Monday morning, too close to nine o'clock for comfort, rattling around on cobbles and fighting through selfie stick wielding tourists - Oxford wasn't really built for mobility scooters. In my first week in my first year, I clearly remember a tutor telling me that in his opinion 'if you don't feel like dying by the end of eight week, you're not working hard enough'. I think this really exemplifies the main problem that students with disabilities can face in Oxford - terms are short, deadlines are tight, and there's a mentality of get through term however you can, then spend the holidays catching up on sleep (and home-cooked food!). Whilst this can be a manageable, welcome challenge for most, it can often seem too much of a challenge for those who have difficulties in other areas of their life. You are being stretched so much through your work, and trying to fit a social and extra-curricular life around it, that you can't really afford to spend the evening on heavy painkillers after trying to do your own laundry.
Early on in my first term it became clear to me that I would need a bit more support than I'd first anticipated. This was when I became extremely grateful that I'd ended up in the College and the university that I did. Oxford seems to fully understand that they cannot expect such a lot from their students if they don't support them. With the Nurse and Senior Tutor, we came to the conclusion that I required professional carers to help me with the every day tasks I was struggling with. This would take months to get funded through the local council, and College was eager that I get it as soon as possible. So without question they funded my care themselves while my application was being processed. This is a personal example of what I think points to College's attitude towards supporting their students.
After having completed 30 hours counselling training to become a peer supporter, complimenting College's welfare structure does feel a bit too much like self praise. However I really believe in the effect of good college welfare. We have weekly welfare teas (the best way to get students to come to events is by offering food...), peer support clinics where anyone can come to talk to our team of peer supporters about things that may be bothering them and even a cookie fairy who posts cookies to students going through a hard time. The effect of this is to really strengthen the 'community feel' that is already inherent in the College system. My College friends sat through a night in A&E with me, looked after me when I was on heavy medication and had several pizza and Disney nights, which just make you feel better about life. The combined effect of adapted College accommodation and DSA support means that College is in many ways a better suited environment to my needs that my house back home is. I remember sitting through a DSA meeting in which I was asked if I would mind having a 20-inch monitor and desktop loaded with voice recognition software and so on to help me with my work (the answer is well... no - of course I don't mind!). I believe this is a big reason why Oxford, and Brasenose in particular, have really low drop out rates, in comparison to other UK universities.
In summary, I definitely believe that you can have a successful and enjoyable time at university and have a disability, but I also think you have to go about it in the right way. Firstly, you have to really enjoy the subject that you're applying for - you can't study something for three or more years just because you think it'll give you a good job or because it's what your parents want you to do. It is also useful to ask at open days what provisions that they have made or could make for students with additional needs - this will give you some idea of how accommodating they can be. The biggest mistake that I made was not adequately considering all of the 'real life' tasks that get done by (parent) magic at home, like washing up and shopping. It might even be helpful to try to live for a few days doing all of the things that you would have to do for yourself at uni, so you could see what you would struggle with and what support you should consider getting. The best advice I could probably give you for when you are at uni is to be really honest about how you're coping and to ask for help when you need it. I spent most of my first year trying to catch up the work I'd missed and keep up at the same time, overworking myself and making myself ill again in the process, because I didn't want to seem like I couldn't cope. This lead to me having to miss my first exams and take them later in the year. But now that I have a more honest dialogue with my tutors about how I am, they can alter my workload when I need to so that I have space to recover from changes in my health when I need to. Some people seem to suggest that if someone 'tries hard enough' then disability shouldn't be an obstacle for them. I would disagree with this - if a disability does not negatively impact the sufferer's life in some way when left to itself, then it doesn't qualify as a disability, but if you are given the right support, then I believe that disability shouldn't define what you can and can't achieve.
By Hannah Smith - Second Year Physics Student
Hannah sometimes uses a mobility scooter due to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic joint condition that makes her joints dislocate easily
Find out more about how Brasenose College can support students with disabilities.