Enjoying university with a disability
September 8 2020
Charlotte Smith took the leap back into education aged 21. But studying for a degree and navigating daily life with a disability presented her with a challenge unlike any other. As she embarks on the final year of her studies, she reflects on her university experiences and how they have changed her for the better.
The sky is indeed the limit!
University was never a part of my life plan. For a long time, I never had one. The only thing I had been certain of, in fact, was that it wasn’t for me. Having watched my sister move to a whole new city to study for her own degree, I never even considered the possibility that it was something I was capable of. For one thing, I didn’t feel ‘academic’ enough, but I had also become firmly settled in my comfort zone. I felt safe at home – and with a lifetime of experience of Cerebral Palsy, I knew how to cope. Adding a new place into the mix just felt too scary.
Over the years, I slowly became aware of the so called ‘limits’ in my physical abilities. But that didn’t translate into every part of my life. It occurred to me that I could be what some might call ‘university material’ – maybe I just didn’t know it yet. I applied out of pure curiosity, without any idea where that decision would take me. Two years on, I can safely say that it’s been the biggest adventure. Admittedly, a degree can take over your life, but in some ways, it’s also given me a better one.
A new home in halls…
Adjusting to student life isn’t always easy. Balancing that with the daily challenges of a disability can make it even tougher. I was used to taking on challenges, but nothing quite to this scale. Living away from home with new people in a new place and managing a disability felt very overwhelming. But, for the first time, I wasn’t experiencing those feelings alone.
Throughout my university experience, I’ve crossed paths with so many others in the same position as myself. I share an accessible flat in halls with other people who have disabilities, which has been an incredible learning opportunity. What I knew of disability had been limited to my personal experience, but it’s reminded me that what I felt as a young child was valid. Despite the fact we came from different places and had different experiences of disability, we were the same in others. Looking back now, I met some of my closest university friends in halls, and the flat itself was a huge advantage. Not only has my confidence grown but I’ve now gained a level of independence… and housework!
Expectation vs Reality
No one is invincible of course, and that is a lesson I learnt very early on in my journey. My degree commitments were now combined with the responsibilities that come with living alone, and this quickly became exhausting. So, it was all the more important to manage my expectations. Being unable to walk long distances, coupled with balance issues and fatigue, I wasn’t going to be able to do it all – especially not without incorporating regular breaks.
If there’s one thing I admire about my younger self, it’s my determination. Growing up, the support I did have, I simply resisted as much as possible. My desire to be just the same as my peers meant I would push myself to my absolute limits – because I wanted to be just like them. Somehow, I forgot that in many ways, I was. With a little access help, I could, and still do, manage life just fine.
It’s probably thanks to that determined young girl that I am able to do as much as I can now. My increased stamina now means that I don’t have to rely on aids like my wheelchair to move around. But I still do have to ask for help from time to time. And for the first time in my life, I have proper support in place at university that allows me to thrive.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness
Whatever your disability and access needs, asking for help can be a lifeline. Certainly for me, having support in place has been of incredible benefit and has allowed for a much better experience. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I would have gotten this far without it.
I now have access to a whole range of equipment, which has assisted me throughout my course. Among other things, I’m entitled to extra time for my exams, for which I use a computer to reduce the strain in my hands whilst writing. And perhaps one of the best and most useful things is the ability to record my lectures. I’ve been granted permission to do this and it really helps to take the pressure off, particularly when I’m experiencing fatigue – or I need to record a lot of information quickly.
I’ve also had to adapt things to suit my needs on a practical level. I carry things to uni in a backpack, which helps to maintain my balance. I’m also not the tallest of people, so I use a stepladder for reaching things at height. My faithful trolley on wheels accompanies me on every weekly shop. I had big concerns before university about shopping alone, due to my mobility. Particularly lifting or carrying heavy weights and being able to withstand the walking distance to the shop. After all, I had never completed a full weekly shop alone. Now I can and with such ease. Plus, it’s added a real novelty to shopping – I can buy whatever I like!
Disability should not be a barrier!
Whilst higher education isn’t the only option these days, it’s definitely one worth considering. I didn’t take the ‘conventional’ route to university. In fact, I made the big move two years after completing my A Levels. There’s no ‘one way’ of doing things. You don’t have to take the ‘conventional’ route, nor is it just for academics, or the physically able. Every university has teams in place who can work alongside you to create a plan, tailored to your specific needs. It’s all about making the experience as positive as possible.
In my case, even the smallest things can make the biggest difference in terms of access. There is help available in so many forms – including financial! Everyone’s access needs are different – so it’s about making considered decisions and finding what works best for you. If things aren’t right, it’s so important that you speak up! I have a fantastic group of tutors who are behind me all the time and willing to help, which is a great comfort whilst I’m away from home. It’s true that before university, I had no idea that some of these things existed. And others, I had never thought of doing before. But they have made all the difference to my experience and will continue to whilst I work on my dissertation next year!
Do remember that university is about more than academia. Taking the time for some self-care is so important – and necessary! Recognise when things are tough and take a break and do something (or nothing) else! Socially, university has a lot to give too. University has taken me on a journey of self-discovery that I didn’t know I needed. But in the end, the experience can be whatever you want it to be, so take advantage and have fun!
Charlotte Smith is in the final year of her degree, studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Northampton. Before starting university aged 21, she took on an apprenticeship in a local primary school and often spent time writing her online blog (https://ceelavieblog.wordpress.com/).
Her experiences as a disabled student and growing up with Cerebral Palsy means she is keen to improve experiences of people with disabilities. She is looking forward to finishing her degree and progressing on to the next stage of her career.
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