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Sociologist with Autism, Unable to Read or Write Becomes Cambridge's Youngest Black Professor

Jason Arday's story is a powerful testament to the idea that nothing is impossible.

Despite being unable to read or write until he was 18 years old and being diagnosed with global development delay and autism spectrum disorder at the age of three, Arday has now become the youngest black professor ever appointed to the University of Cambridge at the age of 37.

Arday was brought up in south London's Clapham with three siblings. At the age of eleven, he still communicated via sign language, and his childhood was often spent with speech and language therapists. His family were informed that he would likely require assistance all his life, yet he exceeded all expectations.

After gaining two GCSEs in physical education and textiles, Arday attended college and earned a BTEC. Subsequently, he attained his first university degree in physical education and education studies. Following this, he earned two master's qualifications, a PGCE in order to become a Physical Education Teacher, and a PhD from Liverpool John Moores University. To pay for his studies, Arday worked part-time at Sainsbury's and Boots.

While pursuing his PhD a decade ago, he wrote down a series of personal objectives on his mum's bedroom wall. Being third on the list was: "Eventually, I will work at either Oxford or Cambridge." On March 6th, Arday's dream becomes a reality.

"As optimistic as I am, there’s just no way I could have thought that would have happened,” he said. “If I was a betting person, the odds on it were so long. It’s just mad.”

Arday's work is centered around the goal of creating opportunities for those from less privileged backgrounds to access higher education. He believes that everyone deserves the chance to pursue their dreams, regardless of their circumstances. His inspiring story serves as a reminder that with determination and hard work, anything is possible.

Picture taken by Graeme Robertson for The Guardian

As education professionals, it is our responsibility to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all students, including those with special needs. Arday's success is a testament to the fact that with the right guidance and support, students from all backgrounds can achieve great things.

However, the education sector still has a long way to go in terms of achieving true diversity and inclusion. Arday highlights the need for collective responsibility and sufficient financial backing for those striving to further equality, diversity, and inclusion, stating that BBC research from 2018 disclosed white academics were making an average of £52,000 while black and ethnic minority academics were earning £38,000.

According to Arday, black females are amongst the lowest earners in the sector, and out of the 24,000 professors in the UK, only 160 were black and 50 were black women. He emphasised that if a change is to happen, “it’s going to take a sustained commitment by institutions to really think about how they engage with the politics of race”.

"Jason Arday is an exceptional scholar of race, inequality and education. He will contribute significantly to Cambridge’s research in this area and to addressing the under-representation of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those from black, Asian, and other minority ethnic communities. His experiences highlight the barriers faced by many under-represented groups across higher education and especially at leading universities."

Prof Bhaskar Vira, the pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Cambridge

Arday's own experiences as a black academic highlight the ongoing challenges faced by minority groups in higher education. His advocacy for a more inclusive education system is rooted in the stark reality of underrepresentation and inequity.

However, Arday's own journey shows that change is possible, but for any real change to occur, education settings need to make a long-term and dedicated effort to consider how they approach issues related to inclusion.

Arday's story serves as a beacon of hope for education professionals looking to inspire their students and create a more inclusive environment. Let us all strive to learn from his example and work towards a brighter, more equitable future for all.

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