Disability and the Education System in the UK

Sharne Wood recounts her personal experience of mental illness to address the shortcomings of our education system in supporting young people with disabilities. 

Our education system is not built for the disabled community. It’s easy for me to say these words, and with strong conviction, because as a victim of mental illness myself for the past two years, I’ve seen the major problems deeply rooted in the industry that provides us with an education, and can safely say: it does not work for those of us with a disability. 

Things have got to change, but before they will, our general public must be made aware of the catastrophic hurdles placed in front of disabled people (as if having a disability wasn’t already enough!) when trying to get a fair education like anyone else.

Things are not equal, and they haven’t been for a long time. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand myself until I experienced it, but now I know that unless we stand up & unite in advocacy for the entire disabled community, this is just the way it will continue to be - and we will be kicked into the dirt by elitism and shaming for the foreseeable future. 

Before I got ill, my life was different, and in a big way. Always top of my class, coming out of school with some of their best GCSE results & fulfilled with achievements, I was on top of the world most of the time. Unfortunately for me, mental illness doesn’t discriminate - In my experience, it kicks you down at the most unlikely of times & snatches everything you value away in the space of a few weeks. 

I’d had no experience with mental ill-health before this period, so when I entered a psychiatric ward and started on antidepressants and therapy, I didn’t know what to expect from my educators. I was disappointed to find that despite the strong support from individual staff, the education system as a whole was absolutely not fit for purpose in this way. 

Now, I can’t speak for what others with mental illness have gone through whilst in education, nor can I vouch for the experiences of those with a physical or learning disability - but I feel that as a community we are really quite united on this front; schools, colleges and universities, no matter how well equipped on an individual level, are knitted together in a chain of failings that have impacted the opportunities of disabled people for decades. 

A 2018 study by Mental Health Foundation found that “1 in 10 children have no one to talk to in school when they are worried or sad” - when I was at school, I remember there being very little support for student mental health; moving over to college, when the problems began, there was help available, but it wasn’t always tailored to individual needs and ended up being, in my experience, a little redundant. 

I wasn’t checked up on when I could’ve really done with a chat with support staff, and it felt like I was forgotten about & even at times ignored because my disability was too much to tackle, it was easier to leave me to it. It hurt so much, and I know other disabled students have similar experiences, all throughout the UK. 

Leaving with A-Level results two grades below what I was predicted was a knife in my gut. Part of me feels that if I had received more in terms of help and support from my educational mentors, things wouldn’t have ended that way. I felt cheated and robbed of what I had worked so hard for. No one should have to go through that. 

Of course, it starts at our staff in schools, colleges and universities being trained to appropriately deal with the needs & requirements of every student, but this won’t come before an inquiry into the failings of the educational industry in student mental health is launched and an efficient plan of how to compensate those affected and ensure things improve for the future is drawn up. 

I’m now at university studying for my degree and finally starting to feel like myself again. But there are thousands of students out there going through similar things, and they need to be supported whilst they’re battling their disabilities alongside their studies, and for as long as we ignore them, our education system will continue to be a lost cause for disabled students. 

More help and guidance is available here

Sharne Wood is a 19-year-old Labour member from Stoke on Trent & a Politics student at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is Women’s Officer of the North West Young Fabians and tweets at @sharneewood_.

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