Photo showing students sat down at a graduation ceremony wearing black graduation hats.
Disability

My experiences as a Disabled student at university

2nd September 2019

Today’s post will be a collection of my thoughts, reflections and advice (for those who may need it) about being a Disabled student at university and what I am doing now. Grab a cuppa (or drink of choice) because this will be a long one! First, a bit of background…

I recently graduated (class of 2018) from Nottingham Trent University with a first-class honours in Health & Social Care. I have a mild form of Cerebral Palsy and I’m visually impaired (I have Nystagmus and Astigmatism). 

If you would like to read about my disabilities in more detail such as how they affect me in day to day life, please leave me a comment down below!

Before

I went through the same process as everyone else as applying for a place at university – writing my personal statement and submitting my UCAS application, deciding on my potential choices and working for the grades I needed. 

When it came to choosing my five choices, (in the end I had four) I had to first decide the furthest away I wanted to look from home, and how easy it was to travel there and back home on my own. Reasons for this being I can’t legally drive so I rely a lot on public transport (mainly trains) to get me from A to B. 

My four choices in the end were:

  1. Nottingham Trent (NTU)
  2. De Montfort (DMU)
  3. Bradford
  4. Manchester (I never actually looked round in the end…) 

It was actually quite difficult to choose my first and insurance choices – for a long time, my top three choices were all being re-ordered, all for different reasons…the course, location, the campus, even the lecturers at the open day. Eventually, I settled on the list above, and I am so happy I went with NTU as my first choice, but more on that later. 

After having my place confirmed at NTU I was then able to apply for my tuition and maintenance loans from Student Finance England (SFE), and apply for the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) alongside … let me tell you, this was not a smooth ride, and I encountered my first major hiccup.

I was told about the DSA when I looked around DMU for the first time, with my parents. We visited the Student Support department to see what support they had to offer, and I briefly explained my situation and my needs. I never knew it existed until that moment, so I looked into applying for it at the earliest opportunity.

Take a look at this post by Chloe which explains the DSA in more detail and type of support you can get from it. I will also try and cover the help I got too.

My DSA process – from start to finish

After filling out the form for both SFE and DSA, they were both accepted. I was invited to arrange a Needs Assesment to determine what support I would need to help with my studies. 

The assessment was pretty informal, a long chat so the assessor could find out more about my conditions (using non-medical jargon!) and chatting more about what could help with my studies.

The following recommendations were put into the final report and put forward to help me with my studies:

  • A scanner and printer – this would allow me to print out all the materials I would need (particularly useful for doing my dissertation and printing out/analysing papers)
  • Read and Write (text to speech software) – for me, the most useful piece of software and I wish I had known about it earlier. I mainly used this for when I was writing my assignments, as it would read aloud to me as I was typing so I could notice if there were any mistakes, which was extremely useful. There was also a feature for when I was researching for assignments to use different coloured highlighters. Read and Write would then store them all in one place, I could make each colour for particular subjects/ideas, and wouldn’t have to go back to find them each time. 
  • Dragon Naturally Speaking (speech to text software) – This bit of kit is amazing. Think Siri but smarter. You train Dragon to recognise how you speak and get used to your accent (coming from Yorkshire I was sceptical it would understand me…) but it came in handy when doing my work but I was feeling tired or didn’t have the energy to write out thousands of words in a short space of time.
  • MindView – this is a mind mapping software. It allowed me to create mindmaps on my laptop for assignment outlines. I was able to easily access them, and they were easier to read than paper versions. 
  • Audio recorder and software – mainly used for recording lectures so I could focus on the key points, but have all of it to listen back to if I needed to.

As well as these, I was given an ergonomic chair (to help with my posture and my pain if sat down for long periods – normal office chairs are super uncomfortable. The chair was made-to-measure) footrest, a laptop stand, and an external monitor

We initially thought the laptop I had at the time would be suitable to run all this new software on – but when the suppliers came to fit it all, they ran into a problem. My laptop wasn’t powerful enough to run some of the software I needed. Luckily, DSA meant that they offered laptops to those who needed them. The catch – they had just updated the rules, meaning everyone now had to pay £200 if you wanted a laptop from them. That aside, I had everything I needed to help me when studying.

I was able to keep everything I was given, so my chair and footrest now live at work.

Next, I was able to apply for my student accommodation. My parents spoke at length with Student Support and Accommodations services at NTU to assess my options. I was always going to stay on campus, as that way I was able to access everything I needed, have my own space and the staff were able to help if I needed it. I Was able to go back and visit the accommodation a few times and I even got to pick my specific room.

Months went by and results day had passed.  I kept checking my SFE online account to see that everything was in order. However, my tuition and maintenance loan application still said: “Awaiting confirmation” or something to that effect. Long story short, when I finally got to speak to a senior member of staff, it turns out my DSA application had somehow overwritten my other application. The whole process was a very stressful and inaccessible one, meaning I was considering dropping out of university before I had even got there, but they managed to sort it all out in the end.

During

I was able to move into my halls of residence a few days before others. This gave me a chance to settle in and get used to my surroundings before it was full of my flatmates. 

Freshers Week wasn’t the nicest experience. I don’t drink and haven’t really been around many people who have drunk a lot. The nights were very loud and I felt very anxious. I mainly just hibernated in my room watching Netflix or YouTube, trying to drown out the loud music. I know that isn’t what you’re supposed to do but it just wasn’t my thing, but that is what Freshers is geared towards. 

Throughout my time at university, I had an Access Statement which detailed my disabilities and what help I needed. This was given to my personal tutor(s) and lectures to help them understand what I needed and be aware of my situation. The statement also allowed me to gain deadline extensions (if I needed them) on assignments. 

I was mostly able to access the lecture and seminar PowerPoint slides to read beforehand on my iPad and laptop and during the lecture. 

If I was meeting new tutors, I took it upon myself to introduce myself to them and make them aware of my situation, regardless of them seeing my access statement. Most were extremely helpful and made my experience more positive.

My DSA allowed me to also have a non-medical support mentor. She would help me with planning my assignments and helping me with accessing materials and the best way to organise my work and proofreading. I found this extremely useful and would definitely recommend it. 

During my three years at NTU, I stayed in halls of residence. This was for my own safety and ease of access. Student houses are often old and inaccessible, so that wasn’t an option for me. My friend and I decided we would stay in halls of residence together, we were able to stay in the same flat and still be on campus. I enjoyed living on campus throughout my time at university. 

After

So…you might be wondering, what am I doing now?

I have a job working as an Administrative Assistant for a Civil Service department in Leeds. I have been in employment since November 2018. At the moment I am working part-time, as I was unsure of how I would cope with full-time work.

Reed in Partnership: Better Working Futures programme helped me in gaining employment. They not only helped me find a job but helped me massively with interview techniques and gaining confidence. 

I really hope this post has been useful. If you are at university or in employment with a disability, what advice would you give to others? Let me know in the comments!

Ella x

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  1. This is so interesting and well written you should send it to a disability magazine – think it’s called Aspire or something like that ! Or to Educational magazine Huge congrats must have taken you ages …

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