My Resources

Managing University Life with an Invisible Disability

  June 22, 2016   

A guest blog from Charlotte Jane Murgatroyd, MA English Literature student at the University of Leeds

Not all disabilities are visible. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, an invisible disability is not visually obvious to onlookers but can cause a range of challenges to daily activities, from mild to severely limiting. It varies with each individual, with symptoms such as “debilitating" pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.

Unfortunately, people tend to judge with their eyes instead of their ears, meaning that people with hidden disabilities can frequently face a unique set of challenges when navigating day-to-day life.

Adjusting to University life and staying on that path can be difficult enough for anyone.

But when you add disability or chronic illness to the equation, it can begin to feel like a constant uphill battle. My memories of undergraduate study are dusted with moments where the vision of my graduation ceremony and holding that degree in my hands seemed unreachable. Yet, here I am, two years after graduating from the University of Bradford with a First Class Honours degree in Creative Writing. Now I am on the verge of handing in my dissertation for my Master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Leeds and beginning to consider PhD study.

In my first semester as an undergraduate student, after months of debilitating pain in my spine and legs, I was sat in a lecture theatre one morning when I lost the ability to use my right leg in a haze of agony and panic. The next week, I had an MRI scan and soon after underwent neurosurgery to have a tumour removed from my spinal cord, which was rapidly paralysing me. The surgery was successful but it took me months to recover the ability to use my right leg again. Living close to University meant that I was able to carry on submitting my work online. Soon enough, I was facing the return to lectures.

Suddenly, my eyes were opened to a whole new dimension – coping with university now I wasn’t able-bodied.

The damage done to my spinal cord had left me with nerve damage and dysfunction in my spine, legs and feet. A regular day of classes became an obstacle course due to pain and fatigue, I realised that I was going to have to adopt new strategies and coping mechanisms if I was to continue with my studies and not fall behind.

At first it seemed impossible, but slowly I found within me strength and determination I never knew I had. Managing a disability or health condition on top of the existing pressures of University life is difficult. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t.

However, I want to assure others that University can still be an overwhelmingly positive experience by building the right support network.

1) The Disability Team

When I started my MA at the University of Leeds, the Disability Team were extremely helpful and understanding of how my condition affected my ability to study. One of the ways they helped me was by setting me up at home with ergonomic desk equipment to optimise my comfort while studying, researching and writing at my desk for long periods of time. They also provided me with devices such as a lightweight portable scanner to use at the library instead of carrying heavy books home, and a recording device to use in seminars when fatigue rendered me unable to concentrate, engage and contribute. Disability teams are able to offer a wide range of support for a vast array of different disabilities and health conditions, so make the most of this resource.

2) Your Personal Tutor

As an undergraduate student I developed a great working relationship with my personal tutor. Just sitting in her office for half an hour on a regular basis, talking through my academic journey and about my struggles, became a vital part of my support network. Never be afraid to be honest with your tutor about the things you may be struggling with. They are there to support you through your studies, after all.

3) Union Societies

Student unions are at the heart of Universities. There are usually a wide array of societies available to match all kinds of social or political interests or extra-curricular activities. Many disabled students find solace in joining the Disabled Students Society, where they can meet people who face similar challenges to them and can socialise in an accessible and safe environment. Remember – just because your disability is not visible, that does not make it any less valid than a disability that is visible to others. Being honest with yourself and those around you about your limitations is vital. Never suffer in silence! There is always support available.

Become a MyPlus Students' Club student or graduate blogger

* Image shows an actress not the author.