Talking Disability and Student Life

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University life can be difficult, but it proves to be even more challenging for students with disabilities. Aino Lappalainen interviews two disabled students to get a glimpse of their experiences and struggles.

Having a disability affects every aspect of someone’s life, putting extra pressure on people as they go through higher education and try to excel in their studies. According to a press release by the Department of Education in January 2019, disabled students represent 13% of overall university admissions. While significant improvements to the support for disabled students have been made, the figure is still lower than the proportion of work-aged people with disability. 

Hanna* is a former student at the University of Leeds who was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome in the second year of her undergraduate studies. The disability causes abnormal changes in heart rate, leading to symptoms like intense dizziness and frequent brain fog. Theo* is a current mature student at the university, with multiple disabilities affecting his energy and anxiety levels. They shared their experiences on how disability shapes their university experience and social life, as well as the support systems available to them. 

Being in university is both challenging and rewarding in many ways for all, but for disabled students, getting the most out of their experience can take more determination. 

Hanna struggled to feel included in university life. She said: “My disability has often caused me to feel more removed from my University experience and at times has made me feel like an onlooker, rather than a participant.” This has led to her not being able to access events or societies she would have liked to. 

For Theo, negative experiences at a previous university have limited his engagement with some aspects of university life. It can be hard to balance your daily life with disability and the restrictions of participating in activities, which only emphasises the importance of accessibility and inclusion in university culture. 

One of the most important aspects of university is the social element; clubs, societies, gatherings and nights-out in town are integral parts of the student experience alongside academic activities. While it is fairly easy to determine that disabilities have an influence on academic requirements and performance, their effect on someone’s social life can be less obvious to those not aware of it. 

Hanna told that she found her real friends when she fell ill, while at the same time falling out of touch with many people – and she has also found comfort in the peer support of her online community. Despite having a support network, her disability forced her to leave behind trips, socials and even hobbies: “This had a huge impact on how I self-identified and I struggled to adjust to my new limitations.”

Both Hanna and Theo recognise changes in their social life in the context of academic study. Theo has come across persistent questioning about his disability: “I very often find myself avoiding questions related to my absences or why I need to take rest breaks during lectures so much. Sometimes I feel left out because I can’t keep up with the pace of academic life like everyone else does.” This can lead to feeling inadequate or easily ignored, which puts a strain on the overall wellbeing of students like Theo.

The Leeds University Union Building

For Hanna, the largest strains on her mental health came from not being able to support herself: “Sometimes I would still get ‘stuck’ on campus, having to lay on the floor to prevent passing out – both humiliating and uncomfortable.” 

Both of them recognise the issues as being partly caused by the invisibility of their disabilities, which has made it difficult for others to understand and take their needs seriously. In addition, their disabilities require them to manage their lives really closely, which makes it hard, if not impossible, to do anything spontaneously. 

As for getting support for their disabilities, they’ve had both positive and negative experiences. While Hanna is happy with the help she has received, the process of applying for support is tedious, as her disability was not recognised when she first fell ill: “Although it did not affect the support I received, not having my disability ‘recognised’ as such was both frustrating and upsetting, particularly as my journey to a medical diagnosis had been lengthy and difficult itself, sometimes being dismissed as ‘anxious’ or ‘overreacting’ by some healthcare professionals who had never heard of POTS.” This caused her to feel unworthy of support and care, and she would have continued to feel so without the understanding of her school and the help of her therapist. 

For Theo, the process of getting support is still in its early stages, as he is currently registering with Disability Services. He feels optimistic about the support, even though his previous experiences have left some scepticism of the continuity of support: “Often what happens is that as the year goes on, replies to your emails are delayed and sometimes go unanswered. This leaves you to deal with the problem on your own to avoid getting a low grade.” 

Despite their hardships, Hanna and Theo have managed to stay positive. Hanna was able to complete her undergraduate with top marks and continued on to a master’s course. Theo has been able to balance his studies and family life, and has found the best ways to work with his disability over the years. However, both feel that there are still unfair limitations and pressure put on disabled students. Hanna hopes for more consideration of disabled students at LUU events, clubs and societies as well as the university as whole: “Acknowledgement of chronic illness and coming to terms with a disability and how it impacts mental health is not taken seriously enough. The university should do more to tackle the ableism which is unfortunately inherent in our society and hugely damaging to people with disabilities.” 

Lydia Evans, LUU’s Activities Officer said in a statement:

“I know we haven’t got this right yet. Meaningful and genuine inclusivity, of all students, is something we are committed to improving, and the Liberation Co-Ordinators, along with all of our student reps, work hard to ensure the voices of all of our students are heard. From a Clubs and Societies perspective, it’s important that our committees are educated in how they can build inclusive spaces and remove barriers to all of their members fully enjoying being a part of a Club or Society at Leeds.

This year the Activities team has supported this through committee training, and the Officer team are working on the second year of the Tell Me More campaign, which invites committees to have honest conversations about breaking down barriers to participation.

Whilst these initiatives aim to improve the overall experience, if any student thinks we could do things differently or better, the Student Exec office is always open – we want to hear how we can support you better.

*The names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.