Disabled university students: Here's what support you can get

Cassie Lovelock (a stressed disabled PhD student)

Cassie is currently a PHD student. She shares her university experience and what she's learnt from having to advocate for herself in higher education.

Cassie in Barcelona

Firstly and most importantly – it is so exciting you are considering or applying to university, and if you have been accepted, congratulations! It can be incredibly daunting to go to university, and that’s without disability being a factor in this decision.

When I applied for my undergrad, my disability hadn’t made itself fully known in my life yet – I was in pain a lot, wobbly, and had numb legs and feet. But it wasn’t until my undergrad started that my disability became a permanent fixture in my daily life.

I floundered around trying to get support. I asked for lectures to be recorded so I could watch them back if I couldn’t attend, to not be charged for a notetaker who showed up to lectures when I couldn’t and to access any university counselling for support with my constantly changing symptoms.

It sounds like a nightmare, and in some ways, it was but don’t worry! There are hundreds of disabled students who have trodden the path you’re starting and have worked tirelessly to change the landscape for disabled students. Unfortunately, you will still have to advocate for your needs, so I’ve written some hints and tips for getting reasonable adjustments.

You might not have ever considered yourself disabled before now, and you may still not consider yourself disabled – but do not let the term hold you back from reaching out for support.

What are reasonable adjustments

A reasonable adjustment for your studies is a change or adaptation that can help you work to the best of your ability. If you haven’t had reasonable adjustments before, it might be difficult to figure out what changes can help, so here are some examples:

Adjustments for Lectures/Seminars 

  • Getting notes or slides in advance
  • Requesting alternative formats of course material 
  • Interpreters, scribes, or notetakers 
  • Accessible rooms 
  • Access to quiet spaces 
  • Lecture Capture!

Adjustments for Labs

  • Height adjustable equipment 
  • More time for tasks that require finer motor skills 
  • One-to-one support 
  • A safe environment for a service animal 
  • Access to quiet spaces

Adjustments for Exams 

  • Doing an exam in a smaller room or a room alone 
  • Having comfort breaks or snack breaks
  • Dictating to a notetaker or using a computer 
  • Given extra time overall 
  • Changing when (time of day) you sit the exam if you have a fluctuating condition
  • Being able to pause your exam and answer if specific numbers call you on your mobile phone 

This is not an exhaustive list in any form. Your needs will be unique to you, your situation and your disability. Getting reasonable adjustments can often be complex, involving contacting various university bodies. Many things that might seem simple or obvious are often not in place at university; this can be super frustrating.

My top tips

Unfortunately, you might find yourself repeating your needs to various people. To minimise this, I have put some tips below:

Tips For Undergrads

  • Make contact with the universities disability services.

During this contact, ask if you can make an inclusion plan (this may have another name, such as a disability support plan). This document is put together between you and your disability advisor. It will detail what needs to be done to help you study to the best of your ability. Once complete, this will be emailed to your academic supervisor and yourself. This document is not static! You can add to it as things change.

  • Make contact with your academia tutor/supervisor as soon as possible.

Take the time to explain to them your needs – in terms of adjustments to help you complete your studies and how they and the wider university can support you (and if you are not sure, ask them what other students have had). If you have made an inclusion plan, you can bring this with you when you meet your supervisor/tutor.

  • Contact your seminar leads, lecturers, and lab support.

Explain to them about what you need in each session and attach your inclusion plan and CC in your academic tutor/supervisor. You can ask your academic supervisor to do this if you’d rather!

  • Contact your university's Disabled Students Network.

This is a forum set up by disabled students to provide peer support, representation, and work with the university and the students union to improve disabled students’ experiences on campus.

If you’re living on campus and need room adaptions:

  • When you have your offer, contact Estates to talk with them and the leader of your Block/College about adaptions to your room.
  • If you’re able, go visit the room you’ll be living in to see if anything needs changing.

Tips for Masters Students

  • Become familiar with the extension processes in each department you’re based in.
  • Contact disability services to make an inclusion plan if you feel like you need one.
  • Make friends with the course administrators! They are a wealth of helpful info.

Tips for PhD Students

  • Inquire if your funding body has a pot of money for reasonable adjustments:
    • These could be adaptions to your lab or office space,
    • Specialist computer equipment,
    • Budget for helping you travel to and from locations – campus, training events, fieldwork sites,
    • A mentor to support you with meeting deadlines.
  • Contact your universities disability services – but be wary that they often do not have much support in place for PhD students.

Some Good Overall Tips 

  • See if you qualify for Disabled Students Allowance.
  • Try and find an exhaustive list of what the university can offer you – they may be able to do things that would be helpful that you had not considered.
  • Remember you are allowed (and encouraged) to access support external to the university – if you have specialists already, see if they can refer you to a similar service/person in the area you’re moving to.
  • Remember your health history and your story are yours, and yours alone. Set yourself boundaries with what you are willing to share.

Don’t let the idea of disability turn you away from finding your community, support, and understanding your rights!

Don’t panic!

You might not have ever considered yourself disabled before now, and you may still not consider yourself disabled – but do not let the term hold you back from reaching out for support. You deserve to have the best university experience possible, and having a community of peers where you support each other was absolutely key to my university experience!

Don’t let the idea of disability turn you away from finding your community, support, and understanding your rights! Colleges and universities have a legal duty to try to remove the barriers you face in education because of disability.

You are not and never will be a bother for seeking support for your needs!

Follow Cassie's work

You can find Cassie on Instagram (@soapsub) and Twitter (@soapsub).