How UQ inspired me to complete my degree

Mathew Townsend says severe hearing loss and autism meant he felt anxious and marginalised when growing up. But the inclusion and relationships he found at UQ helped him complete the Masters degree he once saw as unattainable.

By Mathew Townsend

When I started the Master of Environmental Management degree in February 2015, I never thought I would complete the degree because of the challenges I face every day.

I have profound to severe hearing loss as well as high-functioning autism.

You don’t hear of many people with disabilities around the world completing both a coursework and research degree. UQ’s Student Services and the academic staff I interacted with over the one and a half years of my course helped me to achieve what I did. They were exceptional. I was motivated to continue my progress through the course and accomplish what I had always wanted.

Moving from the Northern Rivers region of Northern New South Wales, I grew up experiencing a socio-economic background that did not offer effective support. Making friends and seizing opportunities was not easy. My identity as a person with disabilities led me to be easily marginalised compared to those around me. I would not normally speak out about my challenges to the society around me.

What has changed in my approach is making new friends and speaking to Student Services during my first semester. People listened to my voice.

UQ has opened doors to my career progression. I have built new relationships with people and organisations, and have found myself faced with new opportunities.

Of course there were many struggles I coped with over the course of time in my Masters’ degree. My hearing loss is the biggest factor that I have to deal with because of the communication obstacles that surround me in the mainstream. The general public have no understanding of the heightened awareness I need to maintain in order to level the playing field.

An understanding of these factors has inspired me to develop an initiative to speak out to my friends about what communication strategies would be effective when I am present. This has helped them to understand how to communicate with me. I have also done this many times with my lecturers, professors and supervisors.

Having a disability doesn’t mean I am incapable of doing something, whatever others may assume.

The aspect of being marginalised from the mainstream’s perspective is incredibly assumed and judged, and is an everyday challenge. Privileges are part of life and everybody deserves equality and fairness. My relationship with my friends, supervisors and the connections with the general UQ community have taught me to be mindful of my presentation and public speaking awareness skills. This adds to my current experience in disability and diversity inclusion awareness. UQ is a very diverse community, and this aspect has enhanced my learnings so much, especially about communication.

I have refocused myself to think positively about what I want to do, how I want to be heard and to have the freedom to speak up about the issues I face.

UQ has let me to do this. I initially thought I could not do this because I always think my disabilities mean I am incapable of doing things. I tend to get anxious and depressed as a result of these thoughts. The hardest thing is snapping out of these thoughts. It isn’t worth it. I had a look at myself and can now see that I can do! I am a passionate and affectionate person. I can show this to everybody.  I can show them who I am. The positive energy comes out when I become busy, forgetting about the negative concepts in my life.

Over the course of time, things changed and I found a common interest where I was able to get involved with activities. This is an area where I find I am capable.

I presented myself professionally to everybody; to show them who I am and what my life goals are.

Why did I want to graduate from UQ?

It is one of best universities in the world, and it deserves leadership in disability and to be considered a diversity inclusive society. I feel I have demonstrated that is what UQ wants. As a person with a disability, I have joined student societies and clubs, attended forums and events and been to national conferences. These have all contributed to the development of the person that I am.

Many people with disabilities should feel they are included in their society. I want everybody to think about and acknowledge that capabilities are for everybody; because everybody should be able to do what they want to do. Either you have a disability or you do not, but you deserve to finish off what you have started. I did this with spirit, and I would be so relieved to hear that you have done the same.

You will make UQ feel special about the diversity in the community.

I hope this short narrative inspires you in many different ways. I am an independent person with disabilities, and my views and opinions are an important part of community life.

I am looking forward to the future of inclusive communities.

Warm wishes,

Mathew Townsend

Master of Environmental Management

Advocate for disability and diversity inclusion

Last updated:
5 August 2016