What university is really like for a gay student with disabilities

Starting university can be a daunting time for any student but, as a gay student with disabilities, Amy Illson felt additional pressures. Here, she shares her journey of opening up, challenging viewpoints and learning to love herself.

When I started at the University of Derby three years ago, I had so many worries. Some included the standard fears we all face when moving away from home: Would I like my course? Would I struggle to make friends? Would I miss my family too much?

However there was another element which added to these worries – as a lesbian with both dyslexia and irritable bowel syndrome would I be able to fit in? Would anyone accept me for who I am?

When I first shared my sexuality with others at the University, I felt most at ease doing so with my housemates. The scenario played out in a club one night, when after a burst of coughing I explained that no, I did not need their help in finding a boyfriend – but if they wanted to push any girls my way I would not object! I expected questions, comments and confusion. What I did not expect was a simple response of ‘okay that’s cool, what’s your type?’ That was it. Simple.

Continuing to share

With that step over I decided that if I could be so open about my sexuality, why couldn’t I tell my lecturers that sometimes I may have to leave the room because I felt ill? That I would always struggle with spelling and that although I might not be able to keep up with my course mates, I would always work to the best of my ability. Again, I was met with responses that I did not expect – my lecturers shared only their full encouragement and understanding.

As the days turned to months and the months into years, I reached out to make contact with other students and staff alike. Everyone was fully supportive and liked me for me – for who I truly was. I met other LGBT students through the LGBT society and from lectures that I attended, some of whom became friends for life. Through these university networks, I gained the confidence to talk about my sexuality and disabilities with others. But I also now had the ability to use these elements of myself – which once had made me feel different – to improve not just my own personal life but also to add to the discussions I had during seminars. I was able to share my experiences on the topics of gender, sexuality and health. In doing so, I was able to change students’ minds and let them see how the theories we had been learning applied to real people, which helped them become more open-minded and able to understand the challenges faced by LGBT individuals and those with disabilities.

Flying the flag of inspiration

At the University of Derby, I see LGBT posters around campus and the LGBT flag flying in the wind, and I feel that I have helped inspire – and have been inspired by – all the new people who have supported and accepted me since arriving: the lecturers who allowed me to share my experiences, the friends who allowed me to be myself, and the classmates who let me know that by being myself I had changed their viewpoints. Overall, I do not think I would be as happy with my disabilities or with my sexuality as I am now were it not for the amazing students, staff and friends I have met on my university journey.

To anyone reading this, I hope you find a community that supports you for who you are, because you are brilliant! If you are a prospective student or a current student reading this, please know that there are people at the University of Derby who will help you to be the very best you can be regardless of your gender, sexuality or ability.

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