Four years ago Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Trailblazers published a report on access to higher education University Challenge in 2009. Its findings highlighted the difficulties facing young disabled people planning to and attending university. While it showed some of the issues for young disabled people it also demonstrated the positive experiences and benefits of higher education.
Since this report, many of the same issues remain. However improvements have also occurred as well as new challenges particularly as a result of both spending cuts and the increase in university fees.
I graduated from university 3 years after the publication of the original report in the summer of last year. To show how things might have changed since the 2009 report, I will share my experiences.
I started looking at potential universities two years before I took my A levels. After attending a higher education fair I shortlisted where I wanted to go based on criteria such as distance from home and information from prospectuses. The summer before my A levels, I visited four universities I was interested in, on these trips I met disability advisers and looked around potential accommodation. I would say it is vital to look at any university you might go to before deciding. You have to think about everything from environment and accommodation to what the town or city next to the university is like.
I attended Reading University. The university was good in terms of physical access. All the main buildings, such as lecture halls, the library and student union had ramps and lifts installed. The routes between buildings were flat. When rooms were too small or inaccessible where possible my lectures and seminars were moved.
I received funding for both academic support and extra equipment through DSA. Before I started university I went for an assessment of my needs and was then granted money. This helped pay for equipment such as a laptop, printer, and scanner. It also went to the university to help fund my note takers. The system worked well for me. The assessment and granting of DSA did not take long and involved little stress.
Before starting university the issues around personal care and direct payments caused the most stress. My parents and I attended several meetings with social services explaining I would need a considerable increase in money to be able to live independently at university. At first they seemed surprised that I would leave home and seemed somewhat ignorant about the practical ways of making this happen. Eventually they agreed to funding and I used direct payments to find personal assistants.
I went through the organisation Community Service Volunteers (CSV). They employ mainly overseas volunteers who have just left school to come and volunteer in a variety of different roles in the UK. I chose this option because I wanted to have personal care from young people more suited to the university environment. To an extent this worked very well when it came to social life and integration into university. The only issues involved their inexperience and the occasional problem with language. I wouldn’t say this method is for everyone. Direct payments, although involving the stress of having to organise paying assistants, gives you more freedom of choice.
Along with your course social life is a very important aspect of university. My experience was mainly very positive. In my first year I had no problems making friends. The students committee in charge of my halls of residence freshers week, made every effort to include me in every organised event. This experience changed in the second year, where my friends moved into private accommodation. However I found I made more friends with the new students who moved into the halls of residence.
The student’s union was fully accessible and every event catered to disabled people’s needs. I was also able to take part in a number of societies who were happy to accommodate me. This is not to say there were no negative issues. In my final year the student committee for my halls of residence organised an end of year social event at a inaccessible venue which left me and the other two wheelchair users in my halls upset.
While some disabled students may have had more challenging experiences at university, I would say that from my point of view the positive benefits of university definitely outweigh the sometimes daunting practical challenges of starting the process of going to university.
My advise to anyone starting university would be to act yourself and not be afraid to talk to people when you first start and also to be persistent in making sure you get the support you need.