Faculty of Education PhD Student Mélanie Gréaux joined the Sensory Functions, Disability and Rehabilitation team at the World Health Organization to work on projects supporting disability inclusion in the health sector.

I joined the World Health Organization for a 6-month secondment to contribute to the forthcoming Global Report on disability inclusion in the health sector. This report was commissioned by Member States at the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021 and provided WHO with a clear mandate to continue its critically important commitment to address the healthcare inequalities experienced by persons with disabilities. When I started this secondment, I was looking forward to contributing to this landmark report and gaining insights into the work culture of WHO and other UN agencies.

This secondment was conducted entirely remotely due to the COVID-19 health risk mitigations in place at the time. This means that, instead of breathing the fresh Swiss air of WHO Headquarters in Geneva, my laptop screen firmly located on my desk in Cambridge became my window to WHO offices all over the world. Whist it was disappointing at first that I could not travel to Geneva, my WHO colleagues welcomed me warmly, kept in touch regularly and made me feel like a valued member of the team from Day 1. So, in some strange way, it almost felt as if I had not missed out on anything and got to make the most of this collaboration.

At the beginning of this secondment, I completed a series of e-courses as part of the formal UN induction process, but it was truly when I started to work on tasks for the report that I learned the most. I was assigned three key projects which, I believe, are representative of the breadth of the team’s activities for the development of this report. Firstly, I lead a scoping review to identify the barriers that persons with disabilities face when accessing healthcare services globally. I enjoyed completing this task as it broadened my expertise in the field and made me realize that the research skills that I had developed during my PhD are genuinely applicable and valued outside of academia.

Secondly, I provided technical support during a series of online consultations with internal and external partners (e.g., Organizations of Persons with Disabilities, researchers, other WHO units, etc.). UN agencies commonly adopt this consultative approach when producing high-level reports. I learned a great deal about planning accessible events for persons with disabilities, and it was a huge privilege to be part of these stimulating discussions and witnessing how everyone’s insights consolidated a more astute vision for the report.

Thirdly and lastly, I worked on the communication strategy for the Global Disability Pre-Summit on Disability in the Health Sector held in January 2022. The Global Disability Summit is one of the highest-level disability events worldwide where key stakeholders, such as politicians, NGOs and bilateral donors, are invited to discuss and commit to actions promoting disability inclusion. WHO collaborated with the organizers to hold a special session focusing on the health sector. Here, I enjoyed creating innovative, engaging, and accessible communication strategies, whilst making sure that I also fully respected the official WHO communication guidance.

I have now reached the end of this secondment and have been reflecting on this incredibly rich experience. I thrived to be working for an organization which values aligned with mine, and on projects that have a clear and ambitious vision for societal impact. What I enjoyed the most was meeting, collaborating, and connecting with passionate and insightful people with diverse backgrounds. I also got to sharpen my organizational, teamwork and leadership skills as I completed collaborative tasks under time pressure. Now that I have returned to my PhD studies, I look forward to engaging more with the non-academic disability perspectives in my thesis focusing on autism services. I am also keen and feel better equipped to pursue opportunities to position my research in global policymaking efforts.

Global Disability Summit flyer

This secondment with WHO has certainly been one of the highlights of my PhD studies and given me more clarity and confidence to prepare my future career. As a matter of fact, I was offered – and enthusiastically accepted – to continue this collaboration as a part-time WHO consultant alongside my doctoral studies. This will allow me to see through the entire development process for this Global Report – and yes, to finally meet my colleagues and breathe the fresh air of Geneva when I attend the launch of the report in December 2022 (watch this space!).

I highly recommend students who are eligible to the Cambridge Grand Challenge scheme to apply and would like to end this blog with two pieces of advice for you: dream big and plan early. WHO was not listed as a partnered organization when I considered applying to the scheme, but I tried my luck and eventually got to collaborate with my dream organization. However, creating this new partnership took many months, almost a year – but oh my, was it worth it!

Mélanie Gréaux’s placement with the World Health Organisation took place between September 2021 and March 2022

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