Disabled at Uni: 5. Starting to study

Last week I discussed getting accommodation and your health and social care set up, and this week I’m discussing being ready for the academic year, and starting to study.

I’m always quite nervous when term starts – even after I spent 5 years on my undergraduate degree, starting my Master’s was terrifying. I love being part of an intellectual community, but starting Uni can be quite an intimidating experience.

Academic preparation

If you can get access to reading lists in advance, it’s worth doing this, and spending the summer preparing notes. At the beginning of term there’s often a lot of logistics involved in starting study – especially as a disabled student – and having some of the reading out of the way is often helpful. Especially if you’re reading far ahead of the start of the course, it’s worth taking comprehensive notes – what did you think was important? what did you agree or disagree with? why? If you have trouble finding a reading list, contact the course convener and explain you’re starting in September and is there any summer reading they’d recommend.

Clubs and societies

Most Unis will have a Freshers Fayre, where all the student clubs and societies put out a table and try to convince you to sign up. These are often very crowded and loud – but a lot of Unis will let disabled students in half an hour ahead of other students – if they don’t advertise doing this, get in touch and ask – at the least they should let you jump the queue. The Freshers Fayre is a chance for you to see what’s on offer, and sign up to society mailing lists, so it’s very much worth going to. If loud, crowded spaces aren’t for you, you can also go to the Students’ Union website and look through the clubs and societies, then ‘like’ the ones you’re interested in on Facebook. That allows you to scan through what’s on offer in your own time, rather than in Fresher’s Fayre.

I try to choose one society each year, and try to join and commit to it – which gives me enough time to balance this with my studies – but lots of people do more than one – you’ll know what works best for you. If you’re new to the institution, try out lots of different societies – go to the introductory socials and try and meet lots of people. Where I did my Undergraduate, basically everywhere was accessible, but where I’m doing my Master’s lots of campus and the surrounding area isn’t. If you need wheelchair access, it might be worth contacting the societies in advance to check whether they’re using an accessible venue. If they’re not, they might be able to change venue if given enough time, so don’t be afraid to press them on this (but if they refuse, they’re clearly not worth your time).

Making friends

If you’re not living with other students, it’s well worth spending as much time as possible on campus in the first week or two of classes. Strike up conversations and get to know people (make sure your Facebook is set to findable, so new friends can add you easily). I really struggled with the rigidity of my care rotas and the fact that things were often happening very last minute, meaning I couldn’t go. If this is something you’re likely to struggle with, try and juggle things so that you have some extra care at the start of term, to maximise your spontaneity.

People are going to come up and talk to you, so it’s worth having a few questions, hobbies, and topics of conversation lined up. I know I sometimes freeze when meeting new people – it’s always reasonable to ask people what they’re studying, or why they chose this Uni. You probably won’t meet your best friends immediately on arriving at Uni, but you will make friends, and it’s worth really trying to do so. Especially if you’re at events where people are drunk, and your impairment is visible, there’s a reasonably high chance you’ll get personal questions. Decide how much you’re willing to say in advance, and have a couple of deflecting statements – “my health’s the most boring thing about me! Hey – where did you get your shirt, it’s great” or “oh – you should have seen the tiger – it definitely came off worst” are my standard ones. I know I will always be Wheelchair Jamie, but I like to make sure my friendships start out with a focus on my interests and hobbies, not just on my disability.

Access

Your University might be compressed onto a campus, or spread out in a city. It might be completely accessible or very inaccessible. Regardless, it will take you some time to find your way around it. Once you’re a student, it’s worth taking some time to explore and mentally earmark useful accessible routes, lifts, and shortcuts. The Uni should have an accessible campus map, but I’ve found that it isn’t always accurate for me, because lifts have size and weight limits, or it requires narrow corridors. Make your own notes on how to get around campus. If you know where you will have classes, scope the area out in advance, so you’re not getting lost when you’re in a hurry.

If you run into any problems with access or your needs being met, raise them with the Uni as soon as they occur, so that progress can be made on solving them right at the start of term. I went to my first class in a building without safe wheelchair access, and straight away contacted disability services, who started on developing a solution. Don’t sit on problems, upset or miserable – there is often a solution, and there are people out there to help.

Emotional support

If you find yourself struggling emotionally or practically with the demands of the course, or life on campus, contact disability services and your personal tutor. A lot of universities offer some student mentoring or counselling – don’t suffer in silence.

When I started Uni this autumn, I started to feel very low almost immediately. The campus I am studying at isn’t fully accessible, I’d wanted to go to a talk, and contacted them just to check I’d be able to attend it. I got a reply that said I couldn’t – and offered no solution – just a no. This really made me feel like I was studying at a Uni that didn’t want people like me there, but I discussed this with my personal adviser. He said he’d do anything he could to help, and to copy him in on any problems I was having, which immediately made me feel a bit better.

Disabled Students’ Networks are often useful. I got in touch with another wheelchair user on campus, which made me feel a lot less isolated, for not being the only one. Other disabled allies – especially people who’ve been there longer than you – are really helpful. They’ll know how to get things sorted, and be full of lots of useful advice, so use them if you get the chance.

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

This has been the last post in the first planned series – what do you want to know about next? There will be upcoming posts about using PAs at uni, and about adaptive software and equipment – what else would you like to see?

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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