16 May 2018
Joseph Powell, Director of All Wales People First and 2015 English and Creative Writing graduate. Opens the new Disability and Dyslexia and Wellbeing Service.
I felt really privileged to be asked back to the University of South Wales to open the new ‘Disability and Dyslexia and Wellbeing Service’ at the Treforest Campus. My experience at University was a very positive and has benefited me enormously. It has played a large part in the progress I have made to date. I think the word faith was the pivotal way the University of South Wales helped me on my personal journey.
My journey began as a service user in an autism care service in Newport. I had just moved to the new service from another care service in Manchester. I had only just started speaking after being a selective mute for many years. Speaking and mixing with others was very scary for me. I had been out of practice for so long. The change to the new service was very daunting. There was no real transition period and some of the staff became annoyed because I struggled to get up in the morning. They thought I was ‘lazy’ or a ‘typical lad.’ In fact, I was bogged down by many potent drugs to control my incredibly high anxiety. I had little support emotionally or otherwise. I did however attend the local day centre. I got into a routine and my mental health improved enormously. I became more confident in speaking and became a lot more social and outgoing. I started speaking publicly about my experiences with Autism. Something I thought I could never do.
Some documentary film students from the then University of Wales, Newport approached my care service to make a film. They asked if anyone with autism would be willing to work with them. I wrote two pieces for them, one of them clearly stood out as the one they wanted to use. This became the voice over script for their film, ‘Now’t as Queer as Folk’ which showed the hidden nature of my social disability, Asperger Syndrome. The name ‘Now’t as Queer as Folk’ came from what I titled my self help book ‘I am special’ a template designed by Peter Vermulen. This film is still used extensively in autism training across the UK.
I was pleased with the final film and thought nothing more about it. I was contacted later by the head of documentary and film school, Chris Morris (via my support staff) who told me they wanted to re-record the sound at the BBC in Cardiff. It was a fantastic day. I recorded the voice over and it was then dubbed onto the film. It made a big improvement to the final film. Chris Morris was glowing about my writing ability. He said that I had real potential and urged me to continue with my writing. I felt l had a future and something to work for. For the first time in many years I had something to aspire too.
The journey to University however was a hard one. I was involved in a bitter and stressful fight to leave the care home. They told me if I left the care system that I would be sectioned in three months and that I would always need support for the rest of my life. Despite the warnings I was so miserable I felt that I had to leave for my own sanity. I was the victim of institutionalised bullying and left for years in a state of crisis. The crisis was put down as a consequence of having Asperger Syndrome and I had no credibility when I told them I was being treated poorly by some staff. I attended an access course at Coleg Gwent in Newport. I passed the course and was given an award for being an outstanding student. Coleg Gwent like the University of South Wales could only see my talent and my potential. They did not see a disability and barriers like my care service did.
I was eventually able to leave my care home and be supported with an individual budget. I was accepted for a place on the Documentary Film and TV course. Chris Morris’ faith in me made me passionate about making films. I did however under-estimate greatly the social aspect that was necessary to be a film maker. I did well with the academic work, but I didn’t find film making easy. I decided to transfer to doing BA Joint Hons in English and Creative Writing. This course suited me better. Again, the tutors were very positive about me and I really enjoyed the course. I eventually graduated with a 2:1 honours degree. University was tough from a social point of view, but I was glad I got my degree. I was given excellent support by the disabilities team. I was particularly grateful to Bill Kenwright who helped me by discussing my ideas and planning my essays and Nicci Early from MIND who helped me cope with the emotional difficulties and anxiety I suffered because of my battle to leave care.
During my time at the University of South Wales I continued my public speaking about autism, in particular about the importance of choice, control and personalised budgets. I applied to be the National Director of All Wales People First (a self-advocacy movement for people with learning disabilities and autism) and my interview was successful. Five years on, I am living a very different life than I could ever have dreamed. I live without any support and I have an opportunity to help change the third sector and prevent others from suffering in the same way I had to.
Indeed, opportunity is the key word. I believe that the reason many people with learning disabilities and autism have struggled in education and employment is because they have lacked meaningful opportunity. I believe this is the essential component in shifting attitudes towards all people with disabilities. We should never assume a person can achieve their dreams and we shouldn’t assume that a person can’t achieve their dreams either. The only assumption we should ever make, is that every person (no matter who they are) should have the right and the opportunity to aspire to reach their goals. If they succeed, great. If they don’t then that is alright too. It is better that people discover for themselves what they can and can’t do and make informed choices about their life paths than have someone else make that decision for them. When we empower someone to explore their own potential, we empower them to discover for themselves, their true place in the world.
During my graduation ceremony, it occurred to me, whilst waiting for my name to be called out, how lucky I was to be there. How few people with autism or learning disabilities ever get the chance to sit amongst their peers and share such an important life milestone as equals? It made it even clearer to me the importance of extending the opportunities for education to all citizens. I therefore hope that as we continue to learn about disability and we keep challenging negative perceptions about disability that we continue to remove the barriers. In opening the ‘Disability and Dyslexia and Wellbeing Service’ I hope we are also opening new opportunities to many more prospective students from all walks of life. I would like to say a big thank you to all at the University of South Wales for their positivity and faith they showed me. I wish all present and future students using the ‘Disability and Dyslexia and Wellbeing Service’ the very best of luck with their studies.
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