By Pippa Steele
2001, sitting on a bus in London, a black lady engaged me in conversation. I remember having a friendly, pleasant chat until she asked me what I did. I told her with pride that I was a student training to be a physiotherapist. You could feel a palpable change in atmosphere. She looked at me and said, “I wanted to be a physio, but only white middle class females get on to the course.” I felt very uncomfortable as there I was, a white middle class female who couldn’t refute her accusation…
This week in my role as course director of the BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy course at Coventry University, I had a meeting with two black final year students about their experiences on the course and impressions of black representation within the physiotherapy profession. The memory of the bus journey comes flooding back.
The students’ conversation makes me realise that very little progress has been made within my profession since my encounter on the bus; the profession and community I feel great pride for. These two students still felt they had to fight harder to get onto our course and during their training had a different experience due to their colour. We state our course is diverse and inclusive but they didn’t feel that, to them it was an empty statement.
As an academic, I look to the evidence. First port of call, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) website. Scrolling through the pictures of the leadership team, council, staff; white, white, white (CSP, n.d.). In fact Karen Middleton, the CSP’s chief executive, had to issue an apology for her slow response to the Black Lives Matter campaign (Middleton, 2020). More evidence; a qualitative piece of research exploring BAME student experiences during their physiotherapy training discovered students from BAME backgrounds feel an outsider and required strategies to overcome a range of challenges within both an academic and practice learning environment (Hammond et. al., 2019). And this evidence reflects precisely what my students were telling me.
The meeting and my subsequent reading has left me saddened and concerned about the marginalisation faced by some students both in terms of access and in their educational experience.
So what has the meeting with my students and my research taught me? First, I am sitting in a white privileged position and with that position I hold my own biases and preferences without even realising. I have not felt marginalisation, I have not experienced challenges due to my appearance. Our course curriculum feels comfortable and reflective of my vision for physiotherapy education, however that means it is probably not representative or framed in a language for all students. My key aim whilst course director has always been to increase the volume of student voice and to think of students as individuals; tapping into what motivates them individually and not just telling them what I know or believe. However, that student voice is currently white in predominance. I was aware of this before, but being typically British, felt too ill at ease to raise the issue or approach students to join us. I need to open my door to all and make an environment that is inclusive for diverse groups and my meeting with these two students has shown me that I need not be awkward about raising race and inclusivity in conversations; no action is worse than awkward action. I need to be and can be open, curious and focused in driving these conversations. And I thank these two black students for approaching me, opening my eyes and allowing me to be blunderingly British in these initial conversations. You are both inspirational and I know that my discussions with you are not over. I hope that you will look back at your training in however many years’ time and see a difference in the profession that I did not.
I will never understand fully what it is to be from a BAME background but I can listen and provide opportunity for all students to hold the microphone and express their opinion and experiences of the physiotherapy course at Coventry University. Why? Because black physios matter.
MSc, MCSP, Fellow HEA
Course Director, BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy
School of Health, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences
With thanks to;
CSP (n.d.) Who we are [online] available from https://www.csp.org.uk/about-csp/who-we-are [28th June 2020]
Hammond, J. et. al. (2019) ‘Working hard to belong: a qualitative study exploring students from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds experiences of pre-registration physiotherapy education’ BMC Medical Education [online] 19, 372 available from https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-019-1821-6 [28th June 2020]
Middleton, K. (2020) An apology from Karen Middleton [online] available from https://www.csp.org.uk/blog/2020/06/apology-karen-middleton