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'I was constantly worried my disability would cost me my livelihood'

Chris Tye managed a successful career in nursing and management, even working in a busy A&E department - all while partially sighted

Most nurses rely on their sight to communicate with patients and observe their wellbeing; they would find doing the job without their eyes unthinkable. But for Mr Chris Tye, head of the school of nursing at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, it has become a way of life.

A wearer of glasses since childhood, as a teenager Mr Tye was diagnosed with the degenerative disease, retinitis pigmentosa. At first it had little impact and he trained as a nurse, but gradually symptoms such as night blindness started.

‘I found it hard to go public.’

But his work in the accident and emergency department was unaffected - it is virtually the only part of a hospital to be brightly lit 24 hours a day - but he knew he could not continue with a clinical career indefinitely. “With a young family to support I was worried constantly that my disability could cost me my job and my livelihood,” said Mr Tye. So when a teaching job came up in the 1990s, he took it.

Over the next few years, Mr Tye’s sight steadily deteriorated, his tunnel vision becoming more pronounced, but he told very few people about his condition and refused to seek outside help.

“I didn’t talk about it in the early days, it was a hidden disability. I should have registered as partially sighted before I did, but I found it hard to go public.” He found it hard to come to terms with his disability and discuss it with other people - stubbornness, pride, a reluctance to move from healthcare professional to a person with a disability may all have played a part - but he is clear it was a struggle. “That interim period was very difficult and stressful but now it’s more black and white - I can’t hide it.” He finally registered as partially sighted in 2001, the year he finished his doctorate.

‘I’ve stopped saying ‘if only’ and learned to see things through other people’s eyes.’

He now has a guide dog, Walter, so he can use public transport and travel around at night alone. Although Walter mainly keeps a low profile in his office, he attends some meetings but he does have a tendency to yawn during a few. Mr Tye is too discreet to reveal which ones Walter finds particularly dull.

“He’s a great character, people find it a lot easier to discuss disability through the dog rather than through a white cane,” he says.

In spite of his disability, Mr Tye’s career has prospered. After joining Kingston and St George’s 15 years ago as a senior lecturer in A&E nursing, he worked his way up to head of nursing and associate dean for postgraduate programmes at the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences. At 56, Mr Tye has come to accept his blindness.

“It’s been a long journey and it’s not always been easy - my bruised shins are testament to that - but I’ve now got to a place where I accept where I am. I’ve stopped saying ‘if only’ and learned to see things through other people’s eyes.”

Mr Tye can see light; he knows when a light is on in a room but can see nothing more. Official recognition of his blindness has brought him practical help. His work computer is fitted with the latest US software that reads aloud email and other electronic documents, while his touch typing is read back to him by the computer so he can correct any mistakes.

His current role is mainly education management, with some teaching and research. It is vastly different from his early career: he began training as a nurse in 1975 at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, after working as a ward orderly in his teens to earn some extra pocket money. He did a four year programme in general adult and psychiatric nursing and found his vocation in A&E nursing.

“It’s completely and utterly unpredictable with a huge variety of challenges. I liked being able to use my psychiatric training as much as my general training. It felt like a very rounded experience and I loved it from day one,” he said.

Readers' comments (2)

  • I am so gla he has been able to continue a career in his chosen profession.
    Many of us have not been so lucky, understand totally about hiiding a disability,I hide my pain from my back and knees, probably caused through the long years of lifting and kneeling.
    As with many of us, I am not lucky enough to be able to move on into teacching, I do not have the money to do a degree. ALthough I know I am very capable, it is not an option.
    My frustration s the lack of support and help for nurses who have been injured or have disabilities as a rsult of work. A friend of mine was sacked from her job because she coudl not stand in theatres for long hours, there were other jobs she could have done, but they chose to sack her.
    I have been discriminated against on many occasions, which is why I choose to hide and deny my pain and problems. It will come soon enough that I will not be able to keep taking the painkillers, but for now I can hide it.
    My future plans will not be in the NHS, there is no place provided for those of us who cannot lift and kneel and do the physical care. It is not a caring profession.

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  • a friend of mine was chucked off her nursing course in the UK in the 60s or 70s for having a fainting fit which was diagnosed as epilepsy. it was her first and last episode and she is now in her 60s. what a way to stigmatise and discriminate against a young person and in a profession such as nursing where one would imagine some understanding.

    In Switzerland there are plenty of people with far more serious mental and physical handicaps, some of whom received relatively long term incapacity benefits who have received support to train as nurses or healthcare assistants or who are unable to return to their previous employment and have undergone retraining in nursing. Nurse training in Switzerland demands very high academic standards and is not for the physically or mentally weak and feeble. Entering the profession with a physical or previous mental health disability does not mean that they are less able to care for patients than any other nurse and probably with their adverse experiences they have far more insight and undertanding than many average nurses.

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