By Sarah Hayes
I have two loving parents who have always supported me and have never been judgemental of my learning disability, physical disability or mental health problems. They have always treated me the same as my younger sister.
School made me feel different to the other children around me and I was bullied throughout my younger years. Even when I was put into a special needs school at the age of eight, I was still bullied! I hated every minute of it, being told consistently by staff I would never make nothing of my life. But it made me more determined to not let my disability stop me attending college or getting a job, even though I never fitted in to school, college, University or work.
Some of the most important things I have achieved in my life would never have happened if I hadn’t had the support of my family and a few people who encouraged me to take a leap of faith.
Something I will always remember is a conversion I had with my tutor about continuing my studies. She thought that with the right support I could do A- levels but saw I lacked confidence and had a hard time trusting people.
She arranged for me to speak to a tutor who had a lot of experience supporting people with special needs. He said that if I chose to do A-levels he’d work with me intensively for 3 months to get me up to the right level. If at the end of that time I still didn’t think education was the right choice for me, he’d help me look for a job.
Well, after three months I decided to stay and started to believe in the education system for the first time in my life. At the end of my A-levels he supported me further by helping me to apply to university. That was a big step for me as no one in my family had ever attended university and with my dyslexia, I was worried about keeping up with the other students. He talked to me about his own experience of university and told me about the support available at universities and reassured me that if I had any problem once I started, I could call him up and he’d do what he could to help me.
Another really important experience was the time my mum convinced me to attend my graduation ceremony and reminded me it was a once in-a-life-time opportunity. She told me it was something I would regret if I didn’t go. I’m so happy I attended in the end as it marked the end of the three-year degree I’d worked so hard for and I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from University.
After getting my BA in 2010, I worked with Young People for Inclusion (YPFI) at Elfrida Rathbone Camden for eight years, first as a volunteer and then as a paid staff member. That is the only setting where I have ever felt like I actually belonged, apart from home .
YPFI started off as a campaigning project run by disabled people for disabled people and eventually it became a social enterprise that offered lots of services including training. One of its strengths was that the people involved in it came from all different boroughs. It was good for people to travel to different places in London and also it meant we also had different issues from our boroughs but we came together with one voice in the end. But YPFI came to an end two years ago and I feel lost now.
In my paid YPFI roles I worked as a Forum Leader, Access Auditor and then as a Facilitator. I am proud of my YPFI legacy. My work there helped to give disabled people a voice to campaign on topics including education, housing, transport and making buildings more accessible for disabled people.
My parents and sister have helped me to learn not to judge people by how they look and not to make assumptions about whether or not people are disabled as some people’s disabilities are invisible. I believe you should not judge a book by its cover or people by their appearance.
As someone with both physical and mental disabilities and a chronic illness I have a good understanding of what it’s like to live with long-term conditions and disabilities, which has helped me to feel and show empathy to other people.
Being someone who lives with long-term disabilities and chronic illness and who worked for YPFI has made me more determined to campaign for disabled people to have the same rights to education, housing, transport and a social life as non-disabled people.
My superpower is having empathy and understanding for people who are disabled, including people with learning difficulties and having the determination to help change the future for the better in terms of education, housing, transport and equal rights in the workplace.