Going the distance
Marie has CFS, dyslexia, autism and severe social anxiety. She tells us how she went from leaving mainstream school with no qualifications to her name, to graduating with a BSc in Psychology.
Education never seemed like it was meant for people like me. It was for smart people with a chance of being successful. Growing up, my family made it clear I was too thick for school and school taught me I wasn’t worth the effort. Even so, I loved maths and I didn’t need to be well-read to get it. Its rules and structure helped it all make sense and I secretly dreamed of being a maths teacher. But I found everything else difficult, especially when work turned to reading. Words would jump around on the page, I’d fall behind and inevitably fell through the cracks. No one was willing to stick their neck out or waste their time trying to help me, and if I’m honest, by the time I was facing my GCSEs, I had been diagnosed with CFS and as a result, my mental health was in such a bad place I wouldn’t have been able to accept the help anyway. I left school with no qualifications, no understanding of my needs and no self-esteem.
In my late twenties, as my mental health improved, I started to look at areas of my life I was unhappy with and kept coming back to education. By now I’d also been diagnosed with dyslexia, Autism and social anxiety and had found small ways to make the words on a page “behave”. I knew I was smarter than people thought, and I had more to offer the world. I spent two years building up the courage to get back into education and re-take my GCSEs. I started science at the local college and English in an adult learning facility. Sadly, with science I found the pressures of attending weekly, sitting with people I didn’t know and a teacher that didn’t understand me all too much. I didn’t feel I could ask for extra support and dropped the science course after just six weeks. With English, the teacher was so much more accommodating. She spotted my grey overlay and spoke with me after the first lesson and asked if there was any way she could help me. I’ll admit I cried, a lot. I’d never had that offer before and it was more kindness than I’d expected. She gave up nearly an hour of her own time that afternoon and we came up with a plan. She set most of my work for me to do at home and when I was there, she didn’t pick on me to answer questions or read aloud unless I volunteered. She let me email her if I had questions I couldn’t voice in class and, most importantly, she helped build my confidence. When I got my ‘A’ grade, I’m not sure which of us was happier!
Having this proof that I wasn’t stupid spurred me on. I wasn’t satisfied with just getting my GCSEs, but I knew I could never commit to going to college or university every single day when there were times my anxiety left me housebound for weeks at a time.
Then I saw an advert for the Open University. The idea of distance learning had never occurred to me before. But after signing up, I informed them I had additional needs and both the OU staff and the tutors couldn’t have been more supportive. The tutors made regular contact and I was constantly directed to areas of extra support. While I didn’t use them, they also have grants and specialist equipment available for students with additional needs. Tutorials are done online (with a few optional in-person ones throughout the year). You can join in via voice or text and the tutorials are recorded so you can watch later. Being able to access these materials whenever convenient was really helpful and it allowed me to study at my own pace.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. A bout of serious illness saw me completing assignments from a hospital bed in my second year. Other times, I got overwhelmed and even questioned continuing and there were whole weeks where I couldn’t face picking up a book.
Learning has never come easy to me, but making adjustments and finding what suited me meant education didn’t need to be out of reach. I plan on continuing my studies now and with distance learning I have tons of options for how I’ll do it.
Would you ever consider distance learning? If you could go back into education, what would you study and what would you change to make it easier?