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Coming out as Disabled: Felicity McKee

Wednesday 03-12-2014 - 16:48

When I applied to university the first time, I hesitated over the box in the UCAS form asking if I had a disability. Even though there were a variety of boxes to tick for mental health issues, mobility issues etc. I still hesitated.

This is a guest article by Felicity McKee, Women's Place on Disabled Students' Committee. 

I knew I had health issues but having come from a background where I had faced stigma, prejudice and discrimination over my mental health, I was worried that disclosing anything could lead to this again. I stayed quiet, I wanted a new slate and as I had an invisible disability I thought I could fake it until I made it.

I was wrong.
Honesty from the start may have been the best policy. It wasn’t that I didn’t say anything at all. At university I disclosed when having my occupational health check, and was told to not say anything and it was swept under the carpet. I was doing a health care course and it was seen as being easier to not disclose.

However by not disclosing to student support, the structures needed to help me were not put in place, I struggled and did eventually go on medical leave as a result.

It was at this point that I became more actively involved in the disability movement, I realised that:

  • 55 per cent of disabled students have already seriously considered leaving their course compared to 35 per cent of non-disabled respondents
  • 27 per cent of 16-19 year olds with a disability are not in education, training or employment compared to 9 per cent of those without a disability.
  • 45 per cent have experiences problems at school as a consequence of their disability
  • 26 per cent of disabled people have reported negative experiences in education as a result of facilities or the attitudes of others
  • Those with a disability are only half as likely to have formal qualification as those without a disability

I found that I was a statistic and this upset me. I am more than a statistic, I am a person and these statistics are shocking and fuel my need to see change.

Now I would be lying if I said that ‘coming out’ was easy, I went to student support in my old university and at this point they were experiencing cuts and upheavals going on and outsourcing and I ended up on medical leave as a result yet again. The support simply wasn’t there and their counselling services told me they only dealt with academic issues and so said they were capable of dealing with other issues, at this point I had regular hospital visits with life threatening electrolyte imbalances as a result of my eating disorder, and this simply was too much for them to deal with without the suitable training to branch out from merely academic issues.

It was stressful and lonely not telling anyone and hiding my disability, or being told to say nothing by those in authority. I found it worse yet again when I was open, but this was due to a level of ignorance (such as a lecturer telling me I chose to be in hospital) and financial cuts. As a result of this inability to meet access needs, my health declined further and it was harder than necessary to remain in education.

The university itself wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t ideal, but being open amongst friends and family was the best move ever. I wasn’t going to appointments and having no support to come home to. The staff in the shop in halls had long suspected and they and the maintenance staff helped me carry bags back to my flat when I wasn’t well enough to manage or just acted as a listening ear.

There was a time when the university told me they wouldn’t help finance a taxi from halls to the building when I was too weak to walk it and so the maintenance, security or staff in the shop in halls intervened. This wasn’t their job but basic human kindness that I had shielded myself from by staying quiet, and I had stayed quiet because I had allowed the negative experiences I had to cloud my judgement. I was so terrified of what could go wrong that I didn’t see what could go right.

 I took a year out and did an art diploma and have now moved university. I shouldn’t have to think of my disability before I consider a university, I should be free to access education in any institution that offers my course, however at present this isn’t possible, and is something I hope to see change occur about.

The move was incredible, my current university is much better at dealing with students with disabilities and I feel thoroughly supported. My lecturers meet my access needs, they understand I might miss a class due to medical appointments and the PhD students who run our tutorials will meet with me for coffee so I can catch up!

This is why it is so important to raise awareness of disability in this month of disabled history, proposed cuts to DSA are still and issue and disabled students still do face hardships their non-disabled counterparts don’t. Cuts to education and support systems could still affect me now, even though I have ‘shopped’ around for a university with suitable access needs, there is still a risk and it is this reason that keeps me campaigning.

This is why access to education is key for me, as an issue I am passionate about.

Having been there and seen how hard it is to be in education with a disability, then to be on medical leave and return, this is something I want to enact change over. I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did that was negative, but I certainly want the positive aspects I witnessed to increase and occur more often until we reach a point where this is a non-issue.

‘If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.’ – Albert Einstein

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