“Making the transition – a student view” (originally written for and published by TechDis, Higher Education Academy)

Introduction

Since the age of eighteen months, I have been in “special” educational establishments, where the focus was mainly on physiotherapy.  I had felt there was not a great expectancy on academic achievements in the special school system.  When I was about eleven years old, I joined a local scout group – and quickly came to the decision that I wanted to go to my local mainstream secondary school, as I was not getting enough stimulation academically.  I also realised that being in special school sheltered me from ‘real’ life.

Mainstream matters

I found (and still find) it hard to socialise due to pre-conceived ideas, awkwardness or anxiety relating to disability.  For example, people being nervous talking to a “disabled” person due to the lack of understanding.  Since I moved to mainstream education, I have been reluctant to be seen with other “disabled” people because I do not like the idea of people who have a disability, who have the same origins, or even having the same skin colour having to group together.  Classification of people almost dehumanises such groups.

I would say that being in mainstream education has made me a more interesting and motivated person. I have also learnt about life and how to communicate better.

Mainstream worked for me – I achieved ten A to C grades in my GCSEs at secondary school. There were issues with assessment, however. For example, in drama inflexible marking criteria disadvantaged me at GCSE level. The examination board would not make exemptions, so I had to be downgraded (based on my lack of ability to produce smooth movements and a clear voice) even though the quality of my work was at a very high standard. Another example is the time I had to copy out some of my Design and Technology dictated coursework (hand-written by my classroom assistant) on to the computer, so that the exam board were satisfied that I did it – this was three weeks before the course finished!  You could say that this was where having computers available was a downfall!

Making the transition to Further Education

As a result of some of the issues above, my last year at secondary school was a stressful one. I was pressurised into deciding early which college I wanted to attend because my school was worried that the college wouldn’t have the time to make preparations for my arrival.  I then moved to a nearby sixth-form college, to study Media Studies and double Information Technology for my A-Levels. I would have enjoyed A level drama but was put off by the assessment experience at GCSE.

Having made the move to college from school, my transportation to and from college was withdrawn within days into my term by the County Council.  The County Council withdrew it because I was not attending the nearest sixth form to me.  The nearest sixth form was on a hill and a lot of the buildings were old and inaccessible. This put my mum under a lot of pressure, as she had to take me to and from college whilst we were fighting to get the transport reinstated.  They eventually reinstated the transport after intervention from my local MP, supporting letters from my principal, the principal at the nearby local college, and letters from other professionals who knew me well.

Having e-mail at my college did help me communicate better with teachers and friends.  It also helped me to submit my overdue work on my extended deadlines avoiding having to wait to print my work out. Also, due to my speech difficulty, some people have trouble understanding me and therefore get nervous and avoid talking to me because they are embarrassed.  On the other hand, some people just think that I do not have a brain!  However, having access to a college e-mail account has helped me to get over that barrier, and has allowed me to say what I want to say showing people who don’t know me, or who are nervous about speaking to me, what I’m really about!.  It is very fair to say that my social life has not been that great at all; I went out with friends for the very first time when I went to college!

This is also true when I am contacting other people about things like work experience placements.  By the time I meet them face-to-face, they already know a bit about what I’m like from previous e-mail contact, so on the whole, they don’t talk down to me, they don’t get nervous, and they don’t talk over me to my personal assistant

Many teachers at college saw my personal assistant (P.A.) as being my minder.  Luckily, I had a very good P.A. who did not adopt that ideology.  One day, my P.A.  received an e-mail complaining about me cancelling my place on a trip at late notice.  Ben straightaway forwarded the e-mail to me, as he had no responsibility over my actions.  I was very angry about the fact assumption that my P.A. is a kind of minder.  This is a very common problem in schools as well!

An even bigger problem arises if the helpers see themselves as a minder.  From past experience, I know that if people see my P.A. talking down to me, then they will copy – it does not help my self-esteem or social life.

Making the transition to Higher Education

One good thing about IT is that I was able to, near enough, do my UCAS application electronically.  I do not like having bits of paper because I often lose them, and I need help with physically filling in forms.  When I see piles of different pieces of paper, which I have to fill in, I suddenly become very demotivated because, for me, it is a chore to ask someone to help me.  I cannot do it at my own speed.  However, my UCAS application was done in a flash, as I did not have to wait for anyone to help me.

Sorting out my help at university was not as easy!  None of the forms from Social Services or the universities can be done online.  This created a huge amount of stress and work for my parents, particularly my mother (as my father is at work).  At times I have been feeling very guilty because my mum has been very stressed sorting out the paperwork in connection with my transition to university.  I keep asking if I can do anything to help but its all paperwork, which I cannot physically do.

Now, I cannot speak for other people, but this kind off inaccessibility does cause me extreme frustration.  It does not just cause a mild irritation; it goes a lot deeper than that.  As well as this, the different meetings with my social worker have put me under a lot of pressure.

Up until now, I have not had to use a hoist or an over-the-loo seat before, but to comply with Health & Safety Policies; I will have to change that when I start university.  The hoist-thing did not come as a shock because I was pre-warned, but having to sit in a shower chair over the toilet came as a bit of a shock, and was made worse by being told in front of four people including my parents. That did upset me a lot and I had to leave the room because I was in tears. That was the first time I had cried in public.

Now, my social life is a bit better and I am a bit more confident.  However, I would never wish for anyone to go through what I have experienced.  I now have a new set of worries about reluctantly using new equipment.

Preparations for moving away to University have been difficult. The social work team have been very good at organising my affairs, but do not seem to have appreciated the emotional dimensions.  I had to have numerous meetings with different people where I had to repeatedly give out the same information.  Some people who carried out the different assessments only assessed me based on whether they could tick a box or not.  I did not feel that they were treating me as an individual.

It might have been better if someone actually sat down with my parents and me and just explained in detail about what would happen throughout the process of sorting out a “care package” for when I go to university.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance has provided me with up-to-date equipment and training to help me on my course.  I am receiving a powerful computer that doubles up as an edit suite, plus some recording equipment to record my lectures.  I am also getting the appropriate training to operate my new equipment.  This award has meant that I will have the appropriate facilities I need to self-study. The world is far from being totally accessible to people with any kinds of difficulties, but many simple adjustments – like making forms accessible online or simplifying and humanising procedures would make a lot of difference.

Now, as I finish off this account, I am just recovering from a surprise party, organised by my parents.  After a stressful period of organising the move, which caused many tears, I am finally one week away from leaving home to go off to university.  I have mixed emotions – I am terrified, but also very excited about what the future holds for me.

Was all the stress worth it?  I’ll know when I become a famous director!

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© James Rose