Disabled at Uni: 3. Before your course begins (and who’s there to help)

Last week, I wrote about Disabled Students’ Allowance and getting the right technology and support in place. This week, it’s more about setting up with the services the University offers, and how to give them what they need to help you.

You may already be in contact with staff at the University if you had questions for them while applying, but if not, it’s worth introducing yourself formally to some key people, so that they’re able to support you if you need that. I suggest sending them an introductory email about you, your interests, your impairments, and the support you might need, attaching your DSA needs report. The more support you’re likely to need, the more crucial this is, as it prepares them to be there for you in advance.

Disability services

Disability services are there to support disabled students throughout their degrees. If you were awarded any study skills or mentoring support, this may be provided by disability services, or may be provided by an outside contractor. Even if you don’t have that support formally, disability services will usually be the people who help with special arrangements for class (like wheelchair access) or exams (like the use of your dictation software). If you have any problems like inappropriate classrooms, lecturers not giving you materials in the right format, or difficulties with an assessment, disability services will be there to support you. They are always overloaded with new students at the start of term, so will appreciate you getting in touch well in advance to discuss your needs.

Examples

  • Disability services helped organise a system where the librarian would collect the books I wanted to borrow, and then my carer could go to the library and get them
  • Disability services ordered a hoist to put in a toilet so I could use the toilet on campus

Course convener

The person who convenes (organises) your course from an academic perspective will be a very useful ally. If they know who you are and what support you’re likely to need, they can take it into account when planning the course. They’re also able to make recommendations about what modules would work best for you, and which seminar groups (they’ll know who the most supportive seminar leaders are, for example).

Examples

  • In my Undergraduate, the course convenor organised it so that she was my personal tutor, as she knew the course inside out and was therefore best placed to support me
  • When my attendance dropped below the minimum required to pass a module, the course convener met with me and told me not to worry, and she’d sort it out for me.

Departmental administrator

The most important ally usually is your departmental administrator. They’re responsible for all the non-academic admin, and will typically be the person to lay out your timetable, assign you to rooms and seminar groups, take your essays when you hand them in, and deal with the paperwork of any extenuating/mitigating circumstances process.

Examples

  • When my seminar was moved to a room that was ‘wheelchair accessible’ but required a very sharp turn at the top of a flight of stairs, the departmental administrator contacted timetabling to organise for the seminar to be moved
  • When I needed my timetable well in advance to organise my care rota to suit it, the departmental administrator organised for me to be sent the draft timetable ahead of its release

Lecturers

Once you have your timetable, it’s worth also contacting all your lecturers in advance. I tend to send them an email that begins with how much I’m looking forward to their module (and giving a reason), then goes on to introduce myself. I sketch a brief overview of my impairment and how it’ll affect me, taking into consideration the way the course is taught (small seminars? big lectures?) and examined (group work? essays? exams?). I also warn them ahead of time that I might struggle with attendance at times.

Examples:

  • A lecturer arranged for a classmate to send me their notes on days where I missed class, so that I didn’t fall behind when I was ill
  • Because I told a lecturer I struggled with group work in my undergraduate, they allowed me to do group projects on my own, rather than having to work with other students.

Personal tutor

A personal tutor has pastoral responsibility for you. This means that if you’re having any problems, you can go to them and they will help support you and signpost you to whatever support service is best placed to meet your needs. You’re usually assigned them at the beginning of term, and they remain your personal tutor for the academic year. I tend to send them a bit more of an in-depth introduction, explaining what my impairment is, how it affects me, and any additional support I need. If you have any problems, it is your personal tutor who takes responsibility for shepherding you through the problems and having your back.

Examples:

  • I told my personal tutor I was struggling emotionally with being at a university where I felt so unwanted for being a wheelchair user, as campus was so inaccessible. He asked me to complain every time I faced a problem and to always copy him in on the emails, in case there was anything he could do
  • I don’t have as much social care as I need, so can’t attend campus to study as much as I would want. My personal tutor is writing a letter for my funding body explaining why I need more care

Counselling

Once term starts, you will have access to the University counselling services. They’re not primarily there to support people with enduring mental illness, their role is more to help students manage more common emotional issues, from exam anxiety to homesickness. You can usually refer yourself to counselling, and they often offer a limited number of sessions.

Examples:

  • I was very worried about my upcoming exams in final year, so I saw counselling, who talked me through making sure my exam arrangements were all set up, and helped me with techniques to manage my anxiety
  • In my final year I was very unhappy because I felt isolated, so I spoke to counselling, who helped me with some ideas of how to make friends at University, which made me feel a lot better

Mentor (DSA)

If your Disabled Students’ Allowance approved a mentor for you (usually for students with significant mental or physical health problems, or autistic spectrum disorders), then they’re something in between counselling and study skills. Their role is to help you manage the ecosystem around your studying, talking through life problems affecting your work, or helping you plan your week to get everything done.

Examples

  • I was very stressed because I had a busy week and a lot of reading, so my mentor supported me to calm down and schedule my work properly, including enough breaks to help me concentrate
  • I knew that I was running late with a piece of work, so my mentor contacted my course tutor to explain that I was under a lot of pressure outside Uni but that I was working on the piece and would hand it in a few days late

Study skills (DSA)

If your DSA funding awarded you study skills support, usually for students with a specific learning difficulty, then you might be wondering how they can help you. The line is that they are allowed to support you in learning strategies, but not do your work for you. Many study skills tutors take a holistic view of the field, and help you manage pressures from outside that are affecting your work, as well as the work itself.

Examples

  • I struggle to type and was looking for predictive text software to finish words for me, but couldn’t work out what I needed. My study skills tutor helped me find and trial predictive text software to help me write my essays
  • Predictive text software often inserts mistakes into your work and I struggle with proof-reading my work, as I see what I intended to write, not what was written. My study skills tutor helps me identify my errors so I can correct them.

As you can see, there are lots of people at University who are well placed to support you, and it’s to your advantage to contact them as early as possible. This way they’re more likely to remember you, and to make sure everything is arranged ahead of your course. It seems like a lot of work contacting everyone in advance, but in my experience it will do you a lot of favours later on.

In the next part, I will talk about halls and accommodation, as well as getting everything in place with your health and social care

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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