As I write this, I have just finished my third and final year of my History degree at York. When reflecting on my time here, and how I’ve changed since my first day at university, one of the most notable changes is how I now define and describe myself. I I feel a sense of pride when using these descriptive terms:
I have a disability, I am working-class, I am the first in my family to go to university, and I am proud of this.
Finding my Identity
I have suffered with anxiety and depression since secondary school. Alongside this, I have been in chronic pain since primary school. Although I did not recieve my diagnosis with fibromyalgia until ten years later, when I was in my second year of university. It wasn’t until this diagnosis that I used the term ‘disabled’ to describe myself.
Together with this, my awareness of my working-class background grew while I was at York. University is an incredible place where you meet people from different backgrounds, classes, cultures, and countries. It was this experience that made me aware of the unique background I had come from. I realised how being the first in my family to go to university was something to be proud of. I have changed my family’s trajectory through life (reflecting back on generations of history… can you tell I’m a History student?!)
Community at York
I won’t lie, I did have worries about coming to university. My disability and background were things I didn’t use to identify myself, and this was likely due to my fear of not being accepted. However, the community spirit and atmosphere of acceptance at York quickly led to those fears dissipating.
The York University Students’ Union (YUSU) includes several ‘networks’ for students, as well as part-time officers that represent students from these groups. I have never directly been involved with the Working Class Network or the Disabled Students’ Network, but their existence definitely made me realise that the differences I had were celebrated by York and its students. However, this community spirit does not end with the networks…
At York, there are over 200 societies and I’ve been involved with a number of these during my time at university. Each of these was welcoming, supportive, and accepting.
The society I have been most involved with is Sewing Society. I went to their taster session in Freshers’ Week, became a member, and in my second year I was elect as co-Secretary of the society. In my third year, as the pandemic began, I was elect as Chair of the society.
Through this society, I’ve made such great friends, across different years and subjects. Not once has anyone ever treated me differently because of my disability or class.
Our society, like many others, always made accessibility steps, including image descriptions on our social media posts or subtitles for any videos we produced. We also produced a video for the Disabled Students’ Network’s virtual ‘Accessival’ at the start of the 2020-21 academic year, showcasing some ways sewing can be made accessible. Although as committee members we do not personally require these, we all knew that these tiny steps could open up the society for people who may not have been able to interact with us previously.
Help and Support at York
My awareness of my disabilities and class really appeared when I was offered support applying to and arriving at university. Never before had I been offered help. I won’t lie, it did take me a while to accept that I was eligible for, and should use the support. The community spirit of York meant it was easy to accept who I am and in turn, the help on offer.
When applying to university, I declared my anxiety and depression on my UCAS form. This meant that even during the application process, before I had even started my course, universities contacted me regarding the support they could provide. I remember York contacting me and putting into place a Student Support Plan. My student support plan was ready for me on my first day of university. This meant all the support I needed was already in place.
This included sitting my exams in a smaller room rather than an exam hall. Alongside, extra time in exams, and on coursework if needed. I was formally diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my second year. My Student Support Plan was updated to consider this need too. Disability Services at York are excellent (they’re the people who set up your Plan and share it with your Department). They even helped me contact DSA to update my Student Finance support to include my new diagnosis too.
Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)
DSA stands for Disabled Students’ Allowance and is a part of Student Finance. This means it is separate from your university and Student Finance organise it. When filling out your online student finance application, make sure to tick the box that asks if you’re disabled. This will give you information about how to apply for DSA. I had an assessment the first time I applied and was also re-assessed when my fibromyalgia was added. This is not as scary as it sounds, it’s just a conversation to discuss what might help you. I’ve received lots of invaluable help through DSA. I receive ergonomic equipment, which is extremely useful to me. Prior to this, I couldn’t sit at the desk in my bedroom and was having to study (in a lot of pain) at my dining table.
Mental health support
There is also general support through York that I accessed, especially regarding mental health. Your academic supervisor is a great person to talk to, as is your college wellbeing team – both of which I have spoken to across my three years at York. Alongside this, we have the Open Door team, who are a dedicated, professional team for mental health. When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I struggled as I realised that there was no cause, treatment, or cure. Open Door really helped me to accept my diagnosis and not be ashamed of who I was.
Other financial support
The Maintenance Loan that we all receive is means-test on household income. For me, this meant my working class background allowed me to gain access to a higher student loan. This was invaluable, and without the loan system, I would never have been able to come to university.
I thought this would be the extent of the help I would receive in this manner, but it was not. York has the York Bursary, which is also means-test and based on household income. This extra money meant I didn’t have as many financial worries. It created a buffer between my loan money coming into my account each term.
Other financial support I received included a bursary to visit Russia as part of the International Study Centre the university organised in 2019. Without this, I would never have been able to visit a country that I had dreamed of.
As you can see, York has been monumental to me in so many ways. I feel a sense of support and am proud of who I am.
My best advice is Never say no to any help or support you’re offered, because it can genuinely change your life (cringe, but true!) – just like it did for me.