Being a student with disabilities and experiencing ableism

After Lauren’s amazing takeover on our Instagram, we couldn’t help but turn it into an article. Lauren (she/her) is The Mix’s Services Coordinator. She is passionate about disability activism and hopes to one day open her own Dramatherapy practice to give individuals a safe space to be themselves and feel supported.

A young woman is smiling. She is a student with disabilities. This is a wide-angle image.

Trigger warning: Disclosures of psychosis and examples of ableist language.

A disclosure of Lauren’s disabilities

Lauren has non-visible disabilities. This means that she doesn’t fit the stereotypical model of disability. In other words, you can’t tell that she has a disability just by looking at her.

She has Type 1 Diabetes and is Insulin dependent – meaning she needs regular injections to survive. She also has a diagnosis of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) which she prefers to the term EUPD (Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) which, to her, is a term that perpetuates the stigmatisation of personality disorders.

Lauren is an amazing person, who did a great job taking over our instagram to talk about being a student with disabilities!

Is BPD a disability?

A question that is commonly asked is, ‘Is BPD a disability?’ Technically speaking, yes.

BPD is a disability in the UK under certain circumstances. This is because the government considers a mental health condition a disability if it has a long-term effect on normal day to day activities. So if borderline personality disorder gets in the way of living a normal life, it would be legally classified as a disability, meaning you would be entitled to things like disability benefits.

What is ableism?

The answer to, ‘what is ableism?’ is slightly complex since it’s often subtle and exists through assumptions about what ‘normal ability’ status is. But, generally speaking, ableism is a form of discrimination against people with disabilities.

For example, when sufficient thought isn’t given to create a safe environment for people who may not have full mobility. You could define ableist behaviour as everything from not providing wheelchair access in a building, to using terms like ‘crazy’, which contribute to day-to-day social prejudice against people with mental health conditions.

When did you first realise that you had experienced ableism at school?

It was mostly in discussions with my able-bodied friends. When we would casually chat about our lives at school and university it became increasingly clear how different mine was from theirs.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience in school wasn’t too bad, but there were defo certain situations that were distressing; my hair pulling was dismissed as a bad habit that would go away after exams and when I zoned out in lessons because my blood sugar levels had dropped, teachers would punish me for not listening.

To top it all off, once I finally gathered the confidence to ask for help, I either got brushed aside because there were ‘bigger problems’ happening, or they would question if it really happened.

Yes. I can assure you that it did.

Did things get better when you went to university?

I wish I could sit here and tell you that things got better as I got older. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the truth. In fact, university was even harder than secondary school.

Like many people with BPD, it’s a really distressing time when there’s no proper diagnosis. That was my position when I first started uni. Then, in my second year, I had a breakdown that resulted in psychiatric intervention.

I began experiencing psychosis and mania. Eventually, it got to the point where I couldn’t go to classes because I was ill and receiving treatment.

Experiencing ableism at university

Sadly, my lecturers either didn’t understand or weren’t bothered to. As a result, I experienced lots of ableism. They told me to leave ‘my issues at home’, compared a manic episode to rabies and oddly assumed my treatment was because of my height – a lecturer literally thought I was a dwarf because I’m short.

Teachers kept marking me down because of my attendance despite providing a letter from the Home Treatment Team. But that wasn’t even the worst part. The teachers didn’t say anything to other students. So they got away with directing lots of ableist language towards me. For instance, they called me attention-seeking, loopy, nuts, lazy, midget, psycho. You don’t have to define ableist to know that that was just shitty behaviour with no good intentions behind it. 

Above all, it was really frustrating and disheartening because I had worked my butt off to get there and prove myself just to end up feeling worthless.

Do you have any advice/tips to give young people with disabilities that are starting university?

  1. Register with your local GPIf you’re moving away from home, this’ll make it easier to get appointments and medication (without having to repeat your whole medical history).
  2. Make use of Student Wellbeing OfficersThey can help with all the different aspects of disability needs, like counselling and advice on applying for DSA and extended circumstances.
  3. Create a safety planThis is just a document you make detailing things like people who might support you and how you want to be treated if, at any point, you can’t communicate coherently. That way, you get to keep control, even if it feels like you’re losing control at that moment. You can use this template to create one by clicking here.
  4. Put special measures in placeEducation should be a level playing field for everyone. So if having extra time on your exams is what you need, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
  5. Reach out for support that works for you, not for everyone around youIf a teacher tries to brush you off with something that isn’t going to work, tell them. It’ll be a learning opportunity for them and an opportunity for you to get the support you deserve.

What is the one thing you hope people keep in mind in future conversations?

My message is mainly for young people with disabilities. It’s just about being as open and honest as you want to be. Remember, you’re not expected to become a disability rights activist or a disability justice warrior. And you certainly don’t need to share whatever you don’t want to.

One of the most powerful things you can do as a disabled person when it comes to self-care and coping mechanisms is knowing your limit and doing what suits you, rather than trying to do what someone else wants you to.

For more support about life with disabilities, you can read The Mix’s article about disability in the workplace and/or our article about having a person with a disability in your family.

Next Steps

  • Disability Rights UK is an umbrella organisation working with and for disabled people to remove the structural and economic barriers in work and society.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Simran Atwal

Updated on 17-Apr-2022