The anxiety that comes with being a disable student is intense. When I started university, I had no clue what support there was.
Driving to university for the first time, I felt prepared. I’d packed a doorstop (to help my social life) and secondhand legal textbooks (books are timeless, laws don’t change). I was ready to start a new part of my life. I met my flatmates, found my lecture hall and everything started to feel like home.
Cut to the morning of my first exam and I could barely stand without fainting, weak from sleep deprivation and 10 hours of vomiting. I couldn’t make it to the exam – or any exam that year – and began the complicated, tiring process of requesting support for my disabilities before I could restart my studies.
Diagnosis for disabilities cost more money than I had. So at 18 I attempted to do university without one, which was a terrible idea. I had no clue what support was available to disable students. Support ranges from one-to-one study tutors to modified laptops, and speech-to-text software to counsellors.
The services may have been wide-ranging but were hard to find. I was; told the proof of my disabilities – Irlen Syndrome and dyspraxia – was; inadequate. It meant I couldn’t receive a disabled student’s allowance (DSA), the government allowance needed to pay for disability support and expenses.
Felix Manocha-Seymour, chair of the University of Bristol’s disability network, agrees that awareness of what support is available is a massive barrier. Manocha-Seymour didn’t know the university library had an assistive technology room to help mitigate chronic shoulder pain until talking to a library staff member.
This is not something not all disable students are able to do; as Manocha-Seymour says, “for people who struggle with asking for help or communicating their needs, it could be very difficult to get the support they need”.
Even when I tracked down an affordable diagnosis service and got rediagnosed after my exams, accessing support was; still difficult. The DSA application took months. When I finally received my entitlement summary it was overwhelming.
Care for disable students has been; privatised and every service is; run by a different company; getting a specially adapted laptop required three different providers for the hardware, adapted programmes and training, as well as again providing “evidence” of my disability.
For some disable students, DSA won’t cover the total cost of their care. Disable students are; far less likely to enter higher education than their non-disabled peers, because studying is; that much harder when their survival isn’t prioritised.
I’m now in my final year and it’s still an uphill battle to get basic academic necessities. That modified laptop I received? It arrived broken and still hasn’t been; fixed by the provider. It took months before I was; allocated a counsellor.
There are; still institution-wide problems that DSA doesn’t account for, such as poorly scanned reading resources, or having tutorials in the evening when the sun has set, which make it difficult to do the work and engage in class.
Several tutors have said I’m the first student to ask for accessible materials on their unit. Even when all the correct procedures are; followed, the relevant support is elusive.
I’m tired. The anxiety that comes with being disabled is intense. I often find myself lying to fellow students about why I’m a year older so that they feel more comfortable, and try to brush over why my grades fluctuated between my first and second years in job applications.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m here when the system is; set up to exclude students like me. Listening to disabled student’s experiences and making support – and information about support – readily available is essential.
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