What’s it like to be a disabled student?

Starting university is a tough and uncertain time for anyone. But if you’re a student with a disability, you may feel extra confused at the start of the three years, write Nicholas Fearn and Shona Johnson.

It could be that you use a wheelchair and are worried as to whether or not lectures are accessible. Or perhaps you’re looking for a bit of advice on how to deal with your emotions and would feel comforted in hearing about someone else’s similar experience.

More generally, you’re looking for support in order to make your studies and university life as easy as possible. We speak to several students about their experiences of having a disability at the university and outline the support on offer.

James, 19, is starting his second year at Swansea University studying chemical engineering. He has been a wheelchair user ever since he was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident when he was 12. Upon joining university, James became worried that his disability would affect his social interactions.

He explains: “I knew that coming to university would be hard. Clubbing was always going to be difficult for me since I obviously can’t dance.

“There are only so many times you can spin your chair without getting dizzy. I felt that I almost had to rule out a large section of my social life and forfeit meeting new people because of my disability.

“Luckily, I am not one for clubbing very much, anyway. I found that joining societies actually contributed much more to my social life than going out and getting drunk ever did. I’ve made some great like-minded friends.”

James also argues that many people in wheelchairs enjoy clubbing very much and advises that if you’re someone with a physical disability and plan on doing so, make sure you are with a group of people you trust who understand your situation and won’t leave you behind on nights out.

He continues: “Your mobility is taken into account in a more academic sense too. I am given a desk space by the door in every lecture and exam I attend, as well as given extra time to move myself from the exam room.

“As long as you make the university aware of your situation, they really do their utmost to make life easier for you. There are wheelchair entrances into almost every building on campus, and where there aren’t, adjustments are made for you. I couldn’t have asked for more support from the university.”

Leo Gould, 24, who also studies chemical engineering, explains how his life changed dramatically at the age of 20 when he suffered a brain injury and slipped into a coma.

He says: “My disability was halfway through uni. I had a fall and a traumatic brain injury, which was covered in The Waterfront at the time.

“It impacted my life as a student so much as I had to change from someone who played a lot of sport (I was president of the basketball club prior) and somebody who drank a lot to not doing that.

“The position I put myself in was the worst thing ever. I had to learn to walk and talk again for a year and a half before coming back.

“My advice to anybody in a similar position would be to make the university aware, as they were extremely accommodating for me. They couldn’t have done any more, to be fair.

“I received support in accommodation and academic too. I was given a room on campus even though I wasn’t a fresher, as well as various different forms of study support.”

As much as physical disabilities are a prevalent obstacle for many students, mental disabilities are just as daunting.

Dave, 21, is currently undertaking an MA in Medicine at the university. When he was studying for his BA, he found it hard to approach his lecturers for help and ended up becoming depressed.

He says: “One of the hardest things I found was asking my lecturers for help because I didn’t want to seem stupid or was afraid. And I was like this even during 3rd year at times.

“It was particularly bad in the first year. I had times when I’d be worrying at 3 in the morning before a deadline – trying to solve problems with no clue what I was doing.”

He believes that you need to ignore the nerves and just approach your lecturer should you need help, explaining that this is their job.

“I could have have avoided this all by just asking the relevant lecturer in advance if I was on the right track. Don’t be afraid to ask. They will help,” he says.

While Dave has experienced issues with his work, he’s also found it hard to form relationships with the opposite sex because of social pressure.

He says: “Another obstacle was the lack of interest in me from girls. There is such a big focus on ‘getting laid’ when you get into university. I felt inferior. But it’s not a big deal: relationships will come to you when it’s time. Concentrate on being happy in yourself.”

Ellie Pullen, 19, who is the student union’s disability officer and a 2nd year history student, believes that it shouldn’t matter if you have a hidden or visible disability. You should get the support you’re entitled to.

She says: “I like many others – have a disability than cannot be seen but manifests itself in many aspects of my life. I have depression and anxiety, and I am not ashamed of it.

“It is part of who I am. Like my disability there are many others who have disabilities which are invisible to the naked eye but their daily lives are a struggle. I want to make sure that anyone with a disability be it visible or not can access and enjoy their time at university.

In her first year, Ellie ran into many obstacles as a result of her disability but managed to overcome them with the help of the university.

She explains: “At first, I found university very hard and was unfortunate enough to have problems in my first year. However, once these issues were resolved and the university found the best way to support me, my time became much more enjoyable. I have channelled my experiences into something positive to ensure it does not happen to others.

Talking a bit about the support she has received, she says: “The wellbeing department has supported me with a dedicated support worker.

“They have shown me how to apply for DSA allowance and provided emotional support when I have required it. They have been fantastic at liaising with my college to ensure that I am appropriately supported and not disadvantaged in any way.”

Ellie decided to run for disability officer after representing the university at the NUS conference and because she wanted to help make needed change.

She says: “I was inspired by others at the conference, and I have also wanted to be involved in the SU. Having faced injustice in my first year and seeing others struggle, I decided I wanted to make a positive change rather than dwelling on the negatives.

“I have a background in representation and before I started university spent three years as a Member of the UK Youth Parliament, representing the young people of Wiltshire and fighting for a fair deal. My time in the UK Youth Parliament cultivated my passion for representing others and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to succeed and voice their opinion.”

Image credit: Taber Andrew Bain