A physio first

Having a visual impairment hasn’t proved a hindrance in Sarah Blasbalk’s physiotherapy career, as Robert Millett discovered

Working on a hospital ward is always demanding, but it’s even more of a challenge when you’re visually impaired.

Sarah Blasebalk is a band 5 physiotherapist who works on an acute medical ward at Whipps Cross University Hospital in north east London.  

She was born with severe myopia, bi-lateral coloboma and severe nystagmus, but she hasn’t let any of these ophthalmological conditions hold her back from a physio career.

‘In essence my eyes didn’t form correctly when I was a foetus,’ explains Ms Blasebalk.

‘But if you met me you wouldn’t know I’m visually impaired. It’s only obvious when I start reading, because I have to hold large print about an inch away from my face and I have a little electronic magnifier that I carry around with me.’

Ms Blasebalk has found many ways to manage but says she is often exhausted by the end of each day, in part because of the extra obstacles she has to overcome.

‘I’ve got lots of equipment and I’m based on just one or two wards so I’m familiar with all the settings and the members of staff, rather than going off to lots of different wards at lots of different times.’

Originally from Cardiff, Ms Blasebalk moved to London when she was 18 to study music and psychology at the University of London.

After graduating, she worked for several years as a music therapist for patients with dementia, before retraining as a physio.

When at the University of London, Ms Blasebalk could still read normal print books and didn’t require any assistance, but by the time she started her physiotherapy degree at the University of Hertfordshire her sight had deteriorated.

Thankfully, Ms Blasebalk was able to seek help from the Royal National Institute of Blind People  which runs a dedicated support service for visually impaired physiotherapy students.

‘They talked with my tutor about things like getting information in different formats and being able to get hold of lecture notes before the lectures,’ says Ms Blasebalk.

‘They also arranged for me to have extra time and adjustments for my placements.’

After qualifying in 2008 Ms Blasebalk worked in a number of roles. At first she worked as a physical therapy assistant, followed by some locum and bank work. 

Finally she secured band 5 positions – initially in Cardiff and now in London.

Ms Blasebalk says she has been really lucky with all her workplaces, with every team being supportive. Physio colleagues have always responded positively to her and patients have never presented a problem.

But there have been occasions when she has had to overcome other people’s preconceptions and prejudices.

The few negative experiences she’s encountered have been defused by communicating clearly and openly sharing details about her impairment.

‘I am quiet blunt and upfront about it,’ Ms Blasebalk explains.

‘When I go onto a new ward for the first time I say: “This is me, I struggle with this.

And this is how I get by – please ask me any questions and if I need help I will ask”. You have to be blunt about it otherwise people have questions that fester and they think they  better not say anything as it might be politically incorrect.’

In fact, Ms Blasebalk notes, it’s impossible to be a shy visually impaired physio, simply because you have to be prepared to disclose your vulnerabilities and champion your abilities.

But despite not being shy about her visual impairment, Ms Blasebalk says it’s not a label she wants to be defined by.

‘It’s not the first thing I want people to think about when they think about me, whether it be professionally or personally.

‘I don’t want people to think: “Oh, she’s the visually impaired physiotherapist”.  I want them to think she’s a physiotherapist who’s visually impaired.’ fl

  • The Association of Visually Impaired Chartered Physiotherapists (AVICP) supports visually impaired or blind physiotherapists. Visit: www.avicp.co.uk
  • The Allied Health Professions Support Service enables disabled people to study and work effectively. Visit: www.ahpss.co.uk
Robert Millett

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