This time of year always brings about an element of optimistic calm. I personally love the changing of the seasons, the blossoming of rich blood-red colour frolicking the side-walks, the crisp, cornflake leaves snowing on us like the pastries of cute cookie cutters. It’s almost a beauty of serenity before the winter winds come creeping in, locking us all into the blue gloom of hibernation; the calm before the storm. This time of year has also been a period of opportunistic reflection – a reflection on what decisions were made this time many years ago, and how those key decisions have greatly influenced where I am at today.
I have always considered myself as being an optimistic person. Although surrounded by many wonderful, wonderful, kind-hearted and giving people, many of these people are also spiked by a pessimistic ritual that rules their lives somewhat. But, without optimism, we’d surely otherwise be wasting our fates by fretting too much about what tomorrow will bring? What will happen if I leave the house tomorrow? What if I took to the road too early? What would happen if I didn’t kiss my loved ones goodbye in the morning? I have never let disability or my unpredictably inconsistent long-term health hold me back and so if I want to work towards something, I will do it, regardless of whether people try to discourage me – even if it might only be in their best interests. I have often found that overthinking situations and consequences too much can actually do us more harm than good. Besides, you only live once, right? If, every part of what makes up our race, people only follow the paths already made out for us, then who will ever know where the lone and newfound forest trail goes? Then we would never see the red-blood colours of a cool autumn season, or taste the crisp crunch of cornflake leaves on a wooded floor. If not now, what if never?
No better example relates so greatly than in this instance here – choosing where to go after more than a decade of education, a curriculum of life sculptured out for us before, but now no more than a free-flowing bowl of cement, the next move in adulthood so precarious a decision before we get stuck rigid in that position, our chosen pathways concrete. Quite often I’d find myself with no choice other than to obey and accept the wishes of others on what they thought would be best for myself and my future. I was told university would simply be too harsh an environment for a disabled person like me, and that people with my ‘problems’ aren’t capable of leading an independent life. From quite early on, it became abruptly clear to my teenage-self that this was not constructive advice, not truly reflective of who or what I am, let alone others in my situation. I thus began doing the exact opposite to what someone would advise me to do, or, rather, attempt to draw me away from. Had I been more naïve and accepting of this ‘advice’ later on into my school years, I would probably be stuck undignified in a non-existing career field, stale of any prospects and unsatisfied with any aspirations being met. Having gone to a school equipped solely for students with disabilities, you’d think that we’d be pushed to break the social barriers once we had left their protective bubble, and encouraged to seek out our dreams and career goals, regardless of our otherwise more ‘limiting’ disabilities. We were untouchable, and the slightest upset to ‘special’ people like us would throw them into a frenzy. Honestly? We all needed to grow thicker skin.
But, as a visually impaired student wanting to pursue a career in medicine, it was not exactly surprising that I was actually discouraged by many of those, whom were supposedly in the supporting role, from taking up that route. And this continued, for many many years. Even my own family were, and still are, cautious of me pursuing this mammoth aspiration, perhaps due to the fear of having my feelings hurt. We can often be blinded more by the suffocating layers of bubble wrap and cotton wool loved ones can coat us in, but there will inevitably come a time where we have to shed that skin and make our own decisions, often being the best initiative we’ll ever take. Being hurt or offended, discriminated or dismissed were not my greatest fears when embarking on this. My greatest fear was regret. And I did not want to regret something so clearly big I could see ahead of myself.
And, although time and time again, everyone told me not to even bother applying to medical school, implying it was a ridiculous and genuinely impossible feat for someone like me to undertake, I took on one small but solid piece of advice, from the Principal of my specialist school, and that was that it was “far better to try and fail, than fail to try”. From then on, I continued to try, and try, and try, and, even if I did then fail, I tried again, because how else will we ever know what we can achieve if we don’t push those new boundaries beyond the unknown? After all, regret is the worst, wouldn’t you agree?
So when I received the news that I had been offered a medical school interview in the spring of 2014, I was elated. At that moment, it felt like I had proved so many people wrong, as well as myself, and that actually, for the first time I was just like everyone else – I was capable and equal, if I allowed myself to dream. My optimism grew after I then received an official offer following interview, to enrol at this medical school the following term, providing I achieved the requested grades. Between receiving this offer and getting my results in the summer, of which were far better than expected, I visited the medical school four times to ensure the university and disability department had all the support ready and in place for me starting. I had invested a lot of time into being rightly responsible and proactive, for the sake of my future, which now looked far more colourful than the mnay bleak ambiguities colleagues and support staff had plucked at me. Time and time again, I was told then that the support was indeed ready and in place and that they looked forward to having me start in the new academic year. My optimism had paid off.
But then, one evening, only a week before moving into accommodation, I received an unexpected phone call from the medical school themselves. They had rung to inform me that, despite officially offering and confirming my place on the online UCAS system, they had since changed their mind about my enrolment – they no longer wanted me because I was visually impaired. Boom. I was left on the other end of the phone-line, only able to somehow gracefully thank them for all their support previously, whilst slowly dying inside – thank them for what?
I remember sitting at the dining room table for a very, very long time then. My thought processes no longer generated anything, my gaze was fixed and my mouth was numb. I refused to speak to a single person, even those under the same roof, for a whole week. My entire world had been crushed – it was my first real exposure to pure, plain discrimination, right there, in the face. It seemed like everything I had worked so relentlessly hard towards, so calmly, coolly and level-headedly, with my aspiration in clear focus, had been instantly blasted with the gunshot of a hunting rifle – bam! and they had thrown me back down, just like that.
It was after the ‘clearing’ time period, whereby students could otherwise still apply to university as a ‘second-chance’ sitting, in the case that they may not have quite made their grades. But I, on the other hand, had no chance, no matter how much I begged, to get onto another course. For my family, it was perhaps the devastatingly defining and convincing moment in time that they begged Medicine was simply not for me and that I should turn back onto another career road. But, for myself, it was simply the first tinge of anger, of many angers, that bled hotly through my cheeks with the realisation that discrimination had just happened right before me. That anger was the exact emotion that made me do anything BUT give up from then on, because now I had a very stark point to prove – and that was the beginning of the storm brew.
Three weeks of nothingness followed after this point. A fortnight in rural Cornwall provided me with the surprisingly welcoming headspace I required. The next few months that followed were spent working spontaneous jobs, fluttering in and out of purpose, attending a completely unexpected interview at Harris Manchester at St. John’s College, Oxford University, tutoring foreign languages and babysitting. Whilst this all seemed fragmented, purposeless and, quite frankly, in a limbo, in my head I was quietly brewing this perfect storm – my new mission to get back into medical school had already begun. I was ready to reverse this injustice, once again.
A year on, and more medical school interviews, I had finally been accepted a place to study medicine at another university, but my recent experiences had made me unusually cautious and doubtful of any clear future. What I hadn’t realised at that point was that it was actually only the very start to my long-winded, continual fight for justice and disability rights. I’m not any sort of anal campaigner about all this stuff – it’s the story of my daily life, but when I know personally too well how capable a disability can still make someone it scares me to think that so many people’s opportunities are still immorally wasted because of this badly weathered system of stereotype and discrimination. For me, I flicker between an emotive monsoon and stable draught, where some welcome me with all open arms, and others refuse to acknowledge me for what I am and what I yearn to become. As I write this blog now, I have come home from yet another day of being silently discriminated. Being closed doors, it is a lot more prevalent and ongoing than you may think. But, on the brighter side, by experiencing this discrimination and inequality so early on pre-career, it has prepared me very well, perhaps to the point of being numb to the silent atrocities disabled students can face, to run through the high winds and rough tides of the medical school curriculum. A simple explanation of what discrimination I still regularly face is simply impossible to fill on one single blog post, but what I do know is that what’s happened at this stage is that the eye of the storm, my bulls-eye, and my precise target, has helped keep me focussed along the path of achievement, proof of ability and qualification, and let it be nothing else.
N.B. For the sake of confidentiality, I have purposely not included the names of any institutions in this post. If you have experienced any discrimination or inequality when applying to educational institutions or job-posts and want to share your personal story please do get in touch!