“Why can’t you just go to the Open Uni?”

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You’re 18 years old, you’ve just left school and you are about to start the next big adventure of university life. Add a wheelchair to the mix and things get a bit more complicated.

I’m 21 and have just graduated from Durham University. I had the time of my life but faced a fair few challenges along the way. Before I’d even started the UCAS application process I had initiated meetings with Social Services with the aim of securing funding for a care package. Just to complicate matters, I was still 17 at the time so was going through the dreaded transition period from children’s to adult’s services. After working my way through countless social workers, we eventually got the ball rolling and began the care assessment. I knew it would be a battle but I didn’t expect to have to justify why I wanted to go to university. The questions that got thrown at me included: why can’t you go to Open University or why not stay at home and go to your local uni?

I was shocked that as a disabled person I was being denied the right to choose which university to go to. For me, the whole idea of moving away from home (around 200 miles) and gaining independence was what most excited me about university, so attending Open University or my local uni was simply not an option. I was lucky enough to have a social worker who completely agreed with my ambitions and he fought incredibly hard to get approval for a 24 hour care package. It was a success and, for once, choice outweighed financial budgets.

With funding secured for care, I then had to persuade the university to adapt accommodation for me. Despite Durham being one of the oldest universities in the country, they were able to fully adapt an ensuite bedroom by fitting hoists, wet room showers and various automatic doors throughout the flat and social space. It all seemed to be coming together. The final task was recruiting PAs. My social worker had organised a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style meeting with various care agencies which allowed them to pitch their services to me. Most of the agencies were aimed at the elderly and the idea of PAs turning up in nurses’ uniforms did not appeal. Luckily, there was one agency specifically designed with students in mind and, together, we recruited a team of PAs who were roughly similar ages to me. This was incredibly important to me as I wanted my PAs to blend in with the university environment.

I was all set and ready to go. Moving in to my new flat was daunting but exciting. I got into a routine with my PAs fairly quickly and was able to focus my energy on meeting new people and making the most of Freshers’ Week (safe to say I did not hold back). Surprisingly, despite Durham being such an old city, I was able to get around pretty easily (admittedly, the cobbles were never enjoyable). Most importantly, all bar two of the night clubs were accessible and by the end of Freshers’ Week I was on first name basis with the bouncers who kindly let me queue jump and gave me life-time free entry. Safe to say I loved Durham.

Over the years I faced various accessibility challenges in terms of inaccessible lecture theatres, unreliable lifts in the Students’ Union and inaccessible transport. However, through discussions with my subject department and university bodies, lecture locations were rearranged and through extensive campaigning and media involvement, the inaccessible student-run night bus was replaced with an accessible one. Financial budgets always seemed to be the excuse for inaccessibility but I made it my mission to change the university’s attitude towards disability.

My favourite university mishap was a 48 hour power cut that resulted in the evacuation of our entire accommodation block. Obviously having no power is a bit disastrous when you rely on automatic doors, hoists and chargers for wheelchairs on a daily basis. Since there were no other rooms with adaptations, the suggested temporary accommodation for me was a hospital or a care home! It was incredibly degrading and not an acceptable solution. My friends, who rented a house in the city, immediately came to the rescue and offered to help me out. Their landlord had already been incredibly kind in making ramps for me to access the house. Although there were no hoists, my friends were more than willing to lift me as, unlike my PAs, they weren’t restricted by health and safety regulations. They were amazing and without them I would have had no choice but to stay in a care home for the elderly.

These obstacles aside, I loved my time at university. The three years I spent there flew by and having graduated in June 2017, I’m now beginning the next adventure of a world of work. If you’re thinking about going to university then my best advice is to fight for your right to choice, never give up and have the time of your life!

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