Tips for studying with a disability

This is a guest post by Rhiannon Lunney, a PhD student in theoretical physics at Cardiff University. She is studying at an 80% rate to accommodate physical disability that developed during her undergraduate years. She is a tap dancer and an avid knitter, often seen to be making socks through seminars. Since developing a disability herself, Rhiannon has become a passionate supporter of disability rights, attempting to use her own experiences to improve that of others.

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After six years as an undergraduate, I’m something of a veteran of disability services. I developed fibromyalgia during my first year of undergraduate study and suddenly found myself facing challenges I never thought I would encounter, as well as my own ableist attitudes. I slowly accepted my situation, in the meantime studying at an 80% rate. I encountered plenty of issues and challenges during this time, especially when fighting for disability accommodations to be implemented.

Here are some of the insights I gained from the experience. I publish it here in the hopes that it might help someone with a disability who is headed to university – of course, my experiences do not cover the entire spectrum of disability experiences, but I have tried to make this as general as possible. If anything I have said here raises concern for someone, or you’d like to discuss anything raised, please feel free to contact me regarding it.

Studying: making use of services available

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  • I cannot stress this enough: register as disabled, see a disability adviser, tell them about your illness. They are your advocates for any teaching/exam requirements. I used to see mine weekly to keep track of how I was doing so she could communicate that to lecturers, and she remains a crucial contact even though I have now left that university. If you need extensions, or have issues of any kind in class or with a particular lecturer, a disability adviser can help you sort it.
  • If you don’t get on with your disability adviser, ask for a change. They are there to support, not to cause further problems for you. I had one who was apparently great for people with learning difficulties, but who was less good for physical illness. It made me reluctant to use the services. When a new adviser arrived, I was assigned to her, and she went above and beyond for me. She had more experience with physical disability, and worked with me to implement the exact types of support I needed. She also met with me weekly to make sure I was keeping on track, and became a good friend.
  • Get to know your department’s head of disability. They liaise with the disability advisers and pass any information from them onto the staff. They often have an open-door policy, so you have support on hand when you need it.
  • If a lecturer is particularly helpful and understanding, try to stay in touch with them. They are always glad to know their help is appreciated and can offer support in a crisis or if you struggle with another member of staff.
  • A lot of universities offer counselling, which can stand in for mental health services in a pinch. They might have an online appointment booking service too.
  • Check out alternative study spaces. Some departments have their own library or study areas (I’m a fan of labs, even though I do no lab work!), which you’re often allowed in regardless of which department you belong to.
  • See if there are accessible learning facilities. I’ve seen provision given in a separate room for those who need particular facilities.
  • If you’re in the UK, apply for Disabled Student Allowance (DSA). It’s a much friendlier assessment than Personal Independence Payment/Disabled Living Allowance: the focus for DSA is helping you as much as possible, rather than working out how ill you are. They provide equipment like tables and chairs for home study, voice recorders, software, and money towards textbooks. Take what they offer you – you might not have used the strategies before, but they may come in handy in the long run! As a scientist who mostly does maths, I never thought I would need mindmapping software. It was incredibly useful in writing my dissertation, and I still use it now.

Studying: independent study

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  • Be as comfy as possible – if being at a desk for long periods hurts, study on a sofa or in bed. Be kind to your body!
  • Change your position regularly, get up and move around (if you can). Don’t sit still to the detriment of your health.
  • If you work in bed, try a lap tray designed for a laptop to work on. I have a large crescent-shaped one from Ikea that’s great, and there are some fantastic desks with legs for in bed on Amazon.
  • Some people like taking a break every half hour, using the Pomodoro method (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique). Others like to just keep going until they have to have a break to avoid breaking chain of thought. Study technique is an individual thing and there’s no “right” way to do it. Work out what is best for you. Sometimes that might be a mix of various techniques.
  • Working 9-5 doesn’t work for everyone. If you like working in the middle of the night, go for it. A lot of universities now offer lecture capture, so it may be possible to still take a class even if your sleep isn’t set to allow a 9-5 day.
  • Your degree is meant to be 40 hours per week. If classes are demanding more time than that, you have reason to discuss this with your school and disability support. This is an accessibility issue and is easily dismissed by those without disabilities.

Studying: lectures and classes

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  • If you aren’t comfortable in lecture theatre seating, ask about having a different chair and desk. There is often a wheelchair accessible desk in lecture theatres, and universities can provide ergonomic seating.
  • If you’re using a voice recorder, get university permission and permission of individual lecturers. A lot of lecturers appreciate you asking them if it’s okay, although they can’t say no if it is a part of your reasonable adjustment plan.
  • You may be given typed notes for classes. These aren’t always particularly forthcoming, so either prompt your lecturers (they genuinely forget) or ask a disability adviser to do it for you.
  • If you have seminars or very long classes, speak to the lecturers about having a break in the middle to stretch, or if they are happy for you to stretch at the side of the room. Breaks are also helpful for clearing brain fog.
  • You are not a burden. It is your right to have equal access to education and be given the same opportunities as your peers. If you are made to compromise your needs for the university’s lack of willing to provide resources, you have every right to push for further help.

Studying: brain fog strategies

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  • Remember the cheesy high school classes on revision strategies? Some of those might come in handy.
  • Mindmaps are your friend, especially for extended writing. Your university might offer free software for this, or be given some through DSA.
  • Post-it notes for everything, everywhere. Put them by the door so you don’t forget something. Stick an important fact somewhere.
  • Use a whiteboard or write on mirrors and windows. Just make sure it’s not permanent ink!! I got some “magic” whiteboard that stuck to the walls with static, it was amazing for revising.
  • Make yourself a short set of crib notes of important info before exams. These can help you to whizz through the important stuff just before entering the examination hall, and get your head in the zone.

Living at university: practicalities

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  • If you’re in catered halls, try to go to some meals, even if you can’t eat the food or stay for long. It’s where a lot of socialising happens.
  • See if the people in your flat/corridor will leave their doors open while everyone is working. It can make a really nice atmosphere. Equally, if you need silence, it’s okay to shut the world out.
  • Consider a mattress topper, especially memory foam. Beds in student accommodation are notoriously bad, but are significantly helped with a topper. I prefer them 2-3” deep, and the cost is worth it for the improvement in sleep quality.
  • Be realistic with yourself about cooking: if you don’t have the spoons to make elaborate meals, students are the last people to judge.
  • If you’re struggling to cook vegetables, have some fruit you enjoy, or crudites and dip.
  • See if a few people will do a supermarket shop with you and split a taxi fare door to door. Otherwise, online shopping is a good bet, especially if self catered.
  • If you’re struggling with anything, ask! Whether it’s opening a jar or getting your head around an assignment, people will help.
  • It’s your choice whether you tell the people around you about your illness. You can say nothing, hint that about it, or just give them the whole story. It’s only their business if you want it to be. I found that many people had their own mental or physical health challenges, or a close family member who did.
  • Make the most of any free food events in halls – they are a great, low-booze way to meet others.
  • If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t be pressured into it by people around you! Those who don’t accept your decision aren’t the people you need around you.
  • Join a society! It doesn’t need to be sports, just a way to meet some people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and a way to switch off for a while.

I realise I’ve often highlighted the worst case scenario here. It is unlikely that you will encounter many of these problems during your degree! University is a fantastic experience, as well as providing a great education. Good luck to anyone applying or soon to go to uni, you’ll have a great time!

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