Why having a disability makes no difference to being a student

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“We think in generalities, but we live in detail”, it is the detail which defines our experience. Most people live with a general knowledge of words such as ‘disability’ and ‘accessibility’ whereas others, such as myself, live in the detail. We live with an awareness that the detail is disregarded or tainted with ignorance because we have the knowledge that others lack. As a Fresher the details are all the more important.

The generalities are always considered, for example having automatic doors into accommodation. However, the fact that the other two doors into the accommodation are exceedingly heavy is not considered. The doors are, of course, heavy with good reason but it seems to lack common sense to construct a generally well accessible building. The University has not thought of every detail because it cannot. Therefore, in writing this piece, I am arguing that we who live there ought to state our case where we feel it is necessary.

Where there have been problems, the University has always attempted to remedy them. Despite having a different perspective, it should not stop people with disabilities having the normal university experience. Regardless of certain obstacles I can earnestly say that thus far university has been the time of my life and that has a great deal to do with the people who have comprised a sometimes makeshift support system. I have been at university for a number of weeks now and the place already has enough good memories, of studying and socialising, to feel like home.

Before my arrival I had severe reservations that university would have that sentiment. Friends with disabilities would share stories of loneliness and isolation which only served to make the experience all the more overwhelming. There is, it turns out, a completely irrational fear that people will want to take away independence and self-sufficiency. I have been left to my own devices just like any other student which is, if feasible and appropriate, just the way it ought to be. There have been a number of logistical nightmares along the way and I understand this is part of the experience, such as the fact that it took me ten minutes to get into the law school on a first attempt both as a consequence of lacking the required upper body strength for that door and the fact that I am notoriously directionally challenged. There are moments when I have to wonder “Why?” such as entering a lift, realising my wheels were wet, and the moment of mingled disgust and comprehension when it dawned on me that a previous occupant had urinated in there. There will never be enough hand sanitiser in this world.

I am exceedingly grateful to the people who organise disability support and who are always there in an emergency if required, but who also allow me to be fully independent at all other times. No one should tell you how to cope with a disability at university. Everyone is different although personally, now and in the past, I have been incredibly fortunate to have people around me who allow me to be normal – whatever that is. I have friends who want to enter me into ‘The Disabled Drinking Paralympics’ who give me nicknames such as Ironside and who do not seem to mind too much when I ask them to paint luminous yellow swirls on my skin for Halloween so I can be ‘Oracle’ (although there was some debate over whether ‘Professor X’ was the better choice.)

For my part, I wanted the university experience to be inclusive and to feel – away from the people who know me – understood as a person. The past few weeks have completely exceeded all of my expectations and although the transition and organisation has not always been seamless or unbroken, there is always someone who wants to help even if the task is just to get a book off the top shelf or ensure that I am not run over by a bus in Freshers’ Week. It saddens me that a number of my friends with disabilities have not had such positive experiences of university. It should not define who you are as a person, or your experiences. Ultimately, you have not lived until you have tried to get a wheelchair down the really non-wheelchair accessible route into Sugar; it will be one of my, eccentrically exclusive, Freshers’ stories.