An interview with the physiotherapy educator, television star and founding member of the CSP’s BAME network
Daniel Allen reports: When she was nearing the end of her schooling in the 1970s and considering next steps, Melrose Stewart knew nothing of physiotherapy. The daughter of immigrants who had arrived from Jamaica when she was 11, Melrose was in the sixth form at grammar school when a friend suggested physiotherapy might interest her. ‘What does it involve?’ Stewart asked. ‘Looking after people when they’ve had operations and getting them going again,’ the friend said.
That scant description was enough to prompt Stewart to find out more. Now, nearly half a century on, she can look back on a career that has been fulfilling, varied and hugely successful.
These days, Dr Melrose Stewart MBE is a lecturer at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham. But her career began as a student in Bristol. She was the only black person on her course, although she became good friends with a student from Trinidad of mixed heritage. In their first two years as physio students, the pair were graded first and second in their class. But failing a later interim exam taught her a valuable lesson in dealing with failure, Stewart says.
Britain in the 1970s was intolerant. Race relations were poor, with the flames fuelled by far-right groups such as the National Front and Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. As a black man, Stewart’s father, a factory worker, was denied entry to the local working mens’ club and Stewart herself experienced racism, both indirect and more overt – a patient calling her ‘Jimi Hendrix’ on account of her afro; a consultant referring to her as a ‘negress’; and a clear sense that her skin colour left her more open to criticism than white colleagues.
‘You always felt you had to be on your guard because if you made an error people would come down on you like a ton of bricks,’ she says.
How did she deal with such discrimination? ‘It wasn’t something I ignored but it wasn’t something that was going to hold me back either,’ says Stewart. Friends and family provided powerful support. And her parents taught her to remain strong in the face of prejudice.
‘They instilled in me a sense of confidence, to hold my head high and be proud to be a black person. So for me, [discrimination] was there but it was always “move on, set your goals and strive to be the best you can”.’
Developing the BAME network
On qualifying she moved back to Birmingham, her home town, where she has remained ever since, as a practitioner and teacher.
There have been many milestones along the way. Among them was helping to establish the CSP’s BAME network. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about equal opportunities but, she suggests, little action.
I didn’t see many black physio students or staff and when I looked across to nursing and other professions, there were many more. I thought, we have to do something here.’
The network has come on ‘leaps and bounds’ since its establishment, Stewart says. ‘There’s so much happening, although there’s still a lot to be done.’
This year, the Black Lives Matter movement has focused attention on racism that continues to hold people back. It has also given black physiotherapy students greater confidence to speak out against discrimination, she argues. ‘They feel they can bring these issues into the open. They feel they now have a voice.’
Students who have graduated come back and tell her that they feel empowered to talk more freely about racism, something she was denied when she was a student. ‘If I’d had a member of staff who had said, “Yes, it’s okay, you can talk about the issues that affect you, you can talk about discrimination”, I would have felt so much stronger and more able to cope.’
But the lack of peer support in those early days has not held her back. Among the many key achievements in her career, she counts her doctorate high among them.
‘It was absolutely incredible, getting that piece of paper,’ says Stewart. Her PhD centred on cultural competence in undergraduate physiotherapy education. It grew out of her own experiences of racism, issues faced by black patients, and what she describes as the struggles white students experience working in multicultural environments and offering appropriate care.
‘For me, the journey of learning what students have to say about this, and how we can move the research forward, was really important.’
Another notable moment was being asked to deliver the prestigious Physiotherapy UK Founders’ Lecture in 2019. ‘It told me that people do value what I have to say and recognise some of the work I’ve done,’ she says. ‘I was truly humbled and honoured to do that.’
A seminal moment
A different sort of success came when she was asked to appear in the Channel 4 series Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, which brought together residents of a retirement village and pre-school children to see what they could learn from each other.
‘I was approached because of my enthusiasm for promoting health and wellbeing,’ says Stewart. ‘I jumped at the opportunity, little knowing what making a television programme entailed. But it was well worth it. It was an amazing event in my life and, more importantly, it changed people’s thinking about how the generations can work together to achieve good outcomes for all involved.’
Awarded an MBE last year, she thought long and hard about accepting it. ‘There’s a lot of controversy around “empire”. It’s tied up with the whole history of my life and being a black person and being from a nation of enslaved people, and all the imperialism around that.
‘But the MBE was about my contribution to physiotherapy, which I love and which I spend my whole life promoting, and I feel honoured that my colleagues felt I was worthy of that.
‘In the end I decided that if it raised the topic of physiotherapy, it was worth it.’
She says of her MBE: ‘It was a seminal moment in my life, a major milestone and something that gave me great food for thought.’
Role models and mentors
Citing writers and campaigners like Maya Angelou and Angela Davis among her role models, as she reflects on her long career what advice would she pass on to those just starting out in the profession?
‘To all students, I would say stay strong. For black students in particular, they have to be even stronger. Don’t let others put a ceiling on your ambition.
‘I would also say, find a mentor. Even though I never had one, I know mentors are invaluable.’
And finally, network. Use peers to help attain your goals.
For black students, the CSP BAME network is ‘buzzing with support and motivation’, she says.
CSP’s BAME network represents the interests of black and minority ethnic CSP members and is a lead contributor to physiotherapy’s equality and diversity agenda.
The BAME network has three objectives:
- Influence and impact
- Support and challenge
- Improve engagement and representation
Get involved or find out more at:
Number of subscribers: 2