Unknown – Being a student with a hidden disability

Hannah O’Dowd, Final Year student studying BA English and Drama with Study Abroad.

Hannah O’Dowd is Final Year student on the Streatham Campus, studying BA English and Drama with Study Abroad. She talked to us about her experience of being a student with an invisible disability caused by a traumatic brain injury.

When I began university I was excited to continue my studies having completed my IB. I had no experience of cognitive deficits until on my Study Abroad year, when I sustained a traumatic brain injury. My brain could no longer process things the way it used to, and I’ve had to learn how my brain now works.

Before my injury I used to take pride in my independence, confidence, and seemingly endless amounts of energy. These are things which were snatched from me. I now question everything I say and do. I am far more analytical and I question other people’s actions and words, when before I wouldn’t have. I used to try and fit in more things in a day than was ever going to be possible before my injury; now I can only consider trying to do a fraction of the things I used to do. It is very difficult to explain to people why I have to do the things the way I do, this is because my brain injury is an invisible disability.

“I used to try and fit in more things in a day than was ever going to be possible before my injury; now I can only consider trying to do a fraction of the things I used to do. It is very difficult to explain to people why I have to do the things the way I do, this is because my brain injury is an invisible disability.”

One symptom of a brain injury which affects me is decreased verbal fluency. I have word finding difficulties (particularly when I am fatigued). The time taken for me to get frustrated (with myself or others) has also dramatically decreased since the injury. ‘Dropping an issue’ or ‘moving on’/’forgetting about it’ is a response which cannot be done with ease for someone with a brain injury. It’s often embarrassing to experience an angry response to something which I then later reflect to be unfitting for the situation. I have so much self-doubt about the placement of my anger and as a result I often seek confirmation from others to check that my feeling is founded. I used to be a dramatic person, but I was never an ‘angry person’. It’s difficult, but this reaction is because my brain no longer has the ability to process the information fully and quickly; I might misread something and react, and others won’t understand why I have that reaction.

Harsh sounds and lights can be very distressing to someone with a brain injury. But simultaneously trying to read something in dim light will exaggerate fatigue as it works the brain harder. Managing this is difficult and is a challenge every day.

Another common result of a brain injury is for someone not to be able to recognise what is or isn’t socially appropriate. For me, I frequently have ‘no filter’. So the things you think but don’t say, someone with a brain injury might say it. My brain no longer compartmentalises information the way it used to. As a result, I might disclose information which is not obviously relevant to the conversation being had. This can put me (and anyone with a brain injury) in a very vulnerable position; it is something I must monitor as best I can. This filtration that I now must consciously do, is a contributory factor to my fatigue. My energy levels have depleted massively. This is another change which I unfortunately have to get used to. Not only does the brain injury mean that I am far more tired, it also means that I experience pain on a regular basis. I might look like the same person but because of this invisible injury everything is very different. Every brain injury is very different, but all symptoms are exaggerated by fatigue.

“I am very fortunate to have a graduate role lined up for when I finish my undergraduate degree… I am comfortable knowing Accenture have supported me in my return to work over my summer internship and am confident they will continue to do so after I have graduated.”

I am very fortunate to have a graduate role lined up for when I finish my undergraduate degree. Before my injury, I worked for Accenture during my gap year and was meant to undertake a summer internship with the company in the penultimate summer of my degree. Due to my injury, I was unable to undertake the internship in 2016, but the Accenture invited me back to take part in the scheme when I was recovered enough. They were fully aware of my traumatic brain injury; with this in mind they placed me with a client located most conveniently to minimise my fatigue and avoiding the need for me to have extra travel.

When I began my project, I informed my line manager of my brain injury. I did this so that if I struggled with certain scenarios (for example: divided attention exaggerated by fatigue) he would be able to understand why I might find some things more difficult than others. He was very professional and understanding. I also was given the option to work remotely if I needed to and the company has policies in place to ensure I was able to attend necessary medical appointments around my work timetable. Remote working is something the company was very supportive of, for many employees and for varying reasons. At the end of this 8 week internship I was pleased to have been offered a graduate position with the firm. I am comfortable knowing Accenture have supported me in my return to work over my summer internship and am confident they will continue to do so after I have graduated.

While I was in hospital I wrote a blog (initially as part of my speech therapy) and have written a few posts since being back at University. This was something I found to be a good outlet for what I was experiencing. It was a way of me coming to terms with what had happened, and a way of explaining the situation to others.

As I complete my degree I am also creating a show titled ‘Unknown’  about my time in hospital and living with my injuries. I will be taking this show to Edinburgh Fringe in August 2019. I hope it will help the audience to understand the difficulties faced by trauma survivors.