The following case studies were taken from: IPDPS – Improving Provision for Disabled Psychology Students project, HEFCE Strand Two Project, Universities of York, Middlesex and Aston, http://www.psychology.heacademy.ac.uk/ipdps/ipdps.asp?CurrentPageID=6 (information extracted and accessed October 2006).
Tricia is a mature-age student with children, who has multiple sclerosis (MS). She is in her second year of an undergraduate degree in psychology. Tricia used to be a nurse until her diagnosis. When she was initially diagnosed with MS she found it extremely traumatic and felt that returning to study would be an advantage because it would help her to “focus on something else”. She chose to study for an undergraduate psychology degree as she had always been interested in the subject, and felt that it would also be beneficial to her in the future in terms of her nursing career.
She initially chose not to discuss her condition with staff at her chosen university, as she felt she was attending it to be as much like any other mature-age student as possible, getting away from family to have her own time and not be continually focusing on her medical condition: “I didn’t really want to share, I was just a normal person. Coming here was just getting away from the family and away from the children and it was giving me my time”.
However, this year she spoke to the disability services, which she found helpful. She has been given a computer, and was provided with two hours of help in computer use, but felt this was not enough time and still gets frustrated with the computer. She feels that her computer problems are probably largely due to being a mature-age student, but also added to by a combination of tiredness, working late in the day, and the consequences of taking medication: “Some days it just all combines and so it can get really frustrating”. Since disclosing her condition she has also had support in terms of examination assessment, with the university making sure that her exams are never too late in the day, and allowing her to change her exam times to better suit her.
Tricia did initially have concerns about starting at university because of her impairment. Rather than the MS itself, the drugs she takes for her condition cause her difficulties in terms of concentration and tiredness, and she was worried about having to walk about too much, as this would tire her. Her first few days were difficult, as she had to start at nine in the morning and didn’t finish until six in the evening. The long days made her very tired and could at times make concentration difficult. One strategy she has employed to overcome this problem is to not take her muscle relaxation medication the night before she goes to university — this way she finds she is more alert the next morning. However, a consequence of not taking her medication is that she may be up most of the night.
Since Tricia is a part-time student, she attends university one full day a week. She would prefer to be going to university two to three half-days, rather than having to attend lectures all day. This would help alleviate problems she incurs with tiredness and subsequent concentration problems: “I was just absolutely shattered when I got home and I just wanted to go to bed. I found that as the day gets on I do find it hard to concentrate as well”.
Janet is a mature student with three children who is currently studying for a degree in psychology. Up until nine years ago she was nursing, but the shift work that came with nursing did not fit in with her family life. She subsequently did a GCSE in Psychology which fitted in with school hours. She has gone on to do a degree in psychology as she felt this would fit in with her career in nursing if she decides to go back to the profession. She is currently studying part-time and will be returning to full-time study in her final year.
In the middle of her course she was diagnosed with epilepsy and took a year out of study. Initially the medication substantially affected her studies: “I was so slow… it was quite a dramatic change, like starting all over again… I couldn’t access words, I could hardly put words together… I couldn’t access my thoughts properly, it was awful”. The drugs still affect her studies today, though she has found she has adjusted to their effects to a certain extent.
On returning to university, it was a student colleague who suggested to her that she should visit the disability centre; nobody else had advised her to speak to them. Her tutors didn’t even approach her to see what could be done to accommodate her. Janet doesn’t feel they understand the consequences of taking drugs to control her epilepsy, and the side effects they can produce.
If she had not spoken to the disability advisor she may not have been given the smaller exam room and extra ten minutes in the exam that she currently gets. The smaller room and extra time have been extremely beneficial to Janet, as she frequently feels sick and unwell due to drug side effects. Although she is unable to concentrate for long periods, she feels the extra time in exams makes up for this. She has also received a lot of support from her student colleagues, who help her by sharing notes with her when the drugs slow her note-taking.
Janet recalls an incident where she felt that a lecturer was certainly not aware of the differing needs of students in his course. The lecturer decided to use flashing lights in his lecture, and said “I don’t think we have got anyone with epilepsy, have we?”. This put Janet in a very awkward position, as she didn’t feel it appropriate to say something in front of everyone and didn’t feel she could just walk out. “It was too late, I couldn’t walk out because everybody would have known I was photosensitive”.
Janet has found that because she has not got a visible physical impairment, many academics are not actually aware that she has epilepsy. She feels that increased communication between the disability centre and her psychology lecturers may be beneficial, and would alleviate the stress of having to disclose an impairment in front of other students.