“It’s May 1st!”, I yelped as we sat down to eat our evening meal. I’d spent the day either driving Michiel van Wessem to the range/home again, or with my nose in books, researching The Black Prince, and why his death in 1376 was so critical for England. The fact that it was the first of May had completely passed me by. And this is important because….?

B.A.D.D., of course! Blogging against Disabilism Day!

Posts on this subject in previous years can be found here: Demonisation of the disabled (and sadly, but not surprisingly, nothing has improved, a year on – if anything, its worse), People like Me (not written by me), Researching disability in ancient Greece, Expectations and Stereotypes, I don’t suffer from disabilism, and Prejudice from “your own kind”. I missed it in May 2010, but otherwise I’ve posted every year.

I think I’ve written some about my experiences of disabilism in Further Education (which is what I was doing this time last year) but not yet on my experiences in Higher Education. Granted, I’ve done less than a year of Higher Education so far, but hey, this is where i am so this is what you get :)

Its very different to Further Education. There, I ticked the box on application to the college to say that I had a disability, wrote down the nature of my disability and the college did the rest. Provided notetakers, interpreters, did an assessment, the lot. All i had to do was to get my backside into class and pay attention. And do the work, of course! If I sound somewhat cynical its perhaps because getting ones backside into class, let alone paying attention, seemed to be beyond some of my classmates. Still, that’s by the by. My notetaking team at The Manchester College were wonderful. I Miss them!!! *SOB*… they were damn professional, proper deaf notetakers – that came equipped with a laptop, a connected notebook so that I didn’t even have to sit by them if i didn’t want to, and since the classes were 4 hours long, they came in pairs so that they could spell each other. Notes were emailed to me at the end of the session and they wrote down EVERYTHING. Or tried very very hard to! Some of my more juvenile classmates thought it hiliarious to say swearwords to get the notetakers to write that down. That didn’t last long, and a bit of deaf education awareness soon sorted that one out (good thing I’m not shy with doing presentations is all I can say!).

At Uni, the onus is on you to sort yourself out. That sounds harsh – it isn’t, if you need help in getting sorted out then it will be provided, but they do want you to do as much as you can on your own. Before you start at University you have an assessment by an independent assessor, who writes a report back to Student Finance England making recommendations on what kind of funding/Equipment/personnel help should be available, and Student Finance England accepts that report. This assistance is not repayable, unless you drop out of uni without a good reason within a certain amount of time, but otherwise, they just seem to accept that its required (Cameron and Co – are we making notes?). My assessment was done last summer – a very simple process, a 2 hour conversation with a lovely chap and it was all sorted before I even got to Leicester. I’d already been in touch with the Disability unit at Leicester so they knew I was coming even before the assessment landed on their desk, and I’d given them a heads up on what I required.

My initial experience of the unit was… well. lets just say it rang some warning bells. I’d told them what I needed – i.e. an electronic notetaker. Their response was, i’m afraid, less than stellar – “We don’t do electronic notetakers”, in a tone which very much implied “you’ll take what you’re given, missy, and be grateful for it”. Thank god for my assessment, is all i can say – I’d found an electronic notetaker through my old notetaker, who went to a conference and met someone there from the Midlands who she thought might be able to help – and i’d given her details to the assessor, who listed her on my assessment report. That meant she could bypass the unit. Its a little known fact – students do not have to accept what is given by the unit, if they want to go and find their own support, and arrange for their payment by Student Finance England, they are perfectly entitled to do that. Once the Unit realised that I knew this and was perfectly capable of doing so, AND that i knew what i was talking about (i.e. I wasn’t just throwing a strop and demanding an electronic notetaker to be awkward), and that I’m a mature student their tone seemed to change completely – and I’ve had nothing but excellent support since. Well.. from the unit, anyway.

Unfortunately, my electronic notetaker could only be with me for some of my lectures, because she has other bookings, so I was still reliant on the unit for other notetakers. Initially they teamed me up with a guy who used a computer to take notes, but who isn’t a deaf electronic notetaker in the same way that my other lovely lady is (*waves at Jill*). What Jill does is to take as much information down as possible, including things like pronounciation and so on, and puts a dictaphone at the front so that she can listen to the lecture afterwards to be sure that she’s gotten all the important information. the other guy simply wrote basic notes. He wouldn’t put a dictaphone  at the front to go through later – “I don’t have time for that, I notetaker over 30 hours of lectures a week!” (which is, perhaps, fair enough – for each hour of notes, i think Jill works about 3 hours in total, including the hour of the lecture). The notes he wrote were note format – what a hearing student, listening to the lecture, might note down. Which is fair enough, and perfectly fine for someone with a different disability to mine, whose ears work just fine but for some reason isn’t able to make notes of their own. For me, its not enough. If i struggled, for whatever reason to understand the lecturer, then that standard of notetaking left me clueless – sometimes worse than that, because there was very little in the way of explanation of things in the notes. I remember coming home from a lecture one night early in the semester and burst into tears, i found the whole experience so stressful, and threatened to quit there and then. Of course, i didn’t, but when the man couldn’t make it and a handwriting notetaker was sent instead, who gave me twice the amount of notes (Even by hand), I realised that electronic doesn’t necessarily equate to quality and asked for that notetaker for the second semester instead.

This semester has been better. I’ve had better notes – I’ve still got Jill, and two other notetakers who hand write notes for me. Jill also encouraged me, as a communication support worker, to consider alternative methods of communication for lessons outside of lectures, such as tutorials and seminars. It became clear quite early on that notetaking as a form of support for fast moving group work was less than ideal and Jill worked with me to find a level of sign language support that i felt comfortable with. I’ve since extended that to work with two other interpreters and things are much better – even if it means i sometimes have to show up for tutorials with two support workers in tow – my interpreter and my notetaker. My Entourage, I call them!

The teachers, lecturers, have been nothing short of fantastic. Every single one, almost without exception has been supportive in terms of making powerpoint presentations available to me after the lecture, being clear about speaking to me direct outside of the lecture, making a real effort and I love each and every one of them. I just hope it continues next year (I gather that one lecturer who teaches a second year module refuses to make powerpoint presentations available – if this is the case, then we’re going to butt heads over this. I just hope i hear wrong!).

From my classmates, I’ve had similar reactions. There’s the initial fascination with the interpreters – its a common mistake to want to watch the interpreter when you’re talking, and completely understandable! – but it soon wears off and they seem to accept me for who i am. I think my age causes more of a divide for them than my disability, to be honest – and that’s perfectly fine, that’s understandable and i don’t want to foist myself on them. They’re friendly when i see them and I have some of them on my facebook account. :)

Very different reactions to the experience I had last year in Further Education!

Have I experienced disabilism in the last year at University? Not by the University, and not from my classmates. Which is a real relief, and assures me that perhaps there is less far to go than we think. Then again, given the demonisation of the disabled in the media, and by the government, perhaps its a case of one step forward, five steps back…