What’s it like being a student with disabilities?

A young person sits outside in a park. They are taking mediaction and there is a pile of books next to them.

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 support.

(Content warning: disclosures of psychosis and examples of ableist language)

A disclosure of Lauren’s disabilities:

Lauren has non-visible disabilities, meaning that if the average joe were to look at her, they wouldn’t know she had any unless she disclosed them.

She has Type 1 Diabetes and is Insulin dependent – meaning she needs regular injects to survive. She also has a diagnosis of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) which she prefers to the term EUPD (Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder), as this only adds fuel to the flame of stigmatising personality disorders.

What is ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination against people with disabilities. It is often invisible and exists through assumptions about what ‘normal ability’ status is e.g., a building not considering to provide easy wheelchair access.

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

It was mostly in discussions with my able-bodied friends. When we spoke about our experiences at school and university it became clear how different their ones were from mine.

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

When 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. It did.

Did things get better when you went to university?

University was harder.

Like many who are diagnosed with BPD, it’s a really distressing time when you’re un/misdiagnosed. In my second year, I had a breakdown that resulted in psychiatric intervention.

I began experiencing psychosis and mania. I could not go to classes because I was ill and receiving treatment.

But my lecturers either didn’t understand or weren’t bothered to. 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 thought I was a dwarf because I’m short?

I even got marked down because of my attendance despite providing a letter from the Home Treatment Team. The worst was when the teachers didn’t say anything to other students. Students called me attention-seeking, loopy, nuts, lazy, midget, psycho.

I worked my butt to get there and prove myself and it felt like I was worthless.

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

  1. Register with your local GP 

If you’re moving from home, this will make it easier to get appointments and medication (without repeating your whole medical history).

  1. Make use of Student Wellbeing Officers 

They can help with all disability needs like counselling and advice on applying for DSA and extended circumstances.

  1. Create a safety plan 

This is just a document you make, so if anything happens, you won’t have staff treat in anyway you don’t want. You get to keep control, even if it feels like you’re losing control at that moment. You can personalise this one here.

  1. Put special measures in place

Education needs to be fair, so if having extra time on your exams or doing presentations without an audience is what you need, ask for it.

  1. Reach out for support that suits you, not from others around you

 If a teacher tries to fob you off with something that isn’t going to work, tell them. It will be a learning opportunity for them and will allow you get the support you require.

  1. Call people out and hold them accountable

If they use the wrong terms or patronise you, say so. Only you know how you feel.

Was there anything that helped you destress when things got too much?

Life can be a bitch anyway, so a disability on top of it can lead to burnout and excess stress. There are some general tools that have helped me:

  1. Meditation

I know, cliché ! But it generally can do some good as it allows you to focus on being present in the moment.

  1. Fresh air 

I struggle with walking but going for a nice gentle stroll at my pace really helps clear my mind. Especially if accompanied by music.

  1. Prioritising self-care

We know we should be doing this, but often don’t until we’re really unwell. Eat some nice food, have a pamper sesh, play Sims 4 – do something that makes you feel good.

  1. Talk to someone

Even though they might not fully get what you’re saying, if you chat to someone you know and trust, it can really help sort out those worries.

Sometimes it helps to write down what you want to say so you don’t forget and stay focused – especially when talking to a professional.

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 – you’re not expected to become the voice of the disabled community 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 person with disabilities when it comes to self-care and coping mechanisms is knowing your limit and doing what suits you, not others around you.

If you need support on any of these issues

You can contact our team who are there to support you with anything and everything. Support is free, confidential and there are lots of different options for reaching out.

Read our article about disability in the workplace.

Read our article about supporting someone in your family who is disabled.

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 09-Oct-2020