“You’re not ready for university.”
A staff member said this to me in high school, in front of the whole class. These words, from a person whose job was to guide and support students, had a profound impact on me. Sometimes, they still linger.
It wasn’t these words alone that affected me. Staff had discouraged me from pursuing post-secondary education throughout high school. I believe they had a limit about how far I would go. When I pushed the limit, they made it more difficult. I was walking on eggshells. I felt like I had tougher expectations put on me than my peers. The pressure to live up to these standards increased each year, but without the supports I needed. It seemed like no matter what I did, it was never enough.
As a teen with a disability, my life was already quite stressful: appointments, physical therapy and surgeries were not out of the ordinary. I was also on a competitive swim team, practising multiple times each week. On top of this, I was a student with a clear plan to graduate in four years and continue my education.
When the staff member said I wasn’t ready for university, I didn’t say anything. In high school, I didn’t want to show any vulnerability. At the time, I felt I needed to manage the extra pressures related to my disability while making everything look effortless. But in reality, I was struggling.
I started to doubt myself. I had no reason to worry, as I was meeting the requirements to go on to university. But discouragement plays with your self-confidence. I worried about other people’s approval, and more so, their disapproval of my decisions. I began to question whether I should apply to university.
Then I asked myself “Why am I letting this happen?” Far too often, people with disabilities are seen as incapable, before being given a chance to participate as an equal in society. I didn’t need the approval of school staff to go to university.
I had a strong support system of family and friends and their encouragement to reach my goals outweighed those that discouraged me. Without telling school staff, I applied and got accepted to university.
I’m now a student at York University, studying towards a future in human rights law. As a former ambassador for Holland Bloorview, I always knew that I had an advocate in me. More recently, I got involved on the youth advisory committee of the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. I was part of the We Have Something to Say Project, which brought together the voices of youth with disabilities from across Ontario to work towards a barrier-free future. I shared my story about some of the obstacles I faced in high school (p. 64).
Four years ago, if you’d asked me if I’d be where I am today, I would have had a hard time believing it. Opening up about these experiences has been very difficult. It took a while for me to gain enough confidence to tell my story on an open platform, but once I was ready, it was like a weight was taken off me.
Over time, I’ve learned that many students go through similar experiences. They feel the need to “cover up” their struggles because of social pressures and ideals. It can feel like no matter what you do, it will never be enough.
To those reading who are going through a similar situation, there’s nothing wrong with saying you’re struggling. Don’t bottle it up. I encourage people to talk about it. Right now it may be hard to see the positives, and it might feel like your situation isn’t getting better, but have confidence in yourself, trust your judgment and keep pushing towards your goals.