Charlotte has created a disabled student’s guide to help prepare you for starting university
A Disabled Student’s Survival Guide to University
Back in 2012, I was 18-years old and desperate to go to university. I could not wait to finish my exams and to start this new, exciting adventure in my life. I craved the late nights at the student union and the freedom. I could picture myself bonding with new friends in the halls of residence. Eating buttery spaghetti straight out of the pan on the kitchen floor, with no parent in sight. I joined every Fresher Facebook page in existence and bought far too many mugs, plates, pans, and recipes books. I counted down the days until the end of the summer, where this whole new life waited for me – an hour and half away from my hometown, Bournemouth.
But somewhere between all the excitement, there was a fear brewing deep within me. It was a fear of not being able to cope with all this change. I was diagnosed with brittle bones at birth when, much to the dismay of my parents, I came out with a broken arm, a broken shoulder and two broken legs. With family and friends always nearby to support and speak for me, I was worried about this huge transition into adulthood. How would I manage? This fear of not managing kept me awake at night and made me scared to take the leap that I so badly wanted to take. But I could not see myself anywhere else at 18 – I wanted to study English Literature and submerse myself in academic life. And so, my dreams for the future inevitably outweighed the anxieties.
For most students, university is a daunting, exciting time of significant change and adjustment. Although every student’s experience is different, university is associated with independent living and adapting to adult life. A report from 2019/20 found that disabled students make up 17.3% of students in higher education and this is increasing yearly.
But university is not all laughter and ‘the best moments’ of your life. It can be tough living in an inaccessible world where the resources that we rely on are not readily available or set up for us. In 2022, Disabled Students UK found that only 23% of students with disabilities received the support that they needed while at university. This is a difficult reality to grapple with. No disabled person should have to fight for basic rights, but we often must. Which is why it is important that we have the right tools to do so.
Learning To Be Your Own Advocate
For me, one of the hardest, but most important, parts of going to university was learning to advocate for myself as a person with OI. As a teenager, I did not truly appreciate how much my parents did for me. I was so used to having my parents speak on behalf, or alongside, me at medical appointments. They were often my voice, advocating for me within many aspects of my life.
Going to university changed this. I had to learn to be clear about what my access requirements were, because no one else around me knew what I needed. It meant understanding what my rights were and speaking up for myself. Under the Equality Act, universities are legally required to provide accessible spaces for our education – and may sometimes need reminding of their obligations.
I learnt to explain OI in simple, easy to digest terms. To this day, I keep a fact sheet of what OI is on my phone and what to do in an emergency.
Being my own advocate also meant believing in myself, especially when figures of authority were dismissive of me. When I broke my leg during my first year in a night club, I was branded a dramatic, drunk 18-year-old by the emergency services. Thankfully, I was able to show this note to the paramedics in my inebriated state – which helped them to take me seriously.
Learning to explain myself clearly, while being firm and assertive, are all part of self-advocacy. These qualities are not learnt over night – but are vital in terms of adapting to adulthood as a disabled person and will help at university.
Visiting prospective universities, especially as a disabled student, is so important. Open days are an opportunity to meet the lecturers and learn about the courses. I visited my prospective university twice before enrolment. Understanding the campus, the university culture, accessible routes, and how to navigate the site, helped to prepare ahead of time. And these days, many universities offer tailored open days with disabled students in mind.
Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) are provided by the government to help pay for extra essential costs that we may have as a direct result of a disability. I used mine for transport, an ergonomic office chair and speech recognition software.
DSAs can help with costs such as items of specialist equipment, travel, and other study-related costs.
What you receive depends on your individual needs, not your household income and you don’t have to pay DSAs back.
Your application can take several weeks to process. It is a good idea to apply for DSA in advance of starting your course. Having your support systems in place will make the transition to university much easier.
Your Disability Advisor
Once your DSA application has been processed, you will be assigned a disability advisor at your university. Your disability advisor can help with any issues that you are experiencing while at university and any access arrangements that you may need.
Financial help: Universal Credit
I was not aware of the financial help that was available to me when I was at university. It is not made clear what you are and are not entitled to. Currently, disabled students are entitled to claim universal credit whilst in full or part-time education if you are claiming Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment and you have ‘limited capability for work’. As your student loan does not cover the full cost of living, exploring the financial help available with an advisory service, such as Citizen’s Advice, may be a good avenue to investigate before starting university.
Most Importantly… Be Kind to Yourself
Ask for extensions when you need them.
Don’t be afraid to take an extra year to finish your studies.
Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help.
University can be exhilarating and require a lot of energy: so, set aside time to rest.
Take your vitamin pills and medication.
Be gentle on your liver.
And try, occasionally, to eat a vegetable!
10 years later…
10 years ago, all I wanted to know was that it would be ok – that I would be able to complete my degree and enjoy my time in Higher Education. Sitting here with an Undergraduate degree, Master’s and an (on-going) Ph.D., I am proud of what I have achieved. These days, I work in education as an English and Creative Writing lecturer. I am incredibly lucky when I say that I thrived in Higher Education, and I am forever grateful for the memories that I made along the way.