Throughout my life, education has been a stressful task; which only until recently – the cause of this stress and mistreatment became clear to me.
My brain is not typical and the world is set to “typical” with regards to all its structures and functions, including education.
Of course back in the 1980s there was not much available for children such as myself, deemed hyper intelligent, difficult and rude as early as infant school, going to doctors and child psychologists and being told I was on the spectrum for autism. Then in secondary school – a troublemaker, a bad influence and having an attitude problem.
Teachers would always say “I don’t understand you Charlotte, you are so intelligent, why can’t you do better?”.
All that was known to me, was that no one understood me and that I was a bad child. Excelling in subjects which I liked and failing miserably in subjects I didn’t, not even bothering – feeling like it was all a waste of time and might as well be an alien language taught by aliens.
As well as this, authority in any form would be like a red rag to a bull, as if being challenged to a duel and the victor would get to parade the beheaded throughout the school as the all hailing champion.
So teachers would be shouted at by me and my “patronising” tone became a honed skill which many would misunderstand and still do to this day.
My moods became violent with students and teachers which cemented the “bad child” label as well as the “crazy girl” label I had acquired due to my mental illnesses spilling out of me from 11 years old onwards.
So “bad child – crazy girl” was my new official name and once carted off to the loony bin at 15 – this was really the pièce de résistance, which shoved me into the labeled box which society still confines me to today.
After hospital and then art college, I descended into two different states from 2001 – 2004, a reclusive agoraphobic who only went out at weekends on class A drugs.
Then in 2004 after failing an HND in travel and tourism, as instead of writing research pieces on travel destinations and tourism operating systems; I would end up submitting creative writing pieces in a drugged up haze, these were prescription drugs, anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. Not surprisingly I was asked to leave, proceeding to obliterate my brain with class A drugs again and alcohol for 3 years, putting myself in many dangerous positions, surrounded by criminals; lucky to come out alive, some didn’t.
After this wasted time the choice to go back to college was a hard one, however deciding to work towards getting a degree was a dream of mine. Beginning with an A level in philosophy was my starting point, which opened my mind to so much, allowing me to see myself and the world in ways that to this day continue to shape me. My tutor was inspiring, he had so much passion for the subject. Philosophy was an ideal subject for me, it is not constrained by neurotypical ideas, in fact almost the opposite.
After completing this course I decided to go on to do a full time access course at The University of Portsmouth, which is a year long course – which is the equivalent of four A-levels.
Politics, Sociology, Communication Studies and History were my chosen subjects. The staff were so kind to me and even though I had less idea of my difficulties then, they helped me to achieve the best.
Two of these tutors are still my friends and this is a great achievement for me, having never been liked by teachers before. This was when my first realisation came about of the fact I was different to most students; the tutors helped me get registered as a disabled student and supported me to the best of their abilities, preparing me to go on to a degree at TUOP.
Gaining acceptances on three different degree courses, History, International Relations and Journalism, I chose Journalism.
Once I left the comfort of the Access course, there was already a feeling that was reminiscent of school, the overlooked feeling, the feeling of being “odd” and “bad child – crazy girl” was tapping at my brain telling me she was needed, silencing her – these feelings were brushed away.
Within my first week a sinking feeling had taken over and the realisation that I would not see the end of the academic year or be successful was present.
The students were all 18 / 19 and being unable to communicate with any of them, becoming a loner, something which came naturally to me. The teachers already found me difficult due to me asking too many questions, challenging them as well as just being generally misunderstood.
One subject in particular was soul destroying; shorthand – my mental nemesis. The teacher was a strong, no bullshit woman, who displayed little empathy and did not distinguish any of us as adult students.
An abrasive tyrant and if you couldn’t keep up, tough luck!
This particular oppressor did not know her own privilege and she exerted it all over me, as if she was deliberately and provocatively dancing around me, forcing me to feel her neurotypical privilege, flaunting it.
Understandably due to this I could not grasp it and certainly could not keep up, with no study buddies and when asking for extra support I was met with a simple – no!
Desperately I sought out the advice of my personal tutor, explaining what had happened and that if given a level playing field I could do better, but he told me maybe it would be more suitable for me, if on another course.
With not much choice and being shoved out of journalism like an unwanted bag of rubbish I swapped to doing a degree in Spanish/Arabic and International Relations.
As a bilingual in French/English, spanish would not be too hard, and it wasn’t.
However International relations is where everything fell apart; as for the subject, distinction after distinction for my assignments was my average, however one day one of our lecture halls was filled with around 300 students, my anxiety came up into my mouth and after scurrying around and finding a seat at the back I sat there sweating, alone.
We were asked to form groups and that our next assignment would be a presentation. Of course having no friends and knowing there would be a “odd ones out” group, which the lecturer had to physically push a bunch of us together in; the undesirable leftovers.
Being the eldest you may think there would be an advantage, as the rest were kids, nonetheless they were even more socially inept than myself and clueless about the world. We didn’t speak one word to one another.
Nonetheless eager to not fail again, my only option was to visit my new tutor that week and explained that the presentation was something which my illnesses did not allow me to do without me becoming very unwell.
The usual story proceeded, “you are being difficult Charlotte” and being told to persevere. Following this my detachment kicked in like a superpower to protect me, becoming more and more dissociated . No longer able to go to the big lectures, no more fighting for my rights, soon it felt like the university was digesting me whole, ready to evacuate me from its bowels at any given moment. Which was exactly what happened – I was called into to see one of the head tutors, naively thinking that they were going to put some things in place for me to better my student experience and chances.
Instead, a stern, unempathetic woman stood before me, who told me that my illnesses were too severe for the university to accommodate and the only option left was for me to leave the university and come back when I was better… Better??
This made me regress almost instantly to “bad child – crazy girl” becoming very angry and emotional, crying and shouting, the tutor looked scared and hesitantly told me how to complain if I disagreed – but for now in no uncertain terms – I was off the course.
Pleading with her, “there is no cure for my illnesses”, that this was something which is a chronic condition, complex and lifelong. In a frantic panic I went to see the university therapist, hoping that a trained professional would be able to help me and possibly convince the tutors they were wrong, in hindsight maybe this was not my smartest move. Crying like a child I stormed in – saying to the therapist that this was unacceptable treatment of the mentally ill and more detrimental to my health in the long run.
The therapist said my behaviour was erratic, highly emotional and threatening and due to this agreed with the university and said ” it is best you leave Charlotte, as there is nothing we can do for you here, you are too ill”.
As I walked out of the building my body felt weightless like a ghost, plans begun in the back of my mind on how I would kill myself that week, yet again the world had ejected me and given me no choice, possibly a sign of some sort, that there was no point to me.
However instead of taking my own life, a breakdown ensued which made me self medicate, eradicating reality was the only way to stop the pain and stay with my husband, the idea of being without him – alone in emptiness was far to much of a risk. Purgatory was a familiar place, like returning home.
Then after 5 months and being patched up with sticky tape and glue, my need to achieve a degree came back.
This time deciding to approach The Open University, as I had been told this would be more suitable for me, as a completely housebound individual – unable to leave the house on my own or be taken to a university and left to fend for myself until home time, home study seemed a perfect fit.
To my delight the OU had a degree course in philosophy and psychology, a part time, six year course for a BA (Hons) degree.
My first year flew by, confidence had returned.
By year two the OU had me registered as a disabled student and had a whole load of support offered to me. Everything was going great until we got to exams, which for 3 years the OU had failed to set up home exams overseen by an invigilator; this was finally sorted in my 4th year and helped me grately.
In 2014/15, year 5 – on my last psychology level 3 module, the game changed once again and experienced a very cruel tutor who decided my illness and personality were too difficult and just stopped offering me support, contrary to the guidelines set out, she even stopped answering my emails and queries regarding assignments.
You see the OU is done online, however we have tutorials in person at least once a month, online forum discussions and day schools, none of which I can access due to my disabilities, so once again a disadvantage, but add to this a tutor who decided they would go all incommunicado on me, I was left with no way of doing my degree.
After months of arguments and back and forth emails (as I can’t use the phone) finally someone understood the severity and that this was not a case of being difficult. The OU assigned a new tutor, however no extenuating circumstances were considered in my first 3 assignments which were done with no support whatsoever. One assignment the tutor had given me such a low grade due to the fact she believed my illness was too severe to be on the course and told me that my understanding was below the OU’s standard; stating my work was suddenly below level one standards, something of which the OU disagreed with, but it was a non substitutional assignment so apparently they could not change the mark?
This brought my whole grade average down below a pass by 2 points.
One assignment which was incorrectly marked due to prejudice and neurotypical privilege, as well as a totally disregard to the support plan set out before the tutor – I was given a 30% when all my other level 3 assignments were in the high 70% mark.
This was a disaster and led me to think of a new direction, deciding to finish my honours degree off by changing my two focuses, from majoring in philosophy and psychology, changing it to a minor in psychology and major in philosophy and creative writing; adding a year on to my studies.
Bringing us to now, my first year of my new course; creative writing.
And yet again my studies are subjected to neurotypical privilege and that “bad child – crazy girl” label and persona has reared her ugly head again.
Every time I explain to my current tutor about the neurological disorders which are my disability and that due to this am not able to access all of the course due to not being able to attend, he simply says “please fill out an extenuating circumstances form” or says ” I have to treat all students the same”. This led to me having a breakdown last week and to me writing an emotionally charged email to my tutor and student support.
My tutor just reiterated the same autopilot response.
However the student support team for the first time, got it!
The passages which made me feel validated and indicated real progress were these:
I am sorry that your experience of the OU has been frustrating at times. It is a tribute to your determination and academic ability that you have achieved so much despite your conditions and the neurotypical privilege that is present in all walks of life.
This should also give the tutor greater direction as to what they need to be able to do to help you study on a level playing field.
Finally some recognition for my struggles, some validation for the fact I am neurodiverse in a neurotypical world. This is of course not the end, but the fight which has been mine and so many others is finally getting somewhere.
A new awakening is happening and I sure as hell am ready to wake everyone up, no more being silent or being marginalised.
This mission is clear and as hard as it will be, there is no going back because giving me a voice is something “bad child – crazy girl” never had.
If you have any questions on this topic or about my journey, please fill in this contact form:
I have been working since the age of 14 and have done numerous jobs in my 31 years. I started off as a home help care assistant for the elderly in their own homes (even though I was under-age) and continued to work on and off in this position, working my way through training and in various care companies. I have also worked for many years as a waitress, barmaid and as a shop assistant throughout my teens and twenties. I have worked many 12 hour shifts and 7 day weeks I am not shy of hard work to say the least.
However due to my mental illnesses and traumatic adolescence and destructive twenties I have also been fired, made redundant, walked out and been pushed out due to be a whistle blower in a care home as I witnessed elderly abuse and reported it. Most of these jobs were lost or taken from me due to my mental illness. From being fired due to being signed off for mental illness to being targeted with prejudice and hate in the work place by an employer who took my mental health issues and broadcast them to other members of staff and told these members to be careful around me and not to trust me with knives and I was bullied and taunted due to this.
By the time I was 27 I had experienced a re-lapse after coming face to face with my rapist in the city I live in, whilst trying to post a letter which FYI for an agoraphobic such as myself was a massive challenge even though the post box was just outside my front door, this sent me into a spiralling decent and detachment set in, I am still suffering today with my recovery. At this time I was also a full time student at Portsmouth University, but due to this and my ability to go to classes deteriorating I was told by The University of Portsmouth I was to ill to study and had to leave my course, which as you can imagine was an enormous blow.
Now I was so unwell I cold not go outside alone or even at all most days (this is still the case) so what options did I have? I could stay in and waist away my mind due to the fact I had no medical support, financial support or the ability to work. So at first I just stopped, I was defeated and I felt as if I was sinking fast and was scared for my marriage and my life.
The thing is I may have mental illness, certain neurological damage due to trauma, a chemical in-balance and emotion regulation problems but this does not mean I was or am useless. I was just left, with nothing… As a survivor and someone who has been through so much I am very able in many things. The confusion in how “we” the mentally ill can work is a big issue and needs to be addressed under the Equal Opportunities Act and then further for our world to observe “us” as not criminal, incapable, useless, unintelligent, unreliable or some kind of contagious disease ridden liability.
However a NEW way of looking at “work” and “jobs” is needed for all of us to succeeded or provide for our family and sustain our lives. The format of the 9am – 5pm job is not suitable for everyone, nor is the insistence of office work. Already many of us work differing hours over a 24 hour period, with shift work and certain industries needing specific hours outside of the “working day”, as well as more people working from home and starting their own businesses. But are all opportunities equal and do people with disabilities get the same treatment as those without? The answer is simple, NO!
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act came into force in October 2010, providing a modern, single legal framework with clear, streamlined law to tackle disadvantage and discrimination more effectively.
It is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability. This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability.
Definition of a disability
Under the Equality Act 2010, the definition of a disability is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on someone’s ability to do normal daily activities.
Substantial is more than minor or trivial. For example, it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed.
Long-term means 12 months or more. For example, a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection.
Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way employment is structured, the removal of physical barriers and/or providing extra support for a disabled worker. This is the duty to make reasonable adjustments.
The aim of the duty is to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, a disabled worker has the same access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person.
Workplace adjustments can be temporary or made on a permanent basis.
Examples of adjustments to working arrangements include:
allowing a phased return to work;
changing individual’s working hours;
providing help with transport to and from work;
arranging home working, providing a safe environment can be maintained;
allowing an employee to be absent from work for rehabilitation treatment.
Examples of adjustments to premises include:
moving tasks to more accessible areas;
making alterations to premises.
Examples of adjustments to a job include:
providing new or modifying existing equipment and tools;
modifying work furniture;
providing additional training;
modifying instructions or reference manuals;
modifying work patterns and management systems;
arranging telephone conferences to reduce travel;
providing a buddy or mentor;
reallocating work within the employee’s team;
providing alternative work.
( All information taken from the Equality and Human Rights Commission http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/)
So what is really happening with this issue? (I shall share statistics on mental illness as this is the disability I have)
The most recent figures available show that only around 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness are in employment.
The rate of employment for people with a mental illness is currently used by the government as one way of measuring people’s quality of life.
For those with mental health problems, being employed can be an important step to recovery, improving self-esteem and confidence and reducing psychological distress.
Conversely, unemployment increases the risk of developing mental health problems, and is associated with increased rates of depression and suicide.
The 27% of working age adults in England with a mental illness in employment compares with around 70% of the working age population as a whole being economically active.
We know that people with a mental illness are more likely to become unemployed, and research has suggested that less than 40% of employers would consider employing someone with a mental health problem
( From The Mental Health Foundation – http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ )
So what is it I want to convey to you, you may be asking yourself. My message is this: due to discrimination I have had to fight for rights in employment and education, I have almost completed my honours degree in Psychology and Philosophy at The Open University, who have helped me have the same chances as other students by providing me extra support. I also did not give up, deciding to follow my passions after the defeat I faced. Therefore I became what I always wanted to be, an artist which I have been very successful in since 2010 and my career just keeps getting bigger and better. When I speak of success I do not mean MONEY, I mean that I use my time to create and comment on my world and the world around me through art. With a massive following of over 40,000 people from all over the world, solo and group exhibitions, being a published illustrator, selling art, creating art for charity and campaigns and mentoring fellow artists, this to me is success. But believe me I have so much more to do!
As well as being an artist I am also the managing director of Art Saves Lives International and the co-founder of this amazing non-profit charitable organisation. I am the editor and chief of our on-line art publication ASLI Magazine and I am in charge of marketing, social media and campaigns. I have my own team and volunteers as well as our following of 5,000 supporters from around the world which grows everyday.
This is all done from my home, with my own suitable hours 10am – 6pm then 11pm till 1am with days off or half days off when I need, with none of this set in stone I can also be flexible with hospital appointments, seeing therapists and doing exposure work for my agoraphobia.
Things I can do to make my work environment easier:
To be e able to have no noise is important as I have
Being able to exercise whenever I need (for my diabetes, PCOS and arthritis)
I can eat alone, due to my illness I do not eat in-front of strangers for fear of weakness, judgement and germs
I get to start my day once my medication has worn off
I get to relax before work for an hour in my own environment with no pressure, this helps my anxiety as my anxiety is worse in the morning due to night terrors and hormonal issues
I do not have to deal with anyone I do not wish to which helps me focus on my work with no social anxiety
I get to take time out if I am having a particularly bad day without the “rules” and “disciplinary” action which I would ensue in most jobs, I always make up my hours and work so this is never a problem.
I get to structure my organisation with all of this in mind, so that anyone who works for me or ASLI is treated with these same equal rights
The things which make my life harder are made even harder by people who do not understand that I work very hard, non-profit and with my disabilities. I do not require sympathy, special treatment or exceptions, but what I do need is acceptance and for people to question their thoughts on these matters and remember hard work and valuable work do not equate to highly paid jobs or someone’s worth in general. Aligning these ideas with the other is in many ways one of our worst enemies on this planet.
So next time you see my work or me working or someone like myself please remember what you have read here, remember that I am just as valuable, hard-working and equal to you. This is not a hobby, this is my life!
When obstacles are put in your way in life you can sit there and give up and except your own defeat or you can challenge these obstacles and climb them with great force and determination, because YOU MUST REMEMBER THE ONLY WAY TO CHANGE THIS IS TO FIGHT IT! We must not be passive and except what the privileged power keepers of the world “give us”, we must not turn on the less fortunate, asylum seekers, unskilled, young, old or disabled! Instead we must aid each other within our communities to better help one another survive, but better still strive.