People who thought a disability would ruin one man’s shot at education have been proven wrong now he’s achieved a top class allied health degree.
Rhys Walden, 30 years old, who comes from Northampton, graduated with a first class degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Northampton (UON) last year. He is now six months into his role as an occupational therapist with North Northamptonshire Council’s Community Occupational Therapy team.
Rhys has cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition that affects movement and coordination. He first encountered occupational therapy after his Mum had a brain haemorrhage. When she was discharged from hospital, the friendly occupational therapy team helped her adapt to getting the most out of life until she fully recovered.
This is when the seed to become an occupational therapist was first planted, but when Rhys left school at 18 he wasn’t ready academically. At the time going to university wasn’t even a consideration so he went to college to do an accountancy qualification. After this though he realised that he wanted to work with people rather than numbers.
He left college and did various admin jobs, including an admin role at St Andrew’s Healthcare. It was here that he learnt more about what being an occupational therapist (OT) entails and he decided it was what he was going to do.
Although Rhys was a late bloomer for university, having had a knock-back after being told his disability meant he’d never be able to go into higher education, he is someone who is up for a challenge – and tackling it – after being bitten by the ‘OT bug’.
He said: “I’ve known of the UON course for some time as friends of mine are graduates, but academia was never my strong point. I was never predicted good grades; in fact, I was told at school and college to just do as well as I could.
“I have cerebral palsy hydrocephalus (a blockage in the brain) which means I have irregularities in my cerebral spinal fluid. Because of this, I had some brain damage as a child that left me with a mild learning disability, but I’ve never let that hold me back.
“My parents have been the driving force behind me my entire life. They taught me that, if things are a challenge, that it is really an opportunity in disguise with the potential for personal growth. University was always going to be on the table if I wanted it. And I wanted to become an occupational therapist with University of Northampton.”
At 26 years old Rhys applied and got onto the OT degree course at UON. Before starting he spoke to the university about his disability and they reassured him he would be fine. He said: “Their whole approach and willingness to support me told me it was the right place for me. As they said it wouldn’t be a very good OT course if they couldn’t adapt to my disabilities.
“Before starting the course, I had an assessment with the University’s ASSIST team. They helped sort out lots of things that would support my learning, such as installing specialist software on my laptop to record, transcribe and read out my classes. I’m an auditory learner and this way I could digest large chunks of information within half the time if I had tried to read it.
“I had unwavering, unparalleled support from UON staff and other students. Even when the pandemic came about and I had to ‘shield’ for almost the whole of those two years, the teams here helped. If I phoned up and asked for book chapters to be scanned and sent to me, the library staff were more than happy to do that. My peers were understanding and supportive and were there if I needed to talk though something being taught. I’ve never experienced that level of dedication to my progression. I feel like I’m an entirely different adult to the one who started the degree.”
In recognition of his incredible work and progress, Rhys received the Sara Simons Award when he graduated with a First Class honours degree. Sara was practice lead for occupational therapy at the University of Northampton before her retirement in 2018 and the award recognises practice excellence and students who have overcome adversity.
He is now enjoying his first job in the role he’s dreamt of doing for so long. He adds: “I wanted to work in community physical health (the team that supports people like me and my mum to live at home) before I started at the University so perhaps there’s some fate in my working in my field of choice. The Council’s service is hugely supportive of me and very open-minded about the benefits of having a practitioner who also happens to have a disability.
“I love the variety of the job, there’s never a dull day and no two people I support are ever the same. I feel privileged to work with people who are going through a difficult time. I’ve achieved more than I – or others – ever thought possible and hope to go on exceeding expectations, but now for my service users as well as myself and my family.”