Hi all! My name is Amy and I’m a third-year Archaeology and Heritage student. I’m diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) which causes me to deal with chronic fatigue and chronic pain on a daily basis. Over my past three years at York I’ve had to develop strategies to balance university life with a disability, my social life and studying for my degree. It’s been a lot of trial and error. But I think I’ve worked out some ways in which I can make my own life easier and ensure I don’t sacrifice my health for my studies.
These strategies all help me, but of course, they may not apply to all disabilities. If you try these and find that they don’t help you then the best thing I can suggest is to reach out to the University’s Disabled Students Network. They’ll be able to put you in touch with people who may have similar experiences to you and can support you through your time here at York.
It also goes without saying that you don’t have to be disabled to try out some of these! Everyone could do with some self-care and energy-saving advice sometimes.
Although student life is a lot more than your degree, it’s probably going to be what takes up most of your time. In my opinion, it’s more important to make sure you get your studying right before you focus on other areas of student life. Of course, these areas are still important, but if you end up behind and stressed about your work it can end up impacting your free time as well. Here are the top three things I use to make my studying easier with a disability:
The first thing that you should do as a disabled student is sorting out your Student Support Plan (SSP). When you sign up for your degree you should get sent all the information about how to get one of these. But if you miss that information you can also contact Disability Services.
A student support plan is a document that will be sent to your department with details of your disability and the ways they can help you. By having an SSP you can access certain things such as:
- extra time in exams
- a smaller room to take your exam in
- easier access to assignment deadline extensions
- extended library loans.
And other things that you can discuss with the University upon your arrival.
I can honestly say that having an SSP has made my everyday life at university so much easier. You don’t have to worry about things like flare-ups or hospital appointments affecting your studies. You can take your time with library books and exams. Most of all, you don’t have to go into detail about your disability every time you need extra accommodations.
2. Planning ahead
Now, when you have an unpredictable disability (such as hEDS) it can be very difficult to plan ahead, but sometimes all you can do is try your best. I learned very early on that I need to think about assignments much earlier than most people need to. I spent my first two terms scrabbling to do every essay and crashing hard after I had submitted it, which just wasn’t sustainable or healthy.
The solution? Plan ahead.
You can’t predict when your body just won’t play ball, so factoring in some sick days is an excellent way to make sure you don’t end up overworking yourself. Over three years I developed a plan that looks a little like this:
Three weeks till deadline: Find appropriate reading for the assignment and begin to take notes.
Two weeks till deadline: Finish taking the notes and begin to pull together the main themes of the reading.
One week till deadline: Write the assignment.
Deadline week: Final edits, referencing and submitting.
Obviously, I’m not telling you that this is exactly how you should be doing it, each person and each assignment will be different. Learn how you work best and how you can split your assignments up based on your subject and develop your own version of this that works for you. The main takeaway is to make sure that you look a couple of weeks ahead, that way if you get ill you can take a few days off and it shouldn’t impact your deadline too much.
Worst case scenario, if you’re really ill, contact your department or use your SSP to get an extension. Don’t let your sick days stop you from handing in your best work!
3. Screen reader technology
Screen readers are software that will read out loud whatever is on your screen, so you don’t have to. The software is designed for blind or partially sighted people, but who says you can’t use it too?
If you apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance you may be given professional screen reader technologies. But I’m going to focus on free ones that anyone can access.
So what are they useful for? You might have to do a lot of reading during your degree. This might sound straightforward enough but some of the articles you might be set can be dense and complicated. Personally, I think getting your head around the reading can be one of the hardest things you’ll do in your degree. But it can often be one the most essential, especially when it comes to doing your own research. Having someone read the content to you has two main benefits for me:
- it means I don’t have to be sitting upright at my desk staring at a screen
- it makes it much easier for me to process the information quickly.
The app I recommend
If you want to give it a go I can personally recommend Speechify. It’s an app you can download to your phone or laptop. It works best if you upload files straight into it but it can read straight from a webpage as well.
Although speechify can read web pages I find that Microsoft Edge is a little better at doing so. Edge has an in-built screen reader. This can be accessed on any webpage by clicking the three dots on the top right of any screen. Then scrolling down to select ‘read aloud’.
Please note: The University is not in any way affiliated with these companies. These are my own personal opinions based on what I found worked best for me.
Okay so now you have studying mastered right?! Don’t worry if you don’t. Everyone takes some time to work things out but you also deserve to have some fun! Just because you’re disabled it doesn’t mean that you can’t partake in student life, it just might look a little different for you sometimes. Here are my top tips for enjoying student life to the fullest with a disability
1. Work out your limits
No, I don’t mean your drinking limits (though they’re always good to know).
For me, some social interactions are harder than others. Anywhere I have to walk a long way, anywhere outside or with no/uncomfortable seating is a great way to drain all my energy. That doesn’t mean I have to stop doing these things it just means I might have to be a little more careful with them.
A great example of this is pub quizzes. You’ve got to love a pub quiz but walking all the way there, sitting in a crowded and noisy pub with maybe less than ideal seating is gonna take it out of me. I still make sure I go to every weekly Courtyard quiz but I just also make sure that I’m aware of what it does to my body. I get there as early as possible so I can grab the comfortable seats and I make sure that I don’t plan to do anything important afterwards because I’m likely to be pretty drained.
In the short term, it might feel like you’re using up more energy by having to overthink all your social interactions, but in the long term, your body will thank you. Your limits will look different to mine but working out the little things you can do to help will get you a long way and it’s an excellent self-care skill you can take with you after university.
Top tip: if you struggle to work out what affects you the most then keep a diary. I did this for a couple of months and it helped me work out what caused which symptoms. This helped me work out how best to mitigate them.
2. Be open!
Everyone feels differently about talking about their disability. But I would highly encourage you to tell people about whatever accommodations you might need.
When you’re moving to university you’re likely to meet a lot of new people who are going to have varying backgrounds and experiences. Talking openly about your own experiences not only helps other students feel more comfortable but can help you feel more confident when asking for certain accommodations.
There‘s times I have to ask to meet friends in a different location or on another day because of my health. What are the consequences of doing this? Good friends and better health. Of course, you might encounter people who are not willing to help you. But chances are you don’t want to be friends with them. Every person I’ve met in York has been happy to help me with little things that can have a big impact on my life.
Whether it’s asking to meet at a restaurant that’s wheelchair accessible or asking to meet at a different time. Ask for what you need.
Top tip: if you don’t feel comfortable asking for these things in public then you can wear a sunflower lanyard. These indicate that you have a hidden disability and you may need some extra time or help with certain things.
3. Try out some societies!
You might already have some idea of societies you might want to join, or maybe you have no idea. Either way, I recommend heading over to the Students’ Union societies list and having a bit of a browse. There are hundreds to pick from and you could end up discovering something you never knew you loved.
How does this fit into being a disabled student?
Well for me my society is my lifeline. I’m the founder and chair of the York Sober Society. Through this, I’ve met amazing people who have made me feel at home here in York. It meant I could meet like-minded people and go to chilled out social events. I also knew that these people would be around even if I needed a few weeks off.
It’s so important to your mental health to find people who make you feel comfortable, societies are great for that. On top of that, being involved in a few different societies means that they’ll always be social events on. This means that if you need to take a day off you won’t feel like you’re missing out. They’ll always be something else you can go to the next day you’re feeling up to it.
There you have it, that’s some of my wisdom. I hope it helps some of you and you don’t have to learn the way that I did (through making myself ill over and over again).
You’ll do amazing at university, disabled or not, you got this. I just know it!