Top tips for students starting university with a disability

Wheelchair User

Written By: Jennifer Urwin 29/9/15

Uni can be daunting if you have a disability, but students say the majority of people you meet will be understanding

Going away to university for the first time can be daunting for everyone. But if you also have a disability and are leaving home, there can be additional factors to get nervous about – so it’s worth taking a little extra time to prepare.

Figure out your surroundings

Zoe Hallam, 24, studied PPE at the University of Oxford in 2011, and has muscular dystrophy. She says: “Going away to university was the first time I had to manage my own care. I had to try a few different sources before I found a support network that really worked for me.”

If you use specific equipment that you need to be mobile, find a local maintenance service, so you don’t find yourself stuck, says Hallam. “When your wheelchair breaks down, as it inevitably will after a few nights out, you’ll need to have someone who can come out and fix it.”

Find out what support is out there for you

There are lots of services at universities to support students with disabilities. You just need to find out about them early on.

Pippa Stacey, 20, is about to go into her third year studying psychology in education at the University of York. She has a chronic illness and an autoimmune condition. She says: “Talk to the university disability advisors and have a student support plan in place.

“Even though this is automatically sent to all your lecturers, it’s better to also email each of them personally, explaining in your own words how your condition may affect their particular lectures and what they can do to help.” 

Sarah Wilson, 28, studied an MA in English at Edge Hill University. She has a chronic illness, and found the inclusions team at her university helpful. “Ask for a meeting to discuss your needs. I had learning facilitators that came to every seminar and lecture with me to take my notes and email them to me later that day. I wouldn’t have completed either of my degrees without them.”

Wilson thinks the key to great support at university is communicating with the right people. “It’s important to make the university aware of your condition and they will suggest ways they can help you with your studies.”

Make new friends

You’re thrown in at the deep end when it comes to making friends at university – you’re suddenly living with complete strangers. “The main thing I’d say is to be open to new experiences and try not to worry too much,” says Hallam.

“In my first term I didn’t spend a huge amount of time getting to know people and going to social events – partly because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to participate. But I found that people’s attitudes to me were very open and accommodating, which wasn’t what I’d expected.”

Remember that everyone starting university away from home is in the same boat, and they all want to make friends. You’ll find it easier to settle in if you go for it.

Hallam adds: “In your first term you’ll meet new people and have lots of opportunities to socialise. If your condition is something that affects socialising, be honest and open about this from the start. Denying it and pushing yourself too hard isn’t worth the suffering that could follow. The majority of people you meet will be understanding.”

Remember to take a break

Make sure you use your time in between lectures and socialising wisely, and build in opportunities for self-care and relaxation. You don’t want to get worn out and end up having to miss lectures or spend your whole summer holiday recovering.

“Throughout the academic year, and particularly at exam time, the workload can be tough to manage,” says Stacey. “It’s important to work hard, but don’t forget to factor in time for self-care. Know that it’s OK to take a break, relax and to do something that makes you happy. University can be tough and you deserve some time to focus on yourself.”

Don’t let your disability stop you

George Russell, 19, is in his second year studying law at the University of York. He uses a wheelchair and occasionally requires carers to help him with day-to-day activities. His advice is to always make sure you stand up for yourself.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Once you’re at uni, you’re in charge of what you do. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

“If someone says you can’t do something, ask them why not and try and figure out a solution to the problem. I know there have been times in the past I’ve had to get creative to make things work but I’ve got there in the end and done more than I ever thought that I would.”

Russell is quick to tell people not to let disability cloud their choices or dampen their spirits. “You are just as good at what you do as everyone else. You have the same right as everyone else to attend uni and be successful.”

Emily Davison, 21, who studied English literature at Goldsmiths College and is visually impaired, says enjoy your time at university. “It’s a fantastic few years – I got to meet so many like-minded people who didn’t treat me differently because of my disability.”

  • Jennifer Urwin is the digital community and social media officer at
    disability charity Scope. She works on the organisation’s online community.
  • For more tips about starting university as a disabled student, and general disability life hacks, visit Scope’s online community

Source: The Guardian 



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