As a straight A student studying for a degree at one of the best universities in the world, I have always had high expectations for myself. But as a young disabled person, it seems that the world expects very little from me. 20% of us are unemployed yet capable of work, and only 44% of us are economically active at all. We are half as likely to access higher education as able-bodied people. It’s a conflict that constantly baffles me. Why is this perception that disabled people are useless still perpetuated? I know so many intelligent, capable people who also happen to suffer from disabilities, and it makes me wonder: where are all the disabled people? Where do they go? What do they do? Where on earth do these statistics even come from?
It’s this side of disability that I think people often overlook. This charity and others like it undoubtedly do incredible work campaigning and researching ways of tackling the physical side of disability, but for many people disability is as much a mental obstacle as a physical one. When there’s no structure to follow, nobody to advise you, nobody to set an example, it is so easy just to give up and settle for whatever you’re given. I know that if I hadn’t been so convinced of my entitlement to an education at Oxford, for example, I might have settled for a local university or even no university at all, just because it was easier than fighting the system. And when I graduate and move out of my parents’ home, I know I’m going to have to face another set of obstructive, unhelpful individuals and systems. That’s how life is, unfortunately, and so it’s no wonder people don’t tend to bother. But there’s even less motivation to try and advance yourself if you’re of the belief that it’s never been done before.
At the risk of sounding like a social worker: society, and especially young people, needs positive role models. There are so few successful disabled people in the public eye that it’s easy to understand why expectations of us are so low. Where are the wheelchairs in Parliament, or on Sunset Boulevard? Where are the disabled CEOs, pop singers, judges? And the overwhelming portrayal of disability in the media is of disabled people as victims. How many photos of wheelchair users looking sad outside an inaccessible building have you seen in the newspapers? Compare that with the number of photos of wheelchair users getting good exam results, for example, or, actually, awards of any kind. It can be very discouraging for someone growing up with a disability to never see anyone they can emulate in a position of power or success, and this can make it a very isolating experience.
This is what I want to change, both through campaigning with Trailblazers and through my other activities. While I am not, sadly, a world-famous politician or celebrity (not yet anyway) it doesn’t mean I can’t be a role model to people, or make a tangible difference on a personal level. Alongside my studies I work for a government organisation called the Expert Patients’ Programme, which is aimed specifically at young people with long term disabilities and health conditions. I facilitate series of workshops advising 11-16 year olds about how to deal with the issues that matter to them – things like taking control over your own care and treatment, balancing over-anxious parents, and managing relationships with peers. The feedback we get from these workshops consistently indicates that one of the most encouraging parts of these sessions is the knowledge that the facilitators have been through the same problems, have met with the same obstacles and have escaped from the other side relatively unscathed. For someone coming to terms with a condition that they might not fully understand but significantly affects their health, daily routine or relationships, to see someone else who isn’t much older than them, completely comfortable with their disability and actually doing something with their life, is one of the most valuable and confidence-boosting experiences they can undergo. I know. I’ve been there.
With Trailblazers too, I think that one of the most valuable attributes of our campaigns are the fact that they are based almost entirely on personal experience. While it’s very easy for us to sit around and complain about the problems we’ve had, and to create a very negative image of what life is like for young disabled people, what we do instead is much more important, in that we look forward instead of back, and try and create a space for improvement and encouragement. We are people who have been through the system, who have done the groundwork, who know first-hand the problems and the obstacles that young disabled people face, and we are using this to show other young disabled people that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
We have a responsibility to society to prove that disabled people can not only succeed, but excel at any number of different things, and that we are useful for something more than just sitting in a corner feeling sorry for ourselves. So whenever I can, I try and share my knowledge and experience with others. It’s no skin off my nose – as you may have gathered by now I’m not exactly averse to talking about myself! I want to use myself and young adults like me as an example to show other young disabled people: look, it’s not all doom and gloom. We did it, and so can you. You don’t have to be the first person in your area to want to study away from home. You don’t have to be the first person to request equipment X or careplan Y. You can have an above average existence. We’ve been there. We’ve done it.
Making a difference in the world of disability doesn’t have to be on some grand national scale. If you can put yourself out there and say: this is what I’ve done, and it’s not impossible; then you can be an ambassador too. And for me that’s what being an ambassador for disability is really all about.