Studying is difficult but I want to change how people view disabilities, writes a law student with cerebral palsy.
I’m 29, and in my fifth year of a six-year undergraduate law degree at the Open University (OU). And I want to be a judge – even though I have cerebral palsy and dyslexia. For some, this may seem like an impossible feat – but I’m determined to make it happen.
I was schooled in the mainstream education system until I was 16 and, despite being the first person at my school with a disability, I was treated like everyone else. Today, many more students with a disability like mine are following their educational and career dreams, some of them at campus universities, others through distance learning. I decided to pursue a career in law in 2008, after I got shingles and discovered that the scoliosis I’ve always had in my back needed surgery and rods to correct it. It was an incredibly difficult period, but it made me realise that I wanted to make my life into something meaningful.
For a long time, my dream was to become a policeman – but because of my physical limitations, a law career – with the goal of becoming a barrister and ultimately a judge – was my next best option.
I completed a three-year criminology degree at the University of Lincoln in 2009. I knew then that law at the OU was right for me – it was crucial to be able to study from home at my own pace.
I currently have three carers who look after me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because I can’t hold a pen and I have dyslexia, one of them supports me with physical writing for my university study. My carer has to transcribe every word I want to use for an exam paper or essay. It can sometimes take up to 16 days and 10 rewrites before I get an essay exactly right, depending on how difficult it is. The length of time it takes is always frustrating, but I make sure I start modules early, which is crucial for me to keep up.
I often start a course eight weeks earlier than my peers to ensure I hand work in when they do – the university has given me access to textbooks and materials in advance.
Around my four days spent studying each week, I volunteer with Framework, Victim Support and the Witness Service, helping people in need. While studying can be extremely difficult because of my dyslexia, cerebral palsy makes volunteering hard. I’ve had to travel to Nottingham to volunteer instead of Mansfield, because there aren’t the right safety policies in place for disabled people here. I’ve had some great experiences though, such as being a marshal for a judge at Nottingham crown court during an attempted murder trial. But when I go on placements like this, I do find many buildings are old and difficult to access.
During the trial, I was supposed to sit on the bench with the judge, but it wasn’t possible because of my wheelchair, so I had to adapt my role and take my own ramp and equipment. Despite these challenges, I find most people to be welcoming and thoughtful.
It might sound unambitious, but my goal is to get a job and keep it – everything else is a bonus. I’ll likely need a new care package and carers if I have to move for a job, and if I want to be a judge I’ll have to argue for new legislation. Right now, dictaphones aren’t allowed in court to protect confidentiality, but for me, this is a crucial tool.
If I didn’t have one, I’d need help from carers, which I’d argue isn’t the best way to preserve confidentiality. I want to change how people view disabilities and help others like me who want a legal career, so they don’t face the same obstacles. I always remember that there are people struggling more than me, so I must never give up.