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Students in Focus

Overcoming the impossible

“I never imagined that at 22, I would be working and studying fulltime – I didn’t even think that was an option for me. Now I know it is and I can only go up from here.”

University of Canberra student Caitlin Holder was diagnosed with systemic arthritis when she was just 10 years old – a condition that first affected her hands, but has now spread throughout her entire body.

Being diagnosed in the middle of her primary school years meant the pain and lack of control in her hands made it difficult to write, and participate in her schooling.

When she hit high school and the arthritis had spread, the next challenge was making her way around the campus to her classes.

“I was facing the difficulties of going up and down stairs to my classes, while dealing with a school that wasn’t very supportive,” she says.

“When I was doing my ATAR, I was told to drop out of high school because it was going to be too hard to get a laptop to complete my exams – it was such a fight.”

While persevering through her final years of high school, Caitlin was hearing within her circles that universities were a lot more accommodating for people with disabilities.

Despite being disbelieving after struggling to get the support she needed during high school, Caitlin still packed up her things and moved to Canberra.

“I didn’t know anyone at UC – I moved here and brought some information about my disability to both the Inclusion and Engagement and Welfare teams, and we talked through what I needed,” she says.

“The contrast was incredible. I told them what I needed, and they were more than happy to accommodate that and suggested further supports that could help me with my studies.”

Now in her final year of a Bachelor of Politics and International Relations and a Bachelor of Business, Caitlin is achieving more than she could have imagined.

In just the past two months, she has also picked up a fulltime role in a real estate company as a property manager.

She says it’s the smallest things, like being able to complete her exams on a laptop, having UC staff aware and accommodating of her condition, and accessiblility on campus that have made a world of difference to her success.

“My condition means I am extremely tired and there are times I can’t attend my classes. In my first few years at uni I wanted to be there all the time, but that wasn’t functional for me,” she says.

“There was such a good support system and at the start of each semester, all my teachers would make sure to let us know they were approachable if we needed to chat to them.”

With an incredible story to tell, and the right support system behind her, Caitlin is now open to speaking about and educating her peers about her experience with disability.

Something she has just done on UC’s International Day of People with a Disability Panel on 12 October.

“This day really highlights the importance of people with disabilities, and I am happy to play a part in that,” she says.

“Year round, you know there are people that are disabled but to have a time that highlights and promotes these issues and people’s experiences, is hugely valuable.”

Caitlin says really listening to someone’s lived experience goes a long way in educating yourself on hardship.

“The most popular response I get when I tell someone I have arthritis is ‘Oh, my dog has that or my grandparents have that’,” she laughs.

“Being able to say: ‘Okay, that’s your assumption of my condition, but this is my reality of it’ means I can tell them what has held me back, how I move forward and this is what I need from my support system.”

Caitlin will be on medication for the rest of her life to deal with the pain her condition brings, but it’s been in learning her limits that she has exceeded all her own expectations.

“I can only be as efficient and effective as my body will handle, and learning that has changed the way I approach my life.”

Words by Danielle Meddemmen, photos supplied.

The International Day of People with Disability is held on 3 December every year.

UC observed the day early this year, with an event on Tuesday 12 October.

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