by Lauren Hislop
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Still wearing my pyjamas, I stared out of the window, anxiously awaiting the postman. This particular morning, I expected a letter to determine my fate: to be accepted into university or not to be. The postman pulled up in front of my house. I walked as fast as my crooked legs could carry me and grabbed the letter from his hand.
I opened the envelop in the kitchen with my mum standing anxiously behind me. I was offered a position in the Bachelor of Arts degree! Exhilaration flooded over me. I was to study at University of Newcastle, Ourimbah campus, only 10 minutes from our house. Firmly believing that a university degree provided assurance of employment, I eagerly waited for my studies to commence.
When I met Ruth, the university disability officer, I was so impressed that she was in a wheelchair and we shared an instant bond. Ruth offered a certain empathy beyond what an able-bodied officer might possess. Her presence had a profound influence on my life. Ruth’s competency in her role affirmed my conviction that I would be gainfully employed and prosper myself, regardless of disability.
Ruth offered me an array of support including note takers during lectures. Note Takers? I was mystified. During senior high school, due to my slow typing, I would photocopy notes from willing peers. Providing me with note takers was invaluable.
The world of university was infused with vibrant colours. Studying subjects such as Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy were catalysts for a paradigm shift. My subject choices also ensured that if I wanted to transfer into Social Work in the future, I would gain credits.
The campus was surrounded by lush trees, rendering it an ideal setting conducive to lofty ideals. Utilising an electric wheelchair, I sped through the campus, parking it outside the lecture theatres.
Sitting in my first Anthropology lecture was transformative - the opportunity to respectfully immerse myself in other cultures. As someone who has regularly been constructed as an ‘other’, seeking a career that could alter people’s perception of cultural ‘other’, appealed. I also loved the notion of residing in a wooden hut in New Guinea, writing my observations as dusk fell. Romanticism surrounded my idea of traipsing through the jungles with the locals.
Reminiscing my passion for pursuing anthropology, I now realise the absurdity of this dream. I had an incredibly unsteady gait so walking in an isolated jungle probably wasn’t the wisest idea!
Apart from my impractical aspiration to be an anthropologist, I gave little thought to life after graduation. I yearned for employment but my immediate focus was on completing assessments and passing exams. I achieved good marks during my degree, however, my typing prowess ensured writing essays were an arduous task. Not to be dissuaded, I was fuelled with the spirit of tenacity.
During my philosophy lectures I was constantly inspired. One of my lecturers even revealed to me that an academic in his department had cerebral palsy! I was ecstatic, affirmed in my knowledge that my disability would never be a hindrance to success.
I also devoted energy towards my social life. I was invited to parties and although I never participated in mind altering substances, I enjoyed observing the hedonistic behaviour of my peers. Laughing, conversations and red wine are distinctly associated with my early uni days, as well as lasting friendship. I met one of my best friends, Jo, during this time and she has left an imprint on my soul. We remain friends.
In second year, I had my first taste of advocacy. Ruth had left her role, replaced by a young woman with little spark in her eyes. Shortly after entering the role, she removed note takers as support for students with disability. I was incensed. Inspired by mum’s strong advocacy in my past, I unleashed my own ability to do the same! Instinctively, I knew that advocating would benefit more than me. I produced articulate letters, stating the facts in a calm and rational manner. I adhered to the complaint process and went through the proper channels. When I alerted the student union, they took action. This resulted in the reinstatement of note takers. I felt as though I was a catalyst for change. My pursuit for social justice was firmly set in motion.
After I graduated, I departed from the safe haven of uni, to the realities of the workforce. As a fresh-faced graduate, I could never have anticipated the difficulties I was yet to encounter. I was filled with excitement, having a deep conviction that I would soon be employed.
My mum asked an old family friend, Chris, to help me source employment. He was the manager of a Disability Employment Service and happy to oblige. He arranged for another senior staff member named Kath to assist me. Whilst extremely kind, Kath was perplexed how to help me and looked at me with a vacant stare. I expected her to utter the words ‘we don’t know how to help you’. After she suggested I apply for secretarial work, my indignation grew. ‘I studied a university degree only to qualify for a secretarial position?’ However, on reflection, my Bachelor of Arts didn’t really qualify me for many roles.
I was offered work experience at their employment service. I found it an interesting environment but was curious that, as an identified disability agency, no-one with a disability was employed there!
I did appreciate the experience of working in an office and was given the opportunity to complete a research project. The details are hazy in memory but I remember the sense of satisfaction I felt completing it. I enjoyed exchanging anecdotes with staff in the lunchroom, whilst eating peanut butter sandwiches under bad florescent lighting.
Finding out that many of the employees had no tertiary qualifications, induced a small pang of resentment. I thought, ‘Why are they employed and yet the service can’t find me a position?’
At the time, I didn’t acknowledge that my difficulties finding work may be caused by discriminatory attitudes. I believed it was because my Bachelor of Arts degree wasn’t ‘career-focused’. This prompted me to apply for a second degree in Social Work.
I believed a Social Work degree would automatically lead to employment and enable me to pursue my dream of becoming a disability advocate. I was convinced that I was on the path to success, and if my Arts degree was a detour, it was one of the most enjoyable detours I have ever experienced!