Two case studies about history students who use a wheelchair. In Study A, a student with ME describes how her wheelchair use affects her. In Study B, a student describes what adjustments have been made for her.
These case studies are taken from Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
(information extracted and accessed January 2008)
Case Study A: Catherine Hudson
I am a final year history student studying at the University of Liverpool, heading for a first and relishing a dissertation on gangster films. I am also disabled. My medical diagnosis is ME but I must admit I am reluctant to share this information with others: I am wary of subconscious discrimination on their part. That ME has had bad press in the past is to put it mildly. That most people still do not understand the complexities of this illness is a given. For me it means that I am not always in a wheelchair.
This can mean that I feel my chair acts as a badge qualifying me for support. Why should I have to debate my condition with strangers if I need help but am not using my wheelchair? Unfortunately many people question other’s disabilities if they are ‘invisible’. This is something my university’s Disability Steering committee is working to change. We plan to educate staff about how to react to students with such dilemmas. Often people want to help, they just need a little nudge in the right direction.
That said the majority of my university experience has been a positive one. I have had help with timetabling, exams, coursework extensions, longer library loans, and disabled student grants, the list goes on…
Throughout my five-year student life I have met wonderful people, and gained a deep and lasting fulfilment from my degree. I have had a lot of help, from a lot of people, which has got me to where I am now – Although I was not aware I would need so much back up when I applied. I would urge others to talk to their prospective department to gauge attitudes prior to making an application. It just so happens that I fell on my feet, as it were.
My University’s Disability and Welfare team has come into its own in the past years, providing endless advice and support. I am also involved with a mentoring scheme for disabled students. This has paired me with a BBC journalist. This gives me an insight into how I am perceived in the working world. I have to say I have had nothing but positive feedback and boosted confidence as a result. In this way disability has perhaps even enhanced my student experience. It has certainly opened some doors for me.
In physical terms, I would like to be able to open my own doors. To make this happen at my university a petition, with articles in our student paper, helped convert my Georgian department. I was so grateful for the student voice at this point. I have felt alienated from others at times, but this helped me see that if people were quiet around me they were probably just worried about saying the wrong thing. This helped me to learn to be comfortable about who I am and the way I may look to fellow students. I realised, if you are comfortable with yourself you send a signal to others that they can be too.
As I approach the end of my university life I feel I am a well rounded individual. I have had many experiences I wish I had not: sitting at the bottom of a slope to the library, in the pouring rain, waiting to be pushed up was a low. Being invited to consult on a university access audit was a high. However, one thing is for certain, I will never be short of things to talk about at interview. I know the lessons learnt and skills honed as a disabled person represent what employers are looking for. I recently talked at an equal opportunities fair in London. My brief was to convey the normalcy of disabled people. I got a number of job offers and some fascinating feedback as a result.
My experiences qualify me to say to anyone reading this; market yourself in the future. Be proud of where you are now, and where you have come from. Also, never doubt that help is there; don’t be too proud to ask for it.
Case Study B: Siân Pooley
Institution: University of Cambridge
Starting university is a daunting experience for anyone and, as a wheelchair user with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, I was petrified about how I was going to manage at university. At school I had used a manual wheelchair and relied on the help of a support assistant and my family. However, I was determined to be entirely independent when I left home. I decided that I would need a small electric mobility scooter and thanks to the Snowdon Award Scheme, I was able to purchase the scooter.
In applying, being interviewed and studying at St John’s College, Cambridge I have found everyone very friendly and unprejudiced. Most importantly, I have always been treated as an individual. Both my college and department offer a lot of support if I need it, but without being patronising or interfering. In my case, this has included fitting out my room so that everything is within easy reach, building ramps, fetching books, and moving lectures and supervisions to accessible rooms.
My time as an undergraduate has been incredibly rewarding. I write weekly for a student newspaper, help organise a community-based volunteering scheme and have played the cello in several music groups. I have loved studying for my history degree, which has constantly challenged and inspired me academically. Indeed, I am hoping to continue at Cambridge next year to study for a PhD in history. As all wheelchair users know, access can be frustrating at times. Cambridge is an amazing place to study but it was not built with access in mind – 500 year old buildings, and winding staircases are not ideal for wheelchairs. However, the university also has the funds and dedication to improve access wherever possible.
I cannot believe how fast the last three years have gone or how much I have learnt in that time. Above all, I feel very lucky that I have had the privilege of being able to fulfil my dreams and overcome any difficulties, and just hope that others have the same chances. University can show you just how endless opportunities in life can be, and, most importantly, that if you want to do something, virtually anything is possible.