WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I BECAME A DISABLED STUDENT:
I am about to start my third year at Brighton University but have been studying for four years. As a disabled student, I know just how isolating it can be. That’s why I’ve decided to create a little series of posts and guides to help disabled students access university happier!
What I wish I knew as a disabled student:
There are thousands of other disabled students like you- it can just be a little difficult to find them, ask your university if they run any disabled student societies, set disabled student meetups or have any ideas of how they can help you interact with other students.
Don’t feel bad about emailing your main port of contact at the university regularly. I have a learning support coordinator at my university who I contact on a regular basis to keep them updated with my health flares - this way if I become behind with university at all it’s all on my records if I fall behind with work. We also have a student support guidance tutor for each subject area, most universities will have someone in a similar role.
Having a ‘learning support plan’ arranged by the university is vital in helping you succeed, it is recognised by all members of staff and can benefit you particularly in exams, presentations and assessments. My LSP has meant I do not have to partake in anything that will exacerbate my illnesses and also that my grades will not be affected as a result of my illness. Don’t be shy to ask for regular updates of your LSP as your health changes.
Being honest about your needs helps you in the long run, including outside of studying for example with doctors on care needs or mentioning anything important to housemates or friends.
There is so much support out there both within your studies and outside of university life. Having the right support in place before things get bad is always the way to go. You are entitled to support within your education as a reasonable adjustment so if you feel you could be supported more say!
The Equality Act 2010 calls the arrangements that your education provider makes to meet these needs ‘reasonable adjustments’.
An education provider has a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make sure disabled students are not discriminated against. These changes could include providing extra support and aids (like specialist teachers or equipment).
Accessing the community:
Accessing the community is part of student life, as I know all too well, getting out the house can be incredibly challenging with health struggles. Having help to access the community is not an embarrassing thing at all. The university student services and disability department have a duty of care to help you with knowledge on this.
If there is something that you enjoy doing at home with friends, looking to see if there's something similar in your new university town can be a great mental health support. If you find something that helps with your disability, keep the consistency and try to continue doing it at uni. For me, I love to swim, as my health has deteriorated it has become more difficult. I have hydrotherapy exercises which I do in the pool- I contacted local charities to find out about local swimming pools, emailing to find out temperature of pools and their disability facilities, be that parking, changing room and toilet access and fees. Having a constant routine that can be altered to adapt to my health needs and deadlines whilst at university has been really beneficial.
Joining Facebook groups to find good local support has helped me access my community a lot more. I am in a lot of local groups in Brighton where I have met amazing neighbours who help me when I need it. Asking for help becomes a lot easier when you get to know your neighbours particularly in a pandemic. I’ve had people on local pages get me shopping, prescriptions, carry my things, clean my house so diy jobs and even give me a free mobility scooter! Knowing you have a range of people to call upon if you’re injured or need help helps put your mind at ease. I’ve had neighbours help me with simple things such as carrying my wheelchair into my car and helping me pack it before driving home for Christmas. Strangers can be lovely.
Freshers are first year students, freshers week is a two week period where new students settle into their universities and get to know one another. It’s a madness & for some is the most memorable few weeks of their university experience. For others it’s incredibly anxiety provoking.
Below are the top 10 things to remember:
Master how to pace, manage your energy levels well- save energy where you can, for example your housemates or friends may get the bus or walk to places if that takes up too many of your spoons (which it does mine!) suggest driving or getting an Uber or Taxi. Chances are everyone would be happy to chip in a few pounds to do so if it gets you out the cold & saves your legs!
Get to know your flat online before you move in so you know a small amount about each other and have conversation topics. Also leaving your door propped open can be a great way to spark conversation when people move in.
Don’t overdo it. While still having fun try not to over do it and make yourself ill!
You may want to meet with the disability team before you arrive and have a personal tour before you move.
Being honest and open about your disability helps.
Remember alcohol consumption plus medication isn’t always the greatest of ideas, be careful with how much you drink!
Avoid a flare up- don’t do anything you really don’t want to do or would cause a detrimental affect on your mental or physical health.
Know you may have a flare up with your health during the early weeks of uni and have support in place as a precautionary measure. What with moving house, starting a new course, meeting new people and staying in a different bed, it’s no wonder you may be feeling rough. Stick it out and ask for help! Sometimes a little bit of fun is worth feeling a bit poorly but don’t make yourself ill to ‘fit in’.
Have fun. Make the most of your time. You want to look back on your experience and smile!
Know that many people don’t enjoy freshers week or freshers fortnight and that’s okay too!
Firstly, something I think it’s really important to know is that you are always able to move. Nothing is set in stone. If you aren't happy somewhere - try it for a little bit and if it isn’t for you you can always try something else. In my first year at university I moved to halls after the first semester and everyone thought I was mad doing it! In hindsight it was the best thing I ever did as I’ve met some of my best friends doing so! Finding the perfect Accommodation is difficult for everyone, let alone a student with a disability.
Things to think about when choosing your accommodation include all the normal things such as distance to your campus, housemates, bathroom type etc. Only as a disabled or chronically ill person we may have to hyper focus on certain aspects due to our health, for example, we may have access needs and need a level ground floor flat with no stairs or you may need a room away from the kitchen or with certain lighting. Living in university accommodation can be difficult but as a disabled student you should have ‘first choice’ on accommodation and therefore be able to visit and choose what works best for you. Most universities also have accessible housing in some halls of residence. If you’re not into halls, (which is totally cool- I wasn’t originally wanting to live in halls) thinking about the location of your accommodation and housemates is incredibly important so getting to know the town and your modes of transport is particularly useful.
An important thing to think about before choosing what to study sounds obvious, but might not be but if you absolutely love your chosen subject! If you don’t love it now, you definitely won’t like it when your degree is over!
Ask yourself a few questions specific to your education:
How manageable is the course for you? Are there certain elements of the course including modules or placements that may cause additional challenges due to your disability? Is this something you may need to talk to a course leader about to ask more questions or perhaps speak with the disability department about. Do you have any health barriers that might make studying this course difficult? What might you need to help put you on an even playing field to your peers?
If you aren’t too sure what help you could be eligible for, Follow on with my next post to find out what financial and academic support is out there.
Having a ‘in case of emergency plan is particularly useful for any disabled or chronically ill person, but particularly when you are a student studying away from home.
Do you have a hospital emergency plan? Would it make you feel more comfortable if you did? I have spoken about how to make the most out of hospital appointments here too:
It may be a good idea for your housemates to have a carer or parents phone number incase of emergency.
Things to think about when choosing a university:
What your access needs are, be it physical or emotional access needs are important to help you thrive. Brighton is a very hilly town and this was something I did not know before I moved here. My health has deteriorated over the past few years which we did not expect it to, which has meant I am now experiencing physical access needs with needing a powerchair due to the steep inclines across the city.
A great way to work out whether a university is ‘right’ for you is to assess how accommodating you feel their disability department is to you. Knowing what experience they have with conditions similar to your own and how they dealt with students struggles which may have presented due to their disabilities can help you decide whether you feel you would be supported well at a particular uni.
Don’t feel ashamed in being open with your university about your needs and asking if certain accommodations can be made.
People say you’ll have a ‘feeling’ when you know it’s the right place, and it’s true- I felt calm and at home being able to envision myself at my university.
Moving to a new town for university can call for big changes in all aspects of life. Moving doctors and consultants to your new town may not be the best idea for a couple of months. Don’t pick the Uni GP just because that’s what all the students do! Definitely take time to pick a good ‘chronically ill aware’ or well reviewed GP’. It’s likely you’ll visit your GP with more complex needs and much more frequently than some of your housemates hey!
Perhaps wait a few months until you’re settled as a transition period to your new town before moving your doctors.
Chat to your doctors about your move to university and how you may be with the workload. Perhaps speaking to the university on advice on finding a good local GP, some universities have a list of recommended GP surgery’s.
Most importantly ask yourself what you would like to get out of your experience. Remember nothing is set in stone. There are always options out there to help you.
Ask for help before you find yourself desperate.
Admitting you need support makes you stronger!
Medical and care support:
Having good medical support as a disabled student is vital to ensure you thrive at university.
If you need care support outside of your studies, it would be a great idea to talk to your university and the council to see what support can be put in place. You absolutely want to make sure this is all in place before you arrive, the process can take a very long time to find yourself in a comfortable position knowing you have the correct support. Adult social care can provide direct payments from the council to support you with any care needs.
You may want to transfer specialist doctors and consultants to your new town or you may like to wait a few months until you are settled to do this. Finding a good GP in the area at the very least is incredibly important for ALL students, particularly those with more complex health needs.
Questions to ask your university:
What are your policies on extensions if a student is in hospital for example?
What support could I be eligible for inside of the university?
Is there anything I need to know in terms of access issues in this city/ town? (For example Brighton is very hilly)
Where should I go in a medical emergency on site?
Do you have any current disabled students who may be up to speaking to me?
Links for new applicants:
Pippa’s book on surviving university with a chronic illness.
Pippa Stacey is a freelance chronic illness blogger and writer