For university students with disabilities, navigating the challenges of university can be daunting. From finding accessible resources to balancing academic demands with personal needs, having a disability can add another layer of complexity to students’ experiences with higher education. However, with the right support, students with disabilities can thrive, achieving their personal, academic and professional goals. In this post, I share some advice from disabled students for disabled students.
Please note: This is just personal advice and does not replace professional care.
Emily, a 3rd year criminology student, shared some valuable advice with me that she says has helped her recently. Emily has Type 1 Diabetes, Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy (a condition that causes severe pain due to nerve damage, affecting her back, legs and feet) and Autism. She advises to “never be afraid to ask for and accept the help you need”. Emily wants to remind other students with disabilities that needing help from others, whether that is from individuals or organisations, does not diminish your worth as a person. It is not a sign of weakness, nor should it be embarrassing; rather, reaching out and seeking support takes courage and is a sign of strength. Emily states:
“I recently was in so much pain that I had to move back home because I couldn’t walk. It took a long time for me to give in and accept my parents’ help but after I did it was relieving to know that I was not alone in my struggle and I could focus on getting better.”
Taking this step to accept help from her parents has allowed Emily to heal from the pain she was going through, something she thinks she would not have been able to do alone. Relying on support systems does nothing to take away from your strength!
Megan, a 3rd year philosophy student, shares similar advice to Emily, reinforcing the same message: it is more than okay to ask for help! Megan has cerebral palsy. She states:
“When I was younger, in primary and secondary school, I hated asking for help, it made me feel really embarrassed and I felt like it "othered" me. But as I've gotten older, I've realised that there's absolutely no shame in needing some help and no shame in asking for it. I can't change my disability and I can't get rid of my symptoms, but I can make life easier for myself by engaging with the help that's out there.”
From her experience at Lancaster University, Megan says that the disability services have been excellent. However, she says that if there is any specific support or resource that would help you that is not readily available, do not hesitate to ask for it. Seeking additional assistance should not be viewed as being difficult, but rather as an opportunity to ensure you have a fulfilling and enjoyable university experience. There are many individuals and organisations ready and willing to listen and support you in any way they can, and you deserve to have the help you need to succeed.
My own advice echoes this. As someone with a mental illness rather than a physical one, I used to feel as though I did not truly have a disability, and that by asking for help, I was taking resources away from the people who really needed it. However, the disability service at Lancaster University has never treated me as any less deserving than others. I have been given the support I have needed to complete 2 and a half years of study at Lancaster! I am a few months away from graduating from my philosophy degree, and I could not be prouder. The one thing I would emphasise is that it is okay if your journey looks different from your peers’ journeys. Whether in relation to your social life, your learning style or your pattern of assignment, your university experience may be impacted by your disability, and that is okay! I used to feel like I was failing every time I asked for an extension on my coursework. In fact, the vast majority of my coursework deadlines have been extended. However, I now realise that turning my work in at later times from my peers simply reflects my unique struggles as a university student, and the ability to have my deadlines extended reflects the support that has been put in place to allow me to do the very best I can. It is also more than valid if your support system comes from many different sources! A combination of friends, family, medication, CBT therapy, accommodations from my ILSP and resources from my DSA, have allowed me to thrive.
Locket wonderfully and poetically sums everything up:
“Allow yourself to be soft, and allow yourself to rely on others. You are not a bother, or a liability, or any other word your anxiety throws at you. You are loved, and cared for, so make sure your bones are not straining underneath all the walls you built up. Let your life be a practice in joy.”
If you are a student with a disability, feel free to share in the comments your personal experience of navigating university life!