Disabled at Uni: 1. Applying to study

Introducing the Disabled at Uni series

This covers a number of aspects of the disabled student experience, serving as advice and guidance on studying as a disabled student, the support that’s out there, and how to access it.

  1. Applying to study
  2. Disabled Students’ Allowance
  3. Before your course begins (and who’s there to help)
  4. Accomodation, social care, and healthcare
  5. Starting to study

Studying as a disabled student can be logistically complex, with numerous things to consider. During my Undergraduate degree I received a lot of support from my (small) University, and after I graduated I took 3 years out. I returned to University to begin a Master’s this autumn, and have written this series of articles on returning to study whilst disabled.

Part 1: Choosing a course

When choosing a course, it’s important to balance what interests you, what you enjoy, and where you want your career to go. All of these factors are important in selecting a degree that you will be happy you selected. When I did my undergraduate, I knew I liked reading, and languages interested me, but a literature and language degree didn’t especially relate to my desired career (at the time journalism). I didn’t know how one became a journalist (answer: get involved with your Uni paper), and I just liked reading and writing.

This time I knew I was interested in policy, health, and writing, and wanted a future in health and social care policy or journalism. I knew that I wanted to make a difference in this area, so I noted down some relevant Master’s degrees, and went away to think about them. I narrowed down my list, and then started to apply. It was a big career shift from literature and language to health and social care, but I got offers for all my desired courses. How did I achieve this?

Turning your experiences to your advantage

A compelling personal statement needs to show the University that you understand the course, that you have the academic background and/or interests to excel in it, and that they should admit you, rather than another equally qualified applicant. Impairment and disability often lead to different life-experiences and paths to non-disabled students, but this can be used to your advantage.

Because I was applying for health and social care related Masters’ – whether with a policy or theoretical focus – it was easy for me to link my experience with what they were looking for. If you’re applying for something that isn’t connected to your disability, are there ways you can use it anyway? For example, if you completed your A Levels despite spending a month in hospital, you can use this as evidence of your commitment to study even when it’s challenging.

It isn’t enough to just tell them about you, or about why they should admit you, it’s also essential to show that you’re capable of the course. I didn’t have the academic background the Universities I was applying to were looking for, so I had to find ways of demonstrating my understanding of the issues that would come up in the course. In order to show this, I linked my experience to wider issues that I knew would come up. I could link ethical debates in healthcare to my own experience to discuss – for example – . I talked about treatments for rare conditions and genomic medicine, and the cost of this, and asked whether you can aggregate benefits – how many ingrown toenail removals is one life extended worth – in financial and moral terms. This demonstrated the academic experience, but also highlighted what made me a different candidate – that my experience was real-world.

Making a selection

When I got offers from my top three choices, I had to decide which to select. One of the hard things about study as a disabled student is that you have to consider so many more things than non-disabled things as crucial. It wasn’t just whether I wanted to be part-time or full-time, it was what happened if I was in hospital and needed to interrupt my course. It was how long I had to complete the degree in if I interrupted at every opportunity. It was assessment modes and how this altered between courses. The minimum attendance required to pass the modules. The support offered to disabled students at the institution. When I had to consider these things, the course I eventually chose wasn’t my favourite.

I originally applied to do all of the Masters’ on a part-time basis, but completing in two years was going to be a challenge. A lot of my time is spent on disability – on managing all the exercise, physio, personal care, wound care, etc that are associated with my condition. A lot more time is spent managing my team of PAs (I employ my own Personal Assistants or PAs who support me with care tasks related to my impairments, using funding from the NHS), going to health appointments, juggling phone calls. On top of that, I have my journalism, the London Writers’ Awards, and a guide I’m writing on care and support. Doing a Master’s in two years would have been difficult under the best circumstances, and if my health took a dip it would quickly have become impossible.

I discussed this with my top two choices. My favourite institution said I had to do the Master’s within 2 years, and my only option was to interrupt my studies if I couldn’t. The other suggested I do it on a modular basis, signing up for, paying for, and completing modules at my own pace, with a maximum course length of 5 years. It was an easy choice. I was going for the one where I could study over up to 5 years if necessary. Because of restrictions on Disabled Students Allowance I have to be completing 25% of my Master’s a year, so that gives me an expected course duration of 4 years.

Seeking advice

If you’re struggling to decide between several courses, there are often people you can contact who will be able to give you advice on what course would work best for you, taking into account your interests and experience, but also your impairments.

  • Course conveners – if you’re struggling to choose between courses, or want to discuss the specific ways a course is being delivered, and how that meets with your impairments and study preferences, you can often drop an email to the person who runs the course and ask them about it. When I was choosing between my two favourite institutions, it was a discussion with the course convener that made me decide the two year course wasn’t for me
  • Disability services – if you have questions about the accommodation or the estate, disability services are often able to help. They’ll be able to tell you how accessible your campus is, whether the Uni has accommodation that meets your needs, how flexible the extenuating circumstances procedure is, and what sorts of support are available at your institution
  • Disabled Students’ Officer – lots of Universities now have some form of Disabled Students’ Officer or Network. This is usually an unpaid, elected role, done by a student on top of their studies. They won’t necessarily have the same impairment as you, or know much about your impairment or needs, but they are quite likely to be able to put you in touch with other students in similar situations to yours, with whom you can discuss what it’s actually like to study there

Having gone through the summer and arrived at my institution, I am starting to regret my choice – but more on that later. For now, in the next post, I’ll talk about my Disabled Students Allowance experience.

If you have any thoughts, questions or comments, leave a comment here, email me on hale.jamie.r@gmail.com, or tweet me @jamierhale

The ‘disabled at uni’ series

  1. Applying to study
  2. Disabled Students’ Allowance
  3. Before your course begins (and who’s there to help)
  4. Accommodation, social care, and health care
  5. Starting to study

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