This Disability History Month we hear from Ben Turpin, who works as a Disability and Dyslexia Advisor at ARU. Ben talks about his disability and how he helps to support our students' success and wellbeing.
Can you explain your disability and what it means day to day?
I have a mental health condition probably best described as social anxiety disorder. People are sometimes surprised when I share this with them, as most of the time I think I present as reasonably confident. And in many social situations I do feel confident. However, there are some that I find extremely difficult, especially those involving more formal social situations. On most days it doesn’t affect me significantly, but for both better and worse it has helped shape my career and the person I am today.
Can you outline the journey you have been on to get to where you are today?
I originally studied English at the University of Suffolk. That seemed to go quite well so I signed up for a MA in Film and Literature at the University of Essex. I really didn’t have a strong idea of what I wanted to do after university, however I knew that I enjoyed studying and the idea of doing something academic appealed to me, so I decided to apply for a PhD. In the end I applied for a PhD in sociology and was offered a scholarship to research video games!
One condition of my scholarship was that I would have to do some teaching alongside my studies. I was terrified at the idea of this. From the age of around 17 I had started having panic attacks and public speaking was a big trigger, so throughout university this is something I struggled with. The idea of being paid to play and write about video games for the next three years, however, seemed to win out.
Teaching was extremely difficult for me to start with, but as I gained confidence I found myself wanting to focus on my academic work less and on the teaching more. I became particularly drawn to working with students who had difficulties adjusting to university life (probably because I saw so much of myself in them!) and I began to think about ways I could continue with this work after the PhD.
Did you always want to be in the role you are fulfilling now?
Growing up I never had a really clear idea of where I wanted to end up. The deeper I’ve got into student support, however, the more I’ve felt suited to it. It allows me to keep engaged with the academic work I enjoyed as a student, learn about all kinds of different subjects, connect with and learn from students from a huge range of backgrounds, and provide support to those who will really benefit from it.
If you could offer one piece of advice to others, what would it be?
Take things one step at a time. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big challenges even if other people seem to find them easy. Break it down into more achievable goals and work your way up.
Is there any key person or role model that inspired or encouraged you along the way?
My tutors during my undergraduate degree were extremely encouraging and I definitely wouldn’t have got to where I am today without their support. They encouraged me to continue with academic study and at the same time showed me the importance of prioritising wellbeing.
What does your current role entail?
As a Disability Advisor much of my work involves meeting with students who have disclosed to us that they have a disability that may affect their studies. We may then need to put in place arrangements to ensure that their disability doesn’t restrict their access to resources in their course or place them at an undue disadvantage.
We also provide 1:1 study support and mentoring to support students who may have specific difficulties with tasks such as academic writing and time management.
Can you describe a typical working day?
A typical day might involve several meetings with students, perhaps for study skills support or mentoring, or possibly to discuss the type of support they may need on their course more broadly to ensure that they’re able to access all of their materials.
What are you currently working on and how will it make a difference?
Over the past year I’ve been involved in establishing a peer support group for students who have ADHD. Since the pandemic there seems to have been a rise in the number of people identifying with ADHD symptoms, possibly because the requirement to work and study from home dramatically restricted the variety we usually have in day-to-day life. To me this is a great example of the role that our environment has in determining whether or not we have a disability.
Running the peer support group has help me to get an insight into the types of difficulties students with ADHD may face and the impact that this can have on their wellbeing. It’s also been really gratifying to provide a space where students with similar experiences can connect with each other and share concerns and strategies.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have had to face?
After the lockdowns ended, I struggled a lot with getting used to socialising regularly again. I also seemed to lose a lot of the confidence with public speaking I’d gained as a tutor. I’m still not quite where I would like to be with this, but I’ve found that being open with colleagues about the tasks I find difficult has helped enormously.
What is your biggest achievement outside of work?
As a student at Essex I was treasurer and then president of the gardening society. It was a small society when I joined, but with lots of support from the other members we were able to build it into a brilliant green space with an amazing community that’s still going today.
Published to mark Disability History Month 2022
Support for students at ARU
Our Student Services team offers support with wellbeing, employability, study skills and more.
Ben is part of our Disability and Dyslexia Support Service that offers information, advice and specialist support to students with disabilities, including mental health difficulties, ongoing medical conditions and specific learning difficulties.
We want our students to have a happy, successful time at ARU, and we have a number of health and wellbeing services that are open to all.