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Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name’s Lee Dickson and I run the Lancaster University Autism and Specific Learning Difficulties Society. It’s a society for all people at the university or living in the city with either autism or specific learning difficulties such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, AH, VH, dyscalculia, etc. We’re open to everybody; even if you don’t experience any of these difficulties, you’re still able to come along.
What motivated you to form the society?
It was mainly because of a lack of a society like this; there aren’t any others for people with disabilities, not even just learning difficulties. I felt that I needed a platform for myself to be able to meet people with certain disabilities as I have dyspraxia. Nicholas Peat (who is now the society’s vice president) and I then decided to create a society for people with these conditions to come along and feel safe to meet others who are like minded or to learn about these issues.
Dyspraxia is something a lot of people might not know about – can you give us some idea of what the condition is?
It’s also called developmental coordination disorder, so it’s a mix between gross motor issues and academic issues. I might knock over a glass of water every day, trip over myself, walk into things, bump into people. Some people might be okay with using cutlery where some others might not; it varies from person to person which is why it often takes a long time to be diagnosed and assessed in terms of educational statements. Some people have extremes of being averse to light or noise; for example, I tend to be more nocturnal because sometimes daylight can hurt my eyes. We have poor visual perception.
The other side is the academic side. Many people with dyspraxia can be slower at retaining information and knowledge – not necessarily “not clever”, but reading a book might take twice as long as someone else without the condition. We might get words muddled up when we’re speaking to people. We might know what the word means, but it won’t come from the mind to the lips. It can be quite damaging for someone who feels they know something quite well but just can’t get the words out. During a stressful situation, that’s when the symptoms will flare up.
Now you’re in your 3rd year; what experiences did you have in your first years at Lancaster?
I wasn’t diagnosed until the end of my 2nd year with this disability so I ended up repeating the year. Throughout that year I had to start dealing with coming to terms with what the condition is, how I can cope with my studies and things like that. I was quite angry a lot of the time; at myself, not the condition as such. I was wondering why I am how I am, and things became a little bit harder for me when I realised why I am this way and it’s made me who I am. After coming to terms with the disability, seeking the right support opened my eyes up to what was out there for me. I became involved with the dyspraxia foundation and found out that I’m not alone. Actually, there are about one in five people with a condition similar to mine this in the country.
Being diagnosed with a disability sounds really stressful and difficult – can you tell us about the process?
It was Lent term 2013 and I couldn’t get the essays I had to do done; I just couldn’t get them in for the deadline and those for the last term had been really bad. I just felt something was wrong. I had a complete mental breakdown in terms of trying to articulate my thoughts on paper, so I went to the History department and told them I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was on the edge of dropping out altogether, but my department told me to go home over Easter and just relax. I tried to work on my essays but just noting was working.
I came back in summer, accessed the counselling service who helped me talk through some of my issues and referred me to disabilities where I spoke with an advisor. My mother had pointed out that I was nearly diagnosed as a child in the 1990s; I was taken out of school for 1 year because I had verbal language problems and after a year in an SEN school with more specialised help I was able to excel, so I was returned to mainstream school. It has still been hard though; I had to put all my time and energy into work and so my mother said that I should seek some diagnosis.
Luckily there was financial support available for me from the University in the form of the Hardship Fund, which allowed me to pay for an educational assessment and was diagnosed with dyspraxia. It was a weight off my mind because I knew that I was right in thinking that something had been wrong. The rest of the term was spent dealing with getting the support in place; I applied to Student Finance for DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance) and got a wide range of support including having a Dictaphone to help me articulate myself and specialised laptop software for mind mapping to help me save time. I was also granted extra time in exams.
Over summer I was able to relax and come back and start my 2nd year afresh in my new year. It was like a second chance. Unfortunately when I returned to repeat my second year I was intent on not letting my condition control or defeat me and by taking this stance and pretending I was okay and fine, I allowed the disability to rule me. Throughout this year I have had to come to terms with who I am and the positives of the condition.
How has your disability affected your experiences in academia?
Before I came to Lancaster, I was getting As at A Level. I was quite academic and made it through my exams. Then, when I came to Lancaster, I really started to suffer in exams and with my essays and I realised it was because it’s a different way of studying history at university and a different way of doing things. It was debilitating; I knew how I should have been performing, but I wasn’t getting the grades that I felt I deserved.
When I was diagnosed, though I knew what was wrong with me, it made me more paranoid because I now know that with the right support in place there’s no excuse for failure. Now I have to be even better than before so in a lot of ways there’s more pressure. There’s also a lot of added pressure of needing to make it through a disability.
Last year, when I was struggling with accepting the realities of the disability, I did cut myself off from certain support because I felt I shouldn’t need it and I should be fine. It took me a long time to ask for help because I felt like I had to live up to high personal expectations; I had certain aims that I wanted to meet. When I couldn’t, it was a major confidence knock. Here I am, I could get a 1st at this university, but I was struggling to even get a 2:1. It’s so frustrating when you know that a disability is the only thing stopping you, but you have to persevere, work hard and try to find positives. Last year the disability owned me, this year I own the disability.
How has having to sacrifice so much socially affected you at university?
I felt that at school I put in 10 hour days at school and then would go home to do more work. It had to be my main priority and I ended up having to sacrifice relationships with people I really liked because I had to revise for exams and work had to come first. I know other people who didn’t have to do that or make those sacrifices but could still succeed. I put in the extra time and because I’m ambitious; I could never settle. Whenever I didn’t meet my personal targets it just made me feel like I had more to do. Being at university aiming to get a 1st, I have to stay positive; when you get knocked down you have to get back up again, otherwise what is there? I try to work hard, continue to strive upwards and have fun whilst doing it. The journey is never how you plan it; things always change along the way.
How do you feel support from the University and Student’s Union has been for you?
The History department has been my rock in a way – they are the ones who have supported me the most. My student advisors have been there for me (even on deadline days) and helped with giving my extensions, supporting me with one on one assistance, giving my back confidence etc. When I was doing my first set of essays since returning, I was nervous and not getting the grades. A lot of it was a confidence issue, but the History department stuck by me and still do.
I had to walk out of an exam for the first time ever last year because I just didn’t feel like I could survive the exam; I was writing an essay and I had the answers in my head but I just didn’t feel like I could get them onto paper. I went to the department and they told me not to worry, allowed me to defer some of my exams until August and said that they would get me more support. In August, I had a scribe in place and felt a lot more comfortable and made it through them.
In terms of the rest of the University, the disability department is superb in what they do. They listen to everyone on a case by case basis and I really feel like they’re overstretched. Both them and the other student services (like counselling and the student registry) have to deal with people with different cases every day but I was able to see both. I had one session of counselling and it really made me realise that I am not alone, there is support for me and helped me find out how to relax and to cope. The university was there for me all the way.
What do you feel you’ve gained from forming your society?
I’ve gained a lot. It’s opened my eyes to the realities of my condition and made me more at ease with myself. I think I’m now in the acceptance stage. Last year I went through a lot of denial, maybe anger, and I think now I’ve accepted that I’ve got this disability and now I can make the difference and maybe help others by working hard and putting on events for people to come along, have fun, be at ease in themselves and know that they aren’t alone.
How do you feel about the recently introduced CCO Disabilities position?
I’m wary when the union creates new positions e.g. women’s officer, ethnic minority officer. I think sometimes you have to be careful not to just positively discriminate when there are already welfare officers as it is. However, I think David Whitlock as CCO Disabilities has turned my opinion around; I think he’s doing a fantastic job in working with Mia Scott (VP Welfare) to raise awareness of issues like mental health and dyslexia. I think the position is there to provide that extra bit of support. For example, David has worked with careers to put on a ‘disclosing your disability to employers’ workshop and I’ve had members of the Autism and Specific Learning Difficulties Society who found it really helpful and obviously it’s an important issue that isn’t really dealt with otherwise at University.
Disabled Students Allowance and the recent planned cuts is a hot topic for most disabled students at the moment. How do you feel about it?
I think that’s something I want to read into more; if it came to it I’d definitely oppose my political party on the issue. Students need some support. If the university no longer gets funding for DSA, less students will get the support they need, whether it’s one on one support or laptops and equipment. Equally, we’re still living in tight times economically and I think it should be up to the university and how they want to manage their funding. It might be worth giving universities more individual choice in how they use their funding too; at the moment you have to apply for DSA through student finance which is government based. I’d like to see a localised level of power and I think universities should take on more responsibilities in how they allocate funding.
What advice would you give to someone in the position that you were prior to your diagnosis?
If you don’t want support from a person, still don’t shut yourself off from tackling a problem. Maybe read around and find out as much as you can about it – there is so much info online and something might resonate with you. Speak to a friend rather than someone in a position like a welfare officer. If you don’t want to speak to a friend, know that there is support if you need to access it.
Referring yourself to the counselling service is always worth doing as they’re a confidential service and they might be able to give more support in terms of referring you to the disabilities office to get more support with your disability. It might just be that you don’t have a disability you’re just showing some symptoms for whatever reason – whatever it is, they can help get to the bottom of things.
In my opinion, the more professional help you get, the better. The idea of getting professional help with your physical or mental health shouldn’t be a dirty thing or carry a stigma – they’re trained for a reason and here to give you specialised service. While you’re at university it’s free, so use it.
One thing I’ve definitely learned from my experience is that you should always ask for help when you need it.