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My experience with disability at university

By Ellen Stickland

Friday 27 April 2018 Student Journalists

Starting university is a huge life adjustment for everyone. It’s daunting to start a whole new life in a strange place. Hopefully, by the end of your first year, you’ll be able to look back and be proud of how far you’ve come, your new-found independence and friends.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Even more so when you have disability.

When you have a disability, starting university is radically more intense. Naturally, you’re more dependent on those around you. Moving in with completely new people, therefore, can feel strange and alienating. After living with your family and going to school with the same group of friends for years, people become attuned to your needs. They know when to step in or, equally as important, when to step back and let you be independent. It takes time.

In my experience, there is plenty of support available for students with disabilities who need extra help. From extra time in exams, to making sure every lecture room is accessible. However, this is not the case for everyone.

Georgia, a Multimedia Journalism student in Brighton says universities often look for “the cheapest way to accommodate us as disabled people”. Unfortunately, these costs cutting methods do not provide the most effective support. Lifts, automatic doors, mobile desks and access to computers are all lifelines for people with disabilities. Even if these things are readily available at a university, it does not mean the building is universally accessible. Everybody’s needs are different and students must be accommodated on a case-by-case basis. One size definitely does not fit all.

Whilst mine and Georgia’s experiences differ, we have both noticed similarities in the support we received. “Most of the support given is from abled bodied people.” Georgia pointed out. The problem with this is that they “haven’t got the first-hand experience of what support and adjustment is most suitable.” Most universities have some form of student council in place - a way for students to raise any issues they may have. However, there needs to be a more direct way for students with disabilities to get the support they need, as quickly as possible.

Some universities hire members of their alumni who have a disability. This way, there is somebody who has been through the experience and knows what needs to change. On top of that, having somebody on campus who has been through university life, is reassuring for new students with disabilities. Whilst the number of students with disabilities going to university has increased by 56% since 2010 (according to HEFCE), it is still a relatively unique experience. In the academic year 2015/16, disabled students only made up 11% of the whole student population across the UK.

Thankfully, there is a lot more support and understanding these days. Although, I still notice the occasional surprised look when I tell a stranger that I’m studying for a degree. On the whole, people are more accepting of the fact that disabled people are just as capable as anybody else. There’ll always be the person who tries to tell me how inspirational it is. Or the people who’ll wonder how someone with a disability could cope. The only way to show them, is to graduate.