Hi, I’m Martha. I’m a third-year History student with Autism and ADHD. University is a challenge for anyone, but for a disabled student like myself, it can be a whole extra level of challenging.
However, after three years at York, I can confidently say that it’s worth persevering – I’m doing well in my studies, just completed an on-campus internship, and Uni has changed my life for the better. Below are my top tips on how to get the most out of life as a disabled student!
Know where to access help – and make the most of it
All UK students with a disability or health condition are eligible to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs). These grants can help to cover the extra costs of studying as a disabled person. For me, this includes biweekly mentoring, and help with ‘study skills’ and organisation. But it can cover anything, from assistive technology, to help with travel costs.
For guidance, check out the university’s DSA information page. You’ll also be allocated a disability advisor (DA) who can help and will be your first point-of-call for any concerns relating to your disability and its effect on your studies. My DA was a big help when I decided to take a leave of absence in my first year. Your Student Support Plan (SSP) is also key to securing academic adjustments. In my case, this has meant extra time in exams and extensions to coursework when needed.
Crucially, your SSP will be shared with academic staff on a need-to-know basis, making it easier for them to understand your individual learning needs. Personally, this has been a great relief – it saves me from having to constantly re-explain myself!
In my experience, course tutors have been very understanding when times have gotten tough. They’ve helped me to catch up on missed teaching and generously accepted my occasional struggles with time management. As long as you maintain clear lines of communication, and show that you’re committed to their classes, you should have few issues.
Each department also has their own student support officer, who you can liaise with if any problems do arise.
Go at your own pace
Uni is not a race, it’s a marathon. When you first start, you may (like I did!), feel pressured to do everything at once – to go out five nights a week, sample every society, and ‘keep up’ with non-disabled flatmates. But in doing so, you risk exhaustion and burnout. Try to remind yourself that you have plenty of time, and that these opportunities aren’t going anywhere.
Don’t pretend to be someone that you’re not. Looking back, I wish that I’d been more honest about my differences, and asked for help with things I didn’t understand. Not everyone is going to understand where you’re coming from, but those that matter, will.
The most important thing is to make your Uni experience your own. Everyone’s journey is totally unique. There is no single path.
Find people who can relate
One of the best pieces of advice I can give for staying afloat at Uni is to guard against isolation. When everything gets a bit too much, it can be tempting to retreat into your room and avoid human contact. But in reality, a strong support system is what will get you through these dips.
It’s quite likely that the people you meet in your first few weeks of Uni aren’t those who will be friends for life. The people I’ve connected with most I met through getting involved in societies and through group projects on my course as I went along. These are the friends I feel most comfortable talking about my neurodivergence with, who accept me just as I am.
York’s Disabled Students’ Network also regularly holds socials to connect people who have a similar understanding of the ups and downs of being a disabled student, and can offer advice from experience.
Navigating the city and campus
One of the things that drew me to York was it’s calm and accessible campus, a stone’s throw away from a vibrant city, that’s not too big.
I’ve had to worry far less about getting lost or overwhelmed than I might have with a more spread-out, city campus.
That being said, one of my main struggles has always been with navigating, and in my first few terms I had trouble finding my way around (to put it mildly!) Once, I spent an hour looking for a friend’s house, only to discover that I had confused the street name and was on the opposite side of the city. While you may not be as hopeless as me at directions, York’s deceptively similar quaint streets can confuse the best of us.
If you do get lost, or end up on the wrong bus, the most important thing is not to feel embarrassed about asking for help. The vast majority of people will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Also, Google Maps and First Bus are your friends – I certainly couldn’t survive without them.
York is a tourist hotspot of course, and I know now to avoid the city centre on weekends when I can. If you want more guidance, check out York Council’s AccessAble guide.
On campus, you might like to find some favourite spaces where you can go to de-stress or have a quiet moment if needed.
I like the picnic benches outside The Kitchen at Alcuin (less than a minute from the Library). The peaceful gardens around Heslington Hall also make a great retreat for busier days.
Burnout is a part of life for most neurodivergent people. You might have had a brilliantly productive week, and then spend most of the next week mentally and physically exhausted and sleeping through classes. Some days, I didn’t get out of bed until 7 O’clock in the evening, a record even by my standards – (as my housemates will tell you, I could sleep through a small hurricane.)
It can be frustrating to feel like you have less bandwidth than other people, to be worn out by things that your friends or housemates easily bounce back from. But, as I always remind myself, they are not dealing with the same obstacles as you. Comparison is pointless.
I have managed to minimise burnout by setting stricter boundaries with myself.
You’re not always going to be able to do everything. Some weeks you might submit a great assignment, others you might only manage a little reading. Your work is important, but your health and wellbeing always come first. If you’re feeling drained, just do what you can, and then allow your body the rest it needs to recharge.
Know that you will have bad days
Sometimes these bad days might be weeks! I’ve certainly had my fair share of them. Maybe you’ve had a flare up of symptoms, you’re falling behind in your classes, or your sleep schedule is off. At such times, treat yourself with kindness. Remind yourself of the progress you’ve already made. Then ask for help. When it comes to getting through the bad days, my Uni support network has been invaluable. At moments of struggle, it can be easy to forget about the support you already have in place. But now is the time when your DSA advisor, academic supervisor, or friends and family will be the most useful.
Remember: it’s not your setbacks, but how you deal with them that matters. When things don’t go to plan, try to treat it as a learning experience. I didn’t feel fully settled at Uni until mid-way through my second year, but I wouldn’t take back a moment, the good or the bad. All of it has helped me to become more resilient. My time at York has been transformational in how I understand my own needs and advocate for myself as a disabled student and person.
If this was helpful, why don’t you read more about how our students have settled into life at York?