DHM Spotlight: “All of my conditions are interlinked with one another”

This interview is part of an ongoing campaign for Disability History Month 2021, offering students the platform to share their experiences.

You may read references to ‘disability’, ‘chronic health’ and ‘long-term health conditions’ throughout – all contributors were encouraged to use terminology they find to be most applicable to them.

Iona is a postgraduate student in her fourth year at University of Leicester. She opens up about living with multiple conditions, including learning difficulties and mental health issues, and how they relate to all aspects of life, including education and relationships.

Please detail a little bit about your disability/health condition(s)

I have several disabilities or health conditions which impact my education.

Firstly, I suffer from Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which makes going into university incredibly difficult and, at times, tormenting when I cannot even get out of bed. Seasonal Affective Disorder makes it increasingly difficult to go into university during the winter months.

As well as this, I also suffer from disabilities such as sciatica which involves damage to my sciatic nerve, causing me severe hip and back pain.

I suffer from dyspraxia which I always describe as dyslexia for the body. Dyspraxia severely affects my everyday life – not only does it make physical activities difficult with poor motor skills and hand eye coordination, but it also makes organisation and time keeping incredibly difficult.

As well as this, I am (undiagnosed) with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I also have (undiagnosed) auditory processing disorder (APD) which makes basic communication incredibly difficult for me.

For someone with a fairly standard British accent, I will be able to understand (if they speak at an average pace) around one in every 20 words. However, due to the varied nature of the university’s teaching staff and student body, this can sometimes lead to a lot more difficulty in communication.

How do you feel that your condition(s) have impacted your education?

The shift to online teaching in the last academic year was difficult, as I was relying on videos that were pre-recorded so I could not get instant clarification as to what the person was saying.

Even earlier today, a student gave a presentation over Microsoft Teams and they had a very difficult accent for me to be able to understand, but also they were discussing an incredibly complex topic that I did not have a sound comprehension of. As a result, I was able to comprehend far less than other students in the class.

All of these issues combined make academia incredibly difficult to partake in. When these things happen – when my disabilities or my learning difficulties flare up – it kicks my depression and my anxiety into overdrive, making the physical act of partaking in a degree that I pay for even more difficult than it was to begin with. 

It was incredibly difficult to get into contact with the AccessAbility department at the university, as well as the doctors to get the help that I need. I found it necessary for myself to take the actions to alert my educational officers, my department, and my module leaders as to the difficulties that I face in my academic career.

However, since I started back in August, I have been able to begin to get the treatment I need. Most have been useful in helping me and adapting the ways that they educate to suit the needs that I have. For the first time in my life, I am actually acknowledging and accepting these conditions that I have, I’m learning ways to counteract the difficulties that they cause most undertaking a master’s degree.

Do you think that having a hidden condition, compared to one considered immediately obvious, has impacted your experiences and treatment?

ADHD also influences my emotional and mental response to feedback. When I have turned assignments in on Blackboard, I can never judge how well my work is, or how it compares to my previous work. I often misunderstand or completely misjudge the grade of which I am working at.

I quickly realised that when markers on Turnitin had highlighted certain sentences or phrases simply with “I don’t understand this” or “What?”, this would send me into a negative spiral because I could not comprehend specifically what was at fault, due to the lack of developed feedback.

With the help of the AccessAbility centre, this has now been changed with an assessed work cover sheet to identify the fact that I am a student with a hidden disability or specific learning difficulty.

This sheet in question tells the marker that I need full sentences describing the issues with my work and that they cannot give blunt responses. This ensures that I am on the same playing field as everyone else and that my disabilities don’t hinder my academic career.

“In my opinion, this style of feedback should be available to everyone.

I should not have had to go to the effort of countless meetings with the AccessAbility centre, with mental health advisors and advisors who specialise in specific learning difficulties, and my programme director just to get this sheet.”

As I develop my understanding of my disabilities and how I differ from other students, I become increasingly upset, angry and tired of how much I have to go through – just to make sure that I’ve actually been listened to.

I recently started a new job where I had to learn to make barista-style coffee, and learn new machinery. Due to my dyspraxia, I had a hard time picking up the skills as fast as other colleagues. Any criticism I received from my managers hindered my performance further because I would be so caught up in my emotional turmoil of disappointing someone.

I know this sounds weird and complicated, but all of my conditions are interlinked with one another. If I get reprimanded at work for actions that are beyond my capability as a result of my dyspraxia, this flares up my ADHD and essentially makes me shut down – making it even harder to do a basic task when it is required of me. 

How has this impacted your interpersonal relationships? 

A major way in which my conditions affect my interpersonal relationships can be seen through my ADHD. I genuinely cannot grasp how social cues have been read, meaning that I can sometimes misread how people have responded to my words or my actions.

Usually, when I end up in this situation, I can think that other people are upset or angry with me and spend the rest of the day thinking about it until I apologised to them. In actuality, they were probably never upset with me in the first place.

What would you like any new partner or friend to consider, in relation to your condition(s)? 

Personally, I would want any new friend or partner to consider the fact that I will potentially overthink everything I ever say to them. I never meant to hurt or upset people, and I would like to think that 99% of the time I don’t.

However, there have been times where my mouth acts faster than my brain and I say the wrong thing. I don’t mean to – and I hope that they know that I will feel guilty about it and I will not stop thinking about the fact that I screwed up.

Additionally, I would want a new friend or partner to comprehend that I have had severe difficulties in friend groups (predominantly in my teenage years). I would want them to understand that I have trouble in knowing how to appropriately express who I am as a person honestly, without scaring them away.

“Issues embedded in me during my formative years will stick with me for the rest of my life, whether I like it or not.”

As a result, I have often acted in a rash manner in order to protect friendships, even at the expense of doing something I know is wrong or hurtful. Whilst I am getting older and learning from experiences, I still struggle and question, worrying about every action that I take.

I’m tired of feeling like it is my fault for having conditions that I cannot control and that I cannot change. This will be with me for the rest of my life, and I want someone to just understand that I’m trying my hardest. I will sometimes get it wrong, but please bear with me because I am trying never to hurt anyone.

What advice would you give to your younger self, or anybody else struggling right now? 

Speak up and speak to someone. Please don’t end up like me – bottling up your emotions for over 20 years, only realizing that you can get help when it is almost too late.

My advice to my younger self specifically is to be honest and admit that there are things wrong – some of which you may be able to change and some of which you will not – and get the help you need. The outlets are there and it can guide you in the right direction and support you.

Iona is pictured on University of Leicester campus

Perhaps my biggest piece of advice for students would be to be open and honest with your module leaders, your friends and your peers – anybody who can support you at the university.

Lecturers are always more than willing to help: they are always more than willing to listen to your requirements, so don’t sit there and suffer (I did that for three years and it was not fun).

I’ve made so much more progress in the last three months than I have done in the last three years of university in regards to my conditions. I only wish I could have done it just a little bit sooner as it would have saved me a lot of heartache, difficulty and doubt that I unnecessarily placed on myself up until now.

For signposting and wellbeing advice, please visit the Leicester Union website.

Iona Wagg is a MA Media, Culture & Society student, and a Media & Communications graduate interested in film, television, music, and the arts. You can find her her on LinkedIn or over on Twitter: ionawagg

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