The Life of a Disabled Student on the BPTC: Term 1
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
This post is the first in a series of five, covering the experiences of our founder, Daniel Holt, who is completing the Bar Practice Training Course.
Being a barrister is the only career I seriously considered. It promised intellectual challenge, opportunities to influence change and a degree of glamour. The chance to demonstrate academic aptitude was also important to me, given that I was educated at a special needs school until the I was eighteen and had done two rounds of GCSEs. I wanted to show I was on par with non-disabled students, however much like a generalisation it now sounds. I decided to take A-levels in Law, English Language and Psychology and an AS-Level in English Literature at my local mainstream college because I thought these subjects would give me the best shot at being a barrister. I had not accounted for working out quantum nor a BATNA! I worked hard to do well and to fit in with other students given that special needs schools are very different from mainstream education. I did well at college despite these challenges. I got good grades and was awarded Student of the Year in both AS and A2 years. I left Manchester for Queen Mary University of London, one of the world’s finest law schools: a hotbed for equality and diversity and the place at which I found my identity, values and purpose. I got involved in activism and we made significant progress in improving access on campus. I obtained a law degree and a Campaign of the Year award before doing a master’s degree in Human Rights Law. Having spent some time working by myself and charities, it was time to do the Bar Practice Training Course (‘BPTC’ hereafter). Being a barrister is still the career for me, although my reasons for doing so are more sophisticated. I relish the independence, thinking on my feet (or wheels), being a specialist and having flexibility to explore new avenues.
Now might be a good time to share the fact I have cerebral palsy and am a wheelchair user with a speech impairment. The support I received from the Bar is mixed. Those who know me seem to back me to succeed, whilst others are unsure as to how I could forge a career. I received a lot of support from the BBC audience after a BBC video journalist filmed me before and after my Bar Course Aptitude Test, a video in which I discussed the barriers I face in getting to the Bar. Legal Cheek also featured an article covering my journey. The comments were less than complimentary about me and the author. I see from their other articles that this is the norm though.
I applied to do the BPTC at BPP, University of Law and City University of London. BPP would not meet with me in person to discuss my needs. They only offered a telephone conversation. It helped me narrow down my choices though. I completed the University of Law recruitment process and I did very well in the written tasks apparently, but my interviewer was unsure as to how someone with a speech impairment would cope at the Bar. He delayed making me an offer until significantly after the deadline. The offer I eventually received was conditional on the University of Law being able to meet my needs. Needless to say, making an offer conditional on the University being inclusive and accessible is not acceptable so I chose to turn down the conditional offer. The approaches of both BPP and the University of Law need to change if we are to achieve disability inclusive diversity at the Bar. These are real obstacles for disabled people who want to train as barristers and, in 2019, this should not be the case. City made me an offer and met with me several times to discuss the support I need so we got off to a good start. I accepted their offer.
The lead up to starting the BPTC was an exciting and hectic time as I tried to wrap up my outstanding commitments. I was emailed the day before the start date and told that I would not be able to attend lectures until the lift was fixed. I ended up missing the first two days because it was still not working. I was told that it was not ‘practicable’ to relocate the lecture in another suitable venue fifteen minute’s walk down the road. I feel that my inclusion was too easily dismissed for people who built careers on their problem-solving skills, and I made it known. I also felt that being absent from the opening days would put me at a further disadvantage when meeting my new peers. I missed a week’s worth of classes in the first two months, which made me concerned over the effect it might have on my education given the intensity of the course.
There have been other issues along the way too. I was disheartened when I was told by the Disability Support Officer that I should not be using the library on my own because it risked using the library staff as my own library support. I am entitled to Library Support but the need to arrange it a week in advance is not easy, especially when one is always having to make the most of one’s time. Being unnecessarily escorted would fly in the face of equality and independence too. I think the Disability Support Officer was just misinformed given that my notetaker would, on most library visits, set me up in the library after class and pick me up before the next class. The library staff, in any case, have always been happy to help and are lovely to talk to.
Swapping two classes to accommodate my powerchair football commitments took a while but, after persistence and persuasion, the ‘impossible’ became possible. The severe intensity of the course made me realise how important playing football and being around people with similar life experience is to me. Football is an outlet like no other, in that nothing beats winning and losing as a team, even compared with the things I have achieved as an individual. I am grateful to the University for helping me to continue playing.
The workload is intense for anyone and even more so for those with impairments. One has to complete a large volume of reading, the preparatory tests, consolidatory exercises, pupillage applications and whatever else life throws at you. I often do fourteen-hour days just to get enough preparation done. However, I do enjoy the course and I am, of course, living the dream. I am learning civil and criminal procedure and evidence rules, writing Opinions and Particulars of Claim and providing advocacy like a barrister. Advocacy was a concern given the external reservations about my speech impairment, but it has been going really well. My mock results have been good for this time of the academic year, which is reassuring.
My notetaker for this term has been fantastic and a real assurance. He did the BPTC last year and his experience made me confident that the notes he was making were well-considered. I did not have to worry about him making errors and missing key points. I have, however, heard that other students have yet to get a notetaker to which they are entitled, which must be a great strain and I hope they get sorted soon. My advice to them would be to remind the institution of its responsibilities in law and expect them to be acted upon.
My tutors are a joy too. They all have different personalities and styles, but they are all great. One of them practices in professional negligence and has clients with cerebral palsy, which I find comforting as I feel more understood (as a person rather than in speech). I feel both able to talk to them and well supported.
Making arrangements for exams has gone well for me. I have had all my Student Finance England recommendations implemented, even though on occasion I had to push for that to be the case. My first exam, Alternative Dispute Resolution, is in the New Year. I worry for those who have not yet received the support they need yet. The people I know in this situation are resilient and that is all one can be when these struggles arise and in the battle for a resolution.
The City Law School and City’s Disability Support team have been very helpful in extending deadlines on assignments, such as writing an Opinion. Allowing me to delay handing in my assignments has helped me to manage my time effectively given that further work, on top of the class preparation, is unmanageable. I did one assignment during reading week instead of before it, for example, which allows me to get the much-needed examination practice when the workload is less intense. These small adjustments make a significant positive impact on my engagement with the course and allow me to access the benefits from completing these tasks.
The best aspect of the BPTC is my fellow students. The large number of them that I speak to are really nice and interesting people. A special mention has to go to my group. We all support each other and enjoy quality social time. I look forward to another term with them and further progression towards fulfilling my dream career. But the first stop is my Alternative Dispute Resolution exam. Wish me luck!
The opinions in this blog post are the Author’s and may not reflect those of the Association of Disabled Lawyers.