On paper, being a disabled student at university today should be easier than ever before. Accessibility, inclusivity, and progressive values are amongst the litany of buzzwords adorning glossy university prospectuses. In many ways, as a disabled learner, you are forced to place faith in these statements. You have to trust that the student university experience will be comparable to that of your peers.
In reality, my first five weeks as a partially sighted student have proven to be significantly more variable than the sanitised narrative PR departments would like to put out. It has been an experience shaded by volatility and uncertainty. At the same time, there have been moments of sincere compassion, and support capable of making a tangible difference to my daily life.
In 2019, I was diagnosed with bilateral anterior keratoconus. This is a condition that degenerates visual acuity, leading to corneal scarring and constant double vision. Keratoconus can be classified as an ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ disability. It is not readily apparent that my right eye is essentially useless and that I cannot read my own handwriting. This label of an ‘invisible’ disability is something I have struggled to grapple with. It can sometimes feel as if your need for support is delegitimised. In fact, it was words to this effect from a fellow student that prompted this piece: “why do you want to write about living with a disability at university, there’s nothing obviously wrong with you.”
The presumption that, unless readily apparent, there is “nothing obviously wrong with you,” is an all too familiar feeling to partially sighted people in the incredibly visually intensive world of university. One of my earliest memories from that nerve-wracking formal on the first Sunday afternoon was squinting up and down the long table, attempting in vain to spot my place name. Fortunately, a stranger came to my aid, pinpointing the minuscule cursive scrawl that designated my seat.
Although this may seem like a trivial example, it quickly made apparent that the highs and lows of contending with a disability are not magically ironed out by life at university. Particularly in a university that is placed in such a hilly landscape! Having spent the weekend pushing (and sometimes dragging) my mother in a wheelchair around the cobbled streets of Durham, I feel deep respect for students facing mobility issues.
If you have made it to university with a disability then chances are you have had to navigate your fair share of heartfelt assurances, hollow promises, and disenchantment. Higher education does not necessarily bring clarity to this nebulous space. It is easy to sometimes feel like an afterthought amongst more than 20,000 other students.
The lack of representation of disabled students in university, at a rate of 5% lower than in the general population of the UK, requires significant introspection from the institutions claiming to be inclusive and diverse. This is stressed when examining the impacts that a lack of education has on a disabled person’s employability and future outcomes. Only 19% of disabled people without any formal education are employed, 44% less than their non-disabled counterparts. Whereas disabled graduates are employed at a rate of 74%, which is 15% lower than non-disabled.
Hopefully, these sobering statistics provide a take-home message: it is not okay to do the bare minimum for disabled students. Durham has, however, provided a large degree of the support advertised. If you feel isolated early on in your university career, I advise you to fully utilise these resources. Sometimes all it takes is a single gesture, conversation, or individual. In my case, it was an incredibly thorough MS Teams meeting when an advisor finally put my mind at ease. There are people here to fight your corner.
No matter what your disability is, it is easy to feel like it will be hard to fit in. One thing that has provided me with solace so far has been the compassion and acceptance shown by my new community. Even when it takes Disabled Students Allowance three weeks to send a digital magnifier (enabling you for the first time to read what’s on the slides in a lecture theatre), you shouldn’t despair. Perhaps you reflect on that animated curiosity a medical student showed you when describing, in gory detail, the process of your corneal transplant. Maybe it’s opening up to a few friends one night about your concerns, only to realise how they also shared anxieties that had been troubling them.
Contemplating what it means to have an invisible disability has drawn me to one distinct conclusion. Just because it appears invisible, doesn’t mean you should hide it. Opening up to peers, friends and disability advisers may not result in a student university experience that is the same as everyone else’s. What it does allow is an experience less impacted by the barriers of diminished access. This is an experience that fosters transparency and resilience, and one that might ultimately prove transformative.
Illustration: Verity Laycock