How to advocate for yourself as a disabled university student
Caprice chats about her experience at university as a disabled student. She explains how by advocating for herself she changed policies for future students.
Starting university should be one of the most exciting times of your life. Studying, meeting new people, and experiencing new things.
Unfortunately, for a lot of disabled people, this isn’t always the case. We’re often left having to fight for our basic rights and must navigate an ableist education system. The lack of understanding for those with disabilities within the education system needs to change.
My university experience
This was my experience after starting university in September 2021. It took a lot to stand up and advocate for myself. Still, my experience taught me a lot about the rights we do have as disabled students, so I hope by sharing my story, experiences and important resources, this blog will help you. Whether you’re just about to start university, halfway in … or even about to leave. Disabled students deserve to be heard.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that starting university is a huge step for many disabled people. I’ve been fighting for my education as a disabled person since secondary school, so being able to start university was a huge accomplishment for me. Before starting university, I applied for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). DSA is a government grant in the UK available to disabled students in higher education. I highly recommend applying for this several months before you begin university. If you don’t have DSA, but you’ve started university already… Don’t worry! You can still apply. You will be asked to send evidence of your impairment, health condition or disability.
Unfortunately, despite applying early for DSA, mine didn’t kick in until a month or two after starting my course. However, I wasn’t too worried as I knew my university would have their own student services and disability department that could support me. Oh, was I wrong! When I arrived on my first day, there was absolutely no trace of me. I spent several weeks emailing student services, explaining to tutors that I had a disability and encountering ableism from tutors and my university’s front of house staff on several occasions.
I was given no support
A few months into starting my course, I tried to arrange meetings to put reasonable adjustments in place, despite my university having a copy of my Educational Health Care plan to guide them. At the same time, I was also trying to make arrangements with the health and safety manager to schedule a fire evacuation and risk assessment, which took seven months to organise! I was crying out for help, but not one person was listening to me. My mental and physical health started to decline drastically. Reasonable Adjustments are also known as SORA (Statement and/or Summary of Reasonable Adjustments). More information on Reasonable Adjustments can be found on Disability Rights UK – They provide great examples of different adjustments you are entitled to.
When you start university, you should be given a plan outlining your disability, support needs and reasonable adjustments – your plan could be called a Disability Support Plan, Individual Learning Plan, or something similar. Ensuring you have a plan before starting university is crucial, as your university has an obligation to adhere to it. Unfortunately, as I wasn’t given mine beforehand, it was a fight to get one once I had started university. This is something I had to learn throughout my advocacy journey.
Going through all of this wasn’t about me alone. I stood up, spoke to organisations, re-wrote my complaint letter over 100 times so it would be perfect, and I did this for every single disabled person that attends university too.
Lack of understanding
After spending months trying to fight for the support I was entitled to, the final straw for me was a meeting I had. It was a meeting with my course leader, personal tutor, two members of staff from student services and my mum to discuss putting my reasonable adjustments in place and the lack of support I had received since starting university.
My mum has advocated for me since the day I became disabled, and I wouldn’t have been able to advocate for myself without her in this meeting or at university. In our meeting, my course leader openly told me that I was the second physically disabled student they had ever had on the fashion course. My course leader and personal tutor were unaware of the Equality Act 2010, where my mum and I spent the whole meeting explaining that my unfavourable treatment as a disabled student was illegal.
My course leader was very confrontational with my mum due to his severe lack of understanding and said he couldn’t understand why I should get special treatment. Although, what I was asking for wasn’t special. I took great offence to this as it was what I was entitled to as a disabled student! At this point, I knew I had to submit a formal complaint, so the next few days after my meeting were spent on the phone with different organisations seeking help and advice. If your experience is anything like mine, or you’re currently studying at university but didn’t know you were entitled to help and support, know you’re not alone and have so many rights.
After taking out the time to research my rights, disability discrimination, and the Equality Act 2010 – I submitted my first formal complaint. Due to the severity of the treatment I faced at university, I received an apology. I was also awarded compensation for the distress they caused me and offered a free year of tuition. This was because I had to restart my first year due to support not being in place, which meant I couldn’t fully access the course the same way other non-disabled students could.
The best thing that came from my complaint was the policies put in place because I knew that they could potentially help more disabled students with similar experiences to mine – and for that, I was grateful.
A few policies that I got put into place were:
- Reasonable Adjustments for all disabled students.
- Staff training for disability awareness.
- Disabled student’s handbook.
My feedback was raised about the appropriateness of the university’s General Academic Regulations for students, and it was passed on to the University Secretary and the Quality and Policy Committee for consideration. Going through all of this wasn’t about me alone. I stood up, spoke to organisations, re-wrote my complaint letter over 100 times so it would be perfect, and I did this for every single disabled person that attends university too.
I made a very personal decision not to return to my university, as I didn’t feel safeguarded as a disabled student at all. This situation caused my mental and physical health to deteriorate, which left me very unwell to return to. Since making that decision not to return to university, I’ve been focusing on my mental and physical health, as this whole situation affected me massively. I’ve been taking out the time to focus on my jewellery business, By Caprice-Kwai too.
I created my own complaint template letter to help you if you need it. This letter allowed me to fight back against my university and get important policies put in place for disabled students. I really do hope this template letter can you help you. Again, whether you’re just about to start university, you’re halfway in… Or even about to leave!
A massive thank you to Leonard Cheshire for allowing me to share my experience and for allowing me to write such an important blog for disabled students. Thank you so much for taking out the time to read my blog.
I’m sending you loads of love on your advocacy journey. Caprice-Kwai Xx