At University with a Disability

A Decision to Study an Undergraduate Degree 2014

Now I will not pretend I am a guru on everything disability or University related, but I can advise you based on my experience… 

Back in 2014, I attended Bournville College in Longbridge, now called South and City College Birmingham, and had two fantastic years there. It was an experience that changed my life but I didn’t originally expect to study for an undergraduate degree. My college tutors steered me toward the University path as they did for everyone else. Still, with my disability being what it was, I thought it would prohibit me from going to University and I would have to find something else to do after college. I began to explore different possibilities when some of my tutors and the college disability team pointed out that there is support and guidance if University was something I wanted to do. My own ignorance was shown and opened my eyes to a potential future in further education.

Everything was based on word of mouth and knowledge of particular areas, but I made sure to research each aspect of support out there for students with disabilities at University before even considering studying at a university and a course. From my local Social Services providing the funds for peers and carers during my time at university to extra finance which would cover any crucial academic support that I would need at any point in my three years of further study. I saw from the beginning of considering this pathway that it was going to be a slow and tiring process, with my Cerebral Palsy making things a lot more challenging but I still felt optimistic.

I sincerely appreciate everyone’s help and support through this decision but I had to keep reminding myself that I wanted to do it for myself as opposed to what others wanted me to do. I had some of the best times in my school years. University wasn’t something I had initially considered but I liked the thought of going somewhere to study so decided to take it one step at a time in the University direction.

The first thing on my list was to contact my local social services to brief them on my potential decision to study at the undergraduate level. My hope was to get the ball rolling before I lost myself in the process. I will be honest with you, the dealings with social services were no walk in the park but with perseverance, I was able to put a care package into place.

Applying for Student Finance England (SFE) & its Process 

Applying for student finance was easier with people who had experience with the process and the support the extended services at college gave. The form filling was quite monotonous but self-explanatory. Basic information, name, age, date of birth, nationality, class, address, contact details and more. It got difficult when I needed to provide information about my parents or guardian, as, besides the basic information, I also had to write down the income they received because this affected the extent of finance I would receive. It meant that the process was a little bit longer than I imagined, as I had to fill out various parts of the forms with my parents in attendance or kept conferring with them to make sure the information I had was correct. Then it was a long wait to hear back from student finance. We weren’t given much correspondence from student finance except for the odd email saying they’ve received my application or my application is being processed, but eventually, I was lucky to have my student finance confirmed. I would be able to use the funds given to me to cover my tuition fees and at least some of my accommodation fees.

As a potential undergraduate student with a disability, I filled out another form aside from my student finance. I applied for Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) loan; a loan that would help me with any academic support such as note-taking, software, equipment, student support, or anything that could help me in my three years of study. I found it particularly bizarre when I was asked to provide evidence of my disability to support my application, but my college assured me that it was just routine and it would strengthen my application in the long run. I wondered, with my disability, what I would be eligible for in terms of support.

It was some time before I heard anything from DSA.  I had received a letter confirming they had received my application but nothing else. Using the login they gave me via the letter, I checked my online profile for a progress report on my application but it remained the same. No progress. One thing I will say is that DSA is not timely but efficient. As well as processing my application, they were quick to ask for more evidence to support my application before finally approving it.

NOTE: The following meeting took place in 2014 so the process may have changed since then.

Once my DSA application was approved, I was asked to attend a face-to-face appointment where I spoke about my disability and the difficulties it presents. I also gave them a partial background of the support I received at school and then college. The assessor that saw me and my parents was pleasant and was open to what we had to say and broke down the type of support, equipment and software they could offer me. He checked my application and informed me that they would be able to allow me funds for a note taker and University support officer that could help me with my academia. He also said I would have a high low desk which would save me a lot of strain as I could drive my chair underneath it and be able to work on my computer comfortably and use my notebook without much difficulty, but in terms of equipment and software, it would be by most likely course dependent.

Informing him that I had just finished an extended diploma in Creative Media Production at Bournville College, I would more than likely move to study undergraduate degree in a similar if not identical area. After some conversation with me confirming the type of equipment and software that I used during my college qualification, he said I could put in a request for an Apple iMac computer with the Final Cut Pro, which is a video editing software. I was happy as this would probably be the remaining software that we would use for practical assessments in any media course. In relation to my disability, including my dyslexia, they were happy to give me a microphone and Dragon dictation software, which would make writing essays so much easier for me. My motor skills sometimes prohibit me from writing a lot without it causing a lot of pain for me in my hands so the Dragon dictation software would prove instrumental. I was also given the partner software to Dragon Dictation which is Claroread, a software which will help proofread long essays which also would prove to be great because my dyslexia often interrupted the reliability of how I reread my work.

Fast forward all of these years and though Final Cut Pro soon lost its use with the program not being reliant on me anymore, everything else is working great. The iMac is getting old now and therefore a lot slower than what it was but it’s still working for me and it means I can have the latest updates of particular writing software that I use on a daily basis. I just have to be wary about how much I use the iMac and how much I learnt from memory. The funds providing the note-taking and study support were instrumental in my studies in 2014 as they were later on in further years of study. (I will go into further detail in the future posts of this series) with the crucial support, I had to keep up with the pace of my lectures and seminars and the ever-demanding deadlines for the assignments. But over everything else, I have to say that my high-low desk and the software is given, minus the Dragon dictation software as it doesn’t work anymore, (I have found an alternative), has lifted a real burden off my shoulders…

Pause take a moment and read:

ClaroRead Software for Dyslexia – Little Sea Bear

Thought of Living Away from Home

*Deep breath* Initially the thought of going to University in a different city and living away from home was too much to handle and I didn’t even consider it as an option. I knew these geographical issues would affect my decision depending on where I would choose to study. I would have to look at whether it was possible to commute or I would have to live in student accommodation. A lot of people told me that my student experience would be better if I chose to live in accommodation. It took a mental and emotional toll on me and I didn’t know what to think but I decided to look into my options and then see if it was possible for me to live in student accommodation before I made any hard and fast decisions.

After some research and speaking to two different people who had more knowledge and experience than me when it came to going to University, I heard that it was an option to live in student accommodation if that’s what I wanted to do. Depending on the University I would choose to go to, there are particular accommodation buildings that have disabled rooms. If it was something I wanted to do then I could speak to the people at that accommodation to see what adaptations they could put into place for me. But I decided to take it one step at a time whether to live in student accommodation or not when I made the decision on which University to study at. 

Thoughts of Moving Forward

The idea of going to study at University scared me and I still don’t know how I mustered up the courage to go. The thought of it terrified me but also excited me as I could take this step for myself. I liked the thought of exploring a new city and a new campus and seeing what different opportunities were there for me while flourishing in something I enjoy.

So many lines entwined into my own decision and I must admit I was so scared to meet new people as they didn’t know me and I didn’t know how they would react to my disability. However, I knew not to try and dwell on it for too long otherwise it would drive me crazy. It was another chance to reinvent myself and make another group of friends. Living in student accommodation was definitely something I was on the fence about and I learned, despite people’s opinions, I had to try and not let them get in my head. 

Now it was on to the next step of researching different courses and different Universities…


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