By Emma Dobson, electric wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, studying Psychology and Sociology with Professional Development at Brunel University.
We all know disability can add additional challenges to anything, including university, so here are my 5 top tips for overcoming those challenges from both an academic and social perspective, since university isn’t all about the books!
From an Academic Perspective
1. Get to know your university disability service
This would be the most important tip I could give to someone going to university with a disability. Disability service staff at your university will be there to answer your questions and help you mitigate stressful situations, whether that may be major issues like accessible accommodation on campus or applying for Disabled Students Allowance [DSA] (I’ll have more tips on that later), or more minor issues such as the lifts not working in the library or other areas. They will also be key in helping you navigate the number of forms you may have to fill in when applying for various allowances, particularly if this is your first time filling in those forms without an appointee (someone to fill them in on your behalf) like it was for me.
2. Research accessibility around your campus and/or the local area
This tip will apply to different people in different ways depending on whether you’re going to a campus university or a non-campus one but, I would encourage you to do your own “research” by talking to fellow disabled students or just taking a trip around your local area when you arrive. Knowing the accessibility (whatever “accessible” means in terms of your disability) of the area you’ll live in for the next 3 years is key. It will save you from panicking if you do have lecture halls that are inaccessible (believe it or not this happened to me!) and knowing about accessibility (particularly in university buildings) can allow you to raise issues with the university that they may not have previously been aware of, which of course not only benefits you but other disabled students at university as well.
3. Apply for DSA accommodations as soon as possible and don’t worry about using them
Apply for any disability accommodations (such as a laptop or recording device) as soon as you believe you are eligible, particularly as the process can be quite lengthy and involve consultations to discuss what accommodations would help you most at university, accommodations are there to make university easier for those with a disability and certainly did that for me. However, be sure to advise lecturers about any equipment you’ll be using (particularly recording equipment). It shouldn’t be an issue but the information will always be appreciated. When I first started university, I was also nervous about people noticing my equipment and therefore being aware I had a disability that affected me academically, but I’d urge you not to be. No one is going to notice your equipment because you are very likely not to be the only one using a laptop or recording device or any other kind of equipment.
What about Social Life?
4. Research transport accessibility and take advantage of savings on transportation for individuals with a disability
Again, this tip may not apply to everyone in the same way or it may not apply for your disability at all, but it may apply to someone you meet at university so it’s still good information to have. Research accessibility on your local transport system, such as whether you must prebook assistance or if it’s a turn up and go system like the London Underground, and which methods (bus, Underground or taxis etc) would be easier for you specifically to use based on what you find difficult due to your disability. Research discounted travel for those with a disability in your area and nationwide, for me that meant free bus travel, a disabled railcard and a freedom pass for free travel on the London Underground, and apply for as many as you’re eligible for. This is a key tip, not just because every student needs to save money but also because (speaking from personal experience) eligibility for these discounts can be difficult to prove as a student if being a resident in the area is necessary.
Of course, transport accessibility doesn’t just have to be within this country. It is possible to fly solo (literally!) with the right amount of proper planning (which I have done) so for those of you looking to do a year abroad it is definitely doable, or just travel with friends instead of parents (which I have also done).
5. Don’t feel like a burden for needing notice for social events
This is one I’m only just learning, but don’t feel that you are inconveniencing others when asking friends for venues and postcodes for social events so you can plan ahead, check venue accessibility, organise accessible travel to the venue, or do whatever other extra planning may be required to accommodate your disability. Friends can often forget about the extra planning required when attending an event with a disability, particularly if they are excited about the event, and that’s perfectly okay! Asking for time to plan ahead should never be an issue with friends assuming they are good friends of course!