A woman in a flight suit and helmet sits in an RAF aircraft
Sgt Smith of the RAF suffers from MS, but that doesn’t stop her serving. Here she rides in a T2 Hawk fast jet.

Experiencing disability in Defence

From chronic conditions to learning disorders - serving personnel, veterans and Defence civilians share their stories

Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Hill

I joined the Royal Navy on a medical cadetship. Although I had known I had struggled with English, I was assessed and found to have dyslexia. Having been diagnosed, the Royal Navy has supported my needs throughout my career, being neurodiverse and finding alternative ways of learning.

I have been allowed extra time during examinations and am offered adjustments such as getting copies of presentations in advance and handouts printed on yellow paper for courses. The move to online medical records has also helped me immensely.

I have been proud to serve on operations, providing medical care to those above and below the waves — and I have had the privilege of being a patient of the first class military medical care when I have been facing life-threatening medical conditions myself.

I suffer from Ulcerative Colitis, a condition that causes disabling fatigue. With Royal Navy support, I have been able to access blue badge car parking, a radar key for access to disabled toilets, flexible working patterns to adjust working levels by fatigue level whilst non-operational.

With our active disability network, there is always support and advice on hand from people who have gone through similar experiences.

I am proud of my disabilities, proud of the team that has supported me, proud of the Service and I am proud to Serve.

Sgt Smith (RAF)

I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, in 2015. It’s a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, and appears in many forms from person to person. For me, I get fatigued easily, can get heavy legs and have trouble controlling my body’s temperature.

I can manage my symptoms without medication, for me it’s about fatigue management. I’m going on exercise in a few weeks and I’m scheduled to deploy overseas next year, and the only things I need to do before either of those are to complete a risk assessment and attend an appointment with my doctor to confirm I’m still managing my symptoms effectively.

My day to day role is in RAF recruitment but I also spend one day a week working on the Defence disability forum CanDiD Network (Chronic conditions and Disability in Defence). My diagnosis doesn’t affect my ability to perform. My boss is very flexible, for example, I worked long hours this weekend so I am able to work from home to help manage my fatigue.

I’m also very active in the sporting community, and take part in tournaments for indoor rowing and power lifting. I was also selected to compete and was the first female captain of the Department of Defence Warrior Games in 2019 for team UK; competing in shooting, indoor rowing, powerlifting, athletics and sitting volleyball. Sport helps me, and I believe others, to adapt to their diagnoses. While more people in Defence have neurological diagnoses than physical disability nowadays, it still helps me find my limits.

Since I was first diagnosed in 2015 I’ve seen real improvements in awareness. We have diversity allies, who help colleagues understand the different needs of personnel with chronic illnesses and disabilities. People have contacted me to find out how they can support members of their team through chronic illness and make reasonable adjustments.

In my role as a service personnel CanDiD exec, I’m working to update the medical grading system. Old policies can sometimes mean that simple things can make Service life more difficult for those with chronic conditions. For example, people being redeployed in the middle of treatment, or contract technicalities on promotion.

An Air Vice Marshall himself helped me to fight my individual contract battle (due to my condition, my contract wouldn’t be extended on promotion), and now I’m working collaboratively to change the policy as a whole.

It’s not been easy, and there’s still more to do. But in the five years I’ve been serving with MS I’ve seen the changes in action. Doors are being opened and the stigma there once was, is far less.

Defence Intelligence Officer

As a late identified autistic ADHDer most of my career has been affected by my disabilities without being aware of them. Reflecting back, the structure of military life on operations is helpful for me.

I’ve been employed in areas that exploit my strengths. Hyperfocus, visual thinking and my differences in sensory processing are significant strengths in the intelligence world and bring a lot of value to our work.

I think differently to colleagues and working together means that we can build on those contrasts. Autistic people ask a lot of questions, and I often want to understand why things work as much as how they work, so it means my approach to intelligence work is structured and thorough.

On the other hand chronic depression is very common in those of us who are neurodivergent. Access to mental health support services has been good, with a range of therapies available; whilst CBT is very common it’s often not all that useful for ND people so having access to more person centred therapies has been very helpful.

Stuart, Defence civilian and Army veteran

In 2017 I was diagnosed with sciatica, which quickly developed into the nerve disorder cauda equina syndrome (CES). I was struggling and unable to walk very far and was told by my GP to stay in bed. My Line Manager at the Ministry of Defence allowed me to work from home using a laptop and mobile phone to keep in contact and attend meetings via Skype.

CES causes sciatic pain in both legs; changes in bladder and bowel controls and major motor weakness and numbness in the legs. I had emergency surgery, but complications resulted in head to toe pain, which took a year to diagnose as adhesive arachnoiditis. I now have numb feet and a numb right leg below the knee, and I get regular flare ups every 4 weeks which can last 2 to 3 days.

Being an ex-serviceman, I was fairly fit for my age. But I am now no longer able to walk more than 120 yds and have to go in a wheelchair for anything greater. I cannot sit down for long periods with a need to move around every 20 minutes.

I cannot emphasise enough how fantastic my Line Manager and the Ministry of Defence have been in supporting me through this.

They have allowed me to become a permanent home worker, and Occupational Health have provided me with specialist equipment such as a chair, contour mouse and speech recognition software. Most importantly they have given me the time and opportunity to manage my time and my condition.

Chief Petty Officer Medical Assistant Harris

I have served in the Royal Navy for a total of 32 years. I joined as a Marine Engineering Mechanic in 1988 and served on Leander Class Frigates, before transferring to the Medical Branch, and spending 28 years as a submariner. I was diagnosed with Asthma in 1995, which made the annual fitness test a real challenge. But my shipmates have always taken time to train with me, and I’ve always passed.

In 2015 I was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). My condition restricts my physical capacity, similar to angina. It is not generally compatible with service life, particularly at sea when we are very isolated. A panel of Medical Officers, including Occupational Health, assessed my needs to decide whether I was still fit to serve, and because I was able to demonstrate the stability and predictability of my condition I have been retained on a reduced medical capacity.

In my case, I cannot deploy fully on sea service, but am able to go to sea within UK exercise areas where I can be evacuated to medical care quickly, should the need arise.

This works with my day to day job, as I oversee training and assessment of medical teams on submarines for short periods of time, in UK exercise areas. If I had been diagnosed earlier in my career, my inability to deploy to sea for long periods would probably have meant being discharged from the way of life that I love.

This year I was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which has added an extra challenge while working partly from home, 500 miles away from my usual base and medical officer.

The Navy has helped me manage my conditions by splitting my care between medical units in my deployed base and the unit nearest my home. I can attend either medical centre, depending on my location when the need arises.

Since I joined the Royal Navy in 1988 the services have come so far in providing support and adapting to provide care and careers for those with long term conditions or disabilities and I am sure that there are many more positive changes to come in the future.

A number of support networks also now exist to help those with chronic conditions in Defence, and CanDID has proved very useful to me. They put newly diagnosed people in touch with others with similar conditions and experience of managing their symptoms in the Defence environment.

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