Earlier this month Hull Alumna Heather Lacey was named in the Shaw Trust Disability Power 100. The list is an annual publication that recognises Britain’s most influential people with a disability. Heather, who graduated at Hull with a BA in English in 2015 and an M.Res in 2016, appears in the list alongside such luminaries as Alex Brooker, Jonnie Peacock, Baroness Jane Campbell and Ruth Owen OBE. Having only finished her studies two years ago, Heather is already making a huge impact in her community and in society. The Shaw Trust recognised that with her writing and activism she ‘provide(s) an honest and open look at disability through her own lived experience’ and she ‘discusses her experiences frankly to give readers both insight and solidarity.’
In this article for the alumni blog, Heather talks about her time at Hull and how this shaped her future career and activism.
You can follow Heather’s story at her blogsite here.
And follow Heather on social media here.
“I am truly grateful and – most importantly – proud to be a Hull alumna, and I will always remember my time there as one that was pivotal in moulding both my personal and academic life” – Heather Lacey (English, 2015 and 2016)
I remember first stepping foot on to campus: immediately I was greeted with swathes of red-brick, the imposing figure of the Brynmor Jones Library and – despite the repeated ‘observation’ of ‘Dull Hull’, – a surprising amount of greenery and a gloriously bright sunny day.
I had come to Hull on a whim; I’d visited with my friend due to the promise of a road trip and a day of exploration and possibly food (this is always something you can mention to win me over). We arrived early, the sparkling dew barely visible in the morning sun, and I realised then that this was somewhere wholly different. The other campuses I’d seen so far seemed intimidating: admittedly, I was new to all of this, but the open days I’d been on previously were rushed, statistic-heavy, and lacking substance. This was different. It was like speaking with a long lost friend, a friend truly invested in my experiences and who seemed to truly care about my experience.
They say that when you know, ‘you know’, and I really did. From then on, no matter where else I visited, Hull became the benchmark by which I compared absolutely every other campus. It remained the only one I could ever really imagine myself on.
Autumn of 2012: that strange, melancholy-yet-excited feeling was welling in the pit of my stomach. I was on the way to start a new chapter, the car heaving with almost all of my worldly possessions and what seemed like the majority of the IKEA superstore crammed into bags. It didn’t take us long to get there (two hours, give or take) and by my estimations, I was the perfect distance away from my home: close enough to drop in if I ever needed to, but far enough away to carve-out this new, seemingly adult life for myself. Bundled out of the car, along with the eight or so boxes that contained my life, I set myself up in my new room, parents waving goodbye, and the excited chatter of my new flatmates that would become the soundtrack to my first year.
University is a great opportunity to find out about your interests and passions, particularly when you’re living around the campus and if the area is new to you. Several years prior one of my friends set up an account for me on Twitter. At the time, I remember thinking it’d be great to share banal facts of my everyday life with whoever cared to read them. But Twitter became an unlikely source of hope, friendship and understanding for me, in a way I’d never before experienced. I’ve always had cerebral palsy, and for a long time I’ve also lived with a severe kyphotic curve in my spine. But attending university made me realise that life wasn’t necessarily going to be easy for me: those days, clouded by chronic pain and fatigue made me feel – in this new place, away from my hometown – alone. The University was fantastic in ensuring I had the accommodations I needed to succeed, but I craved the support that only someone with the same condition could provide to me. And I used social media to help me to find it.
The type of cerebral palsy I have is called hemiplegia, and affects coordination and movement in my limbs on the right side of my body. Though this is the most common form of cerebral palsy, I’d never before met anyone like myself. This is where social media really helped me to seek out this support. It was nothing short of a revelation: these people understood my aches and pains, my frustrations, my difficulties in my daily life. It was empowering and affirming simultaneously; they provided so much comfort and understanding.
It was during my undergraduate studies that I realised there was a gap in my knowledge. I loved attending the seminars on feminist writing, and studying concepts of gender, LGBT+ and portrayals of BAME. But there was one aspect of diversity I rarely studied: disability. During my final year at undergraduate level I became increasingly interested in depictions of mental health and how these aspects of experience reflected the romantic ideal of the body and mind finding peace in nature. Armed with Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, I scoured the works of Blake and married the two together (in some sort of fashion) with Descartes’ mind-body dualism. It was fulfilling, but it was missing something. No matter how hard I tried, I still didn’t feel I’d really explored this widely-forgotten aspect. I loved literature, and I wanted to see if it spoke for me; if it validated and explored stories like my own. So I decided I needed to do something about it.
It’s the summer of 2015, and my boxes of possessions have been relocated. I am preparing to study for my M.Res degree, and I have one goal in mind: to learn more about disability, and to find ‘authentic’ portrayals of disability in literature. I want to make sure that this facet of diversity is studied just like any other aspect of diversity. During that year – which flew by in a whirl-wind of journal articles and dog-eared books – I slowly but surely became invested in disability rights and my personal, social-media life became integral to not only my sense of identity, but my studies. When sharing my ideas with my tutors and peers at conferences and talks, I felt validated. And most importantly, I noticed a willingness to learn, and an acknowledgement that yes, we needed to do better. By the end of the year, I graduated with my M.Res degree at distinction level.
Since my time at Hull – which equipped me with the skills to partake in diversity discussions more widely – I have written several articles for Scope, been featured on the Huffington Post, and have been published in journals and on websites, including my own. My work has featured on BBC podcasts, and – most recently – I have been acting as an Inclusion Ambassador for Inclusive Minds, a collective that strives for diversity in children’s and young adult fiction. As part of Inclusive Minds I have spoken at the Children’s Media Conference, been part of a open table discussion with authors and publishers at Penguin Random House, been part of a diversity review for the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, and soon I will form part of a panel at the Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference late November.
I truly believe that without the chance to study at Hull, I would not have had the same opportunities, knowledge or the confidence to do what I do now. I never set out to become recognised for my advocacy or activism – I do this on the side of my full-time job because I feel passionately about it, and my employer is hugely supportive of this – but when I realise that I have been recognised in the Shaw Trust Power List as one of the 100 most influential disabled people in Britain, I cannot help but think back to my experiences at Hull and how they have shaped me. I am truly grateful and – most importantly – proud to be a Hull alumna, and I will always remember my time there as one that was pivotal in moulding both my personal and academic life.
You can find out more about the Disability Power 100, and see the full list of Britain’s most influential disabled people by clicking the link below