Firstly, congratulations! Making it to university as a disabled student is an incredible achievement. Disabled students are less than 40 percent as likely to enter higher education as their able-bodied peers – if you feel any apprehension about university lean into the knowledge that you being here is evidence that you already possess the determination, motivation and desire to get the best out of your university experience and to create some treasured memories. Anyone who can juggle disability and land a university place is a force to be reckoned with - you have got this. Here’s a few disability-related tips and tricks for university life. I really hope you have the most amazing time!
Disclosing your Disability
How much and to whom you disclose your disability is a personal choice – you do not owe anyone an explanation. Disclosing can help others to understand and support you, however reactions can sometimes be challenging, whether it’s disability tropes, uncertainty over how to respond, through to prejudice. Students have told me that sharing infographics about their disability can be an easy, less emotionally exhaustive way to introduce their disability to others. I will post some introductory posts on my Instagram @lizzie_etc for health conditions I experience which anyone is welcome to use and for other conditions there are many other resources out there.
Plenty of students do not drink for a multitude of reasons including physical and mental health, cultural or religious beliefs, elite athletes, those on medication and people who just aren’t fussed. Honestly, by university, for many, alcohol is nothing new, if yours was anything like my school most people got over that novelty many years ago… usually in a park with a speaker. If you don’t drink, great, you actually stand a chance of remembering your freshers experience! Own your decision with confidence, you don’t need to justify it. You can still join in with pre games with a non-alcoholic drink - pre’s are much more about getting to know people and getting hyped for the night ahead.
Pacing Yourself & FOMO
Freshers’ week and FOMO can tempt us to push our bodies into flare ups (an increase in symptoms) as we try to keep up with everything. Don’t feel you need to do every event to have a freshers experience, by midweek many able-bodied students will be taking a night off too. Freshers is less about everyone going to everything, and more about there being something for everyone. You could pace yourself by going out alternate nights – I still went to pre’s on the nights I stayed home. If you want to go home early tell your STYCs, they could link you up with others to travel home together. Choose events you will enjoy most; it's about doing as much or as little as allows you to get maximum fun and minimum flares!
Masking is the suppressing of certain behaviours and performing of others to imitate the social majority, particularly privileged groups. It’s common within the disabled community but can apply to any minority group. I experience severe pain from Endometriosis and the constant masking of pain in public to keep up with able-bodied people can be utterly exhausting. Masking can be unconscious, the influence of ableism or even just escapism and many people will mask automatically without even realising they are doing it. At school or work we might mask for a few hours, but we then can come home to unmask and recover - the difference with university is that you live where you socialise, so it can feel like being on show 24/7. This constant masking can be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to take breaks, it’s okay to shut your door, have a wobble and recharge.
Dealing With Ableism
Ableism is discrimination, you can and should report it if it is affecting you, and please reach out to friends, community and tutors for support. From microaggressions through to overt ableism – it can be incredibly hurtful. I would give anyone struggling or who has taken a confidence knock from discrimination the same advice I give my friends: if someone that behaves in a way you disagree with (ableist, racist, transphobic etc) doesn’t get on with you… good! That’s a sign you must be doing something right. I would be far more concerned if someone who behaves in a harmful way thought that you and them had a lot in common. University is full of a variety of people; you are worthy of respect and there is room for being civil but keeping a healthy distance from someone.
Some of my top tips:
1. Stash some non-perishable Foods Under Your Bed!
It isn’t to replace proper food, it’s to be the difference between eating or not eating when needed. I find food such as biscuits, instant porridge (just add water), dried fruit, cereal bars, crackers and peanut butter useful. I’ve found that eating is one of the hardest parts of university life for many disabled students – especially during flare ups. If you are struggling to eat enough, please do reach out to disability services for support.
2. Bring LOTS of underwear and use Colour catchers to save yourself energy (and money) by doing fewer and less frequent wash loads!
3. Create a sick pack!
The last thing you want if you wake with freshers’ flu is to have to get to a shop – get in anything you could need from strepsils, pot noodles to burn cream.
4. Download VFlat– it’s free!
Through this app you can photograph a page and convert it instantly into a pdf or text. Great for notes and quotes if you struggle with long periods of typing. I also use it for medical paperwork – it allows me to photograph letters and store them all as pdfs on my phone, so I have easy access to them at university or away from home to email to tutors, disability services or for medical professionals.
5. If you struggle with note taking, on lecture replay content there is often captioning which I copy and paste into a document and then edit down to just the parts I need.
6. Join any society, don’t be put off by sports if you have a health condition!
I have a heart arrhythmia, if you mention your needs many societies will be happy to make adjustments to include you. It’s okay to join for the fun of it and just the parts you can manage – you don’t need to have any sporting ability! It’s much more about making friends.
7. Use Social Media to connect!
For all its pitfalls social media is a very accessible way to make friends, especially if you have limited mobility. My friend from another university even uses Bumble to make friends in her new area.
Finally, put yourself into opportunities you feel unqualified for, go for positions you have not seen people like yourself in and know that your place is everywhere and in everything on campus. You earned your space here and you pay the student fees… eek, so let that make you feel entitled to take this experience for every penny that it is worth - do more, ask for more and expect more. Disabled students have been some of the most impactful minds the world has ever seen - scientists, musicians, writers and more – you don’t owe anybody anything more than enjoying your time at university but please know that they are lucky to have you!