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From Exclusion to Inclusion: My Chevening Journey with Cerebral Palsy

Part I Chevening and University Applications

Jenny, Chinese Chevening Scholar 2022-2023, MSc Language and Intercultural Communication, University of Edinburgh

Author in a park holding a Chevening poster that reads "I can't keep calm, I've been chosen for Chevening"

Excluded from school, but never from learning
I would like to begin my Chevening story by revisiting a wintery night in 1992, just a few days after my 8th birthday.

It was a small living/double-bed room with a four-pane window that looked out over a small courtyard covered in dirty snow – part of an old China Railway community tucked at a remote corner of north-western China. A dim fluorescent light bulb shone inches above our heads, weakly sending its power to the farthest corner of our old one-bedroom flat, a train whistling in the distance. We had had dinner; Father was sitting at a desk fiddling with his favorite tools, and I was sitting on Mother’s lap, ready for her to make an announcement. I looked up. Something on her face told me that whatever she was going to say would change the course of my life.

“Tomorrow you will not go to school. You can no longer go to school. School is not for you.”

Exactly what followed, I can’t remember, except that I threw myself against Mother’s chest and howled. Thus came the end of my brief and happy time in a local primary school, where I was only allowed to attend core classes as an “auditor”. As a child, I could care less about any unfair treatment from the faculty or any flu virus that would put me down for days. I just wanted to be like everyone else.

I was diagnosed with a severe case of cerebral palsy when I was three months old. The neural damage in my brain turned me into “a stack of dry tree branches that were precariously bundled up together”, according to my father. Fortunately, the lesions occurred in the motor cortex and spared the intellectual faculty. By the time I reached “statutory school age”, I had already gained a basic level of linguistic and arithmetic literacy just by listening to the cassettes my parents bought for me.

For the following three decades, “sorry, there are no exceptions” was always the answer to us whenever we, with little information available from both government and civil agencies, sought hard for possibilities for me to access formal education and national examination services. Although my physical conditions had significantly improved thanks to the long-term application of traditional Chinese medicine and home-based physical therapy, the permanent lack of voluntary mobility in my arms and hands, complicated by the lack of overall bodily coordination, rendered me physically unfit in normal class and test settings, but intellectually I could not be accommodated in special education, either, which was slowly emerging as some special needs in China’s disabled community finally began to be heard and addressed. Naturally, this exclusion resulted in a sad belief, as it did – and still does – among children like me, that I was the problem.

I had to leave school, but I never stopped learning. In six years I completed primary and secondary core courses from home based on a self-directed mode of study. At the age of 16, I started to narrow my focus onto the English language, and about three years later I embraced my career as a freelance translator working from home.

Author typing with feet

To meet occupational needs and expectations, my areas of study expanded more broadly to include economics, business management, psychology, and linguistics. My curriculum vitae as a Chinese and English language service provider now includes one children’s novel, six semi-technical publications, two films, two awards, and countless work assignments from national and international NGOs in the area of conservation. The advent of computers and the internet have created a pseudo-identity for me to get access with just a click of my mouse.

Inclusion in Chevening
I heard about the FCDO’s full scholarship programme in an international conference I was invited to attend by its organiser, the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. As a speaking delegate representing the UK embassy to China, Mr. Chris Boobier, the then-head of Chevening’s team in my country, introduced the programme to the audience in fluent Chinese.

Mr Boobier’s outreach effort among Chinese people with physical disabilities coincided with my burning desire for change. It is a two-pronged aspiration. Professionally, in recent years, I feel that I have been banging my toes against an invisible wall as a freelancer working from home. To overcome the barriers, I need a meaningful upgrade of my linguistic expertise that entails total immersion in a target culture for an extended period of time. Starting from there, I aspire to be part of the research community and to guide intercultural practices between China and the rest of the world based on my wealth of practical experience over the years. This would require engagement with the academic world in my home country, which sadly I find inaccessible even today.

On a deeper level, having spent much of every day in front of a computer for nearly twenty years, I increasingly wonder about the true purpose of my life with cerebral palsy. The glaring divide between the “virtual-world me”, a well-connected, resourceful and articulate intellectual, and the “real-world me”, a stammering, shy introvert who looks mentally handicapped because she moves and speaks differently, is bothering me as I approach middle age. It may be true that I have been contributing to my family and community – even to my country in a sense – through my linguistic services online, but I hope to reach a profoundness by unifying my separate identities. By experiencing (and exposing) the gaps between “here” and “there” in access to education for all, I wanted to bring the two “me”s together into a positive force for change that would help build a new path of empowerment for China’s less advantaged groups, providing an easy access to the kind of opportunities I wish I had had when I was young,

Author taking an adapted IELTS from home, with two invigilators

I had to leave school, but I never stopped learning. In six years I completed primary and secondary core courses from home based on a self-directed mode of study. At the age of 16, I started to narrow my focus onto the English language, and about three years later I embraced my career as a freelance translator working from home.

Obviously, I would be able to accomplish none of these ambitions from home. I would need a bigger platform of leadership, a place where I could reel in more resources and learn how to use them to edge towards my goals, before it is too late. This is why I decided to apply for Chevening right after Mr. Boobier’s introduction.

It took me a while to figure out the complex web of Chevening’s online registration forms, but the application process was plain sailing with the instructions of the local Chevening team and the details on Chevening’s website and registration portal. I spent a week writing the four question essays and submitted them a week before the deadline. I did worry about my lack of formal undergraduate education. Thankfully, the portal offered a variety of options that would not have been considered “undergraduate” in China, and the team let me pass with a professional Diploma in Translation issued by the UK’s Institute of Linguists and an old certificate of graduation from a little-known Chinese vocational college I completed by correspondence nearly 20 years ago.

When my application was progressed to the interview stage, I had another worry. Speaking in English impromptu for more than half an hour would be a challenge for most Chinese students, and more so for me as I, having lived in a social climate where everyone is expected to act the same as everyone else, feared that my non-conforming way of speaking as a result of oral hypertonia and poor coordination with breathing would be frowned upon, particularly in such a formal context of discourse. I even emailed a Chevening officer explaining this. She responded by reassuring me that Chevening “operates a fair and open competitive process to select award recipients” and that the interview panel would be informed beforehand to accommodate any needs that I might reasonably have. On March 16, my interview took place online, as in the previous two years, due to Covid-19 impacts. To my relief, all three panellists huddling together before a webcam seemed very friendly, and I was given sufficient time to answer their questions. Then I spent the next few weeks commending myself for the few places I thought I did well and lamenting on the much more that I seriously wished I could do again.

When no one was left behind
Another moment of discovery came as I went through the next step: university application. I had only had a vague idea of the general requirements for postgraduate programmes in the UK thanks to an earlier experience of helping a friend’s daughter to apply. Without any academic background, would I be qualified, I wondered. To my delight, I soon learned that many universities would consider applications based on related work experience, as explicitly stated on the respective course pages. Better still, almost all the university websites I browsed had webpages dedicated to accessibility and the disability services offered on campus.

I knocked on the doors of seven of the oldest and most prestigious institutions, explaining why I had been excluded from formal education in China and what I had accomplished as a freelance translator and language instructor. In one of my winning personal statements, I started with the following:

“If every human being is a lone world concealed in and confined to his or her own perceptions, language is the only way for us to congregate, conciliate, and connect beyond the boundaries.”

I even summoned up the courage to contact the admissions team of Oxford University. Unfortunately, they were one of the few “exceptions” that only accept students with a first-class honours degree – with no departures from the rule.

At the end of the day I narrowed my choices down to three: Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Manchester. I made Edinburgh my first option because, firstly, the programme I chose is more related to what I am currently doing and would like to build on, led by Dr. Ashley Simpson, an interculturalist who has established academic relations with my country. Secondly, it is a top university in Scotland, the part of the U.K. I’d like to explore for its cultural and linguistic diversity. Thirdly, the syllabus spans across a wide spectrum of social sciences and, in the second and final semester, allows students to select one optional course from other schools of the university. I believed it would provide me with the skillset to help re-establish connections between the East and the West, the disabled and the able-bodied, the “self” and the “other”, through language education and intercultural communication.

In late January I set out to meet the only condition on all the three conditional offers I had collected – English language requirements. Over the past few weeks I had been looking for the test option most viable for my situation, and none seemed doable until my special needs were brought to the attention of the British Council through the FCDO’s team in China. On March 26, 2022, I sat for what was to be the second home-based examination in my life, following the DipTrans exam I took back in 2016. A customised IELTS test was arranged for me under the invigilation of two lovely ladies working at a local test centre. To make it technically possible and to conform to the test protocol, a huge suitcase of testing apparatus was shipped beforehand from the British Council China Office in Beijing, including two laptops, a camera, a fingerprint scanner, a headset, and some disinfecting spray and tissue. A few weeks before that an IELTS coordinator in Chongqing initiated communication to keep me informed. The level of professionalism and attention I encountered throughout the process, from registration to pre-test coordination to follow-up support, was both eye-opening and heart-warming. Two weeks after the test, I had my score – band 8 – which was high enough to secure a place in any of my chosen universities, yet a tad lower than I had expected from a professional translator. Oh well.

Conclusion: New Beginnings
After months of preparation, anticipation, and trepidation, the greatest jubilation shook my whole being around midnight on July 4, the day my Conditional Award Letter arrived.

A member of several Facebook groups organised by Chevening alumni, I have been made aware of what the award must have meant to over 50,000 successful candidates around the world over the last 37 years. For me, it is a joy that caught me off guard, a euphoria more profound than I could ever have imagined. For the first time in my life I feel a sense of wholeness of being. It comes with a realization, crystal clear, that I was not responsible for what was taken away from me.

I am not certain if I am all for the universal claim that everyone is born equal on all terms – I know I wasn’t born equal, physically at least. But the first chapter of my experience with Chevening demonstrates that equality is not (and should not) to be treated as an outcome, but rather as a process of persistent efforts in all aspects of the society into which one is born, from legislation to policy to the “final extra mile” reaching specific groups and individuals. It may be manifested as a chain of statues written into national law, policies made at a roundtable of high-ranking decision makers, teams dedicated to making things happen, and communications one can access containing all the details they should know to keep such actions effective at grassroots levels. One part missing, and the system will not work the way it is intended. This is important in multiple spheres of social, economic, and political institutions, and particularly so in education, the first chapter of one’s life, as declared in UNESCO’s report on the “Measures Supporting the Right to Education for Persons with Disabilities”:

“The right to education has been internationally recognized as an overarching right: it is a human right in itself and is indispensable for the exercise of other human rights.”

On a personal level, life is a road full of obstacles, whether the traveller is categorized as disabled or not. Sometimes it takes sheer will to wipe away the tears, get back on your feet, and keep going, hurdle after hurdle, until you get there. Focusing on the result is important, but what matters more is tell yourself this is not the end. There must be a way, and take delight in every moment of finding it and making progress in the process, no matter how insurmountable the next barrier seems. When you do that, you soon will be leading the way not only for yourself, but your family, your community, and your country.

For future Chevening aspirants, I would suggest searching both in and out of yourself before you apply. Going through all that which I have described above is rewarding in itself, regardless of the outcome. It offers a brilliant opportunity to probe the depths of one’s soul and ask important questions in life: Who am I as a person? Where do I want to go and why? How can I get there? How would my goals impact my home community and bridge it with the world, especially the UK? How does Chevening go in line with my worldviews and ambitions? What do I expect to get from and put into it? Make connections, collect as much information as possible, and string all the pieces into a powerful and convincing narrative that reflects answers to these questions. And stay resilient.

When I was invited to share these thoughts, I felt hesitant, reasoning that my case is so special that it may lose representability. What ultimately changed my mind was a WeChat message from one of my Chinese friends with cerebral palsy, who has taught herself to a point where she now earns a good income just with the tip of her left foot, and who cried the whole afternoon of the first day her younger brother went off to school. It was part question, part musing after I informed her about my Chevening and UK university application processes. “Sister, I think I would also have been able to attend college had we had the kind of education systems that exist in foreign countries.” It’s good to know that I’ve already made an impact, even though on a molecularly low level. This is exactly what I am meant to do.

In conclusion, please allow me to quote my favorite line from one of Chevening’s less humorous posters:

“What is success? […] To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.”

A new chapter of my life has begun, and I hope it will lead to many new beginnings that might leave the world a bit better.

(Originally written and oublished in August 2022. Source: Ability Magazine)