Durham University, a disability review: part two

By Matthew Prudham

Academia has been an important part of my student experience at Durham, but it is not the only thing which has taken up my time. First, you must adapt to living in Durham. For people with disabilities, this presents significant challenges. Church Street, for example, is not really designed with wheelchairs in mind. My own college is inaccessible to those unable to ascend staircases or fit through small doorframes.

For myself, however, St Chad’s had one crucial advantage over student housing: porters. It’s much more common for students to ditch college as soon as possible (due to bad food, a perceived lack of independence, or the desire to host house parties, amongst other things). Yet, porters are a significant resource of help (and should have their jobs protected) because, if I had a health emergency during the night, I could call my parents via my phone or Apple Watch, who would then notify the porters that I was unwell. College was the best accommodation option for the entirety of my degree.

As far as possible, I desired the same treatment as my peers

Still, the accommodation process is long-winded and stressful. Before arriving in first year, my family and I discussed extensively with the helpful Chad’s staff about everything from location and fire doors to bed size and fluorescent lights. I had one of the best fresher’s rooms in college, but I didn’t understand why the existence of a room hierarchy, with third year returners receiving the best double-bed, ensuite rooms, meant that I could not have a double bed if it was the best for my condition.

A serious rethink about when prioritization should apply in the face of serious circumstances needs to occur. I am grateful for the hard work and hours put in by the Chad’s staff to ensure I received the best rooms available every year, especially in third year when I had a quiet double-bed ensuite room. But, the fact that some of my friends, elected as officers, were able to skip ahead and ‘reserve’ their room before I had even considered what would be the best for my condition just doesn’t seem right.

I hope that by writing this from a disability perspective the little cracks in my experience can be improved for others

Aside from the two-year wait for a double bed, my experience of accommodation was excellent. This would have been improved further if it were not for the consistent appearance of fluorescent lights, the arch enemy of any epileptic. These flashing, migraine-inducing lights are the stuff of nightmares; when I wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, only to receive four bright flashes, it sometimes takes half an hour to get back to sleep. They are prone to being broken and turning into something resembling a mid-nineties illegal rave – the porters dutifully come to my aid, themselves frustrated with these electrical nemeses.

College was the best accommodation option for the entirety of my degree

Fluorescent lights aren’t the only thing which disturb you at night – there are also people. At St. Chad’s, noise complaints come under the Vice-President’s jurisdiction. Most complaints will be jocular, about late-night parties in rooms, contravening the quiet periods between 11pm and 7am. I felt that I needed some higher authority with which to discuss these matters, since any noise disturbance poses an immediate risk to my health due to suffering from seizures typically during the sleep-wake cycle.

I believed that I was overworking the Vice-President when reporting a serious round of noise complaints during Michaelmas Term 2019 – not only a friend and fellow student whom I respected, but someone who worked their hardest to deliver the highest standards and results to the college JCR. I eventually resorted to involving senior college staff and they were able to resolve the problems quickly. I still believe, though, it an unfair burden for a student unconnected with the welfare team and with her own significant academic and college workload to be expected to resolve such difficult situations – especially those where lives are at risk.

I have received the odd person asking “Can you do it now?” as if my seizure is some form of party trick

Of course, student life is not restricted to the college bedroom. As I stated in part one, I did not want to be distinguished as ‘special’ or ‘different’; rather, as far as possible, I desired the same treatment as my peers. So, I enjoyed house parties. On a typical Saturday I would rush from a sport fixture to the Palatinate offices, via an orchestra rehearsal, and just about make it back in time for college dinner before I went out to Lloyd’s, Klute and Babs.

The clubs present their own obstacle: strobe lights. I have written about the utter pointlessness of strobes in Durham nightclubs – but I had my own individual solution in the form of sunglasses. My friends knew that if they lost me on the way back from the bar they could easily locate me sporting a pair of bright green Chad’s Day 2018 sunglasses. So, dear stranger, please do not take them! I have lost count of the number of near-throat-damaging conversations that have taken place as I struggle to be reunited with my trusty pair of specs, trying to shout above the reverberating bassline of a Rihanna club anthem. I don’t really want to divulge all my medical information to you, dear stranger, but please, look at the seriousness of my facial expression, and the urgent pleas of my mates, and return them to me.

Academics have been an important part of my student experience at Durham, but it is not the only thing which has taken up my time

Most parties I have attended have been great fun. I know it may be a bit more effort to accommodate rather than exclude me, so any invite is always well received, especially if there’s a message asking what measures they can take to make sure the party is safe for me to attend. Even so, the unannounced appearance of strobes at house parties is a bit of a shock. Asking for someone to send a message beforehand may appear to contravene my motto of not being treated as “special” or “different”, but this shows your care for my health – that’s part of being a good, trustworthy friend. It’s not essential for me to experience the “rave room”, but honestly when someone mentions on the night where I cannot pass – in the style of an epileptic-protecting Gandalf, I more than ever desire to experience what lies beyond that protesting placard. I can’t stop anyone having strobes – but truthfully it does slightly ruin my night.

It’s better, I suppose, than people not inviting me since they are hell-bent on strobes– “We were just thinking of you and our party and decided it best”. At least consult the person in question first before deciding so – if you just didn’t want to invite me, that’s fine, but reaching for a disability-related excuse instead of saying, “yeah, sorry, we are just not that tight”, is a bit weak. These, of course, were exceptions, not the majority. Some encounters, at house parties especially, do result in me presenting my whole medical record. 99 percent of these end in empathy; I have received the odd person asking “Can you do it now?” as if my seizure is some form of party trick played out to a raucous crowd. One even preceded to shine his iPhone torch directly in my face and shout “Does this set you off?!?”. I doubt he would do the same sober.

On a typical Saturday I would rush from a sport fixture to the Palatinate offices, via an orchestra rehearsal, and just about make it back in time for college dinner before I went out to Lloyd’s, Klute and Babs

Not all my time is spent out – some has been spent on the pitch. Durham sport, with its outstanding variety and size, has an inclusive atmosphere. I took up Ultimate Frisbee at Chad’s in first year; it may seem odd for someone diagnosed with DCD, one of the most common features of which is an inability to catch or throw, but somehow I was alright. I must praise the student coaches for allowing me a little extra time to get to grips with the sport. Once I did, I found myself contributing week-in, week-out to the team. There is no sweeter feeling than scoring in the last minute, being named MVP, or, in most extraordinary circumstances, being awarded half-colours. Team sport isn’t something I had been regularly involved in prior to university, despite being a fervent Manchester United supporter, but my time at Durham has made me fall in love with frisbee.

I have lost count of the number of near-throat-damaging conversations that have taken place as I struggle to be reunited with my trusty pair of specs

I perceive disability to contribute only a little to my overall person – there is much more to me than my two conditions. I write and work out, I perform and play, I go out and stay in. Nonetheless, my disability has altered my time at Durham – my second year would have been easier if it weren’t for the stress of sorting out my examinations. I may not have felt so conscious about stating that things were not right, but I felt that I was always complaining, always finding a problem in some place or other. But, it is natural for us to focus on the negatives rather than the overwhelming positives. I’ve enjoyed everything that Durham has had to offer – its 12-hour balls, fantastic restaurants, wide range of societies. I hope that by writing this from a disability perspective the little cracks in my experience can be improved for others – leading to wider accessibility for disabled students and giving them to chance to enjoy everything that Durham has to offer.

Image via Pixabay

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