with everything!

Hannah: Thank you so much for having me. It's been really, really fun!

Nick: Thank you, Hannah!

Beth: We’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr. Hannah for being such a wonderful guest and for sharing her experiences. We’d love to know what you think. So get in touch by emailing us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org

Or you can contact us on Twitter or Instagram, @LeonardCheshire. If there’s a guest you’d like to her reach out to us and let us know. And don’t forget to like, share and subscribe to the podcast. Thank you for listening to the Disability Download.