Educational Psychology student Shannen Dabson has refused to let a medical condition dictate her future. Now her commitment to helping others and raising awareness of ‘hidden disabilities’, both locally and nationally, has earned her a University Scholarship.
Shannen was a bright, energetic child with a love of sport and a dream to compete in the Olympic Games. Then, aged eight, she was taken ill and within a week her life had changed. She was bed bound and diagnosed with ME, an illness characterised by chronic and debilitating fatigue.
Unable to attend school regularly, Shannen was home schooled by her mother and, aged 12, passed GCSE Maths. With typical determination, Shannen had accumulated 14 GCSEs by the age of 16, only six of which had been achieved in a school environment.
It was her experience during one exam that triggered Shannen’s desire to raise awareness of ‘hidden disabilities’ such as ME.
“I was about to take my GCSE Science exam,” explains Shannen. “I was in a wheelchair at that time, and a teacher wheeled me to the bottom of a flight of steps. She told me that if I couldn’t get myself up the stairs I couldn’t sit the exam. I got a ‘U’.
“The problem is that people with ME, or autism, or a range of other severe conditions, often don’t look disabled so are more likely to experience discrimination. A person with an obvious physical disability would never have been put in that situation and it made me want to do something to stop it happening to other people.”
Shannen has been involved with Tymes Trust, an organisation that supports young ME sufferers, for many years and, aged 11, she was asked to be the Trust’s Young Advocate. She has given talks at numerous events and conferences, presented to medical professionals at the Royal Society of Medicine and regularly represents young people at the House of Lords.
“Being part of the group gave me the courage to face my own problems,” says Shannen. “It also helped me gain a better understanding of what other people are struggling with and ways that I could try and help them.”
Her successful campaign to get schools to admit home schooled children for exams has made it easier and cheaper for children with hidden disabilities, who often have to travel long distances to an exam centre, to gain qualifications. This, and other campaigns, led to Shannen receiving a Jack Petchy award for outstanding service in 2012.
During her A levels, Shannen was extremely ill and had to stop attending Sixth Form. She didn’t let this stop her ambitions and taught herself at home, sitting her exams with a paramedic in attendance. She lost half her body weight and was hospitalised, missing her final exam. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Shannen passed two A levels, receiving the highest marks in her class, and was accepted onto the Educational Psychology programme at Edge Hill University.
“I’ve loved every second at Edge Hill and I’m constantly grateful for the opportunity to study here,” says Shannen.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard I’d been awarded a scholarship. I didn’t think I’d done enough to deserve it. The other nominees had done so much – I felt like all I’d done was sit at home and be ill. It’s such an honour.”
Now in her second year, Shannen has just been voted Disabled Students’ Officer in the Students’ Union elections, and is determined to change the way hidden disabilities are perceived at University and beyond.
“I want to use my own experience to help others,” says Shannen. “At the moment doctors diagnose you then basically leave you to fend for yourself. I want to establish a network of support for sufferers that will fill the void between diagnosis and the rest of their lives.
“Being awarded this scholarship has given me the confidence to take this ambition forward, and hopefully, make a difference to other students’ lives.”