Meet Tom Kirby, a young man who has climbed an uphill battle to overcome challenges in the face of resistance, whilst showing resilience, strength and determination every step of the way. He doesn’t let his learning disabilities define who he is and what he can achieve. Embracing them, he found the support to develop a more confident, positive and inspired lifestyle. It’s people like Tom that remind us what’s possible.
From beating bullying to winning hockey tournaments and committing himself to a healthier life by enrolling on our Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Nutrition and Health course, Tom said ‘I can, I will’ at every obstacle. Here’s how…
At 28 years old, I’ve found that you’re never too old to learn new things. Though I live with learning disabilities, I believe nothing is impossible for me. There’s always so much in life that I want to do, and I get there by having the right attitude and support network watching my back.
I’ve already won a gold medal in a hockey championship and, later this month, I’ll be speaking to people about living with learning difficulties at BeatFreeks. As I’ve grown, I’ve started valuing my health a lot more, which is why I enrolled on the Nutrition & Health course with Oxbridge six months ago. I wanted the knowledge and power to build a healthier life.
Though I live with learning disabilities, I believe nothing is impossible.
Being out of education for years, the thought of starting a new course was scary. Even though distance learning is totally different to a school classroom, I still had my reservations – I’d been through a lot of problems growing up. However, with the support of my mum, Carol, who’s a tutor with Oxbridge, I felt empowered to dive back into learning. I thought: ‘If not now, when?’
When I was younger, I felt pressured to fit in or meet other people’s expectations. Even now, I think some people don’t see my potential and others can’t see beyond my learning difficulties. If I’m being honest, I’m still in the process of finding my true self, but things are falling into place.
I’ve always navigated the world my own way, having been diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia and slow motor-functions. These conditions make it hard for me to organise information or process things as other people do. And in loud or busy scenarios, like a classroom, it can be hard to focus. Though with support to break down tasks, I’m capable of learning as much as anyone else.
I was diagnosed with with dyslexia, but with support, I can learn the same as anyone else.
However, when a teacher understood me, I excelled. For instance, I remember my old science teacher, Mr. McKenzie, who’d let me come to class early or have extra time after lessons for one-to-ones. He’d set mini-tasks and challenges to make learning fun and memorable. As a result, I got top marks and science became my favourite subject.
He really inspired me, and it got me thinking I wasn’t different after all. I just needed people who understood how my brain functions and knew how to support me.
Over the last few years, I’ve encountered my fair share of knock-backs, but a near-death experience transformed my outlook on life. I’d developed a stomach condition that led to complications and three surgeries on the road to recovery. During that point, I decided life was fragile, and I wasn’t living enough. To make matters worse, I was being bullied online – it was one of the hardest periods of my life.
I found freedom in running, helping Midland Mencap change lives by running a 5k in 2018.
Searching for ways to express myself made things easier. I found great comfort in creative writing, imagining characters, building worlds and sharing my stories. I also found freedom in running, which has grounded me. In 2018, I helped Midland Mencap change lives by running a 5k. I was so proud that I ran the 10k in 2019. And I’m looking to run the London Marathon, too.
Working with Mencap has been rewarding. Through them, I discovered my passion for hockey and have been a long-time player for their team, the Flyerz. It’s changed my life because I’m surrounded by people who genuinely care and are incredibly supportive.
I’ve been playing for the Flyerz and the UK Lions hockey teams for three years now – an opportunity that has let me play at international tournaments in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Antwerp. It’s great fun!
I will admit that hockey wasn’t easy in the beginning. My hand coordination wasn’t great, but the team were incredibly supportive. In fact, Ross, the captain, took me down the park to train me on evenings. Soon enough, I was hitting the ball with confidence, which felt amazing. I even taught my newfound skills to the youngest player, Matthew, who I took under my wing. Hockey practice was a safe, fun place where I could be myself, have fun and work hard at something.
My passion for hockey changed my life. I’ve played in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Antwerp.
Not long ago, my team won the EuroParaHockey Championships! I remember watching the Paralympics and idolising the athletes thinking, ‘that could never be me,’ yet, here I was competing in the final, with a stadium full of cheering people.
Leading up to this moment, tiredness was real, and the pressure was on. For me, it was more daunting because it was the first time I’d travelled without my mum, who usually assists me in busy places like airports. This was a huge leap forward, proving that I could be independent.
Full of excitement, our fate took a turn for the worst when our goalie had a seizure in the penultimate game, ending up in hospital. In his honour, we played on with even more determination. The final came down to penalties. Our captain, Ross, struck the ball, hitting the back of the net to win us the championship. The stadium erupted and the UK Lions went mad! There really is nothing quite like winning a gold medal. Your worries simply melt away.
There really is nothing quite like winning a gold medal. Your worries simply melt away.
I was a gold medal winner, found a place to belong, and was gaining confidence and independence through support not offered elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle to find employment because of my disabilities, but things were looking good… too good. But then, not too long ago, I faced the threat of losing my PIP funding (Personal Independence Payment) because I played hockey. I was devastated.
They decided that if I could play hockey I should be employed because I was more active than they thought, and they instantly stopped my funding. What they didn’t see is that taking part in sports doesn’t make it easier to find a job; it meant I had a healthy outlet. I didn’t let it get me down though.
Looking on the positive side, I still had my family, my friends, and my team mates. Hockey was working wonders for my mental health and wellbeing, too; this was something nobody could take away from me. Soon after, I realised that to overcome the hurdle of having no financial support, I needed a way to become more employable and self-sufficient. This led me to Oxbridge.
I needed to become more employable and self-sufficient and this led me to Oxbridge.
While hockey improved my physical well-being, Oxbridge’s nutrition course taught me how to maintain a good diet for better physical and psychological well-being. I’ve learned how to plan food intake and about foods that support brain functions to boost my concentration when learning. I liked studying about food hygiene and have thought about a role in the food industry when I pass the course. When I’m ready to explore these avenues, I hope employers will support my needs.
Home learning has been a game-changer, further building my confidence with zero pressure. Relaxing in my own environment made learning enjoyable. And when I get stressed, my tutor completely eases my worries. I also get extra help from specialists outside of Oxbridge which has made a difference to my progression. When I struggle to organise my thoughts, my tutor breaks topics into chucks for me to understand. With this support, I always feel on top of things.
The flexibility of study meant that I often studied at night. Evenings are an easier time to calm my brain, as opposed to the hustle of the day that can leave me feeling scrambled. This routine helped me manage my workload and track my progress. To keep my energy up, I snack on protein bars and make smoothies for a booster. I also have music playing in the background while working as I find it therapeutic.
Oxbridge’s nutrition course taught the benefits of a good diet for improved well-being.
After Oxbridge, my goal is to impress employers and find myself a part-time job. I’m volunteering for a customer-facing role in Kings Heath at the moment, which is building my experience. But I’d love to find a paid position with support to grow a career. I just want a fair chance.
Before I started Hockey with Mencap and studied with Oxbridge, I struggled to get by because no one knew how to cope with someone with dyslexia. That made me feel alone, isolated and vulnerable – a feeling like there wasn’t anyone around who understood the difficulties I faced.
After all, when I was younger, I was told that I’d never walk again. But I proved that wrong. In fact, I’ve proven a lot wrong. My learning difficulties do not dictate who I am, what I can achieve or the happy life I want to lead. I want to prove that anyone who’s in a similar situation to me can enjoy fantastic mental health and support.
My pledge is to raise awareness around mental health and people with disabilities.
So, my Pledge is to bring a light to the silence around issues regarding mental health and people with disabilities, as a lot of the time they are sadly not listened too enough and sometimes overlooked. More importantly, I think mental health early prevention is needed, and I can tell you from my own experience that crisis is not a good place to be in. So, I want to spend my time focusing on being an advocate for everyone to get the support they need. Even if it can’t be seen, it still needs to be heard.
That’s why, I’m putting myself out there by attending a conference for Midlands Mencap this month! And at the end of October, I’ll be speaking at BeatFreeks about how music therapy can help those with learning disabilities in Birmingham. BeatFreeks is a movement to inspire and empower more people to use creativity in challenging ways to improve the world around them.
Thanks to Mencap and Oxbridge, my confidence has grown greatly. Now I want to use that strength to help those overlooked and vulnerable. I think it’s time to be a voice for a subject that needs more attention; the struggles of disability and how ignoring it only leads to isolation and poor mental health.
Thanks to Mencap and Oxbridge, my confidence has grown greatly.
Thank you to Tom for sharing your inspiring journey with us for our readers. We think Tom will go a long way in his ambition to end the stigma and prejudices associated with dyslexia and dyscalculia, as well as other learning and mental health difficulties.
I asked Tom what words he thought his friends and family would use to describe him. He chose loyal, honest and inspirational. In the time I’ve got to know Tom during this interview, I’d like to say I wholeheartedly agree.