During disability history month, it is sometimes easier to think about and look up to disabled athletes and celebrities. While their achievements are incredible, it is also important to identify role models in our own community. That’s why we’ve spoken to Sophie, a university graduate with a Masters degree. Sophie was diagnosed with Autism and is a passionate advocate for disproving negative associations with Autism and disabilities more widely. DANCOP is here to support young people to make educated decisions about their future pathways, one of which is higher education. We hope hearing from Sophie will help our learners to understand what going to university is like for a person with a disability and that there is absolutely a place for them there.

What did you study at University?

I have so far completed three degrees. I completed my Undergraduate degree in Education Studies and English. Following this, I completed the Primary PGCE with a specialism in ‘Special and Inclusive Education’. I then went on to complete my Master’s degree in ‘Inclusion and Special Educational Needs and Disability’. Throughout my time at University, I focused particularly on autism. My interest in Autism came primarily from my brother’s diagnosis of autism at the age of 5 – when I was 9 years old. Supporting Joe, my brother, with his learning and life-skills when we were growing up inspired me to pursue a career in Special Education.

What is your disability and did it affect your experience at university?

I did not have my diagnosis of Autism when I first started studying my PGCE in the September but following the advice of peers, University lecturers, and teaching mentors, I was diagnosed with Autism the following January. If people ask me how I found my PGCE, I am honest in telling them that it was the most difficult year of my life. I found the social pressures of being within the school environment for a full day too much too handle; by the time I got home most evenings, I was on the brink of a meltdown.

University life after my diagnosis did certainly improve though; with the appropriate support in place, I found the placements easier to manage and was able to pass my PGCE in 2017. For the first time, I enjoyed group discussion, working with others, and even giving presentations to my peers and tutors! My Master’s degree was definitely the degree that enabled me to flourish the most; I thrived on working with such a small group, and loved the depth of the learning.

What support did you get while you were studying? Was there someone to speak to if you needed help?

The University were fantastic at supporting me following my diagnosis. My support package included a laptop, Dictaphone, assistive software such as a mind-mapping tool for essay planning, and reasonable adjustments to my school placements. These reasonable adjustments included allowances for me having social “time out” during the day, for staff to communicate with me clearly, and a pre-placement meeting before my placement began, which gave me an opportunity to view the school, meet key members of staff, and discuss my strengths and needs with the school.

To decide what support I would need, I had a study needs assessment, where my learning strengths and areas of need could be identified and discussed in-depth with the assessor. Following this, the University produced a ‘Support Plan’; a document outlining my diagnosis and my study needs, which all my lecturers had access to. My voice was valued throughout the support process, which made the whole experience feel very personal. I was able to suggest changes to all key document put in place to support me. All my tutors were extremely friendly, approachable and understanding; I would have felt happy to talk to any of my tutors if something was bothering me, or even if I was just having a difficult time that day.

How was your social life during your studies?

The social element of University life never appealed to me. Throughout my studies I continued to live at home with family. I would often hear peers in my cohort chatting about going on wild nights out, going to bars, pubs, and clubs. Me? On occasion, I would enjoy a catch-up and a coffee in the student bar with a friend or a tutor.

Reflecting on my social time at University now, I feel that I had a good balance of social and study-time. 85% study and 15% socialisation seemed the perfect ratio for me. You are the master of your own experience when it comes to University. Want to go out clubbing with your new friends from University? Great! Rather curl up with a book at home and focus on your studies? That’s fine too! The beauty of the University experience is being able to choose your own path, and do whatever is meaningful to you.

Tell us what you do now, is it something you enjoy? And has going to university helped you to get there?

Currently, I work as part of the Wellbeing Team, as a Learning Mentor, at a Secondary SEND School in Derby. As a Learning Mentor, I work to support students, often on a 1-1 basis, who are having difficulties in the classroom. This includes sessions on mental health, mindfulness and social skills. Discussing my own autism label with students often opens a window of opportunity for young people to have an open discussion about their label, what is means to them, and most importantly, their lived experience of that label everyday.

Do you have any reassurance for learners with a disability who are considering going to university?

The best part of studying at University is being able to personalise your learning experience; it is the perfect opportunity to learn more about what you are interested in. I would advise any person who is interested in attending University to find out about the student wellbeing support service available at your potential Universities. If you have a diagnosis, I would encourage you to be open and honest about your areas of need, and the support you will need to flourish in your studies. Find out what support is available for disabled students, and don’t be afraid to say when you are finding something difficult. Not only can studying at University be a fantastic stepping stone to securing employment, it can also be enjoyable in itself if you love to learn. Don’t let your disability label become a barrier to achieving what you want to achieve. Have open discussions, ask questions, get the support you are entitled to, and show the world what you are made of. University can be an amazing opportunity so grab it, hold it tightly with both hands, and do not let it pass you by if it is something you want to do. I have faith in you – remember to have faith in yourself, too.

And finally, what does disability history month mean to you?

Opening up discussions about disability labels is one of the most important parts of Disability History Month, for me. Too often, disability labels are taken at face value. Throughout history, those with a disability label have been segregated, discriminated against, and defined by their inabilities and impairments. This month is our opportunity to change this narrative.

Autism for one person does not mean the same as Autism for another. More importantly, each individual with a label will have a different perspective of that label. Some individuals love being autistic and celebrate their strengths, whereas some are dismissive of their autism label. For some, it may be a mixture of the two. Personal preference should not only be valued, it should be at the heart of all we do to support people with a “disability” label.

Disability History Month is an excellent way to celebrate how far we have come as a society, and more importantly, to strive towards progress in increasing the inclusivity of our society.