Lots of young people will be looking forward to starting their university courses in the autumn and opening up a new and independent chapter in their lives. We look at some of the challenges faced by disabled undergraduates and supply a few of our top tips.
Starting university is often a collision of two important life-changing events: specialising your education towards a particular career focus and, leaving home. In a way it’s an entirely sensible thing to do since there’s a balance between diving into an academic course (providing the serious) and joining a new student social scene (the silly).
Whilst thousands of young people will be in the same position, disability brings slightly different challenges. I use the word ‘challenges’ specifically since for the most part, institutions take their responsibilities towards disabled students very seriously. So they should; disabled students have worked as hard as anyone else to meet the entry requirements and legislation to prevent discrimination on the grounds of their disability is enshrined in law: The Equality Act.
Disabled students reading this now, in the middle of their summer vacation might be inclined to leave it for another day and think about it later. Of course, a word to the wise is that small preparations now can save you a great deal of unnecessary effort and inconvenience later.
Although universities are likely to be empty of students at this time of year, many of the tutors and staff in departments concerned with preparing for the new intake will still be working full time. This means that any questions or concerns can be ironed out now before term starts when they’ll be both busier and have fewer options (including accommodation choices) open.
First port of call should be the Disability Officer and team (they may be called by other similar names). They’ll have a good idea of what you need to prepare and will be able to identify any areas of obstruction once they know a little bit more about your condition and the subject you’re studying. The subject you’ve taken might change a few of the variables that they’ll have to deal with since the course might be taught in say, an older part of the university where access is more of a challenge, or indeed include regular fieldtrips that might present further issues. (In these cases your individual course tutors can get involved to start coming up with solutions to ensure that you get the full benefit of all aspects of the course you’ve elected to study.)
Any exam arrangements need to be sorted out for your own peace of mind as soon as you can. (You should also check if there’s an official deadline.) This might cover things like using a computer, extra time or coloured paper. The likelihood is that you’ll be subject to an assessment that a ‘learner profile’ will then be based on. Even seemingly ‘mild’ disabilities such as dyslexia can be accommodated. If you suspect you are dyslexic a diagnostic assessment can be arranged and provision set up for you.
Similarly, the physical environment and equipment you might use in the classroom can be adjusted to suit your needs as outlined in your learning profile. By talking with your Disability Officer about your course, they’ll be able to check up on access to the places you’ll need to visit. If access isn’t available, they’ll need to find an alternative solution or put measures in place to help you.
There may be times when you feel that your learning profile isn’t far reaching enough or hasn’t taken into consideration a sudden exacerbation of a long-term disability. If you suspect that this has been to the detriment of an examination then it may be worth submitting an appeal on the grounds of special circumstances.
Don’t let it stop you doing things
It isn’t just about your right to an education; it’s about your right to a full university experience. The slight difference is that enjoying yourself and getting the most out of the extra curricular stuff is your responsibility. It can often start with as small a thing as being able to ask for help. You won’t be the first disabled person on campus and there’ll be people with specific knowledge and experiences that you’ll be able to tap into and again a discussion about disability support doesn’t end with how you cope with the course.
Most universities will have a range of accommodation that is suitable for disabled students. Clearly, it is a smart move to indicate your specific needs at the time of your application to live in student accommodation.
Think about how your disability affects you. It may be wise to ask for a ground floor room or one that isn’t far from your faculty’s classrooms and so on.
What to take
If you’ve never been away from home for more than a few days at a time, you’ll need to think very carefully about what to take with you, with considerations including space and security. It’s well worth producing a list of the essentials that you’ll need, particularly focusing on what you’ll need to cope with the daily management of your disability. Details are important here, for example, you may need a rubber mat to prevent slips or falls in the bath or a bathseat. Many halls of residence will provide bedding, so you’ll need to make sure that it won’t provoke any allergic reactions (substituting it with your own if it does). Apart from that you’ll probably be able to look up a ‘what to take’ list on the university’s own website.
Irrespective of the course you’re studying, you’re likely to take any number of valuable items with you: laptop, phone, iPod etc. With this in mind it might well be worth taking out contents insurance. It isn’t terribly expensive and can also cover you for accidental damage and so on.
There are a few basic measures to take in preventing crime. Locking the door behind you means that opportunists can’t slip in. Halls very often have a communal atmosphere where doors are routinely left unlocked or open. Buying a cable lock for your laptop and keeping your key on a clip or chain on your person might also be a good idea.
Socialising is part of the fun of going away to university but there are still a few tips that might be handy to keep in mind. Alcohol is something that you might choose to consume at your own pleasure and is again a part in your management of your own condition. Remember that medication and alcohol are not easy bedfellows so basic advice is to know your boundaries – and draft in soft drinks and something to eat where you can. It’s also not wise to accept drinks (that you haven’t seen poured) from strangers.
Security is also a consideration when socialising. It’s wise to stay in a group and to have some idea of how you’re going to get home.
To a large extent, you’ll be managing your condition independently, unless it is severe enough to warrant the use of a carer who might help you to dress and so on. A sensible move is to have a good stock of any prescription medication you take. You might well elect to register with a doctor near to the university if you are likely to need regular medical attention or further prescriptions, especially if you have moved far away from home. Take any documents or details you have regarding your current GP and /or specialist when registering for a new doctor as well as recognised identification.
As well as health, you’ll also be taking care of your own money. Whilst I advise you to budget properly and remember that your new debit card does not represent the full extent of the UK’s gold reserve I know that most young people won’t pay even the remotest bit of notice. A good tip that you might care to remember is to shop around for the best (bank account) opening package – that could include cash gifts, discount vouchers as well as competitive rates regarding overdrafts etc. Further to that find a bank that’s close to campus or better still will provide an account that you can manage online. Keeping an eye on your balance is no bad thing.
Disabled Students Allowance (DSA)
Disabled students can sometimes face extra costs as a direct result of their disability. The DSA is designed to enable disabled students to study and have access to course materials on an equal basis to other students.
The amount of money you receive will depend on the amount and types of support you’ll need but does not have to be repaid and does not affect any other benefits you might be entitled to, nor is it means tested.
The DSA can be used to pay for specialist equipment such as screen readers or Braille note takers, non-medical helper’s allowance such as library support or the use of a reader or scribe during examinations as well as covering other general things like enlarged examination papers, course materials and taxi fares to and from university. (Equipment purchased with it belongs to you and you never need to return it to anyone.)
You should make your application the summer before you start university as this will allow time for processing and getting support in place for you before the start of your course.
There are different application processes in place throughout the UK:
For large print, Braille or audio versions contact Student Finance England by calling: 0141 243 3686 or email: email@example.com
If you qualify for DSA, you’ll be asked to attend an assessment of need to define the kind of support you might require. This involves a discussion of study methods and requirements for appropriate learning support and technology as well as an evaluation of your existing study skills. You’ll be able to trial various solutions culminating in a report outlining specifications, prices and suppliers of equipment.
The DSA assessment is designed to meet your needs throughout your time at university. Changes in your condition may mean that you require more support or a new piece of equipment. If you experience this you can request a ‘top-up assessment’ to look at a particular issue and find a solution.
Also available before the start of term is your course reading list. This demonstrates, to some extent, the nature of university education. Nobody is going to check or even care if you read any of the titles listed. It would be advantageous if you did but there is no mandate. Essentially, how well you do is going to be down to you although given the effort you had to make to get into university, something tells me that it’s a good investment of your time. The books on the list are likely to be of use in the first term and so it’s probably not worth forking out too much money for them. You may not have visited your hometown library in awhile but it might just save you a few quid to do so now. Similarly, eBay and Amazon will likely have used copies of what you’re looking for at a better price than buying new.
Lectures and seminars
Again, it’s down to you whether or not you turn up to your lectures but there may well be a stipulation and an attendance list recorded at seminars and workshops. You’ll be expected to express opinions and be able to talk around the subject matter – about stuff that was said by the lecturers.
Anyway, do remember that your lectures and seminars will directly feed knowledge that you’ll need for essays and examinations. Getting stuck into the discussion will make your learning and appreciation of the subject stronger – remember that the stupid question is the one that you don’t ask. In other words, other people will be desperate to ask exactly the same thing.
The Students Union is likely to be the hub of social activity at your university, at least initially when you’ll be getting to know people. It isn’t just about arranging activities for Fresher’s Week and so on, you’ll find that it also has student organisations including societies and clubs of all kinds, including those involved with disability. Of the students elected to run the union by their peers there is likely to be one tasked with looking out for the interests of disabled students.
Getting the most out of the Students Union begins with getting to know about the different events they’ve got planned and getting involved. Depending on your interests, you might choose to keep to the periphery or aspire to get involved in its organisation and running.
The first few weeks are amongst the most exciting for students. There’s plenty to get involved in and a host of new people to get to know. Although the temptation might be to go home for a rest after the first week or so it’s worth sticking around particularly for the first few weekends. This is often when firm friendships are forged.
Going away to university is a watershed moment in any person’s life. There are additional challenges for disabled people but plenty of people and facilities in place for providing solutions. Every aspect of the experience teaches us something about the world, its people and ourselves and shouldn’t be missed.