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Starting University With a Disability: 4 Key Things to Know


Starting university is daunting for everyone, but throw a disability into the mix, and you have a whole new host of worries. It’s only natural; but trust me, it won’t be as bad as you imagine. I was born visually impaired and have just finished my second year of university, so here are some things I wish I’d known before I started, but learned along the way all the same.

1. Most people won’t have a clue about your disability

This goes for fellow students, lecturers, seminar leaders, and even, sometimes, the Welfare or Accessibility offices. It turns out this is completely normal. Some ways of coping with disabilities make them more visible, like using a wheelchair or a white cane. However, many disabilities, including long-term illnesses, are not immediately obvious. This can mean that people might not realise, or understand, without some explanation.  I turned up to my first ever seminar as a nervous first-year to be told that we could not use laptops, as it increases the risk of somebody recording the session. I had never heard this rule before, and as someone who uses a laptop or tablet to access everything from the course texts to lecture PowerPoints, this was an unwelcome start to the year. I stayed behind at the end of the seminar to explain my situation, and of course, I was told I was completely fine to use whatever I needed to participate in the class.  However, after this initial stress, I emailed every other seminar leader I had. I explained my visual impairment, what I struggle with, what technology I use to get around it, and what I would need from them. Each one replied saying that they would happily provide what I needed and seemed very grateful that I got in touch. Now, I do this at the start of every new semester. I have the same email I send saved on my laptop so it’s not a long job, and it’s well worth doing.

2. Even when you have told people, they will sometimes forget!

Again, applicable to everyone from staff to students. Lecturers deal with hundreds of students so you can’t blame them for sometimes forgetting. I usually have any handouts or PowerPoints sent to me in advance, as this gives me a chance to familiarise myself with them and ensure they are accessible. Occasionally, this doesn’t happen. At first, if I didn’t receive anything, I would assume they had nothing to send. I soon learned that a friendly, ‘I just wanted to check’ email was the better option. It took me nearly the entirety of my first semester to start doing this. So, don’t be scared! You’re not pestering anyone. You’re not being rude. More often than not, the member of staff will be grateful for the gentle reminder.

3. Not being open about your disability is only going to make your life harder

I left sixth-form having been at that school for seven years. By the time I was leaving, I had a pretty good set up. Everyone, both in my year and those who taught me, knew how I worked, what helped, and what didn’t, without me needing to say anything. Coming to university meant re-building all of this as much as possible. However, it was tempting to just enjoy the fact that I could meet new people without them knowing I was visually impaired, and sometimes this is completely fine. However, when you meet your new flat mates, the longer you leave it before having a casual and easy chat about it, the more awkward it will end up being. Likewise, with course-mates. They could see I was doing my work slightly differently to other people, and often, they’d seem apprehensive to mention it in case they said the wrong thing. So to break that awkward spell, bring it up yourself. Explain with a quick summary. Here’s mine: ‘Well I’m pretty blind, so I can’t read small writing. I use text-to-speech software to listen to things, because reading can take me ten years’. Done! And move on with talking about the work. I have found the more awkward you are, the more awkward you make other people. In one of my first lectures, I put a headphone in my ear and the person next to me half-jokingly asked if I was planning on listening to music. I replied, ‘Nope, I’m just pretty blind and this reads to me, but maybe some tunes wouldn’t be a bad plan!’. We had a laugh, and this person ended up being one of my housemates in second year!

4. You will need to be organised

It can be a pain, but being proactive and organised is the best thing you can do for yourself. Whether it’s organising note-takers, lab assistants, sourcing accessible course materials, or getting hold of work you’ve had to miss, taking the lead on getting these sorted is likely to be the fastest way of getting them done. Channels of communication within universities can be complicated and therefore don’t always completely link up. This shouldn’t be the case, and it’s annoying, but it’s just the way it is. Find out the key contacts you’re going to need: the welfare office, your disability key-worker, the library team - whoever -  and use them. Of course, everyone’s disability is different, and so is everyone’s university experience. However, being proactive in explaining what you need from those around you to do well at university is something I recommend doing from the start, however daunting it may seem. There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing you could have avoided certain problems if you’d been a little bit more organised. There are bound to be some blips where things don’t exactly go to plan, so just be flexible and remember to enjoy the times when things work perfectly, and learn from the times that don’t.
GRB Blog Author and Student - Beth O Brien

Beth is an English Literature student at the University of Birmingham. In her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and travelling. She is about to spend a year abroad in Boston doing all three! 

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