A Disability & A Degree

I am blessed with the paths my life has taken me in. I have seen a far bigger slice of the world than a lot of people, I have lived adventures that makes small children go “did you REALLY do that, really, really?” However, my life is probably far different from most people’s because as I moved from my teens into my twenties, I acquired a disability.

When I was first diagnosed, my condition was virtually unheard of. People asked me to repeat myself. Often. The name was completely unfamiliar.

Since then I have had every reaction under the sun, so now I refrain from speaking about it unless I feel there’s a good reason. From a dismissive, to the outright rude, comments like “oh well I suppose if you weren’t one of those people….” (an actual response from a student who decided to use an opportunity to publicly tell me how my symptoms were invalid and over-reacting) can hurt. But people’s reactions are not all bad.

Some of the best reactions, and I should pause on these, have in fact been from academic staff who, given the nature of their interests might dislike someone like me (conservative, different lifestyle choices). For example, I had a Professor who kept up correspondence with me encouraging me to keep going well and truly beyond what he would have been paid for. He was delighted for me when I finally achieved a B (might not seem like much, but this was after me deciding it might be time to throw the towel in and give up, that the doubters were right and I would never be able to simply think and do a degree). He did not have to do it, but he ‘got it’ and I can honestly say he is probably the main reason I am finally nearing completion of my undergraduate studies.

Some of the less helpful reactions have included not only lack of understanding, but have delayed and extended my degree. Whereas, I see education as a luxury, for many around me it seems to be a right – I am not entirely sure which of us has it correct, possibly a mixture of both.

Some days studying with a disability is hard. Those days where you feel like you are nothing more than the disability label. Where you question if your LAP (Learning Access Plan) means you simply have an easier run at something, and have you really earned it all. Days where you find yourself needing to ask staff from the Global Lounge, the Union, the Library, or anywhere else a questions so simple that sometimes they think you are taking the ‘Mickey’… so they simply ignore you, not understanding that the simple, little thing to them is a HUGE thing to you.

Even through it is hard overall, studying has made my disability different, possibly better. I can and do and achieve things. I can see the results. Managing my time for studying, means I must look after myself, which has a roll-on affect towards my health. Parts of the University get it…. and that really helps. So, suddenly it is far less isolating. There’s academic staff I have encountered who have similar disabilities & that is a massive incentive. They did it. They managed to have an academic career. Maybe I can too.

The further I progress into the degree, I realise that there’s no reason to be quite so angry or defeated – some people on campus truly do get it. You do have to be like your own personal cheer squad and when people don’t get it, you must make them get it. Make them understand you simply cannot do a 6-8pm meeting randomly with less than 24 hours notice. Make them understand that there is compulsory and then there’s making things a fair playing field for all.  

I think I have learned a lot in my time at La Trobe and I think, in some ways, others especially academic staff have learned from me. I can achieve high results with a little bit of support which is often so minor such as “how do I actually get a student card?”, “what is the LMS?”, “how do I use Turnitin?”. I would hazard a guess, that having a student who doesn’t think they can achieve and having to teach them minor things like how to save slides as jpegs so you can complete an assignment so that the student winds up getting A’s, could be a rewarding experience for some academics.

I think, also, that because I am vocal, sometimes policy makers have become confronted with “omg I never thought of that!” type of moments. Such as the day I got trapped up the top of the David Myers Building and had to be escorted down (massive, massive embarrassment). Yet, the staff who helped went “how is this possible?? Why didn’t we consider this??? This needs to change!!!”.

Overall, I think plugging away and putting one foot in front of the other has benefited me, my ability to learn, and the wider La Trobe community. I see things in different ways, due to the effort it takes to even get places such as campus. That’s what we’re all here for isn’t it? To see a myriad of ways of looking at things, so we can examine and learn from them?