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My Journey - Through University

A Difficult Beginning

I migrated to Australia, from Pakistan, with my family in my teens – I finished high school in Brunei, and started and finished my first qualification in Murdoch University in Western Australia. After 4 years of having come to Australia and having completed my graduation, I was diagnosed with depression, which was later re-assessed and diagnosed as Major or ‘treatment resistant’ depression. I was devastated. My family was devastated.

I have lived with this condition for 25 years now. Living with a psychosocial disability is not easy. It is an arduous and painful struggle for the person who experiences it and for the carers who look after the person experiencing it.  Though it has been a very challenging journey it hasn’t been without its rewards. I now have a Master’s in Education from Curtin University, A Bachelors in English and Comparative Literature and a Certificate in Counselling from Murdoch University, along with other certifications in Education and Counselling.

Several things have helped me along the way

The attitude of teaching staff and the care, empathetic response and understanding that has been demonstrated especially in Universities like Murdoch and Curtin Universities in WA (where in I acquired most of my qualifications) – is one of the most significant of them.  

Going through and coming out from a complete loss of self to where I am today – I would not have been able to accomplish if I had not had the right supports from families and friends and from the universities, I studied in.    

Some Significant Factors

Sometimes, as a consequence of depression, several things affected me personally and can affect students with psychosocial disabilities generally:

  1. Experiencing mental blocks when you really need to read or study.  
  2. Varying gradations of Anxiety on impending deadlines and assessment tasks.
  3. Experiencing bouts of crying and sadness at odd times and places – at university, work, or home.
  4. Needing a word of encouragement and support from teachers and classmates.
  5. Needing Extensions in Assignments
  6. Needing alterations to the exam schedules and conditions.
  7. General Anxiety about life and future prospects. 
  8. An overwhelming desire to ‘give up’.

These are just a few things that I feel that I as a person with depression experienced.

Psychosocial Disability needs psychosocial support. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the equity departments in both universities and the investment in the philosophy of Universal Design – which deals with every student individually. The understanding that I am a unique individual with unique traits and qualities and gifts was something I learnt over time with the help of friends and colleagues at university. At Murdoch University I was offered a ‘space’ where I could flourish and re-assess my goals and my future directions. I was allowed to have extensions without which I wouldn’t have been able to complete assessments and not judged or asked questions about - my disability.

Dishing the ‘Dis ‘of Disability – Being ‘Differently-abled’

In the process of having and dealing with a psychosocial disability I encountered real stigma, especially to mental health concerns in individuals and especially in young people.

People when they have mental health concerns or challenges – suffer extremely with internal and external stigma- something I have had to recognize and speak out against as part of my struggle to apprise people in the community – of the deleterious effects of this phenomena.

What this long and arduous journey has taught me is that ‘You shouldn’t let your disability define you’. I feel like echoing the words of a famous Pakistani activist Muniba Mazari that there is no ‘dis’ in ‘ability’, but rather that we are all ‘differently-abled’. The other thing that it has taught me is to ‘aim high’. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you cannot accomplish goals and set standards for yourself.

My Mission

Recognizing and raising awareness of this issue is part of my mission to myself and to other people with psychosocial disabilities. Together, we can make a more equitable and responsive world – especially for people with disability- especially psychosocial disability – because these are not easy to identify, define or recognize. But generally, for all people with disability.

Covid 19

The emergence of Covid 19 has meant that the experience of university learning has been altered and changed for people with disability significantly. What was a shared space in the sense of tutorials, workshop and lectures is now, a rather isolated space, as a lot of cities in Australia and the world are in lock-down. The way we approach these learning spaces requires a new kind of sensitivity and empathy – an empathy that translates into the learning experience of the student with disability and how they are having to access lectures and readings and work and assignments all by themselves. Sometimes people with disability don’t want others to know they have a disability, adding challenges to how we can give access and help to such students.

To me, it all boils down to three concepts Empathy, Congruence and unconditional positive regard not only for others but also for oneself. So, the fact that we have or don’t have empathy can have dire consequences for the student who has a disability and is further isolated with regards to factors such as culture and accessibility. I have personally found that having online tutorials and lectures is not half as stimulating as in being in class with other people physically. This lack of attention and interaction led me to fall behind in my grades at Uni last year- just because I was not able to bounce ideas and get feedback as I had been able to earlier. This being the major lessons of COVID-19 - that not only is learning processual and interactive – it is also very much a communal experience – an experience which we undertake with others. This is also a paradox as that is not possible in lock-downs.

Photo of Saima Khan

Saima Khan bio

Hi, My Name is Saima Nazar Khan. I am a trained teacher and counsellor. I am also a student in the final year of the Diploma in Counselling at Murdoch University. In my spare time I like to draw and paint and advocate for people with psychosocial disabilities and aid the fight against stigma in all its forms.

Published: September 2021

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Saima Khan