By Isla Williams
Following the success of Seren Williams’ Wellbeing Essay, I spoke to Seren to not only celebrate her achievement but to discuss a range of related conversations involving hidden disabilities and inclusivity. From psychology constructs to health related absences from school, Seren has opened up a conversation about people’s attitudes and her experiences and she is a true inspiration.
IW: What was your essay about?
SW: My essay was about how schools can improve wellbeing which I feel is very fitting in our school as we have a good wellbeing support network. Miss Gray is wonderful, for talking to and for everything and she was very happy to read about what I talked about. It was really nice [writing the article] because it sometimes feels like the essays you write in school don’t have as much purpose to them but with this I felt it was a really important topic. I really enjoyed researching for my essay because Psychology is the subject I’m most interested in and hoping to do for a degree and further on in life, it really felt important.
IW: What was the award you received?
SW: It was called the Seren Award, not named after me, it’s a genuine coincidence. My friend is doing this and her name is Seren too, it isn’t named after either of us! It is called the Seren Award and the group’s aim is making the most of grades and extracurricular activities so there are certain things you can do and this is where the essay comes in. We had a tutor from either Oxford or Cambridge that taught us about a certain topic then we would need to write an essay on it which would be graded using the University system of 1st, 2:1 etc. I achieved a 1st on my essay so it isn’t actually an award as such but an award sounds more exciting!
IW: What are some of the main content points in the essay?
SW: I’d say the most interesting parts were about psychological constructs, the concepts psychologists have that they believe we can manipulate positively. In this case, how it will improve student wellbeing. My main two focuses were the fixed mindset vs the growth mindset and about flexibility in schools for mental health days. Encouraging students to manipulate attitudes, outlook and motivations can encourage wellbeing.
IW: You mentioned psychology as being the thing you’re passionate about, do your future prospects link to psychology?
SW: Definitely, I think I would love to become a child psychologist. It’s been really interesting discovering pathways into psychology in Welsh Baccalaureate lessons and it has made me realise how much there is to do within psychology. I would love a job where I could help people and talk to people.
IW: Would you encourage people to take part in the Seren Essay if they have the opportunity?
SW: Yes, it isn’t much time taken out of your schedule if you’re worried about being too busy. It really can help you a lot. There are specific universities like Bath and Bristol that will take it as an A Level so it can help to push you up to get the requirements you need. It’s a good opportunity to put yourself out there, I feel like it’s preparing you for university a bit. I would definitely recommend doing it.
IW: I’ve heard about some work you have been doing with some members of staff about hidden disabilities, could you talk a bit more about this?
SW: Because of my disability, I walk quite slowly and I use a wheelchair for long distances which I only recently opened up about. It was a big deal actually, I posted on Instagram showing how I was out with my friends shopping while using my wheelchair. As a lot of people associate wheelchairs with just paralysis, it’s tricky to let people know about my disability as they have all of these preconceptions. I’m trying to show people how being disabled is a spectrum, when I’m using my wheelchair, my disability isn’t as hidden but when I’m not, you wouldn’t really notice unless you picked up on how slow I was walking. I’m trying to change people’s mindsets and educate them on how disabilities are all so different.
IW: What are your experiences with having a disability in school?
SW: Sadly, I have had negative experiences involving the speed I walk. I always try to pull myself in to let other people around me as I know it makes other people just as uncomfortable as it makes me, being late. I think it’s things like that that until you’re in that situation, you don’t realise how judgemental people can be. As cheesy as it sounds, my main message that I’m trying to get across is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, you never know. You should never assume because there is no such thing as ‘looking disabled’. I think if everyone allowed themselves to not question other people as much, everyone would be much happier. I constantly have the idea in the back of my mind of ‘what if someone makes a comment?’, ‘are people talking behind my back?’, it isn’t fair. I really want people to understand that people don’t ‘look disabled’ and be more open to empathising with people.
IW: I’ve noticed that changing mindsets links back to your interest in psychology and your essay.
SW: It does, I know it’s hard to think positively but it isn’t about thinking positively about your own wellbeing sometimes, it is about being understanding of other people’s wellbeing too.
IW: I know that you have had to have quite a bit of time off school because of your disability, could you share your feelings on this?
SW: It’s tricky, I can’t avoid it. The combination of my heart and joint conditions mean sometimes I faint or I just can’t get up and I can’t be fainting in school! It’s hard. Although I struggle with taking days off when I have already had lots of time off, at the end of the day it isn’t something I can change. For that, I think it’s important to have flexibility like I talked about in my essay and fortunately at this school, I have never had problems over my attendance, it’s more just the pressure I put on myself. I’ve kind of fully accepted the label of disabled and it sounds weird saying that but I would always think it could go away even though of course, I knew that isn’t how genetic conditions work. It’s hard to accept missing lots of school especially during exam seasons and I sometimes try to come in as much as I can even in a bad patch and it makes recovery time longer. Recently, I was in hospital with my heart condition which is still linked to all of my joints and before I got to the point of being too ill, I kept coming in and that made the recovery time a lot longer. Sometimes, it’s worth not fighting and taking some time. Whether it’s physical or mental, no matter how many times your teacher tells you to ‘get those grades’ you’re never going to be able to do anything like university if you don’t prioritise your health. Put your physical health, your mental health, yourself before exams. That’s something I’ve learnt that I think people struggle to accept.
IW: I think that will be really useful to people going through this as I realise that there could be many instances where people just don’t understand.
SW: Yeah ‘get over it’ ‘be more positive’, it’s not that easy.
IW: Exactly, you can’t just ‘get on with it’. I feel like if people hear what you have to say, that will be really beneficial. On that note, do you have any more advice for people who might be experiencing the same sort of things as you?
SW: As well as taking time for yourself, I think making sure people around you are supportive if you’re going through missing a lot of school is really important. My teachers would post lessons I missed and things like that make a difference. You have to be open and honest about what you’re going through as I know you don’t want to put it onto someone else but in order to help you, they have to understand. Friends sending class notes or not making jokes about how much school you’re missing can really help.
IW: Is there anything else you would like to say?
SW: The one thing I want to convey is encouraging people to be less judgemental. As well as this, not answering questions you don’t actually have an answer to. If you want to support someone in any way whether it’s physical or mental, just ask them, listen to them and don’t fill in the blanks yourself. A lot of people get scared to talk about it too. The word ‘disabled’ scares people. They feel like they can’t acknowledge the fact that I am disabled even though you can clearly tell that something’s wrong if you walk behind me in the corridor! I think it is an awful thing to not be able to communicate, I don’t want people to shy away and think they will upset me because at the end of the day, if someones going through something, they know about it and you’re not telling them something they don’t already know. Shying away from the facts doesn’t get you anywhere and it doesn’t help, just listen to them and try not to fall victim to stereotypes. I think we all do it, I do it, sometimes it is just ingrained in us, ten years ago I probably would have been one of the kids that stares at me in my wheelchair today but I know we can try harder. I think it is so important to educate each other on all sorts of issues.