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Jason Arday was diagnosed with autism and a condition called global development delay at the age of three. He was unable to speak until he was 11, and he couldn’t read or write until he was 18.
Now 37, Arday has just been appointed as the University of Cambridge’s youngest ever Black professor, a distinction not lost on him. “Upon sitting or standing on a vista, one of the things that you want to be able to see is… people that look like yourself,” said Arday, “and when you don’t have that, it’s actually not as celebratory as people would think.”
Written off by educators and counselors, Arday remembers, “Not many teachers at school had any belief in me,” he told CBS News on Thursday. “Educational psychologists and behavioral therapists were… very robust in their assessment that I would struggle in later life and I would need assisted living.“
After his early diagnosis, Arday told The Times that he used sign language to communicate.
Despite this, he eventually earned two master’s qualifications, a postgraduate certificate in education to become a PE teacher, and a PhD from Liverpool John Moores University.
“A lot of academics say they stumbled into this line of work, but from that moment I was determined and focused — I knew that this would be my goal,” Arday told The Times.
Arday credits his mother’s support to achieving new heights
According to CBS News, Arday, who will start his work as a professor of sociology of education at the world-renowned university Monday, said the key to his extraordinary rise was perspective.
“I never saw any of it as a deficit, mainly because my mother never spoke to me of me being disadvantaged in any way.”
Arday’s mother helped him “engage with the world in different ways, through music, particularly song lyrics… and the use of sound to make sense of things.”
Even his “paralysis of speech,” he said, “was a blessing… It allowed me to observe human interaction.”
When, he did learn to read and write as a young man, he said those “observations… came to life.”
Arday said his mother had always told him “that I was blessed, I was very fortunate and I would go on and do great things. Now, I don’t think any of us could have guessed we might get to this point. But if I managed to achieve anything in my life, it’s really because of the amazing people I had around me.”
Jason Arday adds his name to the 1% of Black professors in the UK
Cambridge’s new professor is determined to see that statistic change. His work at the university will focus on the lack of Black and minority ethnic people in higher education and academia.
Arday will join five other Black professors at Cambridge, but only 160 of the U.K.’s nearly 23,000 professors are Black in total – just 1%, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
“There’s a whole vocabulary of ways to engage people pedagogically, and there are so many different ways in which people learn… What is really important,” he said, “is instilling belief in people.”
That has pushed him to “return to my original mission, which is really to engage in the redistribution and diversification of global academia – and in particular U.K. higher education.”