If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that life is not fair. We all have our own challenges to overcome but some seem to have more challenges than others, and some challenges are a lot more obvious than others. I’ve been interested in disability for a long time. My Mum worked with a youth group for young people with disabilities when I was young and I can remember being taken along, including to skiing lessons with a group of young adults with learning disabilities. We all learnt to snow plough, do parallel turns and fall over without losing a layer of skin to the matting that was meant to make up for the lack of snow in Rossendale.
These early experiences sparked an interest that led me to specialise my careers guidance work towards working with young people with additional needs. It’s a decision that I have never regretted, though at times funding cuts and lack of opportunity have certainly made me feel sad and totally beaten by the system. However, I would then meet a young person or a family and realise that if they were able to find positives, what right did I have to feel beaten by the system? They did not get to leave the fight behind at 5pm on a Friday- they had to keep going and keep believing. So, with this in mind, I took the opportunity to put on a Go Higher West Yorkshire event aimed at those young people.
To pull it off, I needed support from people who had already been through the system; people who families and young people would trust and listen to. One of the amazing things about being part of the Go Higher West Yorkshire team is that they always deliver, so when I asked my colleagues if they knew anyone who fitted the bill, my colleague Lauren from Leeds Trinity University immediately had a suggestion.
Chloe is Leeds Trinity’s Students Union Disabilities Officer, as well as being a full-time student studying Psychology and Child Development. In her free time, Chloe is an influential blogger and has been named on the 2018 Shaw Trust Disability Power List. She immediately offered to help, and it doesn’t get much better than that, or so I thought. We met over a coffee at LTU and Chloe was great at suggesting things that we should include, as well as agreeing to come along on the night and talk to our guests. She also said she might have a friend who would be willing to come along too.
With Chloe on board it felt like the evening was really coming together, and this feeling was only increased when my colleague Jane from New College Pontefract secured input from one of the college’s ex-students. Robert, who recently graduated from Edge Hill University with a degree in Physical Geography and Geology, said he was more than happy to come along on the evening and support us. Added to this was the offer from Gary McGladdery, Disability and Inclusion Manager from the University of Huddersfield, to support us by adding the weight of his experience and talking about the support that they offer and the all-important funding. Our superstar team was made complete with the backing of Jake from Leeds Trinity University and Vienna from Leeds University who would join us for the student panel.
We were also able to engage a guest speaker and were thrilled when local girl, Paralympic superstar and ex-Coventry University student Hannah Cockroft agreed to come along on the night. Hannah agreed to talk about her experiences of the education system, studying at University and finding her independence, as well as getting those famous gold medals.
Finding a venue was harder than I ever imagined, as we had to think about all the needs of the possible attendees. Wheelchair access seemed like the obvious point to consider, but after speaking to colleagues in London and Manchester about similar events they had run, our wish list grew to include the ideal acoustics, parking, break out areas and the best possible sensory nature of the environment, to name just a few. Total accessibility is clearly a long way away, but we did find a lovely venue. It wasn’t perfect, but maybe nothing is and there is a bigger issue here…
We tried to get the word out as much as possible about the event. Our Higher Education Progression Officers, who are based in local schools, worked hard to ensure that all of the students who might benefit from attending knew about the event. We sent flyers out to local charities and worked with Wakefield Council to try and get the message out as much as possible to parents, young people and professionals that we thought would find it useful.
With everything in place, it was down to the night itself. Our partner institutions all turned up to set up their stalls with prospectuses and the odd freebie (who doesn’t want a biro that is also a highlighter?). The goodie bags were filled, name badges sorted, and registration desk set up. With refreshments served and everyone settled, we heard from the first of the night’s speakers, Hannah Cockroft. Hannah spoke about how her parents fought to get her into a mainstream school, her exploration of the subjects that she was interested in and her time at Coventry University, as well as her amazing career. Her hard work and determination were obvious, and she had some really useful tips including not necessarily trusting your mates to find an ‘accessible’ house as sometimes they don’t notice the stairs!
Robert followed, telling us about his time at Edge Hill University, the benefits, for him of attending a campus University, getting to know the area before he started and the social challenges he faced. As a person with Asperger’s the usual student highlights of nights out and field trips were not his favourite part of the course, but he embraced those experiences whilst at University, taking it all at his own pace and in his own way.
Robert was followed by Gary, who works at the University of Huddersfield. Gary’s role includes making sure that students get the support they need, including support from a specialist librarian, note-taking in lectures and support in their accommodation. He also offered some much-needed insight into the world of finances and the DSA (Disabled Students Allowance).
After a break for food and a drink it was Chloe’s turn to take to the stage, speaking about her studies, being elected onto the Student Union and generally about getting the most out of being a student without letting her disability get in the way. The final part of the evening was a student question and answer session, where Chloe and Robert were joined by Vienna and Jake to take questions from the floor.
With the final question asked, the evening was over and people took the opportunity to have a look at the stalls and get that selfie with Hannah and her gold medal (which rattled).
If I was to take one message from the evening it was simply to take things at your own pace and find your own route; these things don’t matter just as long as you get to where you want to go.
I was delighted with the way the evening went, and we got some great feedback as well as some things to work on to make next year (fingers crossed) even better. I would love to be able to reproduce this event next year in Leeds or Bradford to try and let as many people as possible access the event.