Diversity, not disadvantage: The UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Diversity, not disadvantage: The UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Welcome, dear reader, to a most important edition of Access2Learn’s blog. Did you by any chance know that each year on the 3rd December, the UN recognised International Day of Persons with Disabilities takes place? No? Truth be told, that is a guess, as nobody I have asked thus far has even heard of such a day, let alone knew when it took place. Kind of a shame, isn’t it? It’s an important day for over 10 million people in the UK and nearly 40 million across Europe – and chances are very few of them even know it exists.

Incidentally, the theme of this year’s IDPD is the empowerment of people with disabilities and the removal of barriers from their progress. The ethos of this day can be summarised in one simple and yet powerful line: “Disability equals Diversity, not Disadvantage” (If that doesn’t deserve to be a hashtag, I don’t know what does – #diversitynotdisadvantage).

Yet as I said before, very few people even know that the day exists, which perhaps highlights one of the biggest barriers to those with a disability, both within UN countries and without – the attitudinal barrier. In my own experience as a jobseeker with an invisible disability, I could pretty much count on my application being rejected if I made any mention of my condition – with the obvious exception of my current job, for which I am extremely grateful.

The only work I could get was washing dishes at a local pub – hardly fitting work for a university graduate, but as far as anyone else was concerned, that was the only work I was fit for. Nobody wanted to take a risk hiring someone with Autism for any meaningful job. I can only imagine that they saw the word ‘Autism’ on my CV, or heard it at job interviews, and immediately a red light started flashing in their minds. Funny, because in my experience, Autism has been less of a ‘disability’ and more of a gift to my intellect than anything, even with the lacking in social instinct and sensory sensitivity. But nope, no-one else thought of it that way.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb

Is this unique to me? Not according to the ONS, who suggest an employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people of working age of over 30%. Just under a third larger. More disturbing still, according to the site Disability Sport, more than 40% of people think of the disabled as a social burden, with 180 disability hate crimes committed per day. If that isn’t disturbing, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know what is.

But if we’re a social burden, why was it then that the name Albert Einstein (Autism, Dyslexia) is synonymous with ‘genius’ and ‘E=MC2’? Or what about the late, great Professor Stephen Hawking, who couldn’t even move on his own power, yet advanced the scientific community for decades? Or Thomas Edison (Dyslexia) who gave us the lightbulb? How about Nick Vuljecic, who despite being born without limbs, is a world famous athlete and motivational speaker who influences thousands of people worldwide? Need I go on? Just FYI, if I do, you’ll be reading this for eternity …

Nick Vuljecic, born with Tetra-Amelia Syndrome, a rare disorder characterised by the absence of arms and legs.

As someone who developed Anxiety in his pre-pubescent years and has had Autism since birth, I earnestly believe that the mistaken perception of those with disabilities is the major barrier to us. Even the term ‘disability’ in itself can be seen as part of the problem. People think of that word and immediately think ‘less than’ or ‘incapable’ … the latter is literal translation of the word ‘disabled’. The truth, ladies and gentlemen, could not be more different. Everyone – and ‘by everyone’, I literally mean every human on the planet – everyone faces struggles and barriers unique to them. “Disabilities”, invisible and visible, affect at least 10% of the UK population alone. Mental illness can affect any human being on Earth. It’s a fact. So many across the world have some kind of condition that makes them seem apart from the rest. But because of the label ‘disability’ and the stigma that naturally goes with it, so much talent goes ignored and wasted. Why? Because we judge others for their problems, instead of looking at people for who they truly are.

Autism has given me perspective, perspicacity, insightfulness and an unmatched alacrity and capability for my areas of interest. According to the good people who diagnosed me, my command of the English language exceeds 90% of the country. So should I be judged for my lack of social skill or my inability to engage with tasks that don’t stimulate my brain? Anxiety might make me appear cowardly and awkward on the surface, but it has taught me compassion, respect, caution and above all else, strength. Yes, I said strength. Despite my fear, I found the courage to go to university, to enter the world of work and to hold my nerve together long enough to pass my first driving test. Why, then, should I be thought less of because I get nervous in some situations, or because of my inner demons?

Dyslexia, with the problems it causes in conventional learning, gives the world creative genius and outside the box thinking. Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain makes tough, adaptive modern day Spartans of those who adapt to living in constant pain. PTSD, Depression, bi-polar, all other forms of mental illness – these teach us compassion and courage. Dwarfs like Peter Dinklage show us how to tower over the rest with talent. OCD gives us obsessive conviction and compulsive excellence. Some of the finest athletes in the world use a wheelchair. Maybe you’ll remember this next time you come across someone who is ‘disabled’.

Thus I submit to you that everyone has problems of some kind or another, and that ‘disabled’ people are no different. Just because our problems might be more visible, we are not really that different from anyone else. People are diverse in so many ways; ethnicity, height, weight, sexuality, nationality, what football team they support, what starter Pokemon they choose … others are Autistic, Dyslexic, wheelchair users etc. My point is that these things that make us different are simply another form of variation that makes the world go round. Yes, we have unique problems, but we also have unique strengths. On that point alone, that doesn’t make us much different from anyone else. What people call “disabilities” are just another form of diversity.

In other words, we are Diverse, not Disadvantaged, and it’s time that was understood by the world.

Diversity, not Disadvantage; whoever coined that phrase must have an IQ of 600.

You can find out more about the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities by visiting their website, and using #diversitynotdisadvantage on Social Media.

Choose Respect : Anti-Bullying Week 2018

Choose Respect : Anti-Bullying Week 2018

The topic of this very special week, dear reader – anti-bullying – is a subject very near and dear to my own heart, given my … well, my past experiences of being bullied. Some of you might have your own bullying horror stories to tell, therefore you know all about the damage it can do, physically in some cases, but in nearly all cases it causes significant internal damage to one’s self-esteem – damage that can last for years, even decades if no intervention is made. For your sake, dear reader, I will refrain from talking in great detail about my own experience, as it will be nigh impossible for me to remain objective.

I might be stating the obvious here or simply preaching to the choir, but the dangers of bullying to the victim and perpetrator alike simply cannot be overstated. The damage to the victim should be obvious – being the target of insults, intimidation, exclusion and perhaps at worst, violence that one feels helpless against can lead to feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and serious cases of Anxiety, Depression, PTSD … and the longer it goes on, it can even result in self-harm. Bullies themselves are also at risk, forming detrimental habits well into adulthood, such as violence or substance abuse, though some do benefit from this horrible practice with the increase in artificial ‘social standing’ – being the cool kid, as it were. In any case, bullying needs to end – and action must be taken to prevent it.

Fortunately, in this day and age, there exist a number of options for victims of bullying to seek help. The Anti-Bullying Alliance, organisers of this most important week, are dedicated to fighting back against bullying in all its forms, and can offer advice and support to victims who visit their website. If you are being bullied for being disabled, invisible or otherwise, as I was, chances are you can speak to an advisor at a local or national charity. For example, in the case of Autism, you can speak to someone at the National Autistic Society, or if you’re local to Essex and live near to Colchester, you might speak to the good people at Autism Anglia via their Autism Advice Service. Ideally, if you’re at school or work, you will be able to speak to your teacher or your boss about what is going on and have it swiftly dealt with by those in a position of authority.

The main thing to take away from this, speaking as someone who, well, let’s just say has extensive experience of being a victim of bullying, is this; the absolute worst thing you can do is to stay quiet about it. The longer it goes on, bullying can cause serious adverse effects to its victims, including stress-induced sickness, loss of self-esteem and even risk of suicide. I’m writing this as a man of nearly 30 years of age. Despite all the great strides I’ve made in life, I still carry the scars of my childhood and adolescence. On that point, I cannot stress this enough; report it immediately. Speak to someone you trust, call a helpline, speak to an advisor, tell someone in a position of authority. The fight back against bullying starts when you make this first, all-important decision to speak up, which is why this point is so crucial.

And if you’re worried about appearing ‘unmanly’ or ‘weak’ or if you’re upset about ‘not being able to fight your own battles’, don’t be. Bullying is cowardly by default, as by definition it requires someone in a position of strength to pick on someone more vulnerable. So why should you, the victim, be worried about such ridiculous standards? If a bully threatens you, this goes double – a threat or intimidation is in obvious and grievous violation of your basic rights.

Ultimately, Choose Respect couldn’t be a more fitting theme for this year’s Anti-Bullying Week. No matter who you are, you are entitled to respect. If someone is making you feel lesser by insults, intimidation or violence, you have to make that first step of speaking up. For the act of speaking up in and of itself is an act of Choosing Respect. So if you are a victim of bullying, don’t delay, don’t debate in your head and most of all don’t let the bullies scare you … speak up about it, and choose respect. Not tomorrow, not next week, not when you feel less scared …  #chooserespect NOW!

And do not fear, as those of us who have been through bullying themselves will always support you.

If you would like to find out more about Anti-Bullying week and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, please visit www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk

Coping with Stress: Mental Health Week 2018

Coping with Stress: Mental Health Week 2018

Since learning as recently as March that I have a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder on top of being Autistic, dear readers, this week carries more personal significance for me than ever before. Much like coming to terms with my Autism back in 2011, my new diagnosis of Anxiety was a personal revelation for me. Beforehand, I had always wondered why I seemed to struggle so intensely with the most basic daily tasks; going to sleep, waking up, going to the shops, focusing on the simplest task, driving, you name it. Eventually, when I was diagnosed with Anxiety in March, it all made perfect sense.

When I last went to the doctor about my anxiety issues, she talked my ear off about chemical reactions in the brain causing me to feel this way and proceeded to prescribe me medicine and recommended I get therapy, which as it happens I already was. While at first I kind of dismissed it as the inevitable medical jargon that kind of missed the point, as I felt my anxiety was being triggered by outside events, though upon reflection, it’s always just been kind of there, whether events are exasperating it or not. Perhaps it is the same for all mental health sufferers, though I would not presume to speak for them.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

With this year’s Mental Health Week’s theme being on the topic of stress, about as appropriate a theme as it gets, it got me thinking about how big a factor stress is in the lives of people who have to cope with a mental health condition and how it appears to affect us the most intensely. That’s not to say only people with Anxiety/Depression/Bipolar etc feel stress – that would be preposterous – however, as the doctor described to me, with chemical reactions going off in our brain, I daresay we feel it more acutely and more often.

The result? As the Mental Health Foundation accurately describes, it is near-constant ‘fight or flight’ mode. Constant tension of the body and mind, as a result, constant feelings of exhaustion. Constant brain fog, constantly procrastinating, constant distraction. From personal experience, dear readers, I could give you a list that would last longer than The Simpsons, but I doubt you’d have the patience. Therefore, perhaps it would be best to simply skip ahead to some suggestions on how to combat stress.

Mental Health Foundation

As Sun Tzu states in his book ‘The Art of War’, “know thyself, know thy enemy”. Rather ironically, both you and the stress you feel play both roles; the mental health condition, as well as the accompanying stress, are part of you, yet inextricably they are both enemies to be defeated. So how do you defeat this internal enemy, as it were? In my humble opinion, the first step to resolving the problem is to come to terms with it. Self-awareness. Realisation and acceptance of reality. How many times have you found yourself tossing and turning in bed, desperately trying to sleep, only to find you’ve overslept and are late for work again? How many times have you tried your hardest to focus on your work, only to be overpowered by the overwhelming need to procrastinate? When this happens, it’s time to accept reality; you’re stressed.

“Know thyself, know thy enemy”. This is the all important first step.

Stress accounts for 23.9 working days lost for each person affected every year according to the Mental Health Foundation, who also find in a poll of over 4,000 people that 74% have felt so stressed that they couldn’t cope. Given those statistics, if you’re worried about appearing weak by admitting to stress, dear reader, don’t be. You’re hardly alone. Since we’re now well into 2018, we should be able to be honest with ourselves and those around us about our stress. Once we’ve recognised the problem, we can take action.

The Samaritans contact information

When we have taken a mental inventory and come to terms with our stress, the best thing to do is seek help. What kind of help? Usually, the best help is the kind that helps you put your problems into perspective and help you arrive at a constructive solution. For example, it might be as simple as talking to a family member or a close friend that you can trust implicitly. It might also be your GP. You could also turn to the Samaritans for help, or perhaps if you require advice related to a specific disability/mental health condition, most related charities have a helpline or an advice service you can call or email. I personally have turned to the Samaritans and Autism Anglia’s advice service many times. More recently, I have also attended therapy sessions and counselling, both of which have helped me immensely in dealing with the triggers of my stress by arriving at constructive conclusions.

Again: ‘know thyself”.

Am I saying counselling/therapy will irrefutably work for everyone, as it has for me? No. Would I recommend it? 100% yes. In fact, I’d recommend any and all of them. Different things will work for different people … for some people, it might be as simple as a good workout at the gym, or a nice long walk. I myself have had a couple of personal epiphanies while out for one of my nightly walks, or soaking in a nice hot bath. Sometimes that’s all you need to put things into perspective.

But no matter what you do, dear readers, the important thing to take away from Mental Health Week 2018 is to Address Your Stress! The absolute worst thing you can do with stress is ignore it, go into denial or just ‘man up’ and ‘tough it out’ while the stress erodes your mental wellbeing. Surely if I were walking around with an open wound or some manner of physical injury, you’d tell me to see a doctor right? Well, I submit to you that mental stress is no different from any injury … and it makes no sense not to get it treated. As I said before, it’s 2018 now … well past time we put this outdated stigma towards getting help to bed. So if you’re feeling stressed, I’d like to let you know that you are not alone, and it’s ok to get help!

Above and Beyond: The Student Consultants

Above and Beyond: The Student Consultants

Access2Learn

The Student Consultant team of Access2Learn; who are we? What is our purpose? What on Earth am I talking about when I introduce myself as a Student Consultant, dear reader? Usually, when people hear that job title, they give me a blank look, as if I’d just said, “world’s leading expert of being unable to think of a good joke” … which incidentally, I am.

Awful jokes aside, I for one think it’s very important for disabled students at university, especially ones who apply for Disabled Students Allowances, and their universities as well, to know what a Student Consultant is and what we have to offer. Now true, I could be just a tad biased, seeing as I am one – but since Access2Learn was founded nearly a year and a half ago, the Student Consultant role has been majorly important to the company itself and the students we worked for.

Tom, Senior Student Consultant

So to answer question one – what is a Student Consultant? Well, the role itself was the brainchild of our founder Hayley who has worked in the DSA industry for many years and seen it go from strength to strength. In a chance conversation that led to my employment with Access2Learn, Hayley and I both agreed that more needed to be done to help students before, during and long after the DSA process. What do I mean? In my own days as a student claiming DSA, I found myself wasting what could have been one of my greatest DSA provisions – reimbursement for printer paper and ink. Why? I, like many other students as I have discovered doing my job, overwhelmed with all the emails and information, managed to lose the email/letter that instructed me on claiming the promised reimbursement. Unfortunately, I had no Student Consultant offering me advice and support in those days, so I didn’t know where to turn to and who to contact for help. So, the reimbursement ended up going to waste.

During my year and a half approximately as the first Student Consultant, I had students come to me with all sorts of woes; difficulty navigating the DSA process, misunderstandings with a university that could have resulted in failure of the course, issues of mental health flaring to the point where a student was unable to bear attending exams, confusion or anxiety over how to claim equipment or reimbursement, applying to Student Finance for Compelling Personal Reasons … I could go on forever. Countless times I have offered advice on how to cope with the studying aspect of university, or whom to turn to for a specific need. A few times I have contacted their university’s Disability Team on their behalf. I have offered a sympathetic ear and an offer of intervention to students going through a difficult time. I once even supported a student with the designing a spreadsheet to help them organise their studies.

Zoe, our Student Consultant

For the students I work with, it has had varying degrees of success. Sometimes I just get a small ‘thank you’. Some begin to think of me as a mentor, much like I thought of my own specialist mentors given to me by DSA. Some even begin to think of me as a friend (within professional boundaries of course). At least one was left in tears of joy after my intervention brought about a resolution to a misunderstanding with their university over severe depression that had threatened their place on their course

Don’t get me wrong, DSA Assessors do their utmost to address student concerns, but they face the enormous task of assessing hundreds of students per month and writing all those reports, which leaves them little time to spare. The office managers are also readily available to answer any questions, but they are concerned with the endless demands of administration, booking assessments, payroll … you get the idea. Sadly, this for many years meant that students were left in the dark about the progress of their support arrangements, how to claim it and how to resolve any problems, which is sad because DSA is supposed to be all about the needs of the student.

As a result of our conversation, Hayley and I both understood that this problem needed a solution – thus, Hayley offered me the first ever job as a Student Consultant! It was the answer to the long-overlooked problem with student interaction in DSA. We do for the student what the assessors and office managers cannot; we reach out to each and every student, to make them aware that help is available whenever needed. Help with what? It doesn’t matter, so long as it is related to needs of disability, mental health, study or the general needs of being a student.

George, our latest Student Consultant

But the true source of our abilities to go above and beyond come from our personal experiences of being a disabled student. In order to qualify for the position of Student Consultant, you are required to be or have been a student with a disability/mental health condition that has also claimed DSA. Why? No one knows more about the hardships that disabled students face than disabled students themselves – and no one can relate better to someone currently going through a difficult time than someone who has been through the same thing. This is the philosophy behind my job – using my personal experiences of being a disabled student to help others going through what I went through.

In conclusion, Access2Learn introduced the Student Consultant role for the purpose I have been rambling about in the last two paragraphs; to go above and beyond for the students we support. The Student Consultant role came into existence to take the existing support for students claiming DSA to the next level by bridging the gap in student participation.

Access2Learn’s slogan, “Make Learning Yours” … it’s more than just a gimmick, dear reader. It’s a commitment. It’s our mission. We believe that no two students are alike; that everyone has individual needs to cater to. The Student Consultants are here for that reason; to reach out to the students, find out their individual needs and to help the students to the utmost of our abilities and experience. To truly make learning theirs, each and every student that books an assessment with A2L needs individual consideration. Our founders understood this, thus the Student Consultant team is here, ready to help our students Make Learning Theirs!

New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolutions

First of all dear readers, on behalf of Access2Learn, I’d like to start by wishing you all a very Happy New Year! May it be a year full of opportunities, good fortune and successes for all of you.

New Years Eve Fireworks in London

Of course, the beginning of the new calendar is an opportunity in itself – once you get over the bad case of January Blues that no doubt many of you are suffering from as we struggle back into our work/study routines, the New Year is as good a time as any to commit to changes we wish to make in our lives. Our New Year’s Resolutions often include losing weight, learning to drive, perhaps quitting smoking, procrastinating less on those all-important assignments … or doing that one thing that you’ve always wanted to try but fear to attempt, such as doing a placement, joining/creating a society/sports team, trying to lead a more active social life … the list goes on and on.

The trouble is, dear readers, that these New Year’s Resolutions are often very difficult to keep to. It’s not impossible, by any means, but one’s strength of will is soon tempted from its course by the siren’s songs – it’s all too easy to cave to our desires for those foods we know we shouldn’t eat or just to plug in the games console and forget our commitment to joining a gym or working harder. It doesn’t mean we’re weak – but even the strongest individuals only have so much willpower, especially when we have to work or study regularly.

Sean Bean explaining the difficulties of New Years Resolutions

But perhaps that’s exactly the problem – most of us try to accomplish these things on our own and inevitably, our willpower depletes. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone reading this, but in my case, my own worst enemy is myself. My anxiety and fear of failure, rejection, embarrassment … all these things mean that I constantly get in my own way when it comes time to make all the changes I want to make – and as previously stated, I only have so much willpower, same as anyone else. I admit, already some of my New Year’s Resolutions are in jeopardy.

So this year, I want to propose another New Year’s Resolution … one that will not only require less of your vital willpower, but in my experience will also give you a boost in accomplishing what you want to accomplish. My suggesting is simple; to make use of the support available to you.

The Samaritans

Now hold on, I know what you might be thinking: ‘seriously? That’s the big suggestion?’ Hear me out. A group effort is far more effective than an individual effort. You know what they say, ‘many hands make light work’. You don’t have to do all these things yourself. There is support in place to help you cope with study, work or even if you just need to talk to someone about your problems. Even just talking to someone is a great way to put things into perspective and get the emotional weight off your mind, freeing you to devote more energy to your goals.

If you are experiencing fear, doubt, anxiety or depression – or even if you just want a neutral perspective – the Samaritans are a great place to start. As a student and a graduate I have turned to them many times for a sympathetic ear and a judgement-free conversation about my troubles, which I have always found tremendously relieving. If you are a current student, it is also highly likely that your university can provide you with on-site counselling sessions, which I can again vouch for from experience … in my final year of university, which as you know is also dissertation year, I also took it upon myself to run for Disabled Students Representative and create the Disabled Students Society, both of which took a tremendous effort, on top of the effort of making it through uni. As you can imagine, this took a serious toll on my mental health and without counselling, I doubt I’d have made it very far through the year with a total mental collapse.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention support available through Disabled Students Allowances! If you meet the definition of ‘disability’ under the Equality Act 2010, meaning you have a physical or mental condition that will significantly affect your ability to carry out daily tasks for longer than 12 months, you may be eligible to apply for DSA and receive (on a needs dependant basis) a support bundle which could include a new laptop complete with specialist software, a printer/scanner, 1-2-1 support mentoring and a general allowance to put to things such as travel or printer consumables! Also, forgive the shameless self-marketing, dear readers, but also if you happen to book an assessment with Access2Learn, you’ll be able to chat to the Student Consultant team whenever you like about any needs you might have!

Access2Learn DSA

Now that the self-promo is done, you might be wondering, dear readers, why on Earth I feel I have to tell you something so simple. I mean it’s obvious that a group effort is more effective than an individual effort right? Again, I ask that you bear with me. Let’s be honest … asking for help is hard, especially if you happen to be a male I daresay. Appearing weak, admitting vulnerability or a lack of independence … everything a guy is not allowed to do by society’s definitions right? Though I suppose no-one would like that feeling, male or female … the point is, ladies and gents, asking for help is hard, but if you can get over the hurdle of simply picking up the phone or sending an email, you’ll be taking not just a first step, but a huge leap towards getting yourself ready to make your desires for the New Year a reality!

Thanks for reading our blog, and may 2018 be your year!

 

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